On receiving the press release on the new “Last Great Malts Collection” from Dewar’s, I had as many questions as there are malts in the range. I thought it might be helpful to get some views from Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s master blender, who chooses the casks and creates the samples which led to this launch.
First, though, it seemed sensible to get examples of some of them to taste before our talk. Don’t panic; I’m not going to belabor you with all my tasting notes. Some small samples of the Craigellachies (all except the 19 year old) and the 12, 21 and 25 year old Aultmores were supplied to give me a feel of what was on offer. Most of the Aberfeldy bottlings I largely know already from previous work done with this company. The Royal Brackla and The Deveron are not yet released.
Craigellachie is described by some as “meaty,” though Dave Broom does tell us it gets fruitier with age. I’m glad I saw that comment after tasting, as fruit was what struck me, most specifically on the 17 year old, which was my favorite from there. Oh, those mango skins!
The Aultmore was a little harder to pin down, but they were all amazingly fresh tasting, even the older ones. One word I had noted for the 12 year old was ethereal, which also turned out be a word Stephanie had used for the same age. A delightful nose of Muscadet wine also appeared along with the woodland scents which came through on all three ages.
So in talking to Stephanie I wondered, why now? She reminded that they updated the branding of the Dewar’s range so it was a good moment to put these out on the back of that exercise. But why so many at one time? Stephanie laughed and asked if I’d been bugging her office, then went on to explain that they want to showcase as much as possible about each distillery as a range and make a statement of how great they are.
It seemed to me that the Dewar’s business had been quite quiet for years; then we get Highlander Honey and now these. What stirred things up? Seems that when global category director John Burke came on board, not enough was being done with single malts. They decided to be brave and put a number of them out there. One view is that maybe not all of them will ‘stick’ with consumers but clear favorites may emerge.
Marketing had been thinking about this for a while but the exercise to get the final ages chosen was quite an intense and concentrated time. Samples were tasted with the marketing team and out in markets. Stephanie also had to look at the inventory available, as all of these are vitally important to certain blends, most notably Aberfeldy for Dewar’s, and each age has to represent the key characteristics of its birthplace.
The two youngest samples I had were quite pale; Stephanie confirmed that no natural coloring is being added. She was a little nervous about it, worrying that this might put off consumers or affect their perceptions of nose and taste, but they decided to go for the purity aspect. Both Craigellachie and Aultmore are non-chill filtered and bottled at 46% abv.
What does each distillery bring to the party? Royal Brackla is one of only two distilleries to have “royal” in its name, so it will be saved for very special bottlings. Stephanie describes it as “summer in a glass,” fruity, floral, and perfumed. It’s been finished in sherry wood to add color and spice and live up to its royal connection.
Aultmore epitomizes lightness and elegance, though the 25 year old has a slightly different profile with a lot of sherry influence. Aberfeldy, already known as a single malt, has been included with an extended range and to show off the Dewar’s house style. As it’s such an integral part of the Dewar’s blends it is a touchstone, an elder statesman, to give us all a familiar note (as well as a damn good dram). The 30 year old finished in Marsala casks for six months was tasted frequently during that time to make sure the Marsala did not dominate. I think I’d have wanted to taste it often too!
Similarly with The Deveron: it features strongly in some blends. In France it has been a popular 10 and 15 year old Glen Deveron single malt. It has also been known by the distillery name of Macduff for bottlings by independent companies. Here they want to show off its representation of the place where it hails from, as the River Deveron meets the North Sea. I asked whether there was any maritime influence, but Stephanie thinks not as there’s no salt note in it. She mused as to why, if whisky can get salt notes with no actual sodium, then why would the food industry not be hammering our doors down to find a safer alternative? Good question!
In Stephanie’s opinion, Craigellachie could be the “Marmite” brand here. You’ll either love it or not. It’s robust and old-fashioned in that they still use worm tubs in the distillation process. This is where the meaty element comes in. I found one expression quite mushroomy. She tells us it needs a long time in cask where it soaks up the wood goodness to acquire the fruity notes. The barley for this one is dried using oil firing, which is where the sulfury note comes from. So any sherry wood with Craigellachie needs care as that would add too much and become a “sulfur fest” as Stephanie puts it.
Why are we waiting till 2015 for the Royal Brackla and The Deveron? Was it packaging or not trying to do everything at once? Stephanie says there are elements to do with packaging as this is an ambitious program, but it is also a sensible idea to embed the first few and learn some things.
She tells that the packaging of each one embodies a sense of the place and character of the whisky within. One of the important parts of the whisky and pack creation was to talk to the distillery people, collecting stories from them and finding out what they like to see in their own distillery drams. “It’s exciting for us here and the distillery guys. They’re thrilled.”