Rare bottlings

Rare Batch 2

by
Caol Ila distillery

We continue our exploration of the whisky vaults with another trio of sought-after bottlings, including one from long-closed Glenury Royal and others from a pair of very much still alive plants: Caol Ila and Glen Grant.

Glenury Royal was another casualty of the 1980s slump in Scotch. It fell silent in 1983, shut for good two years later and was sold to a housing developer in 1993, ending its 160-year history. It owed its ‘Royal’ suffix to founder Captain Robert Barclay’s friendship with King William IV and, even among closed distilleries, remains a sought-after beast indeed, with two Rare Malts expressions and a couple of Special Releases bottlings. It produced a typically elegant, lightly smoky style of spirit, with a somewhat oily texture and a fragrant character.

Everything about Caol Ila, from its secluded location to its historic role as a workhorse providing blending material, suggests a shy, unheralded distillery – at least, among its stellar Islay neighbours. Only in recent years has this most consistent of the island’s producers carved out its own niche among single malts, thanks to a regular range of smoky but balanced and easy-drinking distillery bottlings, plus the odd unpeated rarity. That said, this expression pre-dates Caol Ila’s recent rise to prominence, and marks the distillery’s 150th anniversary in 1996.

From its beginnings under brothers John and James Grant through the forward thinking of the younger John Grant, aka ‘The Major’, Glen Grant has been a distillery of substance – a brand of international renown before the word ‘brand’ was widely used. Modern Glen Grant has mainly been all about the pursuit of freshness and delicacy, in keeping with its huge success in the Italian market. But older bottlings hint at a heavier, weightier style of brooding complexity and substance.

Scoring Explained

Overview

  • Glenury Royal 23 Years Old (Rare Malts)

    Score 8.7/10
    Scoring explained >
    Glenury Royal 23 Years Old (Rare Malts)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    61.3%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Highland
    Flavour camp
    Fruity & Spicy
    Nose

    Unusually for a Rare Malts bottling, this has a deep colour: polished copper/amber. The strength is high, but the whisky is so rich it doesn’t show. Rather, you notice a dense, stewing fruitiness with a delicate tropical edge. Then comes an iris-like note, Parma Violet, roasting corn and sweet leather. As it opens (and with a little water), there’s more animalic/amber notes.  

    Palate

    Given the lushness of the nose, this has a surprisingly dry and smoky start with some dusty tannins on show. All has settled by the mid-palate, where the concentrated fruits lurk. Water softens things down – maybe too much – bringing out mixed fruit compôte.

    Finish

    Long and set, with a hint of smoke. 

    Conclusion

    Glenury Royal remains a rare sighting. This is one of the finest bottlings you’ll come across. 

    Right place, right time

    A Parisian flâneur passes you by. You sniff his cologne.

    Caol Ila 20 Years Old

    Score 8.6/10
    Scoring explained >
    Caol Ila 20 Years Old
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    57.86%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Islay
    Flavour camp
    Smoky & Peaty
    Nose

    Distilled in 1976, bottled in 1996, this shows the usually gently restrained Ms Consistent of Islay in slightly bolder guise than usual. It was made two years after the expanded distillery came on stream. The first thing to emerge on the nose is linseed oil, then comes coastal smoke – that mix of brine and drying sea salt and a hint of Neoprene. In time there’s a light toffee note akin to Mars bars, then comes wet moss.

    Palate

    When neat it’s seriously, mouth-coatingly, tongue-clingingly oily with just a little touch of mirabelle plum in there. All of the drive is given by these oils, rather than by the oak. Water rather marvellously disrupts all of this, making things considerably more boisterous, as if all the elements are fractured – here’s some pear and those yelow plums, there’s the brine, here’s subtle pigskin, over there a shard of lemon. It remains shoreline.  

    Finish

    Long, subtle smoke. 

    Conclusion

    A more thought-provoking Caol Ila than we normally encounter. A class act.

    Right place, right time

    A boatyard at Port Askaig. Someone is painting in the distance, someone closer by is treating their yacht to a coat of deck oil.

    Glen Grant 35 Year Old (Gordon & McPhail)

    Score 8/10
    Scoring explained >
    Glen Grant 35 Year Old (Gordon & McPhail)
    Price band
    £ £ £ £ £
    ABV
    40%
    Production type
    Single malt whisky
    Region
    Speyside
    Flavour camp
    Rich & Round
    Nose

    Very deep amber. Oily and perfumed. A sumptuous, resinous nose which also contains luscious baked fruits, greengage jam and heavy, iris-like florals. Then a darker note like fresh tar develops. Astoundingly complex, with masses of whisky rancio, cooking cep mushrooms, moist forest earth and then pure old amontillado. Water makes it a lot drier and more phenolic.

    Palate

    A lot drier than the nose suggests, with light tannins and a smoky edge. There’s liquorice, and this earthiness. A light and almost hollow start before the coal smoke begins to take charge. Water flattens – and dries – things. 

    Finish

    Smoke and wood ash.

    Conclusion

    To be honest, it’s slightly disappointing after such a stunning nose. If you ever get the opportunity, inhale deeply. 

    Right place, right time

    While walking deep into an old forest in the late autumn, you come across a dunnage warehouse. You enter. The doors shut behind you. All is darkness.

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