Refill Hogshead HL18072
MASH BILL – 100% malted barley
PROOF – 104
AGE – 20 years 4 months
DISTILLERY – Tamdhu (bottled by Hunter Laing & Co.)
PRICE – $87 (Wha-?! That’s right.)
WORTH BUYING? – Yes
Many years ago, the very first bottle of scotch I went through was the Glenfiddich 12 Year, gifted to me by a friend who was leaving town. This was around 2013 or so. I thought it tasted like some kind of petrol, which I “should” enjoy but didn’t. Nevertheless I was intrigued by it. It would be just a few years later that I really started to explore whisk(e)y and to understand it as an experience.
I remember having a similar journey with dance, actually. In theater, my usual line of work, most of what there is to see are plays that tend to emphasize the spoken word. As a kinesthetic and visual learner, I was hungry for something more visceral and started to go see dance—everything from Japanese butoh to European dance-theater by the likes of Pina Bausch and Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker. At first I had no idea what was “good” dance. Was that choreography “good”? Was that dancer doing a “good” job? I would lean over to ask my partner and she would usually say, “What do you think?” I’d then struggle with my confidence to find the words for what I was experiencing, assuming there was a special language I needed to already speak.
But over time I developed my own sense for dance—my personal tastes, but also my ability to parse an experience out and understand why I respond to a given dancer or choreography in the ways that I do. I learned some of the formal language used by people who work in dance. But mostly I developed my own language to talk about what I understand and experience.
It’s been the same with whisk(e)y. At this point I’m much more able to pull apart and understand my experience with bourbons and ryes, the two “genres” of whiskey I’ve spent the most time with. I spend less time comparatively with scotch, and even less with Irish and Japanese whisky. So with those my words aren’t yet up to my conscious senses, and my conscious senses not yet up to my visceral experience.
But this is why I love this whisk(e)y journey. Like theater or dance or film or other arts, there is so much to experience in the great wide world. So many histories to learn about. So many cultures to get to know. So many stories to share. As well as new stories yet to be distilled into something compelling to share with others.
There is a benefit to standing at the border of one’s understanding. That’s the moment of potential. I’m at such a place when it comes to the regions of scotch whisky…
This bottle is my first ever experience with Tamdhu, a Speyside region distillery that got started in 1897 and has been chugging along ever since. It’s not quite as familiar a name as Glenfiddich. But it’s held its own for well over a century and despite a few bumps in the road along the way, so, the people there must be doing something right.
My other most recent Speyside region experience was a cask strength BenRiach single malt. That bottle was exceptional. One thing it left me wondering about was whether “Speyside” has any real meaning beyond an area on a map? No doubt a Scottish whisky drinker would say Aye! But in terms of the taste profile, is there anything particular the Speyside region of Scotland offers in the way of terroir that truly distinguishes its whiskies from neighboring Highland whiskies? Is Scotland too small a region to yield exceptionally distinct sub-regions? Or is it really more a matter of each distillery’s particular process?
From having done even only a modicum of reading up on existing answers to these questions, for Speyside the notes apple, pear, honey, vanilla and “spice” (which can mean quite a range of things) come up, as well as a de-emphasis on peat. I also find there are people who affirm distinctions between Speyside versus Highland versus Lowland versus Campbeltown, etcetera, and others who say it’s really just marketing. So, 🤷🏼♂️.
For myself, I haven’t yet found a distinct through line between the Speysides I’ve tried—Aberlour, Balvenie, BenRiach, Craigellachie, Glenallachie, Glenfarclas, Glennfiddich, Linkwood, Macallan. There are strong honey notes in both this Tamdhu and that BenRiach I mentioned, and Balvenie whiskies have often given me that note. But I taste honey in a range of whiskeys from around the world. Only the Islay region seems to lay a significantly legitimate claim to distinction when it comes to taste—that Islay emphasis on peat—yet even peat can be found in other regions.
I doubt this particular Tamdhu bottling will help me get at answers to this question of terroir. It may not even help me in the way of a proper introduction to Tamdhu! Given this cask was procured and bottled by that great secondary bottling operation, Hunter Laing & Co., and offered on its own, unblended with any other casks, at its natural cask strength and in its natural color, it does not represent what Tamdhu itself does. It represents what Hunter Laing & Co. does—namely, find rare and often very well-aged casks from a wide range of Scottish distilleries that for one reason or another were let go by their maker.
That a distillery would let a given cask go doesn’t mean the whiskey is bad. There could be any number of reasons. In any case, as a result of this phenomenon I’ve been able to afford access to rare or otherwise uncommon whiskeys from the likes of Caol Ila and Highland Park, a whole range of smaller distilleries nobody ever really hears about here in the US, and whiskies aged 31, 46, even 52 years!
So when K&L, my go-to source for these Hunter Laing & Co. bottlings, popped up with this 20-year Tamdhu at the kind of price I haven’t seen in a few years, I leapt.
This bottle has been open about six weeks and I’m a handful of pours into it. These notes were taken using a traditional Glencairn.
COLOR – pale straw, picking up colors around the glass and refracting them through yellows and soft apricot-oranges
NOSE – sweet dripping honey, sea salt, fresh mountain spring water, faint beach campfire smoke (not peat), light caramel custard
TASTE – that honey front to back, the caramel custard richer here, and still the salty smoky sea air
FINISH – the honey, salt and smoke lingering with a soft warmth like a nice wool blanket
OVERALL – Honey honey honey, and a cozy beach campfire on a gray day
This is fresh and salty honey front to back. I’m tasting it on a perfect day for it—crisply cold outside with soft grey clouds that are more content than they are brooding. I can also imagine on a sunny Spring afternoon this could be a delightful match. But on this cool grey day, it warms and brightens the mood, making what could be a dull atmosphere more cozy and fun.
The sugars from the honey notes do begin to go a touch sharp as the finish lingers on. Though I would prefer thicker, darker honey notes, this bright and drippy honey has its place as well. The sharpness has an impact that overly bitter tannins can sometimes have for me. Sharp or bitter notes can etch a nice edge around gooier, softer, syrupy notes. Or they can go a bit too far and start to feel… Not sure the word I’m searching for… Gritty or rough, distracting, like little wood slivers on a table’s surface.
When I consider the combination of price, age, and taste, I nod my head a contented yes. When I only think about taste, it’s more of a contented sure. There’s nothing bad about this whisky. On some sips it’s fine, and on some it’s even really good. When I want something light and bright and not too taxing to warm up a chilly or dull mood, I’ll reach for this. I can also imagine it figuring in well to a sprightly highball cocktail.
And, this bottle compelled me to think about other things like dance and languages and regionality and understanding. Thanks Tamdhu! And thank you Hunter Laing & Co., for this and many other compelling introductions.