Calling this whisky “Speyside” rather than naming the distillery it came from has led to a bit of speculation online (and, as you’ll see, to further speculation below). There are a few Speyside distilleries that won’t allow the use of their names by independent bottlers: Glenfarclas and Glenfiddich, for example. I have seen Glenfarclas suggested as the source of this Exclusive Malts “Speyside” but that hardly seems possible given the typical Glenfarclas profile with it’s warm full body and refined bready fruitcake character. I’m going to hazard a different guess: Balvenie. I’m not the first to make this guess. At an Exclusive Malts tasting held at Norfolk Wine & Spirits nearly a year ago, the proprietor, Bikram Singh, responded to his first sip with that name: Balvenie. And I concur. If you can deconstruct the 15 year old Balvenie Single Barrel in your mind (having a dram of this expression in your glass, of course), imagining what the nose and palate might be like without any sherry cask influence, with considerably less bloated sweetness and with the ABV turned up from about 48% to more than 56%, it isn’t hard to understand this Exclusive Malts offering as the whisky that would result. I’ve spent many an evening with favorite bottles of Glenfarclas (17, 21, 25) and I don’t find the whisky under review here reminiscent of that distillery whatsoever. Then again, imagining Glenfarclas with no influence of sherry cask maturation is for all intents and purposes impossible, so I suppose that feasibility must remain open. Nonetheless, I’m sticking with my first guess: Balvenie.
Or am I? There is another intriguing, but highly unlikely, possibility: The Speyside Distillery, a very small affair on the upper section of the River Spey that produces less than 160,000 gallons of whisky annually. I have never had a drop of juice from that whisky maker, but the descriptions I’ve found sound similar to this Exclusive Malts single cask. Michael Jackson describes Drumguish, which was an NAS bottling from the Speyside Distillery, as “intense” with “jasmine” and a “slightly oily” body, “[a] creamy core” but with “dry (grassy) edges” – all of which, except for the grassy note, could be adjusted to fit with my take on the whisky here under review. And Charles McLean describes the palate on a distillery bottling of Speyside 12 Year Old as “richer and more full-bodied than you would expect from its restrained nose” – a description I could use, word for word, to portray this “Speyside” from Exclusive Malts.
Distilled April 14th 2003. Bottled September 2013 at an ABV of 56.3%. One of 296 bottles from a single cask. I have seen no official word on the type or size of cask used, but I have read that this whisky spent its entire ten years in an ex-bourbon hogshead and I suspect that’s true. Like all of this bottler’s offerings, this whisky is untainted by the misleading E150a caramel coloring and is un-chill-filtered.
I was having some trouble deciphering this one, so I looked at a couple of reviews online to find out what others had unraveled. One reviewer calls this whisky an example of “a classic sherry bomb”. I don’t get that, not at all. If this juice spent more than 10 minutes of it’s 10 year maturation in anything other than a (second fill?) ex-bourbon hogshead, I would be damned surprised. I find no sherry influence in this whisky whatsoever. What I do find most prominent on the nose is a clean, bright, hardy malt encased in a weave of rather sharp (French?) oak spices. Far below all that, I get some wildflower honey (i.e., not conspicuously sweet, as in some drier meads, which this is beginning in some ways to resemble on the nose) and, even farther out, like ghosts in a distant darkness, salt marsh reeds? a dusty shale-like flintiness? spilled, dried cherry juice on a just-opened package of high cloth-content copy paper? There is something distant but elusively floral as well – jasmine tea? withered carnations? The high ABV can be stabbing in the nostrils if you get too close, but I didn’t find that water did much to ameliorate this characteristic until it became too much water and washed the good away. What one can discern here is pleasant and varied, but, overall, this is a shielded, clenched and parsimonious nose that refuses to give much up. (20/25)
Well, now… This is where she divulges a few of her secrets – but only a few. The wonderfully silky, oily delivery displays that tight malted barley, a little less bright now, awash in an amalgam of light raisons, peach and cherry pits, less-than-identifiable savory elements and a touch of burnt caramel, all of it steeping in a light, thin sugar syrup. The spice is a constant after the first few seconds, but it rises along a gentle arc that never gets overpowering.
And that, for me at least, is all she wrote. She doesn’t do all that much but, what she does do, she does well – and she truly does nothing wrong. I should add, however, that a few of my friends and some reviewers refer to the palate on this whisky as cloyingly sweet and “ridiculously sweet,” as one friend described it. That was not my experience at all. Was my sample too old or too oxidized? I have no way of knowing; all I can do is review the sample I was sent. If I should have a chance to taste a fresh bottle of this potion anytime soon, I’ll write an update to this report [see the Addendum below]. (21/25)
A mouthwatering, long, slow-burning finish that spills raisons and dates across the tongue in a wash of not-really-very-sweet caramel and honey, all of this on a foundation of sturdy barley malt, savory spice and drying oak tannins that reach down into the chest with a bloom of searing, drying, slow-slow fading, high frequency alcohol. (21/25)
As an arc, this works – more or less. Thanks to the malt itself, there is a nice, tight, clean component that runs through the entire experience this whisky offers. The nose, though shielded and stingy, leads naturally enough to the palate – which has that wonderful silky delivery. The finish starts with great promise but ends with a slow-searing burn that won’t be to everyone’s liking. (20/25)
Total points for this sample of this whisky: 82
Many thanks to Sam Filmus at ImpEx Beverages and to Marina Hachaturova at Dime Group International for the sample.
Thanks to Bikram Singh (once again!), who had an open bottle of this whisky at his store, I did manage to get my hands on a fresh sample. There is a big difference between this and the sample I was sent. On the Nose, one gets an even more vibrant maltiness, a nice light honey, river rocks drying in the sun and some cinnamon and white pepper spice, though the alcohol is still stabbing the nostrils a bit (+2 points). On the Palate, the silky oleaginous delivery is still there and one now gets – especially with some water – baked apples, cinnamon and nutmeg, pear candy, light raisons and thin honey (+2 points). The Finish is much the same, but – with water, especially – sweeter, less burning, longer and more flavorful (+1 point). As for the Balance and Structure, I’d say the Structure remains much the same, dominated by a nice firm malt, but the Balance is improved because every step of the experience has been improved. Is this as sweet as my friends and others said? Well, it’s sweeter, but not ridiculously so, and the additional sweetness balances in pleasant equipoise with the spice, malt and tannins. (+2 points).
Total points for this sample of this whisky: 89
That’s a big difference!