Peter Ranscombe gets an exclusive preview of whisky bottler Cask 88’s tribute to Sir Walter Scott.
THERE’S something so evocative about tasting whisky outdoors.
When it comes to wine tasting, many vineyards will serve visitors samples out among the vines.
Whisky distilleries, less so.
Standing on the terrace outside Abbotsford House near Melrose, I could almost hear Sir Walter Scott’s piper entertaining his guests some two centuries ago.
And, even though we did have to duck under a tree every now and again as the spring showers rolled through, the garden at Abbotsford was the perfect setting to cast an eye over four very special whiskies created to mark the novelist’s anniversary.
One of Scotland’s most famous scions
As its name suggests, Cask 88 helps investors to buy barrels of whisky.
Yet, as we’ve seen before, it’s the company’s forays into bottling that have won it a wider legion of fans.
As one of the partners for Walter Scott 250 – the celebrations organised by The Abbotsford Trust – Cask 88 has created a set of four bottles to commemorate one of Scotland’s most famous sons and the role he played in popularising whisky, with 50 sets going on sale on Friday at £995.
Scott served King George IV whisky during his infamous visit to Edinburgh in 1822, and promoted our national drink as part of his romanticised version of the Highlands.
Sam Laing, head of content at Cask 88, credits the monarch with influencing the passing of the excise act the following year, which saw many illegal distilleries turning legitimate.
While my money’s on the Duke of Gordon having had more sway, there’s no arguing with the influence Scott had on the development of whisky’s popularity.
Cask 88 has honoured him with a beautifully-presented set, having commissioned bespoke oak stands from Freddie Main at Pencaitland-based Oak & Black, with leather spines created by Rab Mullins’ artisan bookbinder The Gently Mad in Edinburgh, and calligraphy on the bottles by Edinburgh-based artist Martin Hensey.
Liquid poetry inside the bottles
Yet, stripping back the marketing tale and the exquisite craft of the packaging, it’s the liquid in the bottles that’s perhaps most interesting.
Cask 88 took a barrel of 19-year-old Ben Nevis single malt and finished it four ways.
Each finish was named after a phrase popularised by Scott.
An oloroso sherry octave was used for “Lock, Stock and Barrel”, a red wine firkin housed “Savoir Faire”, a virgin oak firkin played host to “The Apple of My Eye”, and a pedro ximénez sherry octave gave the finishing touches to “Tongue in Cheek”.
Tasting the whiskies in the garden at Abbotsford, it was fascinating to see how the finishing process had taken the same whisky in four very distinct directions.
Lock, Stock and Barrel
If I’m allowed to shy away my systematic tasting for a moment and pick a favourite then it would be the whisky aged in the oloroso octave. I was fascinated. Soy sauce, molasses, and classic nutty notes on its rich nose gave way to thick milk chocolate and more bitter dark chocolate on the palate, alongside toffee and more molasses. Its texture is richer and thicker than its brethren in the set, with the addition of water highlighting its nuttier side, with roast or cured meat on the finish. It’s savoury, it’s full of spicy cloves, and it’s very grown-up.
Aromas of sticky toffee pudding and brown sugar are joined by blackcurrant and liquorice notes, presumably from the red wine cask, perhaps pointing to something cabernet-like? Marmalade joined the liquorice on the hot, tannic palate. A dash of water turned those black fruit red, with redcurrant and raspberry appearing on the finish, preceded by lemon curd and more marmalade.
The Apple of My Eye
Never underestimate virgin oak – without any other spirits having pitted its surface, new oak is free to impart its characteristics to the whisky. Here, that influence has le to red apple, sea salt, caramel, vanilla, and a very light smoky note on the nose, with chewy tannins and warming cask-strength alcohol on the palate. Its flavour profile swings from lemon and lemon rind through to butterscotch and vanilla, with a drop of water bringing more honey and hazelnut notes to the fore, while reviving the red apple compote flavour.
Tongue in Cheek
Pedro ximénez is the thick, black, sweet sherry made using dried grapes. Those classic raisin and sultana notes are prominent on the resulting whisky’s dark nose, leading into a palate full of brown sugar, milk chocolate and more Christmas cake. Water emphasised the brown sugar, caramel, and runny honey, really opening up the spirit to deeper inspection.
Don’t miss Peter’s whisky, wine, and beer reviews on his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.