As I sit down to type this, may I refer you to our last post on Caskstrength. Whisky is truly an extraordinary thing. After all, it has for the past seven years filled pretty much my every waking hour in some capacity. It has helped form wonderful and lengthy friendships and it has also fuelled many a lengthy debate- in person and online. But the bottom line is that there is clearly no other spirit in the world like it for bringing people together in anticipation of what delight they are about to try.
In most cases, single malt opens one's eyes to a genuine respect for a spirit. It has that air of intrigue and the hand of genuine craftsmanship firmly upon it - regardless of whether it carries an age or not. The night we selected three different single malts (a Cragganmore 12 year old, a Laphroaig 10 year old and a Glenmorangie 10 year old) I realised that something had changed. Over the course of three or four hours, I developed an understanding of how to really enjoy drinking without actually getting drunk. Each of these exceptional whiskies had a completely unique personality- for my other co-drinkers, the Laphroaig's bold, abrasive fiery temperament being the anthesis to the Glenmorangie's smooth and understated delicacy. Personally, I loved then all and to this day, those same three whiskies (different bottles of course) still grace my drinks cabinet as well as the one here in our office.
Today, that drinks cabinet has one additional bottle; one much smaller in size, but equally profound.
It contains a sample of 40 year old Brora, drawn from a single cask filled in 1972. For those of you who don't follow this blog regularly, Brora has become one of the trio of near mythical whisky distilleries (along with Port Ellen and Rosebank) closed down and long forgotten, until perhaps the last decade or so. Releases from these three are scarce, with Diageo owning the remaining (fast diminishing stocks). This Brora sample comes from a bottling done especially for Global Travel Retail in the Middle East and only 160 bottles will be available, each coming in a decanter and carrying the price tag of a shade under £7,000. So extremely rare and extremely expensive.
Today, I am reminded of that very same sense of intrigue that first drew me into whisky and undoubtedly what led me to find a career in writing about it. Samples arrive at our office on a daily basis and every now and again, they genuinely stop you in their tracks: from the fantastic Overeem whiskies of Tasmania that arrived out of the blue (and totally blew us away) to an as-yet unreviewed and very, very old whisky, which we shall unveil later this week. This sample of Brora is one of those moments. In fact, as I open the sample, I genuinely don't know what to expect...
Brora - 40 Year Old - Single Cask 1972 Vintage - 160 Bottles - 59.1%
Nose: Where to begin. 'Lively' is a word that usually applies to whiskies only a fraction of the age of this elder statesman. But this has a real fire from the get go. Hugely peated (easily the most peated Brora I've come across) this could pass as a Caol Ila or perhaps even a younger Lagavulin. But underneath the peat lies some soft malt, linseed oil, Brazil nut shells, sweet vanilla and a cloud of white pepper - alongside a familiar slightly wet hay note that Brora often has. Would you really peg this as a 40 year old whisky though, if nosing it blind? I doubt it. The extremely high ABV helps to keep your nose guessing and only a little water reveals its true character. With a dash, stewed summer fruit aromas come to the fore alongside a little liquorice, carbolic soap, fresh mint and leather.
Palate: Initially very sweet with a powerful chewy wood smoke. Buttery notes follow with some ripe bananas, more tingling white pepper and the first signs of oakiness. The strength is still right up front and in all honesty, is slightly distracting- again you wouldn't peg this as a whisky in its 4th decade. The water brings things down perfectly with dried ginger notes, rich shortcake and summer fruits, dark brown sugar and a beautifully aged peat note. That's more like it.
Finish: A wash of wood smoke stays on the palate, alongside a tingling pepper, some traces of oak and a little creaminess, dusted with icing sugar and coated in dark honey. To say this is lengthy would be an understatement, thanks in part to the peatiness, but the mouthfeel (with water) is truly excellent.
Overall: A huge surprise. This really won't be for everyone's tastes. Rather like that first encounter my friends and I had with Laphroaig, the smoke in this Brora is extremely dominant and not for the faint hearted. But dig past this and you'll be dazzled by what lies underneath. There are layers of complexity here which only an old whisky can deliver, but still signs of youth too, given the spritely ABV. It is, in essence, a very challenging whisky - and like that very first proper encounter I had with single malt, almost impossible to put down as a result.
Turn the lights off and lock up will you, Joel... I may be here for some time yet...