Whisky Season 2019 is HERE
We’re still firmly in the grips of summer here in SoCal, but after an ALL agave August here, we’re slinking our way toward Whisky Season. This year will be special for many reasons. First, we’re bringing in a new Single Cask Scotch producer for the first time in years. The Thompson Bros of Dornoch Distillery are doing wild things in their tiny hand built distillery, but it’s their independent bottling line that’s garnering tons of attention these days.
The brothers’ family run the Dornoch Castle Hotel in the picturesque village of the same name just to the north of Tain. We met them one damp spring morning in the shed behind their hotel where one of the most exciting albeit ramshackled distillery operations in Scotland is hidden. They’re experimenting with over pitching spent brewers yeast, ultra long and slow distillation and heirloom barley varietals.
But it’s the quaint little bar inside their hotel that’s garnering international acclaim and a multitude of fans from across the globe. They’ve parlayed that success into their micro-distilling and bottling business, crowd sourcing funding through cask sales and making friends with just about anyone who knows anything about good whisky. We couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect partner to work with. Everything coming out of Dornoch, from their gins to the single cask rum and malt, are total slam dunks. Expect to see their first two offerings late fall.
In addition to a new producer, we’ve rekindled an old relationship with the wonderful Chieftain’s brand. Ian Macloed is the most important company in Scotland you’ve never heard of and they’ve quietly built a portfolio of three excellent distilleries on the back of their blending and bottling business. It’s bittersweet for us to have secured what will be the FINAL bottling of Chieftain’s ever.
I haven’t received a good answer for why, but Ian Macloed has decided to completely cease single cask operations under the Chieftain’s label. I’m hoping they rebrand and relaunch, they’ve bottled things for us others only dream of, but I fear that the margins are just too thin and the added work too great to continue with the single cask side business. We’ll be releasing five casks as pre-arrivals in the coming weeks: Ardbeg 14 Year, Laphroaig 1st Fill Sherry 13 Year, Ledaig 1st Fill Sherry 21 Year, Benriach Rum Cask 21 Year and an unheard of hoggie of Caperdonich at 23 years old.
But the first fete of the Whisky Season comes from our dear old friends in Pitlochry -Signatory Vintage. After years of working closely with the wonderful independent bottler, high prices and complicated politics forced us apart for several seasons. Last year we were overjoyed to find that they’d returned to their original distributor after years bouncing around from place to place. These were people we knew we could work with. The relaunch of K&L Signatory Exclusives began last year with a few choice casks. Now we’re back at it on one of the most beautiful days in Scotland’s history.
We first visited Andrew and Des nearly a decade ago and were astounded by the quality and breadth of their offerings. No other bottler allows us such unfettered access to their stocks. That's why Signatory is the ONLY independent bottler that we buy from in the traditional booze hierarchy – importer, distributor, retailer. We accept a lower margin and higher prices because their products are just that special. They’ve built two wonderful little distilleries, Edradour #1 & #2, and continue to have great relationships with the distillers and brokers who traffic in the casks we want. They’re not dummies though and when they’ve got something good, they know what it’s worth.
Several of the old reliable stocks which we’d counted on in the past have dwindled. Once the racks were full of ’95 Imperial, ’97 Benrinnes, ‘96/7 Sherried Glenlivet and other much rarer things. This year they released a line to commemorate their 30th anniversary of bottlings. That series included several of the same stuff we used to buy, but can no longer afford. Those incredible bottlings are highly limited and very expensive, but they do fund the purchase of new stocks. It’s just a matter of finding the right cask. Signatory’s warehouses are now filled with young whisky being primed for the next 30 years of bottling, our shared future just waiting to be realized. Hidden through out are these gems, which we present here today.
I’d been excited to share the Signatory Warehouse experience with Andrew Whiteley, our new NorCal buyer, because it’s always been one of the most exhaustive and informative. Our guide, Des has insight few others in the industry can match and he’s an open book. If you ask a question, he’ll answer it honestly – unless he’s legally prohibited from providing the answer. That was his answer was for the first cask we took home this year – an unnamed Speyside. But standing in front of that beautiful old sherry butt, extracting the bung and inhaling it’s uniquely complex maltiness, it was immediately clear what we were dealing with. The plastic name tag on the front had been ripped off and replaced with a white sticker with the vatting number and AYS. But a tiny corner of the tag remained, MA is all it read. Indeed, this one seems to be the mother of all malts and despite my deep respect for the Scotch Whisky Association, I have no qualms identifying exactly where this special whisky was distilled.
Next we turned our attention to a wild little cask of Bunnahabhain. It’s bottled under the trade name Staoisha, a trade name for Bunnah’s heavily peated malt. This mind-bending whisky throws a wrench in conventional single malt ideology for several reasons. First, it’s young as hell. Just 4 years old, but blind I wouldn’t peg it below 10. Second, it’s uses the Dechar/rechar process which the industry heavy weights have been using for many of Scotland’s most classic malts. We have rarely seen this cask type on the independent market and I’m not sure if this is something Signatory had filled specifically for them or if they purchased the casks from a broker.
I’ve had a predisposition to hating the idea of dechar/rechar but this cask has forced me to rethink my position. I’d assumed these would give young whisky flavors akin to a new barrel, like wooden planks, pine and anis, but instead we get the sweet rounded influence without the tannin or overly wood notes. If you don’t know I categorically hate Virgin/New Oak on most Scottish single malt with just the tiniest group of exceptions. But here we’re in a totally different realm I don’t know if it’s just the ultra peated malt standing up nicely to the fresh charred wood or if the age of the old wood has something to do with exceptional depth and balance this casks exhibits, but I do know that this is objectively one of the most exciting whiskies of the season.
Finally, we just couldn’t say no to this just perfect dark sherry Glenlivet. If you were buying from us 3 or 4 years ago you remember the stupendous series of 96/97s then you’ll want to take note. If you weren’t there for that you’ll finally know what you were missing. I have no idea why big distillers let go of casks like this. It’s not like Glenlivet does a ton with heavy sherry stuff, but you’d figure they find some use for it. The politics of this business are so complicated that even after 10 years of visiting, the process by which these casks are acquired is still nearly completely opaque. From what I can tell it’s simply about who you know. And thankfully you know us. So, have at these to inaugurate Whisky Seasons 2019. It’s just the beginning, but I think it will prove to be one of our best yet. Stay tuned.