Oak Barrel Whisky Of The Year 2019
"Not a new release, but the 2019 batch, crafted as it is from post-2002 spirit, was a hugely important marker for the sustainability of premium affordable, sherry cask matured whisky moving forward. Delicious, alluring, sexy and affordable."
We’ve all heard it mentioned. “I prefer the older stuff.” “The previous version was much better.” “They really went downhill after the ‘90s.”
The concept that they don’t make whisky like they used to is fraught with elitism. On the one hand it’s an absolutely accurate statement; the whisky world, it’s production methods and available resources have developed over the past three hundred years and as a result in most cases we literally don’t make whisky like we used to.
But the subtext that the phrase carries is one that suggests the whisky that we’re drinking right now is inferior quality.
In a lot of cases there’s a good serve of seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses, particularly when the memory is tied to the price of whisky at the turn of the millennium, but in sometimes there’s also a bit of truth in the statement. The latter is perhaps no more evident than it is when it comes to sherry cask matured whiskies.
Maturing whisky in sherry barrels has been a prominent practise since the 19th century. To give a brief history of the relationship, initially the Spanish fortified wine was transported to England by the barrel, before plastic containers became more practical and then in 1986 sherry was required to be bottled in Spain. As a result, the number of sherry casks used to transport the liquid around the world diminished and top-quality sherry barrels remained as part of the bodegas doing what they do best – making sherry. The subsequent global explosion in demand and interest for whiskies highlighted that lack of sherry casks.
Ex-sherry barrels are now expensive and ones that have held fortified wine for substantial years are scarce, no matter how big your cheque book is. Distilleries are now seasoning their own barrels with sherry, nailing down relationships with bodegas to try and create sustainability for the style which was all so prominent during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Enter GlenDronach. In our eyes the east highland distillery is part of the trio of Scotland's whisky sherry houses, that is distilleries whose spirit is designed to and does thrive when matured in sherry barrels (the other two are Glenfarclas and Macallan). The distillery spent most of its existence post 1960, when it was purchased by William Teacher & Sons, as a blenders whisky. Eventually mothballed in 1996 it didn’t really emerge as a single malt force until it was re-opened in 2002 and following 2008 when Billy Walker’s BenRiach company acquired the distillery and re-launched the range.
The expressions received wide acclaim. They were "proper" "old school" exclusively sherry cask matured whiskies that were well aged and affordable for their class. Created from the stocks maturing at the distillery, the barrels used were pre-1996 distillations. The gap in production from 1996 to 2002 quickly became an issue, however, as if you were drinking the 15-Year-Old in 2015, it had to be closer to 20 years old. The three core expressions, the 15, 18 and 21-year-olds, were all likely a similar age, but different flavour profiles and priced differently.
As those pre-1996 stocks began to dwindle the 15-Year-Old 'Revival' was taken out of production in 2015 and put on the shelf until the post 2002 stocks could catch up, which in 2018 they did and the return of the Revival was heralded by sherry cask lovers around the world.
Now made under the experienced senses of Master Blender Rachel Barrie and the ownership of Brown-Forman, the ‘new’ edition arrived in Australia December 2018 and swiftly sold out. It wasn’t until November 2019 that the next Australian allocation arrived and, for The Oak Barrel team, it was a stunner.
The first ‘new’ batch was quite different to the ‘old’ 15. Drawn from both oloroso and Pedro Ximenez casks, it was lighter and slightly stalky in parts. The 2019 batch sees the expression in full stride though, a rich alluring nose and a palate of rich sweet fruits, it doesn’t downplay the dark chocolate and herbal elements but encourages and enhances them.
The current 18-Year-Old, which is now on allocation and become rarer just as the 15 did five years ago, is perhaps a more decadent whisky, but it is also becoming more expensive as a result. The future success of whisky and the growth of the category doesn't depend on the top-end, though, it's the everyday drinkers and affordable premiums that will continue to push whisky forward.
What made the GlenDronach 15-Year-Old such an important marker in 2019 was precisely the fact that it has been crafted from stocks distilled and matured after the 2002 re-opening. If the GlenDronach employees in the past 15 years and Rachel Barrie can create a whisky of this quality, particularly with such a reliance on sherry casks, then the future is bright indeed.
Oak Barrel Whiskies Of The Year
2019: GlenDronach ‘Revival’
(46%, Highlands, Scotland)
2018: Starward Two-Fold (40%, Victoria, Australia)
Read why we gave the Starward Two-Fold the crown in 2018
2017 (tied): Adelphi Breath
(58.4%, Speyside, Scotland)
2017 (tied): Kilkerran 12-Year-Old (46%, Campbeltown, Scotland)
2016: Kilchoman Sanaig (46%, Islay, Scotland)