The whiskies I am tasting tonight are from a closed distillery that has become something of a cult phenomenon in recent years: Caperdonich. As is not unusual among closed distilleries, the cult has been somewhat late to form. Caperdonich was never a storied distillery in its heyday of production, coming into being as Glen Grant 2, and then being closed for most of the 20th century until it was rebuilt in 1965 and renamed Caperdonich (due to a law prohibiting two distilleries from having the same name; this is also why the old Clynelish distillery became Brora in the late 1960s). It was never intended to be a frontline single malt, and most of its production went into blends until it was closed in 2002 (this is not unlike the situation with perhaps the most iconic of all closed distilleries, Port Ellen, which was a workhorse distillery until it closed in 1983). While some old-school independent bottlers–Cadenhead’s and Gordon & Macphail–released the odd single malt bottling over its active life (I have not tasted any of these) it wasn’t until the early 2000s–ironically, right after the distillery was closed–that it gained a wider reputation. This was due largely (entirely?) to the release of a number of bottlings of very old casks from the late 196os and early 1970s by a number of independent bottlers, especially Duncan Taylor.
These 30+ year old bottlings became known for a highly fruity character, and the distillation year of 1972 in particular has acquired a kind of halo around it. This last bit I am extremely dubious about. Very few of those who go on about the exceptional character of 1972 Caperdonichs have tasted Caperdonichs from 1970, 1971, 1973, 1974 or 1975. I haven’t either, but the point is that there are very many Caperdonich 1972s around and comparatively very few from the other years. Consider, for example, that the Whisky Monitor Database of the redoubtable Malt Maniacs lists ratings for 29 bottlings distilled in 1972, but only 6 distilled in 1970 and a grand total of 3 distilled in 1971, 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1976 combined. (It is a similar story at Whiskybase: see for yourself.) The whisky from those years most likely disappeared into blends whereas more of the 1972 production runs probably sat in warehouses through the 1970s and the bust years of the 1980s before being issued by independents who had no other use for it and had accidentally matured it to excellence. It may well be that there was something special–for whatever reason–about whisky produced at Caperdonich in the late 1960s and early 1970s but narrowing it down to particular years seems to me to be a reach.
At any rate, I am yet to see anyone who gushes about 1972 Caperdonichs put their conviction to a blind taste test with Caperdonichs from neighbouring vintages.
I am also not convinced of claims made more generally for similar allegedly exceptional years at other distilleries (you’ll see claims for Benriach and Tomatin in 1976 and Longmorn more generally from the early 1970s). The more pertinent points seem to me that these three distilleries, and Caperdonich, made a spirit of similar character, and that the long-aged whiskies from these distilleries that have begun to be released in recent years to massive acclaim have many aspects in common: the most important variable here may simply be putting spirit of a certain character into refill wood for a very long time. Then again many of those who make these kinds of claims have far more experience than do I and my skepticism may be unfounded. On the other hand, the internet is an echo-chamber and it really doesn’t take much in the whisky community for speculation to become fact.
In any event, the good news for whisky geeks in the US until recently was that because Caperdonich was a no-name malt for a long time (and still is outside the whisky geek world) the early releases of long-aged casks from Duncan Taylor in the US were very reasonably priced, given the age and quality of the whisky, and hung around at those prices for a very long time. Even now when the cult of Caperdonich is in full swing it is possible to find bottles from the 1970s for $200 or less, though it is less easy than it was just a couple of years ago. I don’t know of any 30+ yo Caperdonichs from Duncan Taylor with a poor reputation, so if you see one in the vicinity of $200 and you want to make a splurge it will likely be a safe bet. And you might get lucky, as I did with the first bottle below, and find a bottle for quite a bit less than $200 on closeout from a retailer who has got tired of staring at it collecting dust on a shelf.
But now, on to the whisky!
An aside: Duncan Taylor’s boxes and labels always say that their whiskies have been matured in oak casks–which is really useful information considering the laws governing the Scotch whisky industry (or bourbon, for that matter) forbid the use of any other kind of wood. Considering the similarity between this whisky and the next, which is identified as coming from a refill sherry cask, I am confident that this is from a refill sherry cask as well.
Nose: Camphor; Sweet old wood; mild notes of pine. Gets richer and fruitier with time: some kind of dark tinned fruits, with an herby liqueur drizzled on top. After a few minutes some citrussy notes develop: tangerine peel? lime? pineapple? (Yes, I know pineapple is not a citrus fruit.) Fifteen minutes later the camphor and wood are completely gone and the citrus has receded as well. Fruit cocktail with tinned peaches? With a touch of water the lime returns, and a whole new development of aromas seems to begin as mild notes of incense are followed by a pleasant faded wood note and then finally over-ripe pineapples and peaches again.
Palate: A little nondescript at first, but only at first: then comes a huge burst of sweet lime, with a touch of bitterness as well. Really fresh and invigorating. Followed by over-ripe peaches and peach jam. Water really sets the palate off as the lime now plays with the woody, piney notes hinted at by the nose and the fruits get more tropical as well. A little more bitterness on the palate as well now–not unpleasant at all; indeed, putting a kind of frame around the other flavours and making the whole more complex. Not cloying at all, with or without water, and no alcohol bite at all.
Finish: Long. The fruit notes linger and eventually give way to slight hints of tannic oak that are the only superficial sign of the long maturation. Not a lot of change with water.
Comments: Oh my, this is good. It didn’t seem at first that water could do any good; and at 47.5% it is less aggressive than younger malts I’ve had at 43–so there’s certainly no need to add water for that reason. But I am so glad I did. Pleasurable as this is without water, it become so much more complex with it. Just a few drops though.
Rating: 92 points.
Nose: Quite similar to the 38 yo but without the notes of camphor/pine. Oh wait, there’s some wood now, along with all the fruits from the first one. And now here’s some camphor. Very similar notes really, but oddly in a different order. This one might be a tad more perfumey. Will water work magic here as well? Yes, there are those more tropical notes; more fruit custard than cocktail though.
Palate: A bit of a letdown on the palate. It is a little flatter, and the wood, while not particularly tannic, is to the fore. No citrus burst and not much by way of richer fruity notes. While it is in fact only a little lower in alcohol than the first it feels like it might be weaker still. What will water do? It does perk it up, bringing some citrus to the party. This wasn’t a large enough pour, I’m afraid, to properly gauge development with water.
Finish: Medium-long. Not particularly interesting. Some touches of wood spice.
Comments: Excellent nose, but the palate and finish are not as stellar as on the first. It’s possible that this is down entirely to the fact that the first was a pour from a freshly opened bottle, whereas the second was a sample. Or this may just have been a more tired cask. It may also be the case that the first one blunted my palate for the second. Whatever the reason, it is only by comparison to the first that this was a letdown: on its own merits it is still very, very good.
Rating: 89 points.
I will compare these two again in a few days, and I will throw into the mix a sample of a Douglas Laing OMC 1974 that I received in a sample swap last year. Let’s see if things are any different on that occasion.