I owe a few fine whisky orators an apology: ‘neglect’, ‘oversight’, ‘disregard’ – these are just some of the accusations Lucas Dynowiak and Chris Hoban could level at me on account of my blog-based silence concerning their tastings for the St Andrews Quaich Society. First, however, I must beg the forgiveness of Andrew Shand, who visited as far back as October to present some fabulous Duncan Taylor whiskies to we thirsty students.
When Andrew’s father, Euan Shand, took over the whisky business in 2001, single malt Scotch was on the up. Sitting on warehouses full of casks from as far back as the 1930s, with 80-90% of the industry’s distilleries represented on the books, it was ‘a sound move’. Today, Duncan Taylor are one of the more innovative independent bottlers around, boasting a portfolio of not only single casks and small-batch vattings, but a blended whisky and blended malt offerings, too. And onto those now.
We kicked off the evening with a couple of whiskies from the Dimensions range. This in turn is subdivided into two branches: one of whiskies between 10 and 18-years-of-age bottled at 46% with natural colour and no chillfiltration; the second celebrating whiskies which have amassed between 18 to 45 years in cask, bottled at cask strength. Our first two drams were from the former range. Two to four third fill ex-Bourbon casks of Aultmore from 2001 had been vatted together, and the fragrance was fresh yet rich with dominant aromas of banana cream pie, honey and sticky oat bars. Firm and malty on the palate, a grassiness grew into the finish.
Ever since John Glaser and then Dave Broom extolled the virtues of the Glen Elgin make (check out my review of Compass Box’s Glen Elgin-driven Double Single here), I have been drawn to its understated elegance and intensity. This one followed suit with an old sweet shop, sugar syrup and green pear on the nose. Water brought out cherry bakewell tart with a grassy kick. The palate was dryish, gristy, with a Bourbon-y popcorn quality and a curious saltiness.
The following whisky demonstrated the spirit of experimentation Duncan Taylor brings to its business. The Octave range is an ever-changing line-up of whiskies – single malt and, intriguingly, single grain – which have been plucked from the ex-Bourbon beginnings and deposited lovingly into an Octave Sherry cask. This is 1/8 the size of an original Sherry butt and a smaller cask, as Andrew explained, means more oak contact for the spirit with more dramatic oak flavours being absorbed in a shorter space of time. When I first bumped into Andrew at WhiskyLuxe in September, he plied me with an Octave Cardhu, which was stunningly drinkable. On this occasion a 1998 Macduff had been given the Octave treatment. At 55.3%, the nose was deep and luciously rich with a curious gin-like presence: citrus peel and juniper. The palate revealed treacle and gingerbread with dry spice. A powerful offering, a slight astringency let it down.
To continue the theme of doing something that little bit different, dram four was Black Bull blended whisky. A 19th century brand which Duncan Taylor restored to prize-winning glory in 2008 with a bullish 30yo, the standard release is the 12yo in front of us. Comprising 50% malt and 50% grain whiskies, the recipe is blended and then additionally matured. Andrew hinted that there were hopes to launch a Black Bull range, with perhaps an 18yo and even a 21yo. A smoky Black Bull? That could happen, too. On the nose, the 12yo had buttery grain in abundance as well as a vinous, sherried veneer. Mixed berry jam and vanilla sugar emerged with water. To taste, this blew the doors off: fresh and zesty but with real weight, a hint of smoke was followed by fruit peels and vanilla sweetness. Outstanding blending with some characterful raw ingredients.
And finally, a little something for the peat freaks. ’We do a couple of different versions of Big Smoke,’ began Andrew. ‘There’s a 40% one and a 60% release. I thought I’d bring the 60% for you guys.’ Cheers erupted around the room.
For me, Big Smoke was a little underpowered. Pleasant enough on the nose, the tar and creosote aromas yielded too soon to the green herb and olive fragrances. Much like the Black Bull, however, sipping this revealed a restrained sweetness at first before thick peat hove into view. Well balanced indeed.
Andrew’s final surprise saw many donations to the end-of-tasting Raffle: a ticket entitling the winner to a tour and tasting of Duncan Taylor’s facilities in Huntly. A rare treat if the liquids of that October night are anything to go by.
The Committee would like to thank Andrew for making the journey to St Andrews and providing such a thorough, amiable tasting. Judging by how many people came up to me afterwards, asking with an avid gleam in their eye where they might come by some bottles, Duncan Taylor have a committed fan club in the Kingdom of Fife.