Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…
MacMillan Spirits Co
MacMillan Spirits is a blending and bottling company based in the Outer Hebrides. It was established by father and son Angus A MacMillan and Angus E MacMillan. The family business launched in early 2023 with a trio of products, each one inspired by their island home. Machair Gin is made with wild angelica, which grows there in abundance and Molucca Rum is named after Molucca Beans which are often found on Hebridean beaches, having made the epic journey across the Atlantic from the Caribbean. Then there’s Wheelhouse Whisky, a single malt named after iron-age structures that have been discovered across the Western Isles.
Wheelhouses were essentially family homes. They were arranged in a circle, around a central hub, with stone walls veering off from the centre, like the spokes of a bike. The Grimsay Wheelhouse, between North Uist and Benbecula, is one of the best-preserved examples of its kind in all of Scotland and gives a tantalising insight into the lives of our prehistoric ancestors. I have to admit, I like the name. It’s like MacMillan is honouring and being inspired by the past, whilst looking to invest in the future of their island community.
In truth, there’s a lot about this project I like. I attended a launch event for MacMillan Spirits in Glasgow, back in January. They won’t just be bottling sourced spirits, it turns out. In fact, they’re on the way to establishing the Benbecula Distillery, where they will produce their own single malt whisky and gin. What I found especially pleasing were the owner’s words that the project was motivated by a desire to contribute in a positive way to the islands. The MacMillans want to create a successful product, of course, and they do so safely in the knowledge that there is an appetite for such things but they also want to bring high-quality, secure employment to the area. Scotch whisky distilleries are at their best when they sit proudly at the heart of their local community and Benbecula Distillery seems to be setting out with the goal of achieving that.
It’s exciting times and I look forward to hopefully paying the distillery a visit one day. With plans including such diverse inclusions as a storytelling corner, a seafood bar and a Lighthouse, offering 360-degree views as far as Skye, Harris and the Monach Isles (weather permitting, of course), it sounds like it will be well worth the journey. Of course, the distillery isn’t in production quite yet so its own single malt remains some way in the distance. In the meantime, however, what better way to capture something of Benbecula’s maritime climate than by bottling some whisky from Islay?
Wheelhouse Whisky Islay Single Malt
Wheelhouse Cask No. 1 came from Caol Ila Distillery on Islay. The single cask was aged for 8 years and bottled at 46%.
*Full disclosure: the sample featured in this review was given to me free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Smell: The nose is quite typical of young Caol Ila. It has a freshness and lots of brine to go along with the peat smoke. Very coastal. Seashells. Lemon air freshener. Apple juice. Also some vanilla, honey and malt. The smoke is quite subtle (by Islay standards) but there’s an ashy, charcoal note in there too.
Taste: The smoke is a little more forceful than on the nose. It’s keen to introduce itself right away. But the coastal, sea-breeze freshness is there too with seaweed and oysters; lemon and lots of sea salt. There’s some black pepper in there as well. Also some vanilla, honey and subtle grassiness.
Thoughts: It doesn’t hide its Islay origins – there’s plenty of smoke on offer – but the lightness of the spirit tames the experience a little. That, coupled with the 46% bottling strength makes this more accessible to the uninitiated than many other single cask Islays. It’s also a perfectly pleasant sip for the die-hard peat-head with good balance between peppery smoke, sea salt and sweeter, honeyed notes. If the goal was to evoke a sense of the Hebrides’ Atlantic atmosphere, it’s very much mission accomplished.
Price: £65. Given the state of the market where Islay malts are concerned these days, £65 is probably quite reasonable for a single cask release – although we’re perhaps more used to seeing such releases bottled at cask strength, so that should be taken into account. Still, if you like Islay malts and fancy supporting an interesting new distillery project then this Wheelhouse Whisky makes for a decent wee purchase.
For more on Wheelhouse, MacMillan and Benbecula Distillery visit https://macmillanspirits.com/