A look at one of the most promising independent bottlers currently in the UK, Chorlton Whisky has been releasing exceptional quality whiskies at affordable prices. I'm reviewing a trio of Miltonduff, Orkney and Ruadh Maor.
There is simply far too much whisky being released these days. Between the current and newer Scottish, Irish, English distilleries, mothballed ones given a new leash of life, indies, several re-branding exercises and all the rest of it I'm totally lost. The noise and clutter is fatiguing. I can neither wrap my head nor my wallet around this frenzy. And what has changed? Marketing? It's more of the same and at times downright bizarre. Mostly vatted bollocks of history (at times dubious), pristine water, exceptional casks blah blah blah....you get the drift. And pricing? I'm reminded of a trading apothegm; that stock markets can stay irrational more than you can remain solvent. A quick look at some of the whisky prices these days dreadfully confirms the irrationality of this market (primary and secondary) as well.
The indies have participated equally in this whisky rush with many bottlers old and new alike, releasing copious amounts of whisky with prices creeping up to match. Re-branding as well. Now I understand that nothing about this business is easy. The chances of a small indie bottler fighting for shelf space with the big mainstream boys who can outspend you 100:1 with their marketing arsenal, reviewers and influencers is a bloody daunting task irrespective of how good your juice is. This is even more so if you happen to be a niche indie bottler like Chorlton Whisky. And yet, here I am in Mumbai, reviewing three whiskies from Chorlton. Can you imagine the odds of that? Amidst all the chaos Chorlton must be doing something right? Well, it certainly does.
I first stumbled upon Chorlton Whisky, mid-2018, when I was doing some research on indie Linkwood. That's when Chorlton popped up. I took one look at the label and said to myself that if someone has the sensibilities to design or choose such a label, they ought to be bottling good juice as well. I know that the two need not be connected but let's just say it was my gut feel. I visited their website and saw these wonderful releases at unbelievable prices and unsurprisingly all sold out. I immediately wrote to David (founder and one-man-army) and he promptly responded. The rest as they say is history. From that point on I've had (and continue to have) some amazing conversations with David, not only about his whiskies but also the industry, casks, regulations etc. He is humble, down to earth and always ready to help.
David picks great casks (not an easy task at all) and mostly releases a single distillery, one cask at a time. Unlike a North Star Spirits (whom I equally like) release of various distilleries in a single series. Hence the outrun (mishaps aside like a cask leak) is mostly limited to the cask in question. So far the highest outrun has been the current Tomintoul 14yo yielding 455 bottles from a sherry butt to the lowest being the Ledaig 10yo yielding only 21 bottles from a cask end release. Most importantly, the pricing is spot on as well. There is an excellent interview of him on Malt-review which I'd highly recommend you read. What stood out the most for me was his comment below on pricing.
"I have a bee in my bonnet about keeping things as accessible as possible, and I don’t think I have any business selling bottles that I wouldn’t buy myself. Since I’m a skinflint this tends to keep prices at the lower end"
Now that's what I call integrity and it takes a lot knowing very well that he could charge an arm and a kidney for the quality of the whisky he bottles. But he doesn't. For that he has my full respect! There is very little by way of marketing. It's usually an Instagram/Twitter/FB post followed by a newsletter on the day of the release. I'm not aware if there is any offline local marketing involved. There is also a tiny discount offered by means of a promo code if you subscribe to his newsletter which I feel is mighty generous of David. And lastly, he designs the best looking labels in the business. Hands down. Yes I'm a sucker for good labels and you can spot a Chorlton bottle from a mile away. In fact here's a suggestion for David and I'm sure its not the first. Please merchandise your label artwork as postcards, photo prints, coasters etc after the whisky sells out. People would happily buy. I certainly would!
So with all the right boxes ticked and my kidneys intact, let's start the proceedings with the Miltonduff.
Miltonduff 9yr @ 58.3%
Wood: First-Fill Bourbon Barrel
Non-chill filtered | Natural colour
Price paid- £50 | Sold out
Colour: Pale Yellow (the actual colour can be seen in the neck of the bottle)
Nose: Opens a touch spirit driven but quickly transforms into rum and raisins, whipped cream and white chocolate. The creamy toffee aspect reminds me of a very popular Indian dessert called rabdi. It is made by constantly stirring milk on a low flame for a long time till it condenses, caramelises and becomes dense. With a little time you get beautiful bread pudding with a sprinkling of cinnamon. Water brings out citrus fruits like sweet lime and green apples while making it even more creamy.
Palate: Warm and sweet but not cloying. Bananas and cream. Apple pie topped with lots of caramel. The rabdi continues from the nose. Even though the spirit is a little thin on the palate it coats the mouth really well. Water pushes up the baking spices and you get a lovely warmth from the spirit. With a little time in the glass you get a delicious bowl of muesli with vanilla, bananas, cinnamon and roasted coconut. Well balanced with just the right amount of oak bitters. Lovely stuff.
Finish: Lingering spices with whipped cream and vanilla.
Impressions: This was my first encounter with a Miltonduff hence I do not have a benchmark to match it against. But I'm afraid that this one has already set very high standards. Classic first-fill bourbon notes from a very good cask but never overpowering the spirit. Fresh, youthful, lively and zingy. A perfect conversation starter. But beware as the contents of the bottle can disappear very quickly!
Orkney 9yr @ 63.1%
Wood- Bourbon Hogshead
Non-chill filtered | Natural colour
Price paid- £50 | Sold out
Colour: White wine
Nose: Freshly opened box of dried fruits and roasted salted nuts. Mineral and faintly medicinal. It gets metallic. Rubbed copper. Tool box. With a little time in the glass a strangely interesting note of black grapes and chalk. Water makes it buttery. Lemon curd with a hint of rosemary and mint. A soft curtain of smoke hangs in the background. Even at that massive ABV there is surprisingly no nose prickle.
Palate: Oh my god this is huge! No rawness, no burn. The peat is more prominent on the palate than the nose suggests. It has that classic wispy Highland Park smoke. Bitumen and camphor are followed by pickled olives in brine and white pepper. Very chalky and mineraly. With time it evolves beautifully as it shifts from smoky, savoury to sweet and sour. Gooseberries and overripe kiwis join the party. Water brings out a distinct tangerine note almost bordering on cough lozenges. On the mid palate it becomes chewy with liquorice, sandalwood and smoked honey. Fabulously complex even at this massive strength.
Finish: Lingers fairly long with gentle sweet smoke and heather honey.
Impressions: This is an absolutely stunning Highland Park. I've yet to have a whisky at 63.1% without scorching my palate. My first sip was taken with a lot of trepidation given the strength but it turned out to be surprisingly drinkable. Given the ABV it really swims well and one can adjust its delivery at various levels of reduction. Utterly delicious. Why doesn't Viking Inc bottle juice like this?
Ruadh Maor 8yo @ 62.5%
Non-chill filtered | Natural colour
Price paid £50 | Sold out
Colour: Pale Straw
Nose: That distinct aroma of roasted groundnuts in hot sand in an iron wok. Peat, certainly, but smoky and not carbolic. Shoe polish. There is also a strange floral sweetness to this. With time it becomes progressively smoky and oily. Water brings out bacon, french fries and umami notes of dark soy sauce. Tiny hints of roasted cacao nibs emerge in the background. This is Mad Max in a glass.
Palate: Again massive! Sweet and intensely smoky. Preserved lemons on a grill with honey drizzle. Stilton. Marmite. Charred eggplant. All kinds of cured meats glazed with barbecue sauce. This is happening all too quickly. It's shape-shifting! Water makes it more salty and strangely coastal. Also pushes up the sweetness. Roasted sweet potatoes, beef stock and dried herbs are joined by sour cream and crackers. This is a non-stop roller coaster ride. I could write more and more...
Finish: Does it ever finish?
Impressions: I've not had anything quite like this. And it is not your typical Islay delivery. Nevertheless highly enjoyable and bursting with personality. It was actually evolving differently in all the glasses. For some it was floral and smoky and for the rest it was smoky and savoury. Bonkers of a distillate but so much fun. A chameleon malt.
Overall Impressions: Starting with the Miltonduff. An absolute charmer. It is an often overlooked Speysider with the bulk of its six million litre output feeding the Ballantine's blend. Its official visibility is almost none. I'd strongly recommend Miltonduff for all those who like Speyside malts but land up chasing the usual suspects. Cadenhead's and SMWS release it regularly so do keep a watch. I'm guilty as well for not having tried Miltonduff before but will certainly explore more of this hidden gem.
Orkney. Well what more can I say about it than what has been already expressed by so many ardent fans of the real Highland Park? I'm just thankful that its great legacy is now safe and its true potential fabulously displayed in the hands of the independents. This 9yo can quietly take the knickers off many official releases. That too at a fraction of the cost. Let Edrington continue with its Nordic nonsense. As long as I get juice like this, who cares!
Ruadh Maor-Glenturret. It certainly wont be the first name that comes to your mind when thinking of a peated whisky. Dare I say it wont be the first name that comes to your mind at all. It's a Highlander which in the past was used for blending, most notably in The Famous Grouse. But I've been told by Gemma from the distillery that after its recent sale to the Lalique Group that has stopped. She also told me that after having experimented with peat from Islay and Orkney they settled on Aberdeenshire as it best suited their distillation. Which explains why it's more smoky and less medicinal. They begin at 80-100ppm on the malt which gives them 15-20ppm on the new make. This particular Chorlton release would very polarising for sure. It's outrageously eccentric. You will either love it or hate it. I loved it even though I'm not particularly a big fan of intensely peated whiskies.
All three offer terrific value at £50 a pop, cask strength, natural presentation and full of flavour. That's a rarity these days. Even though these are relatively young and at massive strength they show ample maturity and complexity. And mind you there is no sherry blanket here to hide under. All of them have received maturation in that humble, under-appreciated and mostly taken for granted vessel, the bourbon cask which is equally the star of this lineup. What a fabulous selection from Chorlton Whisky. Looking forward to all your future releases. Cheers!