Single Malt Whisky Review: Strathisla 12 year old
The triangular patch of agrarian, low-lying land roughly coterminous with the River Spey in northern Scotland forms, by any measure, the epicentre of worldwide single malt production. Over forty distilleries - nearly half of Scotland's total - call Speyside home; among them are the celebrated juggernauts Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, and the Macallan. Others, too, like Balvenie and Cragganmore, have staked their claim as being emblematic of the Speyside style; namely rich, smooth, malty Scotches, with emphasis on honeyed/vanilla flavours and a minimum of peat or smoke. In a sense Speyside is the home of single malt Scotch, with George Smith leading the way in the early 1800s; such was the reknown of his Glenlivet that it was, unsurprisingly, one of the first things George IV asked for upon arrival in Edinburgh in 1822. And this was a man who knew his whisky.
Lost in the fray of its more illustrious brethren lies the Strathisla distillery, on the eastern fringes of Speyside along the River Isla; even among whisky connoiseurs, the mention of this single malt will often be met with raised eyebrows. Indeed, it is better known for its distillery, which is one of the most picturesque in Scotland (with its barley pagodas nestled in verdant hills) and forms a must-stop for rotund, half-buzzed whisky bus tourists. Founded in 1786, Strathisla actually predates most of its competition, yet to this day still serves the purpose that most distilleries had until the 1960s; producing whisky that is not marketed for consumption on its own, but sold en masse to blenders. Hence the reason for Strathisla's relative obscurity - it is owned and operated by Chivas Brothers Ltd., and the 12 y.o. forms the core malt in the Chivas Regal blended whisky. It does bottle and produce two single malts of its own - the twelve and twenty-one year expressions - but is not marketed by Chivas whatsoever, and so languishes, dusty, on the bottom shelves of most liquor stores. It's instructive to note that Strathisla 12 is only four dollars more expensive than Chivas Regal itself, at least in these parts. Having tasted and enjoyed Chivas Regal on many occasions in the past, I decided to give Strathisla a whirl.
Sweet; slight floral perfume here, some vanilla notes. Maybe a slight peachiness/apricot in the distance? Very light, simple, fruity nose, and as a consequence a tiny bit of alcohol aroma squeaks out, even after aeration. That's ok, though, this is a Speysider after all; subtle nuance is the name of the game. That said, this nose is no Ardbeg; you will not be able to smell this whisky three rooms over.
Rich, creamy, honeyed cereal right from the get-go, with a weight that's deceptively heavy given the light nose. There's that sweet, subtle nuttiness inherent with sherry-aged whiskies. A touch of peat here, but very light-handed, like the good Speysider it is. As it moves mid-palate, the initial sweetness moves to more cinnamon and spice notes. Still ok...uh oh, what's this now? Oak. And lots of it. The taste starts to go bitter, with notes of thyme clashing with the predominant maltiness. Hmm. Let's see what Jim Murray has to say about this.
"Pleasant, sultana-fruity with a very rich malt follow-through; some almost apologetic oak breaks into the rich maltiness." -Jim Murray's Whisky Bible 2009
Not sure if he was drinking the same thing as me, but unapologetic would be a better way to describe it. This malt starts off rich and sweet, and mid-palate takes a complete left turn into dry, spicy, oaksville. Complex, I suppose, but not necessarily in the good way.
Oh, Come on now. Oak? What a f-ing snob
Let me digress for a moment and explain "oak", that much-maligned tasting term of wine snobs and whisky connoiseurs the world over. What is oak? Have you ever licked an oak tree? Do you eat Moreish Oaky-Os for breakfast? No. Even acorns are unedible. It's emblematic of the esoteric language (like heather) used to describe tastes among connoiseurs, which have little to no relevance in the Real World. Whisky, as you know, is aged for decades in oak barrels, which have been previously used to store other kinds of spirits, be it Oloroso Sherry, Kentucky Bourbon, or other types of single malts (called refill casks). Depending on the kind of taste the master distiller wants to produce, he or she will choose one (or more) of these casks to age their whisky in. The Macallan, for example, is the archetype of a heavily sherried whisky - nutty, perfumed, and sweet. But they have their sherry casks shipped whole from Jerez, Spain, twice a year, which is why you need to take out a second mortgage to buy their stuff. Bourbon casks will typically impart a dryer, more vanilla flavour, due to the charring that takes place prior to casking which caramelizes some of the oak's sugars. Whereas the trend used to be towards more sherried whiskies, today more and more distillers (among them the esteemed Ardbeg and Glenmorangie) are going with bourbon casks, partly due to the cost; since bourbon casks, by law, can only be used once, they are consequently ten times cheaper than sherry casks.
Note that previously unused oak casks (called green oak) is never used as is. Why? Because oak contains tannins, which impart a very bitter, astringent flavour which dries the mouth right out and is generally unpleasant to drink. Even when whiskies are aged in previously used casks, if they age for a very long time (typically above the twenty-one year mark) that tannic, oaky element will come through and generally overwhelm the malt. This is why, like wine, great age with whisky does not typically equate great quality. So when I say something tastes "oaky", what I'm really describing is the harsh, drying, bitterly spiced tannic flavour that comes with improper aging in oak barrels. And Strathisla, in this case, tastes oaky. If you can, take a sip and see what I mean.
Very drying, and not particularly long. This malt reaches its apogee mid-palate, then dies a quick, painful death. All you're left with, after a minute, is an acute case of cotton mouth. Strangely enough, a few drops of Chivas Regal mixed in alleviates this problem entirely; the finish is much more creamy and pronounced, without the oaky bitterness. The addition of a few drops of spring water helps immensely, too - again, more creamy, nutty notes, bringing out the sherry influence. Being bottled at 43% ABV allows the drinker to add a touch of water to Strathisla without fatally weakening the whisky. One wonders if this wasn't the distiller's intention all along.
Upon addition of water, one will notice the spirit immediately becoming cloudy - yes! This is a Good Sign. It means the whisky has not been chill-filtered. Chill-filtration is a method used by the larger whisky conglomerates (cough cough Diageo) to ensure that there is no haze in the spirit (caused by natural oily residue from the barley husks), which might turn off some naive, novice drinkers with a fat wallet and a ken for getting drunk the classy way. It involves chilling the whisky to near-zero degrees celsius, then forcing it though an essentially cardboard filter to get rid of any offending bits. Unfortunately, this heavy-handed treatment also alters the character of the whisky forever, so it's nice to see a bigger company like Chivas Bros. not insulting the intelligence of its drinkers in this way. That said, no 12 y.o. malt is ever this deep shade of amber - caramel has been added for sure. While it doesn't affect the taste of the spirit, it darkens the colour to make it more attractive, since focus group studies have confirmed that a darker Scotch (appears to be more aged) will sell better. As a comparison, look at the Bladnoch 12 or the Benromach traditional, neither of which have caramel added - both are barely the colour of white wine. Given that Strathisla is sold in a brown-tinted bottle, adding caramel for colour seems almost pointless. But I digress.
Overall, I'd say this is a right mixed bag. I chose Strathisla 12 because it represents a more archaic, blend-oriented malt, which is practically unknown in whisky circles, and also to see if it was a significant departure from the Chivas Regal blend I know and love. While the Strathisla influence is unmistakable, Regal also has a trademark salty element to it - maybe Old Pulteney? Who knows. These things are trade secrets to the max. Despite the unfortunate oaky dryness at the end, Strathisla 12 is, at its base, an unassuming yet enjoyable whisky, which is unchillfiltered and bottled at 43% ABV with a nod to the whisky lover. The sweet, honeyed notes of a Speysider are unmistakable here, and anyone who enjoys that style of whisky (or even Chivas Regal itself) would do well to pick up a reasonably-priced bottle and explore it for themselves. A dram of Strathisla and Chivas Regal, side by side, will be an illuminating experience into the art of whisky blending. Enjoy!