Annandale Man O’ Sword S.T.R. Cask

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I visited Annandale Distillery in June of this year. It was the second time I’d toured the distillery, my first visit coming back in October 2018. Not much has changed since my previous trip, although I was pleased to find a wider selection of (marginally) more affordable bottles on the shelves.

Annandale is a great distillery to visit. It is both old and new simultaneously, having initially been established in 1830. The original distillery closed in 1921 and the buildings were used for various purposes before falling into ruin. Its current iteration was born in 2014, when David Thomson and Teresa Church bought the site and set about re-establishing the distillery.

The work undertaken in restoring the buildings is exemplary, with original brickwork and sympathetic design in full effect. In fact, the distillery is easily among the most picturesque of Scotland’s newer plants. Among the more interesting things to see, is the excavated foundations of the old still-house. Uncovered by a team of archaeologists, the site clearly shows the old pits that would have direct-fired the pot stills, back when the distillery was owned by Johnnie Walker.

Prior to becoming involved with the distillery, David Thomson and Teresa Church owned a market research company and they brought some of that mindset to the creation of their new whisky. Extensive research was carried out using a form of sensory profiling. A wide selection of single malts were analysed and flavour profiles identified that weren’t currently available on the market. It’s a rather innovative approach although the romantic in me can’t help being struck a little cold by it. It seems, somehow, soulless.

In truth, there are a few things about Annandale that strike me as a little odd. The distillery seems to do very little in the way of outreach and the excessive pricing of their early releases was massively off-putting (£300 for a 3-year-old whisky?!). The decision to bottle the single malt under the brand names Man o’ Sword and Man o’ Words, named after Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns, respectively, both of whom had connections to the area, also seems confusing. Why not simply call it Annandale Single Malt? It makes me wonder if there is an issue with the naming rights – perhaps the Annandale trademark is owned by someone else? Pure speculation on my part, of course.

Even stranger was the news, in 2021, that the distillery had struck a deal with VCL Vintners Ltd, a London-based wine and spirits investment specialist. The agreement would entitle VCL to 50% of the distillery’s output for five years. Now, I have zero expertise in investment of any kind so I have no idea of the wisdom of investing in a batch of new make spirit from Annandale. Certainly, the process of turning new make into whisky should add value but 276,000 litres of new make spirit each year is a lot of liquid. How good will the price of that whisky be when so much of it comes of age at the same time? Isn’t rarity the thing that drives value, where whisky is concerned?

I don’t say this to put you off buying a cask of whisky. If you want to own a cask, go right ahead but don’t get too sucked in by promises of massive gains. Especially for a spirit that doesn’t seem to be creating much of a buzz. To my untrained mind, a sudden deluge of mature Annandale coming to market at the same time doesn’t seem like it would be the most successful strategy. By all means buy a cask of whisky but do so because it’s fun, not because you’re desperate to make money out of it. And if you do buy, ensure you work with a responsible broker. I make no accusations against VCL because I’ve never had any dealings with them. They may well be an excellent partner to work with over such projects. Just make sure you do your research and speak to others who have worked with the company in the past.

I wrote a piece about some of the newer “investment” companies getting involved in the whisky industry here: Beware Cask Investment Scams

As for Annandale, eye-watering prices and investment deals aside, the distillery does actually seem to be producing a very decent whisky. Man o’ Words is their unpeated version while Man o’ Sword is peated…

The Whisky

The late Dr Jim Swan, distillery consultant extraordinaire, helped to get Annandale up and running. He ensured the distillery was able to produce the sort of whisky identified by the market research project, as mentioned above. There are some tell-tale signs of Swan’s involvement. The still-room features three stills, a wash still and twin spirit stills. This unusual set-up was something of a Jim Swan trademark that increased the contact between spirit vapour and copper in the spirit run. In addition, some of Annandale’s spirit has been matured in STR casks. Another Swan trademark, STR stands for Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred. These red wine casks are rejuvenated before being re-filled with new make spirit.

This particular single malt expression is a peated Man o’ Sword bottling, matured in just such a cask. It’s a single cask release and bottled at 60.4% alcohol by volume. I purchased it in the distillery shop for around £85.

Smell: This is no lightly peated lowland! The peat is right at the front. Full of ashy bonfire smoke. But there’s also plummy red wine, stewed fruits and raspberry jam. Touch of sulphur in the form of struck matches. Warming chilli powder. With water the wine faded a little and some honey and malt came through. It took some time in the glass to get to that point though. Very much about peat and wine to begin with.

Taste: More of that winey fruitiness but there’s some nice toffee notes there too. Black pepper. Coal fires. There’s some youthful fire about it. You certainly notice its strength. A splash of water tones that heat down a little and finds a better balance between the wine and the smoke and the spice. Over time the wine influence fades and you get a touch of malt before the dry, smoky finish.

Thoughts: To be fair to them, Annandale aren’t messing around here. This is big and bold. At times it almost feels like straight-up red wine maturation, rather than an S.T.R. cask. The peat is powerful and the whisky is young and a little hot but with time and water it all starts to come together nicely. Maybe not the most complex dram but it has big flavours that will tick a lot of boxes for fans of smoky whisky.

Value for money: £85.95 is a frankly, a little silly for a 3-year-old whisky but it’s worth remembering that Annandale bottle everything as a single cask. Taking that into account, the price probably matches that of single casks from other newer distilleries like Kilchoman, Ardnamurchan or Kingsbarns. Perhaps it just seems more expensive because there isn’t a more affordable option? If there was a standard, no-age-statement Annandale on the market for around £50, it wouldn’t seem so strange for a new distillery to begin its pricing at this level. That doesn’t seem to be happening any time soon, however, so you can either choose to buy or not. I chose to take home a bottle of this Man o’ Sword because I was able to try it first and I decided I liked it enough to pay the price. For that reason, I’d always recommend trying before you buy, wherever possible. £85 is a lot of money to spend on a single bottle and you want to make sure it’ll be money well spent. As for Annandale, the distillery remains a curiosity. There’s a good product there but there seems no real rush to find it a bigger audience. Maybe that will change in future but for now, it remains something of an enigma.

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