The whisky world is one that has traditionally been shrouded in mystery, machismo and grandeur. All too often are people put off by some the snobby connotations or the fact that it has its own language. One of the most widely recognised and revered names in that whisky world, and particularly, the Scotch whisky world is Glenfiddich. The distillery and brand’s owners William Grants & Sons should be happy with that. Back in September 2018 however, the team at Grants set out to release something new into the whisky-sphere to try and remove some of that mysticism and provide clarity about a whisky, its contents and, ultimately, its taste. How do you achieve this? Not by releasing one new whisky, but by two simultaneous and adversarial single malt scotch whisky expressions. The new brand: Aerstone. The releases: Sea Cask and Land Cask.
Both single malts have been distilled in the group’s Ailsa Bay distillery in Girvan, Ayrshire. and have been bottled at 10 years old – a key landmark for any distillery. The difference? Well, as the names suggest, one is influenced by the sea and the other by the land. In fact, the Land Cask features a peated malt origin (therefore harkening back to the actual land itself), whilst the Sea Cask is unpeated. The whisky casks have then been segregated so that the Land Cask is kept further inland to its Sea Cask brethren, which have been stored closer to the sea to get that coastal briny barrage that whisky fans worldwide have come to love. Both single malts have been captured at 40% ABV, to provide another similarity and assist the consumer with their decision on their preferred provenance and influence. With that mission statement in mind, how do the two compare? I thought you’d never ask…
Self-described as “Smooth and Easy” this whisky features a combo of ex-bourbon barrel and ex-sherry cask matured spirit for a “Speyside” style of scotch.
It is sweet and tingly from the off. There’s a lot of gentle, summery fruity smells going on. Initially it seems like apples and pears, but the sweetness seems to keep turning its dial up and progresses from fruit salad sweets to aprciots, pineapple and even banana. Banana foam sweets, come to mind, in fact. Its not super briny as the seaside imagery would suggest, but its in there somewhere. There’s a bit of earthiness to it too – like what you would get from proper honey.
Well, the malt is now really prevalent on the palette. It is still a soft and honey sweet kind of malt though. Quite creamy in texture too. On the fruity front, the pineapple sweetness is now competing with a gooseberry tartness/sourness. (Maybe it would go well with an IPA?) As the fire from the alcohol subsides though, there’s a butterscotch flavour in there too, which gets quickly pushed aside to make way for oaky flavours and spice. Quite a black peppery spice at that.
The salinity only really comes out at the end, and that’s only once the peppery spice from the oak casks has subsided. A salt and pepper whisky if you will.
I get concerned when a whisky’s promotional material refers to itself as “smooth”. There are numerous articles on it, and what it means. It reminds me of a story a close friend of mine told me about when he once worked in a music studio and someone asked if he could add more “sparkle” to the drum sound. It doesn’t mean anything really. Some people take it to mean that the whisky doesn’t sting, others mean that is rather oily in texture. Anyway, what we have here is a rather gentle, sweet and fruity single malt.
Self-described as “Rich and Smoky”, this whisky has also been formed from a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry aged spirit all of which has been created from highland peat-fired malted barley.
There’s such a thick and musty kind of smoke emanating from this. My initial tasting notes included words like “dusty” and “coal”, and it is certainly a dirty kind of smoke to it – and I like it! Beneath the smog, there’s some lemony zest and a toffee/butterscotch sweetness coming through. There’s lots of woody notes in there too – like old school pencil shavings!
The vanilla meets butterscotch meets honey set of flavours start to coat the tongue but the peat then storms on through and becomes centre of attention. Its an interesting smoke too. Those “dirty” smoke notes from the nose culminate here in a damp woody kind of smell – like after a bonfire has been put out by water. The oak spice creeps in too to round out the strong tasting note set.
The oak has really done its work here and the finale is all peppery spice and tingle. The peat smoke however comes back from the dead and resumes its duties on your final breath with a tar-like, almost chemical-like, final flurry of smoke..
Well, its certainly different. It packs a punch. Several, in fact. The strong smoke and maybe ‘medicinal’ aftertaste actually makes this seem more coastal to me in terms of flavours than the Sea Cask. Or that’s my experience with peaty players anyway. It certainly fulfils its own brief of being land-based and earthy. Quite ashen in its styling actually. Not for the uninitiated whisky drinker, but it certainly makes you take your time with it and appreciate the different elements at play.
Sea Cask or Land Cask?
Well, my initial thought is: Are these really cut from the same cloth? They certainly are different to one another, and I find it hard to believe that they are from the distillery. Such is the power of peat. That said, have you ever tried a Bruichladdich next to its Port Charlotte sister? Whilst distinctive whiskies, they are not overly complex or outstanding characters within their respective field, but that is not what this is about and both whiskies here are certainly good introductory examples of the different whisky stylings. On that note, they are initially being sold exclusively via Tesco chain of supermarkets, with an RRP of £30, but both have been available at £20 each, when on offer. Presumably the size of Grants and Tesco allow that sort of price for this experimentation in a new brand and venture, and I think that sways the decision to be fair. I wouldn’t be surprised if the great little samples package tasted here were to appear in supermarkets as a further introductory marketing effort to get the whisky-novice intrigued and sampling away. If I had to pick a bone with the brand, its the reference to the established date on the packaging. The Since 1887 date is a reference to William Grant & Sons, rather than to Aerstone itself, which is totally new. Going back to the initial question and title of this post however, for me, the Sea Cask is the out and out choice. Much more palatable and suited to more frequent dramming and even multiple glasses, than its peated sibling. Case and point in the picture below!
Sample disclosure: This samples above were provided as part of a promotional Tweet Tasting event hosted by @TheWHiskyWire. All notes are intended however as a fair, honest and independent review of the whiskies.