On a humid day with relentless rain, one of the bar tenders at The Vaults says it feels like typical Campbeltown weather – fitting to provide the right atmosphere for the seven great Glen Scotia whiskies lined up before us.
Our host from Glen Scotia distillery is Ibon Mendiguren. Ibon is from the Basque country in Spain, who has been living in Scotland for the past 10 years. He tells us he only planned to be here for three years, but then discovered his love for Scotch. After spending time learning the language in Glasgow, he found his job in Campbeltown and has never looked back.
How he got the job is a story in itself, though. He was serving the old Glen Scotia (the bottle with the Highland Coo on it) to a guest in his bar, roughly the same time Glen Scotia was being invested in. Ibon was asked what he thought, and his response was: “The spirit is amazing, but the bottle is shit!”
He was unaware he was serving the dram to managers at the Loch Lomond Group, and three months later Ibon was working for them. Still, honesty is the best policy, and that certainly comes through in his tasting. Ibon is refreshingly honest, with a natural approach in his delivery that cascades to our members and creates a relaxed and positive vibe to our packed Members’ Room.
A little background to Glen Scotia
Glen Scotia is now one of only three operational Campbeltown distilleries, far from the 30-something of the town’s whisky-producing heyday. It still has its own cooperage, where the coopers are paid by the barrel, churning out 10,000 a year between four of them. Three of the coopers are over 50 years old, with arms the size of my leg, and a young 17-year-old lad who’s heading the same way.
The barrels are from Jim Beam and Wild Turkey and most of the Glen Scotia ageing happens in Campbeltown. They use 100 per cent Scottish concerto barley, mainly for its sugar content, in three distinct levels: unpeated, lightly peated to 25ppm and 55ppm heavy peated. Fermentation time is reasonably long, typically 75 hours to 120 hours, and in a departure from other distilleries they operate a second fermentation. That uses up some of the protein and carbohydrates to generate a light and fruity wash at 9.5% abv, higher than the average.
Glen Scotia also operates a slower distillation which promotes reflux, bringing more of those fruity notes to the new make. The don’t use any artificial colouring and their whiskies are all un-chill filtered.
Time to taste
Dram 1 Glen Scotia Double Cask
This is the youngest of the brand, but not without complexity. It’s ex-bourbon married with Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, and has a beautiful rich and spicy flavour, the viscosity of the dram coating the mouth with a lovely velvety feel. Imagine warm Himalayan salted caramel sauce covering BBQ grilled pineapple chunks with a good alcoholic kick. Water calms the saltiness down, revealing subtle sweetness. There is a reason why this bottle is getting recognised for excellent quality and value for money.
Dram 2 Glen Scotia 15-year-old
This is labelled as the classic Campbeltown malt, and I can’t disagree. After 14 years in ex-bourbon cask it’s finished with between six and eight weeks in an oloroso sherry cask. Yes, you read right, only six to eight weeks! This is just enough time for the polished wood, linseed and toffee to reveal itself but to be sweetened up by cranberry cake, winter spice and sweet peat on the finish. I fell in love with the viscosity, the weight and the friendliness the dram brings. Water freshens and lightens the dram into a longer summer drink. I would prefer to keep this without water for its warming elements on cold winter nights.
Dram 3 Glen Scotia Victoriana
This cask strength 56% abv dram is out to pay homage to the Victorian age of the distillery and whisky drinking. Aiming for a sweeter dram, the ex-bourbon casks have been heavily charred, for six to eight minutes per cask. This is so the spirit can penetrate the wood easier, taking all that sweet vanillin and toffee from the cask easier. The wood recipe is 70 per cent ex-bourbon heavily charred casks and 30 per cent sherry casks, with 10-15 per cent of the total malt used being heavily peated. The result is a taste like drinking a crème brule. Vanilla and creamy notes top off with caramelised sugar, on the table a smoking petit corona aiding the lightly smoke element. For me this is a great dram as is, although water lightens it and turns it incredibly delicate. As the dram is already finely balanced by its craftmanship, add water cautiously – and remember the only way to correct over dilution is to add more whisky!
Over to the SMWS
It’s time now for the Society’s very own Danny Dyer to step up to the plate. Being well versed in our tastings and familiar with the members, he describes how the SMWS bottlings of Glen Scotia have helped him dispel stereotypes of proprietary bottlings and how our bottles can challenge preconceptions, with our unique numbering system and distinctive approach with single cask bottlings.
Dram 4 SMWS Cask No. 93.75 In an octopus’s garden
With this being one of our more straightforward Society Tasting Notes, Danny quotes: “Seven fathoms deep below the turbulent waves, the octopus was busy in the garden tidying the herb beds of thyme and rosemary.” As the room erupts in laughter, he says the Tasting Notes are there to be discussed and talked about, highlighting the whole reason why they are there – to get you talking to your neighbour about the whisky and what it represents to you. This dram is nice and light, with lots of Szechuan pepper and jasmine dragon pearls. Water stretches the dram out to reveal toffee sauce and cold custard. Easy drinking dram.
Dram 5 Glen Scotia 16 travel retail only
This has the same core as the 15-year-old, but instead of six to eight weeks in sherry it’s matured for six months. This is my favourite dram of the evening, and I scribble “absolute nectar!” on my notes. It’s very sweet and rewarding, with lots of fats and bacon smoke. I don’t add any water as I don’t want to risk it, and having it neat leaves me feeling a sense of accomplishment and joy – as if finishing a marathon or building Ikea furniture, a proud moment for me drinking this dram. Shame it is in travel retail only.
Dram 6 Glen Scotia 25-year-old
Unlike the other propriety Glen Scotias we sample this evening, this is the only one from 100% ex-bourbon barrels. It’s had 24 years in a refill ex-bourbon cask then for the last year it’s been in a first fill ex-bourbon. That’s a reverse on how other distilleries would age this, but Glen Scotia feel they get the most flavour this way by having the first fill ex-bourbon flavours as the top note. This dram is most people’s favourite, its sweet and warm core coming from the pure vanilla and cask strength bottling. A little water opens up more botanicals, almost an old potting shed. My palate is swayed to the sweeter side as I find this to be a touch dusty, much like powdered sugar. Lovely expression of a traditionally older expression untouched by European oak.
Dram 7 SMWS Cask No. 93.60: A wicked wee witch
This 21-year-old 60.4% abv refill ex-bourbon barrel is hot and hard hitting on the nose, a great way to send a jolt up your back after six drams. There are hot cinnamon rolls, aniseed fireballs, and smelling salts. The alcohol prickles the tongue with burnt Chinese chicken wings covered in siracha sauce, then water cools the fire and releases toffee apples, caramel logs and winter spice.
A shared passion
Our tastings end with a quiz and then the Members’ Room erupts in conversation, with members mingling and sharing stories about whisky, distilleries and family. One guest tells a story about his dad being the captain of a sailing vessel and his last port of call before retiring was Campbeltown. So, his son bought him a bottle of Glen Scotia as a retirement present from the distillery. After traveling from the east coast, he arrived only to find the distillery closed – it was a Sunday!
I also meet an acting and voice coach who not only taught a friend from my home town but also taught someone at the Society who still works here. This is what makes the Society not just a membership club but a place where were all neighbours are brought together by a shared passion in life – whisky!