The Goldfinch Wine Series (Blair Athol)


Reviews of affordable whiskies with some entertaining tales along the way…

I have the pleasure of featuring something a wee bit different on the blog this week. Goldfinch Whisky Merchants are independent bottlers of Scotch whisky, founded by Andrew Macdonald-Bennett (formerly of Edrington). The name comes from the European Goldfinch, a small bird that summers in Scotland and winters in Spain and therefore makes for a pertinent symbol of the close relationship between Scotch whisky and Spanish sherry casks.

Goldfinch’s Wine Series sees five casks of the same spirit given radically different finishes. In this case, five casks of Blair Athol, each aged for 14 years. The series was designed “to create a range that allows a connoisseur to explore the effects of finishing on the same single malt.”

It’s an interesting concept, certainly, but I’m very aware that I’m in the privileged position of having samples sent to me and therefore enjoying the opportunity to compare and contrast each one. For most people that wouldn’t be possible, presumably. Surely only the most dedicated of Blair Athol collector (is there such a thing?) would fork out for all five bottles. It would make a cracking tasting line up though. All of that said, the wine series is still a fun idea and the unusual nature of the casks chosen ensure that Goldfinch are supplying the market with something it often lacks where Blair Athol is concerned – choice.

There are five drams in the series. Each one distilled at Blair Athol, on the outskirts of Pitlochry in Highland Perthshire. Each whisky has been aged for 14 years and bottled at 52%. Each one was finished in some form of wine cask for approximately 18 months.

Before I dive in to the reviews, let me first say a quick word about price. Each bottle in the series carries a Recommended Retail Price of £88. Whilst not exactly in the bargain category, that’s a fairly reasonable level for single casks at 14 years of age with additional maturation in rare and unusual casks.

*Full disclosure: the samples featured in this review were sent to me, free of charge. As always, I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the drams and the value for money they represent.

Blair Athol 14-year-old (South Pauillac Red Wine Finish)

This first sample came from a Blair Athol single malt that was finished in a red wine barrique from the South Pauillac region in Bordeaux. Pauillac is a municipality in south-western France. Its wines are considered by some to be the quintessence of Bordeaux wines.

Smell: The first thing I noticed was a slight oak char note. It’s almost a little sulphury, like struck matches or burnt toast. There’s a definite meatiness to the aroma. It’s robust and spicy with chilli powder and cayenne pepper. Nutmeg and ginger. Eventually some winey fruits start to come through. A little reminiscent of raspberry jam. A slight nuttiness, too.

Taste: Initial impressions are of fiery peppers and red berries. Chilli flakes. Toffee. Plummy, earthy, red wine. Dry and oaky on the finish with lots of tannins. Water toned down the peppery heat and the dram was better for it. More balanced. Red liquorice now!

Thoughts: A very cask-led initial experience but with time and water I started to find some spirit character as the red wine retreated in favour of nutty, biscuity malt. I think I found the nose more enticing and appealing than the palate, which I thought lacked a bit of weight in terms of mouthfeel. Good flavours though and, after water was added, nicely balanced. Overt dryness isn’t something I find all that appealing, however, so the finish didn’t tick my boxes – that’s an issue of personal preference rather than quality though.

Blair Athol 14-year-old (North Pauillac Red Wine Finish)

This is another red wine finish, only this time, the barrique came from the North Pauillac area. I can’t say I know Pauillac wine very well but it will nevertheless be interesting to see what subtle differences are to be found between this and the previous dram.

Smell: Highland Toffee chews. Burnt toast. Blackcurrant and raspberry jam. There’s a pleasant nuttiness. Cinnamon and ginger… even a touch of baking bread. Brown bread at that. Cherries. Plums.

Taste: Plummy, fruity wine arrival backed up by a touch of spirit heat. Those baking spices again and the burnt toast note from the nose emerges towards the back. More fruit jam. Dryness on the finish with oak tannins and black pepper. As with the South Pauillac, there’s a subtle wee liquorice note in there as well.

Thoughts: This is a big flavoured dram. The red wine cask dominates but whilst there’s a dryness there, I didn’t find it as off-putting as I did with the first dram. I also found this one to have a better mouthfeel. It felt oilier and coated the palate more. On the finish, in particular, it developed a real texture – almost gritty. That may not sound pleasant but it really was. Perhaps you can accuse the red wine of being a little overpowering – I didn’t really pick up much of an easily identifiable Blair Athol character – but that’s OK, it was an enjoyable dram, so no point quibbling over what it should and shouldn’t be.

Blair Athol 14-year-old (Sweet German Wine Barrique Finish)

Dram number three has been finished in a sweet white wine cask from Germany.

Smell: Nutty caramel – like Snickers bars! Turns fruitier the longer it sits in the glass. Pineapple. Lemon and Lime. Then there’s a heady mix of spices that gave me a bit of a festive vibe – stuff like nutmeg and star anise and cardamom. Then came orange marmalade and a little charred oak. Even a hint of barbecue coals.

Taste: Fruity arrival with orange liqueur and pineapple juice. Soft peppery spice. Gentle oak tannins towards the back. Lots of honey. More of that barbecue note. Makes me think of a grilled ham with honey glaze and pineapple! Nice tingly spice and a woody finish. With water, I started picking up fizzy sweets – like Haribo Tangfastics.

Thoughts: Now this is more like it. The previous drams were decent whiskies, I’ve no complaints there, but this one really hit the spot for me. It combines sweet fruits and honey with an underlying meatiness and for me, is far more interesting than either of the red wine casks. There’s a pleasingly weightier feel to back it up as well. I think what I liked most about it though, is the sense that it evolves. My last sip was completely different to my first. It’s a whisky that shifts and transforms, ebbs and flows, in different directions and I can’t really think of anything else I’ve tried that would be comparable to it. A real gem.

Blair Athol 14-year-old (Tawny Port Finish)

The fourth offering was finished in a European oak Tawny Port cask. Port is a fortified wine, usually made from red grapes and aged in wooden casks.

Smell: Rich and spicy. Sort of, exotic. Lots of caramel and toffee. Nutty again – that’s becoming something of a theme. Dark chocolate and old oak. Black pepper and cayenne. Red grapes. Raspberries and blueberries. Red apples and orange zest.

Taste: Fruity arrival on the tip of the tongue. Quite typically port at first with stewed fruits and berries. Dry, oaky spices follow. There’s also an almond marzipan note that’s very pleasant. Fruitiness returns just prior to the finish which has dark chocolate and oak.

Thoughts: A very interesting and busy nose matched by a palate that’s just as intriguing. There’s lots going on but it’s well balanced with no one element dominating the rest. The Tawny is evident but kept in check and doesn’t at all feel overdone and the whisky’s malty, toffee base is noticeable. A perfect integration of cask and spirit. There’s also very little in the way of spirit heat, making the dram very drinkable, even at its 52% bottling strength and the weight gives it something of a luxurious feel. Another cracker. Blair Athol and Port is a great combo. Who knew?

Blair Athol 14-year-old (Marsala Finish)

Marsala is a fortified wine produced in and around the city of Marsala in Italy. It’s made using white grapes and can be either dry or sweet.

Smell: This one has a dark, rich vibe. There’s walnut and chestnut. Furniture polish. Burnt caramel and treacle. Tobacco leaves. Booze-soaked cherries. Charcoal. Orange and mango. That charry note almost comes across like smoke.

Taste: The marsala is prominent on arrival. There’s tobacco and walnut, dark chocolate and coffee. Interesting fruit notes there too. Mango again – and something that reminds me of drinking orange juice after brushing my teeth. Black pepper. Honey. Apple juice. Oaky finish. Evaporating aromas remind of dunnage warehouses.

Thoughts: I rarely talk about appearance but I liked the orangey hue on this dram – which is all natural of course, otherwise there would be no point mentioning it. It has an unusual character though and while I can’t claim to be overly familiar with Marsala (in fact, I’ve only really encountered it as a vessel for whisky maturation) this dram feels different to the others I’ve encountered. It has a slightly dry finish but it isn’t anywhere near as tannic as the Red Wine casks and I like that the intense flavour seemed to linger throughout the dryness. A really pleasing blend of mango and cherry with honeyed malt and subtle spices.

Final Thoughts

It’s been a lot of fun working my way through these samples. At times it’s felt like the character of the distillery has been a little hidden by the various casks but looking back now, there have been some threads running through the series. The nuttiness and subtle, underlying meatiness has featured consistently and both added some interesting depth to the different expressions. For me, the best combinations were with the Tawny Port and Sweet German Wine casks. Those really stood out as excellent malts, though the Marsala went down very well, too. It was fascinating looking for subtle differences between the North and South Pauillac Red Wine casks but, enjoyable as they were, they just didn’t click with me in the same way. Pushed to pick a favourite? I’d go for the Sweet German Wine Cask. That would be the one I’d be most likely to take home. Interesting, high quality drams across the board though.

You can buy the whiskies featured in this review direct from Goldfinch. Simply visit the link below*

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