Clash of the Clynelish
Most of you are familiar with the remarkable history of the Clynelish distillery. The original distillery founded in 1819, mothballed in 1930 and reopened in 1969 as Brora, when a second distillery named originally named Clynelish B was built next door in 1967. Clynelish B became just Clynelish, while Brora was closed in 1983 only to become a highly sought after single malt with prices over €1000 nowadays. Recently, Diageo revealed the reopening of Brora in the very near future. The still existing Clynelish distillery is known for its rather unique waxy, paraffin-like notes, which was much more commonly found in whiskies in the past. This feature makes it much loved among whisky enthusiasts. Distillery bottlings from Clynelish (only) involve a 14-year-old single malt and a Olorose-finished Distiller’s Edition without age statement (Oh, and there were some incredibly expensive special releases). Unfortunately, most of this excellent spirit disappears into the blends of Johnny Walker.
I have always wondered about the people working at Clynelish, when you produce such a good spirit that shines in the hands of many independent bottlers, and you cannot use it to produce a similarly remarkable distillery bottling. This must be frustrating. I mean, the 14-year-old distillery bottling is a good whisky, but to me appears more as a rough diamond that is not showing its true potential. Anyway, here at Whisky Wobbles we decided to compare some of those independent bottlings, two from the supposedly legendary 1997 vintage that are both matured in hogsheads, and one from 1996, let’s say a pre-legendary year, that was matured in a sherry butt.
Then shortly something about that legendary vintage of 1997. Let’s throw some numbers at you (sorry, I love the numbers game sometimes, so bear with me). Whiskybase currently lists 289 bottlings released in 1997, compared with only 150 in 1995, 125 in 1996 and 53 in 1998. From the 1997ers, 113/289 (39%) have a mean rating equal to or above 87, while for 1995 and 1996 that is 45% and 48%, respectively. Only 1998 is a far lower scoring year with only 16% scoring 87 or higher. Also, 1994 (2/16) and 1993 (8/41) were not really glorious. Independent bottlings from 1999 and 2000 are scarce with 7/16 and 5/16 scoring 87 or higher. This means that not just 1997, but the whole mid 90s until 1998, resulted in many, but not all, top-notch bottlings. Because of the larger amount of spirit distributed to independent bottler, 1997 became the prime example of that glorious period. Alright, enough about numbers, let’s proceed to the real thing, the whisky itself.
SV Clynelish 1996
Archives Clynelish 1997
casQueteers Clynelish 1997
The Signatory Vintage embodies the typical design of their Un-chillfiltered Collection, white label, black letters, oh wait, we have some in red now. Groovy! The contents promise a decent sherry influence on the spirit. The people who are designing the Archives bottlings must be passionate divers of the tropic seas with all the fish (or shells) on their labels. The golden colour of the liquid reveals some major bourbon cask influence. The Dutch whisky club called the casQueteers, whose members can also participate in joined purchases of casks, has used artistic pictures made by photographer Karima Hajii of, well, the buttocks of someone named Inge. Anyway, the liquid is equally golden and again promises some prime bourbon cask maturation.
The Signatory Vintage is reasonably smooth, but also has a dirty side to it with lots of sherry-related notes. Raisins, fudge, amaretto, gunpowder, all that supplemented with a fruity undercurrent. The nose develops into more herbal, vegetal notes, which remind me of something like vegetal spiciness of wasabi? The sherry smoothes into milk chocolate. There is only a faint notion of the typical Clynelish waxes, which could overpowered by the cask influence. I also get a slightly rubbery and a tiny plastic off-note. Then the nose becomes saltier, with lots of brine, which brings on a very coastal, almost Talisker-like feel. The nose rounds up with heavier notes of black tea and walnut paste.
We go to the first of the two 97ers. The Archives opens with beautiful fruity and waxy smells. We are in familiar Clynelish territory. Sandy beaches, fresh slightly unripe yellow fruits (peaches, oranges) and sunflower oil. There is a hint of cleaning spirit, but that is swiftly taken over by more fruits, now reaching tropical spheres. Mango and pineapple are accompanied by paraffin, tiger balm and sunflowers.
Going to the second one, the casQueteers, which also opens with an abundance of oils and tropical fruits. We have here pineapples, oranges and mango. This noses like a good bourbon cask maturation that has left enough room for the distillate to shine. More fruits arise with lychees, lemon and lime. The whole remains rather fresh and is very fruity. Although, a spicy side threads through the fruits, reminiscent of red pepper, and there is a faint hint of cigar ashes.
The Signatory Vintage displays less sherry and more wax on the palate. There are raisins, but these are now mixed with notes of paraffin, leather, and again I do get a clear sense of gunpowder. I also get lots of salt here, before the dirty sherry notes display their dominance again. The development is earthy, with leaves, leather, walnuts and black tea, which also present in the finish.
The Archives is a completely different picture. My mouth is filled with loads of candle wax (well, that’s does not seem as tasty as it actually is). What I did not expect is the hint of smoke on the palate. Distant bonfires, which are quickly accompanied by mud, branches and salt. Then come the fruits. Lots of orange and mango juice are joining to add some more layers of complexity. They also join into the aftertaste together with the leafy, muddy side.
The palate of the casQueteers starts off quite feisty, before the oils make their appearance. Refreshing fruits (lemon) and a pinch of salt complete the whole. Also here, I do detect a hint of smoke hidden in the back. The development is rather dry, and brings dashes of beach sand, drying rocks battered by the sea and the expected paraffin, finishing with liquorice and floral notes that hint at a woman’s perfume.
The Archives and casQueteers are both very good examples of the classic Clynelish features from the mid-90s. Lovely waxiness combined with wonderful tropical fruits. The casQueteers wins it on the lower price (I know 1997 is a magical year for Clynelish, but €135 is IMHO slightly too expensive for the quality, although LMDW seems to disagree with a recent release costing over €300) and slightly lovelier nose. I find the scoring for the Signatory Vintage rather difficult. I mean, I like a decent clean Clynelish, and the sherry cask influence makes this a mean dirty dram. Resulting in the covering up all the waxy notes and rather pronouncing the coastal ones. Do not get me wrong, it is not bad, just… you need to crave sherry casks. Well, I think I just prefer Clynelish to be matured in bourbon casks.
Big thanks to or sharing the samples! The Archives sample was purchased at the Whiskybase Gathering 2017.
• these are my personal views, so do not take them too seriously… nothing beats tasting these for yourself •