Whisky is in a strange place right now. Age statements are taking a back seat on the whole. Many brands are attempting to sell bottles based on marketing flannel, fancy packaging and pretty labels that tell us next to nothing about the contents of the bottle aside from the legal requirements of ABV and a tax stamp. There are many examples of this going horribly wrong (Glenlivet Founders Reserve, anyone?) and uninformed customers are being convinced that their under-matured and poorly vatted whisky must be decent because they’ve shelled out £40 for it, and it comes in a fancy bottle that has had more attention paid to it than the liquid inside. You can hardly blame people for getting burned with so much to choose from, and someone has to be the first to try new bottlings.
On the flip side, there are examples of NAS bottlings where the quality and presentation of the whisky inside defies the lack of age statements and speaks for itself so loudly that it needs no such triviality. Ardbeg Uigeadail (Yes, I had to google how to spell it. Every time). Aberlour A’Bunadh. Highland Park Dark Origins.
Enter Douglas Laing’s Remarkable Regional Malts range. The core of the range consists of 5 “vatted malts”, a term not favoured by the overlords of the Scotch whisky industry because it apparently sounds too industrial. However I feel it is important to make the distinction between blended whisky and vatted malts, the salient point being that the latter is a mixture of single malts from various distilleries whereas the former is basically a free-for-all bottling of malt and grain whiskies from whatever the bottler can get their hands on and has traditionally been a byword for inferior quality and industrial production. Bells. ‘Nuff said.
If I was producing a quality vatted malt from top-notch distilleries I wouldn’t want the word “blended” anywhere near the label, so Douglas Laing have made the right choice to go with vatted malt as their descriptor.
The idea of the Regional Malts range is as it sounds, to represent the character of each of the 5 largest Scotch whisky regions with it’s own bottling. Campbeltown is not represented in the core range due to having only 3 working distilleries, however Douglas Laing offer occasional limited releases of a Campbeltown vatted malt known as The Gauldrons as a stand alone bottling which I would be keen to pick up next time they release it. The 5 core malts are NAS whiskies, with limited age-stated bottlings released occasionally to flesh out the idea. We were lucky enough to try one of these age-stated drams as a bonus, which was the Rock Oyster 18yo.
The key selling point of the range, and that which attracts me personally to it, is that although there are no ages statements all the bottlings are of a craft presentation, with a minimum ABV of 46%, no chill filtering and natural colour (no E150A. Yay.). The marketing spiel goes to great lengths to announce this for all the bottles, and Douglas Laing should in my opinion be applauded for using craft presentation as a selling point rather than something to be hidden behind fancy cardboard boxes and tacky leaflets.
Before I get to dissecting the individual bottles, special mention should made of Last Chance Cocktail and Whisky bar in Nottingham, UK. With a primary focus on cocktails and bourbon they never the less have a great selection of Scotch and the atmosphere and service never fails to be spot on. The fact that they go to the lengths of organising weekly tastings and presentations from brand ambassadors from around the world, for most of which the only entry fee asked is that you buy a drink while you are there (as if we wouldn’t anyway with such an exceptional selection) is outstanding. The pours were generous and I’d have loved to have stayed for a few more after the tasting but sadly work beckoned the next day, and I’m fast approaching the age where functioning with a hangover is bordering on impossible.
Also, David the brand ambassador from Douglas Laing comes across as a geniunely passionate and knowledgable guy with a talent for relaying tonnes of info in an interesting and engaging way.
Onto the bottles!
46.2% ABV, NCF, NC, £37.40
The range kicks off with The Epicurean, a lowland vatting which we were informed cannot state the distilleries it is sourced from for legal reasons. However with only a handful of lowland distilleries currently functioning it isn’t hard to narrow it down. I would hazard a guess that this dram contains a high percentage of Glenkinchie malt, however this is just a guess! Generally speaking this comes across as fairly young, with all the requisite sweetness and easy going style of a lowland whisky. It is almost cartoonish in it’s presentation of the style, if that makes sense. If picking apart a sweet, light whisky and spending time to get to know it’s intricacies and subtlety is your thing then this won’t disappoint. Don’t be expecting a peaty or sherried kick in the mouth, as there are other whiskies in the range taking care of that and no attempt has been made to fancy up the character of The Epicurean by finishing in a secondary cask type etc. It’s an honest presentation of Lowland whisky and does a fine job of it.
Honey, citrus, and floral notes dominate with a relatively short but not disappointing finish. I added approximately half a teaspoon of water after tasting neat, and found that it didn’t really benefit from it despite the 46% abv. The sweet, light honeyed character is spot on at the higher strength and achieves what it sets out to do with precision.
46.8% ABV, NCF, NC, £41.08
The Highland representation in the Remarkable Regional Malts is Timorous Beastie, the name of which is taken from a Robert Burns poem. Nicely marketed with enough of astory to be memorable without over-doing it. Reminiscent of a decent Highland Park in smokiness, without the trademark sherry influence of that particular distillery. Plenty of character to be found here, and if a bottle were on my shelf I imagine I’d be reaching for it more often than most recent Aberlours and the like. Some nice floral notes balance the smoke and you can tell there has been some expert vatting going on here which gives a very rounded interpretation of the highland style.
46.0% ABV, NCF, NC, £59.99
With Scallywag 13yo we ramp up the price and in theory arrive at Speyside. I say in theory as this bottling is slightly unusual in that the one we were offered was heavily sherried, therefore took on the “sherry bomb” character which I found over-rode the traditional Speyside character that the marketing leads you to expect. The bottle on offer was the 13yo, which is matured in 100% sherry butts rather than the core NAS bottling which uses only 40% sherry casks, so the standard bottle will probably give a truer representation of Speyside. I can only review what I tasted however!
Sherry, sherry and more sherry. This malt has spent 13 long years in what were obviously some very wet sherry casks. For me, the excellent balancing act of the two previous drams tripped up slightly here. If you’re after a sherry bomb then this will surely satisfy your appetite, with a spiciness more in line with Aberlour A’bundah than Glenfiddich 15 Solera Reserve. For me though, in the context of a Speyside representation I would have liked more sweetness to come through (think Balvenie) which I felt the flavour profile had room for despite the overtly single-minded sherry nature of the whisky. Not a bad dram by any means, I just thought it was a little too focused on one flavour and at this price point and lower the sherry-bomb market is very heavily saturated with quality offerings. This may struggle to stand out in my opinion.
46.8% ABV, NCF, NC, £41.08
Woah there. Where did that come from? Rock Oyster is the Island vatting and ramps things up by a considerable notch. Peaty, smokiness that can in no way be described as light or subtle, and makes for a very memorable dram. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not talking Octomore here but we have something for those extremes. It’s called Octomore.
What we do have here is a delightful, fresh, zesty peat that is primarily of the bonfire smoke variety, with a nod to some vegetal character in the background. As with any good smoky whisky there is ample sweetness should you choose to look for it. The balancing act returns in considerable style with this bottling and lovers of smoke will appreciate the hardcore tweaking that has clearly gone on during the vatting process. There are Islay malts present in this dram as advertised by Douglas Laing and it shows. I would guess that definitely Ardbeg and possibly Lagavulin played a part in this, with Jura and Highland Park bringing the sweetness and heavy body.
For the price Rock Oyster was the stand-out dram of the evening for me and most showcases the talent of those behind this whole range. Balanced, smoky and sweet with a long finish and layers upon layers of flavour notes for those that care to look for them.
Rock Oyster 18yo
46.8% ABV, NCF, NC, £90.00
As if the tasting wasn’t generous enough already we were treated to a bonus pour of the 18 year old version of Rock Oyster. I was lucky enough to have some of the NAS version left so was able to do a side-by-side tasting of the two. It almost seems a little unfair to expect the NAS version to stand up to it’s 18yo brother but the two were different enough to provide more to talk about than merely saying that the 18yo is a more mature version. I certainly is that, in that any of the rough edges present in the NAS have been dealt with by some very active casks. The focus of the 18yo moves away from smoke and now concentrates on the body of the whisky, which is deep and full, with a biscuity malt character and long finish. The smoke is present but in a noticeably more subdued form as is often found in older peaty whiskies.
I suppose the significant point to consider is whether or not the 18yo warrants spending more than double the price of the NAS bottle. It’s certainly not cheap at £90 but the quality of the 18yo when considered as a stand-alone bottle does in my opinion justify it’s price. In an ideal world I would like to try a version of Rock Oyster that sits somewhere between the two, perhaps a 12 or 15 year old version? I can’t find any evidence of such a thing being released, and in hindsight I wish I’d have used a third glass to create a further vatting of the two bottles, although I’m not sure if I could have brought myself to such levels of whisky-geekery in front of other human beings!
46.0% ABV, NCF, NC, £44.00
Judging from the general chatter in the room Big Peat was most people’s main event for this tasting. As the name suggests this offering is vatted exclusively from Islay malts, so I was caught slightly off guard by it’s relatively mellow nature. Maybe it’s because I went from the smoky NAS Rock Oyster straight to Big Peat with only a sip of water in between, but there is a slightly subdued feel to this dram. Peated whiskies can generally be categorised as smoky or vegetal, with mixes between the two flavour profiles commonly found in the same bottle. Big Peat leans toward the vegetal, with smokiness taking a back seat. There’s some good depth of character here, and to me it compares more to Lagavulin 16yo than most Ardbegs or Taliskers. Medicinal and iodine qualities reign with a decent length of finish and interesting development over time with the flavour profile changing noticeably as you move from the initial taste through to the finish. Contrary to what I was expecting, I wouldn’t expect peat newbies to find Big Peat particularly challenging and this probably explains why it is held in such high regard with a wide range of whisky drinkers. Douglas Laing also release occasional limited bottlings of Big Peat in different forms, notably one bottling every Christmas which I would be interested to try.
This tasting was in my opinion very well put together and expertly presented, with the obvious quality of the drams being allowed to speak for themselves. All who attended appeared to have a good time and I’ll now be likely to drop £40 on at least one of their bottles, probably on multiple occasions so everyone wins! Good job Douglas Laing and Last Chance.