How do I/you/we rate whisky? With something so subjective as taste and preference, it really is up to you. Here, we could develop a scoring system and there are a few different versions of those out in the blogosphere, whether it’s a composite score out of a hundred, marked across different criteria, or just a simple 5 star rating (which invariably involves .5 adjustments at some point). For this site, we’ve tried to avoid those sorts of mechanisms and tried to use just our words to sum up how it’s tasted and whether we’ve enjoyed the whisky or not.
As I write this post, to be fair, I’m not sure that I’d be able to accurately give something an 80% review one day, week, month or year to the next. For me, I think the real test is probably whether or not I’d buy a(nother) bottle. That’s not to disrespect those with scoring systems, it’s just how I prefer to do it.
When it comes to the here-and-now though, we at WU are agreed that there is no better way of determining how good a whisky is than by comparing it to another. To that end, we’ve put a few “triple tipple” articles on this site which compare three whiskies against one another, and for this post, we’re looking at first three core releases of Speyburn single malt whiskies.
This is the opening gambit to the Speyburn core range of whiskies and its name translates from Gaelic to “Golden Salmon”, named after the best catch you can reportedly catch on the River Spey. The whisky has been solely matured in ex-Bourbon barrels and is described as “subtle, naturally sweet and refreshing” – it is bottled at 40% ABV and can be found for around £25 for a 70cl bottle.
Big punchy alco vapours shoot straight the nostrils here. They leave a slightly astringent note behind too followed by lots of light, youthful, sweet flavours: apples, peach blossom, lemon and vanilla.
Oooooh, its firey on the tongue – all those delicate fruity and zesty flavours start up again but are obliterated by oak spice and pepper.
It’s all fire and fizzle on the finale but it oddly leaves a cream soda note in its wake – but only once all of that oaky spice fire has subsided.
Well, there initially seems to be a lot going on, but as soon as it starts, it all happens a bit too fast and the spirit and oak spice take over. Though I have nothing against no age statement bottles, it would seem that the spirit’s youth is at play here. That is also suggested by the whisky’s tag line as the “Brightest member of the Speyburn range”. I hope that those initial fruit flavours progress in the 10yo and 15yo but in this dram they were eradicated by a firey and pretty harsh blast of alcohol and spice which seemed to be missing the balance that I’d look for in a good malt.
10 Years Old
The first age statement in the core range of Speyburn whiskies is their 10 year old , (followed by the 15yo tasted below, and an 18yo). The 10yo is composed of a combination of ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks which have been captured at 40% ABV, readily available at around £25 per bottle.
A huge hit of hay jumps out of the glass, followed by a good bit of oak. As the flavours settle there’s an underlying citrus zest and light malt that tingle your nose and tantalise the tastebuds.
The citrus takes hold initially and then the malted barley is cranked right up. Cream and vanilla smooth things out, with a little oak kick at the end.
A little apple sharpness, sweetness and tartness linger with that soft cream flavour rounding it off. It basically leaves a dessert like sensation of stewed apple served with ice cream or custard – your choice.
Now this has balance, even though it is still playing with delicate flavours. It remains light of body and lemon fresh. All the bourbon goodness seems to be coming out of the barrel too with that vanilla pod flavour doing a solid job of softening the fruitier elements. The big malt brings out other elements too. Their notes say butterscotch and I’d have to agree (though I prefer to look at their tasting notes afterwards so as to not be influenced) – and I’d also add another sweet reference too: the good old-fashioned barley sugar. Classic Speyside elements have been captured here. Interestingly Speyburn sell the 10yo at a higher percentage (46%) for the travel retail market – shame as I would imagine that extra bite would improve on this solid starting point. At its asking price though, a truly accessible and solid Speysider.
15 Years Old
This teenager has been created from spirit housed in a combination of “American Oak” and “Spanish Oak”. I would assume that means ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry casks just like the 10yo, but this older release has been given a higher percentage for its additional years’ service: 46% ABV. Bottles are widely available for around £55.
This one’s coming in thick and fast with the tasting notes: sherry, cherry cola, raisins, stewed apples and dark fruits aplenty – sweet and juicy ones at that. They are all then followed up and rounded off by a toffee-rich oak spice.
Really silky smooth toffee glides over your mouth at first and then a hefty oak spice takes over showing off this malt’s vintage. All of those dark juicy fruits are sloshing around too but there’s also some lighter fruity and citrusy notes poking out too.
A fairly lengthy and spicy of cinnamon fizzles away as the liquid disappears and then that stewed apple note returns again.
We are dealing with a quality marriage of malt and cask here – we get all the best parts of a sherry bomb but without the full weighty body which presumably the bourbon is to thank for as it holds it all together. Another solid Speysider but at the richer end of the scale.
Well – this was a delight. By tasting them side by side you really got a sense of distillery character – the apple and vanilla notes appear in all 3, with differing bursts of fruit popping out across the panel. What seems to truly distinguish them though is the maturity. Whilst the Bradan Orach (BO) unfortunately seemed to be more ‘Burn’ than ‘Spey’, the two age statements made up for it showing off the Speyside region’s classic profiles. Noting that the BO and the 10yo are around the same price then there is no contest that I’d be picking up a bottle of the 10yo, as it was far superior – according to my tastebuds anyway. What was interesting about the 10yo and 15yo is the impact of the sherry cask, and whilst the 10yo seemed like a bourbon aged whisky harnessed by sherry, the 15yo was vice versa, with the bourbon providing the protective casing to the sherry bomb. The extra ABV between the BO & 10yo vs 15yo made for a more interesting ‘mouthfeel’ too (as much as I hate that word). I’d love to taste the 46% 10yo against the 15yo to level the playing field.
Overall, a very interesting experiment and on the night – once again proving that age isn’t everything – I actually preferred the 10yo of the 3, followed by the 15yo and then BO. That’s based purely on the taste and personal preference alone. Whilst the 15yo is in the ball park for decent 15yo Speysiders price-wise, the fact that the 10yo is just less than half the price of the 15yo sweetens the deal even more. The 15yo may survive a little longer in the cabinet though as it is a more considered sipper.
Sample disclosure: The samples used here for this compare and contrast triple tipple were collected across several months’ subscription to The Dram Team. All notes are intended as a fair, honest and independent review of the whiskies, and not as a promotion. Please drink responsibly.
PS: There are some quite vitriolic reviews of the Bradan Orach and the 10yo (surprisingly) in the customer review section on Master of Malt should you want to have a chuckle and/or make a purchase.