As I had the chance to do many times before, I participated in a Tweet Tasting organized as usual by Steve Rush from The Whisky Wire on Wednesday the 23rd of September. This time, it was not a distillery, but a “new” indy… No, not Indiana Jones. As I was saying, this time it was not a distillery, but a quite new Independent Bottler called The Whisky Cellar. We received a really nice package with five samples, a notebook and a beautiful pen made with oak from a cask stave by Andrew from miawoodcrafts. By the way, if you didn’t know what he does, go check him out, what he makes is brilliant. I do already have a pen made from a Glenfarclas stave and I love it. But let’s get back on track and talk about today’s subject: The Whisky Cellar Tweet Tasting. And let’s start by having a chat with Keith Bonnington to know more about The Whisky Cellar!
More Drams: Hi! Who is behind The Whisky Cellar?
Keith Bonnington: The Whisky Cellar is me, supported by a number of third-party partners I rely on to make the business tick – warehouses, bottling lines, retail partners, a good accountant, and a number of industry ex-colleagues whose judgement I greatly trust and appreciate and who help me select my casks for our ranges.
When was The Whisky Cellar created and where are you based?
My company was established in Edinburgh right at the end of 2016 though it took us over a year to get our first bottling out. Our first release came with quite intricate, complex packaging and things took a lot longer than anticipated. Our office is right in the heart of the city – on George Street – with views to Edinburgh Castle from the street. It’s the perfect location as Edinburgh is my home city.
Can you tell us a bit more about you?
I have worked in the Scotch Whisky industry for nearly 18 years, starting out at Whyte & Mackay (when it was known as Kyndal Spirits) but the most important years of my career were the 11 spent at Edrington. I just felt the company fitted me and I fitted it and it tended to employ really good people, many of whom will be lifelong friends. During my time at Edrington, I was made a Keeper of the Quaich (2013) and won a Chairman’s Award for my work in establishing Edrington’s entity in Africa and Middle East, and in recruiting a full team to support future growth from an office base in Johannesburg. In 2016, I had the opportunity to relocate my family to South Africa but used the ‘career-crossroads’ as a chance to step out of the corporate world and have a go at creating my own independent whisky brands and labels.
What is your goal with The Whisky Cellar, is there something you want to do differently than other independent bottlers – what is your special touch?
We have a very simple ethos: “If we love, we’ll bottle it.” We’re not constrained by being the ‘oldest’ or the ‘most heavily-sherried’ (although we do have old and dark casks in the warehouse), or the ‘most expensive’ but we want to explore flavour and present whiskies in ranges that offer something for everyone. Is that different? Possibly not but I’ll always strive to do it as well as anyone else in the independent sector. I am supported by some great people, practically born and bred into the industry, helping me source wood for re-racking and sourcing the best whiskies I can find.
Can you tell us about your first outturn, was it difficult to acquire them?
The first 10 casks in our Series 1 represent whiskies covering a broad spectrum of styles, colours and flavours to show that we can do diversity really well, and celebrate it rather than try to go for one particular type of whisky, region or even brand. When we start out on our search for a new parcel of stock, I only ever have a vague idea of precisely what I am looking for. Keeping an open mind to what we might be able to source and having the expertise to do something with a particular cask to improve it makes things slightly easier. In other words, we might buy something not quite ready for bottling today but, with a bit of care and attention, it could be spectacular.
The casks are resting patiently in the warehouse for at least our next two series after this first one. We’ll look to launch between 5 and 7 casks per series, not the 10 of Series 1. We had planned to release 5 casks in spring 2020 and 5 again in August but Covid-19 came along and scuppered the first part of that plan. I decided just to release all 10 at once as we felt the whiskies were at the peak of where we wanted them to be. For Series 2 and part of 3, there are a couple of very interesting islanders and something quite high on the phenol scale. We’ll also return to Speyside, which featured heavily in our Series 1, a region that I turn to myself time and time again. The ‘House Malt’ will be back too, this time from a different region.
Thank you very much for your time!
The Whisky Cellar Tweet Tasting
As I said in the intro, we received five samples from the first series. The first one was a single grain, with Invergordon 1996. Then, we went to single malts. In order of tasting: a Royal Brackla 2013, a Teaninich 2007, a Glenallachie 1995, to finish with a Benriach 1997. You think it does look quite interesting? Let me tell you: you’re right. I guess we’ve talked enough, so let’s crack on.
The first dram of the night came from the bank of the Cromarty Firth in the beautiful Highlands, a little east of Dalmore and due south of Balblair. We started with an Invergordon single grain distilled in February 1996 and bottled in August 2020. After spending 24 years in an American oak ex-Bourbon barrel, it gave an outturn of 188 bottles at 48.6% abv. Of course, as it should, unchill-filtered and of natural colour. You can buy it at Master of Malt, the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul or Lockett Bros for about £95.
The nose greets you with freshness first, with apples, corn, mint. Then you’re transported into a damp dunnage warehouse: an old mossy stone warehouse, with a dirt floor, a bit musty inside, and with grass around, giving vegetal notes. Sawdust, a sweet caramel.
The arrival is rich and spicy. The mouthfeel is creamy, with liquid caramel and chocolate ice cream starting to melt. It stays rich and sweet, with a tarte tatin leaking with apple caramel. A few pieces of fudge, letting appear a pinch of chilli pepper after a moment, not too much, spot on.
Imagine a caramel and chocolate cookie dipped in chilli pepper. And keep that in mind for a long time. There you go, you have your finish.
What a start! This Invergordon single grain is packed with flavour. On the nose, you get the age, you feel transported in an old and damp dunnage warehouse. The palate is rich with a delicious chocolate ice cream and lots of caramel. Who said single grains started to be interesting only after 40? This one didn’t wait to be middle-aged to overflow with flavour. Delicious. I want one.
Royal Brackla 2013
Second dram of the evening: we moved south, in Speyside halfway between Forres and Inverness. We went from grain to malt, from old to young, with a 2013 Royal Brackla. Distilled in March 2013 and bottled in August 2018, this young whisky was matured in a refill sherry butt before being split for a finish in four Oloroso quarter casks. Then, the quarter cask #14 was bought by The Whisky Cellar and though it was supposed to stay in there for 6 months, it finally spent 11 months in it, giving it quite a dark colour. Bottled at 56.8% abv, unchill-filtered and without colouring, the outturn gave 160 bottles. It was sold for about £65 but quickly sold out almost everywhere. Fortunately, at the time of writing you can still find it at the Whisky Castle in Tomintoul.
A glass of red Bordeaux wine with an orange hue
A glass of Oloroso that has fallen on a dusty book. Luscious and decadent nose: strawberry/raspberry/redcurrants jam, dried red fruits, carrot cake, smoked and salted meat. And in the back, a light citrusy note (orange and pomelo), cinnamon and brown sugar.
Thick mouthfeel, spicy (pepper, chilli) and that can definitely not hide the Oloroso quarter cask finish. You’d think this was matured in a first fill sherry butt, but no, it was a refill butt before the finish. Milky chocolate (a few bars in a single glass, that would explain the thickness of the mouthfeel!), beef steak tartare, cigar box, sultanas and dried figs, almonds and salted cashew nuts.
I shamelessly stole @Edinburghwhisky’s finish notes are they were spot on during the Tweet Tasting: “The finish on the 2013 Royal Brackla provides unlit cigar, lots of dark choc, coffee grounds and waves of rich oak. A hint of sweet vermouth too. Really long and evolving, delish!” Nothing to add to that.
Young and powerful, this Royal Brackla packs a punch and delivers like an older first-fill sherry while retaining its youthful enthusiasm. Typical Oloroso notes, but with fewer tannins and way less drying effect, it’s really good and quickly flew off the shelves. I can honestly understand why, I wouldn’t have minded a bottle of that either, it’s a great sherry bomb.
Teaninich 12yo 2007
Back to the Highlands and now a few kilometres west of Dalmore to Teaninich. This single malt was distilled in November 2007 and spent 12 years in an American oak hogshead #702596 before being bottled in August 2020, unchill-filtered and uncoloured, at a respectful 58.2% abv. Available at the RRP of £85 at Master of Malt or The Whisky Castle in Tomintoul, and a few quid less at the Aberdeen Whisky Shop.
Pepper greats you but with the fresh notes of menthol and eucalyptus, and the fruity notes of a bowl of orchard fruits (apple, pear) with a drop of lime juice. Some petals of rose and geranium, and a drop of olive oil.
Sweet and citrusy arrival before quite a burst of pepper due to the alcohol bites your face off. Hot chocolate (the posh one with milk, not water), grapefruit with sugar sprayed on top, salted butter over a slightly burnt toast, coffee, you almost have a typical French breakfast here.
You’re listening to the Beatles here. Sergeant Pepper and the Lemon Tree. Medium length.
Nice end of Summer dram though a bit too spicy at first, it has a good complexity and is balanced enough in my humble opinion. At £85, it’s correctly priced for a teen… inich au naturel. Oh and regarding the French breakfast I talked about, we usually don’t have alcohol at breakfast. A shame, I know.
Back to Speyside, a mile south of the lovely Aberlour distillery, with a Glenallachie. Distilled in December of ’95 and matured for 24 years in an American oak ex-Bourbon hogshead, it was bottled in August 2020 like its siblings from The Whisky Cellar’s series 1. As usual, no chill filtration and no additional colouring, and a nice 56.5% abv, for an outturn of 227 bottles. Still available at Master of Malt for £150.
Way lighter than the photo on the left, we’re more on deep copper.
Feisty, you would think it’s younger than its 24 years of age. Toasted malt, unsweetened yoghurt with cut pineapple pieces and the funk from a pear rhum arrangé.
Sweet and spicy arrival, a bit thin at first but after half a second you realize that no, it’s not thin at all. Malt is here again, quite present. Now on the second sip it’s getting quite hot with the alcohol, burning the tip of my tongue. I really wouldn’t guess it’s 24, more like the third! Caramel, vanilla and chocolate.
Lingering notes of lemon juice over apples and pears.
Was that a lazy cask? It didn’t tame the juice, letting you think it’s way younger than its respectable 24 years of age. £150 may seem a bit steep but remember it’s 24, even though it hides its age very well. So in the end I’m the one a bit off balance. It’s good and it feels young while it’s not. So yes, it’s 24yo, but I don’t really taste the age, so £150 for a whisky feeling like an 8yo may be a bit expensive. Tough decision.
Final dram of the night and we move to a few miles south of Elgin on the A941 to Benriach distillery. Filled in an American Oak Ex-Bourbon Hogshead in December 1997, it was moved for a 4 years finish in the ex-Rum cask n°R2016 9348/4 in 2016 before being bottled in August 2020 at the age of 22. 189 bottles were filled at 57.1% abv, without chill filtration nor additional colouring. You can still buy for £184 at the Aberdeen whisky shop and a pound more at Master of Malt.
A bit funky and salty, paint thinner and rubber, an old shoe. After a moment, we go to more classic nose (phew): caramelized brown sugar, oak, and feint apricot notes.
Prickly peppery citrusy arrival(y), very peppery in fact, too much for me even for a moment. Once the pepper cools down, the texture is very thick, and you can find coffee beans, black cherries, creamy chocolate, vanilla, caramel, but no trace of rum.
Orange zest and lemon juice, coffee beans and a pinch of chilli pepper, the finish is quite long.
I must admit I’m unsure about this one. Strange nose at first before settling down to something way nicer, very peppery palate before the cooldown, it’s quite good once it has settled, but the start both on the nose and the palate makes it a bit unbalanced for my own taste. Another proof that every palate is different as some friends that were on the Tweet Tasting with me preferred this one out of the five drams of the night.
Another great night, no doubt about it. It started with a bang, two in fact as both the Invergordon and Royal Brackla were absolutely delicious, then we moved to drams a bit less to my taste (though keep in mind they’re all above 80 so we’re still talking about really fine dramming, not bottom shelf supermarket blend at all, far from that!) The Glenallachie and Benriach were less to my taste, the Glen one because it didn’t feel like it was 24, the Ben because of some funky notes on the nose at first and the blast of pepper. As for the Teaninich, I’d say it’s good value, full of flavour and a reasonable price. But the Royal Brackla and the Invergordon were head and shoulders (says the bald writer) above the rest.
But don’t take our word for it…
As usual, these are personal notes, don’t just read my reviews but go also read the ones other people wrote. Wim “@dram_gazette” reviewed all five drams: Invergordon, Royal Brackla, Teaninich, Glenallachie and Benriach. Shamini from Freedom & Whisky also reviewed the Royal Brackla. And of course, Brian @MaltMusings also covered all five drams on his blog.