KWM Whisky Advent Calendar 2016: Day 21

21 12 2016

Into the 20s, guys.  Five days left – and we start the final countdown to Christmas with a mystery.  I pulled out an old-school-looking bottle of Stronachie 18 Year Small Batch Release and thought:  “Cool, another lesser-known distillery find.”  Then I saw the A.D. Rattray logo, last seen in Day 14 with the independent bottler’s Cask Islay release, and thought:  “Cool, this must be like their Distillery Label series”, similar to fellow independent bottler Gordon & MacPhail’s collaborative set of releases with smaller producers tasted in Day 8 and Day 16.  Then I saw the tiny notation in the top right corner: “Distilled at Benrinnes Distillery”.  Um, what?  That’s one label headliner too many.

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Here’s the story.  Stronachie IS a lesser-known distillery…but it’s lesser-known because it was mothballed in 1928 and destroyed in 1930.  It was first built in the 1890s in a (questionably chosen, in hindsight) remote, nearly inaccessible mountain location that required the construction of a 5-mile private railway just to get the spirit to a transportation route.  The initial distributor of Stronachie was actually a relative of A.D Rattray, and in the early 2000s, consumed by curiosity about the distillery, Rattray’s present owner bought at auction a bottle of Stronachie that was distilled a century prior, in 1904, one of only 4 bottles left in the world.  After tasting it (props to them for actually opening it), Rattray then embarked on a project to try to re-create the historic distillery’s flavour profile using spirit from a similarly situated high-altitude producer.  It’s one part honourable and one part creepy, like going from trying to commune with your dead aunt via seance to building your own effigy of her for your living room, but it is certainly bold and unique, two things I don’t get to say enough about the whisky world.

Benrinnes is another distillery that often does its work anonymously, not often receiving the single malt attention, which makes me feel sort of bad that it’s getting this particular star treatment as a sort of tribute cover band for another producer that’s been closed for 88 years and a pile of rubble for 86.  Its faux-Stronachie 18 Year was aged in a combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks (which is becoming the main maturation theme of Whisky Advent 2016) and smelled as pleasantly old-fashioned as it was probably supposed to, mixing saltwater taffy, unsweetened licorice, smoke and bitter orange.  Smouldering and long-acting on the palate, its flavours are almost on delayed release, starting spicy and peppery but then blooming into vast florals, citrus fruits, hickory, creme brulee and candied ginger.  In spite of that it never gets away from itself, staying straight-laced and minding its manners, like the quiet distillery up on the mountain that’s now nothing but a ghost, kept alive through loving tribute.

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