For some people, their earliest encounters with whisky bring back less than pleasant memories, meaning they avoid it for a long time after. Not for Tony Reeman-Clark, the founder of The Strathearn Distillery.
“I always have been sensible when it comes to drinking, but I’m very fortunate, I can drink a mixture of anything and not get a hangover”, he tells me in The Vaults tasting room.
“But if you threw a whisky into the mix, the following morning I had a hangover.”
Perplexed by this, Tony decided there was only one thing to do – undertake some serious research. He put his engineering background to use and did some analytical testing. It meant going to a different every night and drinking different whiskies and he soon discovered that it was single malt whisky that left him free from any hangover.
“I now know why, it’s actually the distilling method – pot still versus continuous still. But at that point it was like waking up in one of the best wine regions in France, or the new world, and discovering you could drink the wine. And then the myths, the tradition, the romance, the scenery all just sorts of kicks in and [I] fell in love with whisky.”
About two years later Tony was at the Whisky Fringe event at Mansfield Traquair in Edinburgh when the idea of setting up a distillery came to him. He was sharing a few drams with friends and suddenly one of them asked, “why don’t we have our own distillery?’
“So that night I sat down and wrote a one page project brief, the following day I wrote a two page project overview and here I am five years later with a distillery”, he said. As anyone who’s had the chance to visit Strathearn’s site in Perth will know, it’s a teeny tiny space which is why the team proudly refer to it as ‘Probably Scotland’s smallest distillery’.
Our interview at The Vaults took place just before Tony’s tasting, which he co-hosted with Society Ambassador Ryan McCafferty.
As Strathearn’s first whisky (of which there will only be 100 bottles) won’t be ready until December, I ask him what he has planned for tonight’s tasting.
“We can make all the products, all the way back through history, because the three year rule to make it Scotch is purely political from the First World War. Prior to that it was any age that it was drinkable at, and it tended to be quite young, so we can do that – it’s the Gaelic term Uisge Beathas.
Tony warned those gathered in the Members’ Room that the tasting would be a controversial one. As we dived nose first into our first dram, he explained that before 1916 it was what people used to drink. Aged in French oak for just 14 months, the colour of the spirit was deceivingly rich and dark. On the palate, it was wonderfully balanced between sweet and spicy, and the flavours reminded me of a rye.
“The whisky we call whisky now – a lot of people out there don’t realise that a lot of [it] is just a chemical factoring, selected casks which are getting rarer and rarer to find, like you do here, are amazing stuff”, Tony said. His comment was a nice reminder of how special the drams were before us – unadulterated and unique.
Tony went on to talk about the origins of spirit from the West Coast of Scotland. Traditionally the beer they made had juniper in it as a preservative – so the first West Coast whiskies were more like a jenever.
Our next two drams paid homage to those early West Coast whiskies. Both colourless and by eye easy to mix up. However, the flavours and aromas were starkly different; the first was herbal and malty and the second like a very creamy gin.
After the interval Society Ambassador Ryan McCafferty lead us through two Society whiskies. To contrast, Ryan had selected two that had spent a great deal of time in the cask.
The first was 35.137 – Delightful evocation of the boudoir. An ‘Old & Dignified’ 25 year old whisky from a first fill bourbon cask. As Ryan pointed out, it’s very rare to see a first fill bourbon cask at this age. I took my time with this one and enjoyed the sharp but perfumed fruits on the palate. Despite its age, it’s quite a punchy dram.
Next up was 30.83 – A Tuscan landscape. A ‘Sweet, Fruity & Mellow’ flavour profile, this 34 year old refill ex bourbon cask was a good contrast as it allowed us to see the impact of a first fill versus a refill cask. The dram was slightly ashy but incredible smooth and easy to drink.
Strathearn Distillery Manager Stuart McMillan introduced our next dram, of which there had been only two bottles left in the world before the tasting. He went on to say it was because he smashed the other bottle earlier, and apologised for the slightly smaller measure. Made with Bere barely, the dram was lightly peated and very malty, a step closer towards a more familiar style of whisky for many attendees.
Tony described dram number seven as “totally nuts”. Distilled from mixed barleys and brewed with juniper – it was just like peated jenever.
Our final dram of the evening was one Tony had told me about earlier. As he describes it – it’s gin meets whisky. It was The Strathearn Distillery’s award-winning Oak Aged Highland Gin…but not exactly as we know it. The sample in our glasses was at distillery strength (60.5% ABV) and once released, it will be the second strongest gin on the market. For me, it was a highlight of the evening – an after dinner gin meant for sipping and packed full of sweet okay vanilla notes and a hint of orange.
As the tasting came to an end, Tony and Stuart made their way around the room, chatting to members and answering questions. It’s clear to see the team are incredibly proud to be among Scotland’s growing number of craft distilleries. And for Tony it’s all about promoting and supporting that industry. “It’s interesting times – we’ve got to protect Scotch but weirdly protect it by innovation”, he told me.
“It’s exciting for Scotland – our distiller is 22 and he’s won Young Distiller of the Year. To get young people back into the trade and to have a whole career in front of them, to me is the best part of it. To be able to get these people in and set them off on a course for life, is brilliant.”
By showcasing Scotland’s rich whisky history and putting the distillers craft in the limelight, the event served as a clear indication of exactly why Tony, and so many others, fall in love with whisky to begin with.
Each month the Society runs its ‘Monday Night Research Group’ at The Vaults. An SMWS Ambassador will co-host each tasting event with Scottish whisky producers. We have a variety of interesting events lined up – to find out more visit our events page.