Willowbank 17 Year Old (Batch 1), That Boutique-y Whisky Company (TBWC), 53.8%, IB, (of 307 Bottles)
Rich and Round
Note: We have assigned every bottle we review to one of five Flavour Camps, based on the most dominant flavours found. The Flavour Camps are : (1) Fragrant and Floral, (2) Fruity and Spicy, (3) Malty and Dry, (4) Rich and Round and (5) Smokey and Peaty. To learn more about each Flavour Camp, please click here.
A 2014 study, “Death-Related Publicity as Informational Advertising,” observed that a musician’s album sales increase an average of 54.1% following his or her death. A day after Chester Bennington took his own life, streaming services experienced a 7,000% surge in Linkin Park listeners.
The death of an artist creates a certain draw for consumers. There is a feeling of nostalgia. Grown-up millennials may not have listened to Linkin Park in years, but needed to revisit that music era after hearing of Chester Bennington’s passing. There is a finality to the artist’s works. With no more possibility of future releases, death instinctively drives up the value of the existing work.
In relation to the work of “dead” distilleries, we may continue to enjoy them thanks to independent bottlers who occupy a unique space in the whisky industry.
Independent bottlers supply whiskies of known distilleries under a different or unfamiliar label. A group of long-established IBers are self-appointed archivists of the whisky world (think of Gordon & MacPhail, William Cadenhead’s). Early on, these IBers collect excess whiskies from various cash-strapped distilleries with too much unmatured stock. Several decades go on with bottles opened and distilleries closed. IBers then become curators of old, rare, increasingly valuable bottles, and the stewards for the legacies of long-dead distilleries. Every now and then the market is pleasantly surprised with “new” releases from now-silent distilleries. Kinda like how “new” music albums are posthumously released by late musicians.
More recently, a new group of creative and sophisticated IBers have also sprung up to dabble as music DJs of the whisky world (think of Compass Box, Thompson Bros) to release blends or interesting caskings- “remixes” if you will- of the stuff made by the OG established distilleries.
I have described two categories of IBers. TBWC is a little bit of both.
With use of the comic sans serif typeface, quirky Tintin-style illustrations on its labels (many replete with inside jokes or geeky references), TWBC is a company that clearly takes itself very seriously. “Boutique-y” was the founders’ initial working title for the brand. They never got around to change it and evidently think it’s hilarious. I imagine they are run by a band of fedora-wearing bespectacled white guys in flannel and suspenders, who would go around with a bottle of craft beer looking to make some witty banter.
Hipster stereotypes and irreverence aside, the nerds at TWBC have also built themselves a reputation for skilful blending, interesting caskings and a good eye in unearthing rare quality whisky from silent distilleries.
Today, we’re checking out TBWC’s very unusually coloured 17 year old which was distilled in the now-defunct Willowbank distillery of New Zealand’s south island. The south island has a demographic that traces its roots to Scottish settlers of 1800. In 1974, one Baker family established the Willowbank distillery to continue the tradition of the motherland to produce highly regarded expressions in the Lowland style. It was also geographically the most southerly whisky distillery in the world. Unfortunately, prevailing government regulation restricting alcohol sales and lower consumer in interest in whisky forced the distillery to shut down in 1997. Its stills were sold off to a rum distillery in Fiji.
The stuff was matured in French oak ex-New Zealand wine barrels and hinted by the cartoon grapes on the label. By “Single Blended” the label meant to indicate that the whisky comprises of a mixture of malt and grain - specifically 70% malted barley and 30% unmalted barley grains distilled in the same distillery.
We had earlier sampled another red wine-matured Ardbeg Blaaack which was amber coloured. This Willowbank is a deep ruby-red colour of a pinot noir.
On the nose, it very discernibly smells like scotch that is elevated by a red wine-like bouquet. The stuff leads with an initial austere earthy scent of pinecones mixed with rosemary, a touch of menthol and pepper mint leaves, and a sublime herbaceous medicinal scent reminiscent of a vermouth cocktail (eg Martini, Manhattan or Negroni). The earthy scents are followed by a fruit punch of cherries, raisins and dried Chinese goji berries. There is some tobacco smokiness and oakiness from a wooden cigar box. A very subtle underlying breadiness and maple syrup.
On the palate a fresh burst of light Ribena sweetness, cherries, blueberries and a handful of Korean grapes. This has considerably more dark fruits and is sweeter than the Ardbeg Blaaack, though nicely balanced by the Korean grape-y sourness. The flavours are supported by a texture similar to that of sweet cognac, with a cherry marmalade-like richness which warmly lingers on your tongue for a few seconds.
The winey notes recede earlier somewhat, leaving on the shore the spirit’s underlying (somewhat subdued) nature as a whisky. As the wine-like sweetness fades, whisky notes carry through with some tart apples, cinnamon, subtle vanilla and smoked wood, that gently grows in heat and spice from peppercorns and old ginger.
The finish is a medium length with wine sweetness turning towards the dryer side of grape skins at both sides of your tongue. There is a discernible hint of wine tannins but it comes gently and does not overpower. The back of your palate is left with smoke and oakiness along with a breath of earthiness- lightly roasted americano, black tea and salty-sweet Werther's Original candy.
The hipsters at TWBC have succeeded in giving this Willowbank a new lease of life as a wine-flavoured whisky. Dominant flavours can sometimes overwhelm and tip a whisky off balance. In my limited experience with red wine casked whiskies, when producers try to marry whiskies of punchy dominant character with equally dominant red wine casks, the result is liable to becoming somewhat bipolar with two dominant flavour profiles in conflict.
TBWC made a clever choice of using Willowbank to deliver a punchy red wine flavour profile. There is a lot going on here with a huge wine influence, so a subtle but complex Lowland flavour profile is well suited to compliment and carry this through in a very enjoyable dram.
I very much enjoyed this dead singer's album.
This is nevertheless part of a newer genre of wine-casked whiskies. If this is your first time trying one, consider putting aside your conventional notions of what makes a Scotch a Scotch and come in with an open mind.