Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review - Auchentoshan 'Virgin Oak' Batch 2

This is the second edition of the Virgin Oak expression from the Lowland distillery of Auchentoshan.  The whisky has been fully matured in ex-American virgin oak casks (the term 'virgin' refers to the fact that the casks have never had any spirit maturing in them before), which is rare in the Scotch whisky industry. Auchentoshan have been maturing stock in virgin oak casks since the early 2000s and this practice forms part of a larger strategy of experimentation with non-traditional casking by the brand owners.

Auchentoshan (pronounced ock-en-tosh-an) is the nearest distillery to Glasgow. It is located in the Lowlands region and sits to the north west of the city near Clydebank. It was officially founded in 1823, although records shown a distillery called Duntocher operating nearby in the early 1800s. Auchentoshan translates as ‘corner of the field’ from the local form of Gaelic and is currently owned by Morrison Bowmore, which is part of the larger Beam Suntory company. It has a current production of 1.75 million litres per year.

Auchentoshan is unique amongst Scottish whisky distilleries as they triple distil every drop of their spirit. Elsewhere in Scotland the common practice is to distil twice, whereas triple distillation is more commonly associated with Irish whiskies. Triple distillation produces a new make spirit that is lighter and more delicate in flavour and higher in alcohol - Auchentoshan has the highest strength of new make in Scotland at 81.5% ABV.

This second batch of the Virgin Oak is bottled at 46% ABV, is non chill-filtered and of natural colour.  It is a limited edition, although the exact number of bottles is not stated in any press material.  It was released in September 2014 and is available in selected specialist whisky retailers at a recommended price of £70.

Our tasting notes
The colour is golden yellow and the nose is vibrant, fresh and sweet.  There are immediate aromas of vanilla, golden syrup and marshmallow.  Underneath are further sweet aromas of fondant and marzipan.  There are also hints of bitter orange, dried mango and earthy ginger.

On the palate, this is initially very woody and spicy.  The distinct oaky notes and heavy baking spices (think of cinnamon, nutmeg and all-spice, with a hint of cloves) begin to soften as the prominent sweeter notes from the nose develop.   This creates a creamier mouth feel than before.  The sweetness starts out as golden syrup and honey, before turning more candied and sugary - this manifests itself as notes of marshmallow, candyfloss and icing sugar.  Background characteristics of bitter orange, ginger and white chocolate add depth, complexity and balance to the whisky, as does an increasing note of vanilla essence.  The woody, warming spices are never far away and work well with the intense sweetness.

The finish is long and becomes increasingly drying and woody.  This is caused by the sugary and sweeter elements slowly fading to leave the cinnamon and oak notes in particular.  A very late hit of bittersweet malted barley finishes things off.

What's the verdict? 
This whisky has really grown on us.  At the launch event, we were not sure about it but with a recent re-visit and more time our thoughts have improved greatly.  It has a lovely balance of sweetness and woody spiciness, which combine with numerous background notes to create an enjoyable and complex whisky.  We prefer it to the first batch from 2013.

We like the innovative experimentation that Auchentoshan and their owners are undertaking.  They were one of the first to use virgin oak casks way back in the early 2000s and now a number of other producers are following.  We look forward to seeing how the Virgin Oak series develops.

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