It’s rather easy for fans of scotch whisky in the U.S. to sometimes forget that the products hitting our market don’t necessarily represent that brand in the same way that the rest of the world sees it. For some brands, the U.S. market receives entirely different product lineups, while for others we have limited access in terms of which special releases make their way stateside. Sometimes, a celebrated series of limited releases can even enjoy decades of success in the U.K. or abroad before Americans have a chance to try it.
So it is with The GlenDronach and their Cask Bottling collection. These masters of sherried Highland single malts have been producing this limited series of cask-strength, single barrel releases for 18 years at this point … but 2021 is the first time that any of them have headed to the U.S. for sale. Sadly, we’re only receiving four of the 18 casks in this year’s release … but you’ve got to leave some for the U.K., I suppose. We should probably just be happy to receive any, at this point.
What we have here, hitting the U.S. in very limited quantities (about 612 to 638 bottles per expression) is a series of four single barrel releases showcasing different aspects of The GlenDronach, ranging in age from batches distilled in 1993 to 2008, and all presented at cask strength. As is common for scotch whisky, the strongest releases are the younger ones, as many scotch barrels actually lose proof over time due to faster evaporation of alcohol than water. The four batches chosen for the U.S. show off multiple forms of maturation as well, including oloroso sherry casks, Pedro Ximénez sherry casks, and port pipes. That makes for some serious variety between these four releases. As Master Blender Rachel Barrie describes it:
“The GlenDronach Cask Bottling Batch 18 is a celebration of the distillery’s time-honored mastery and a showcase of the finest of what this richly-sherried Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky has to offer. This long-standing, much-loved release is a focal point to each year, demonstrating the exquisite character of our whiskies, through these exceptional casks which I have carefully hand-selected. Each cask individually explores the sophistication, powerful intricacy and rich layers of Spanish sherry cask maturation found in every expression of The GlenDronach.”
We happened to snag some samples of these limited releases, so let’s dive right into tasting some unique vintages of The GlenDronach to see which ones might fit your taste, provided of course you’re able to track them down. Be aware, they’ll all cost you a pretty penny.
Cask type: Oloroso puncheon
ABV: 59.8% (119.6 proof)
Bottles produced: 628
The youngest of the group headed stateside is a 12-year-old single malt matured in oloroso casks, looking for all intents and purposes like a much bigger brother to the distillery’s flagship Original 12 Year Old, which is merely 86 proof by way of comparison.
All comparison, however, quickly falls away when sampling this monster sherry bomb. This stuff is wonderfully decadent on the nose, chock full of dark chocolate, intense dried fruit and sherried nuttiness, with remarkably little ethanol on the nose for being the strongest of the four. It’s slightly vinous, and extremely fruit forward—if it was a wine, it would be described as “concentrated.” On the palate, 2008 Cask 3017 is very sweet, luscious, rich and fruity, adding toffee and vanilla highlights to its dark fruit showcase. There’s a jamminess here, and a “cooked fruit” quality that is slightly syrupy, eventually segueing into something like maple. It’s hard to overstate how much more rich and decadent this is than the flagship 12-year-old single malt, and despite its undeniable dessert-y qualities, it goes down frighteningly easily for the proof.
This expression strikes me as something that would particularly open the eyes of that segment of American whiskey drinkers who still believe that all scotch whisky is “smoky,” peat dominated or otherwise light on the palate. In fact, this decadent dram is about as far as you can get from how scotch (so often represented by peaty Islay brands) is portrayed in American pop culture.
Cask type: Pedro Ximénex puncheon
ABV: 58% (116 proof)
Bottles produced: 612
This 14-year-old cask is matured in “PX” rather than oloroso sherry casks, offering a more subtle evolution of the GlenDronach flavor profile than the particularly unique 1994 port pipe batch. It announces itself with a fruitiness on the nose that mimics some of the same notes as the 2008 Cask, but in more clarity and less omnipresent heft. This one is brighter and more focused, with notes of bright cherry and raspberry on the nose, mingling with light toast, brown spice, subtle earthiness, chocolate and a twist of orange citrus.
On the palate, the 2005 Cask 1928 is very balanced, offering a velvety smooth texture and moderate residual sweetness. I’m getting a lot of chocolate this time around, and some dark caramelized sugars that are almost molasses like, along with a very pleasant roastiness that gives it a bit of mocha flair. There’s a trailing nuttiness, and the occasional flashes of bright red fruit and darker berry notes cut through the richness nicely. All in all, this offering isn’t quite as weighty and decadent as the 2008 cask, but is arguably more balanced and multifaceted. Very good stuff.
Cask type: Port pipe
ABV:51.3% (102.6 proof)
Bottles produced: 638
This is the only one of the four expressions in the U.S. Cask Bottling releases to be aged in a port pipe rather than sherry casks, and it’s fittingly the most unique of the group. Ultimately, I found the 1994 Cask 5287 to be my least favorite of this particular lineup, but that’s probably because I simply enjoy the GlenDronach house style of heavily sherried malts. Over 26 years in this sample, the wood has certainly had a transformational effect.
On the nose, my initial impressions here were surprisingly tropical, with lots of banana or something like mango, but those fruitier impressions slowly morph in more of an earthy and oaky direction. As I return to the sample, it increasingly registers with chocolate, earth and a touch of smokiness, which isn’t what you typically associate with The GlenDronach.
On the palate, the 1994 Cask 5287 is considerably more earthy and also oak-accented than the other samples. It’s slightly meaty, with a drying puff of smoke on the back end and slight tartness, counterbalanced by both bright citrus and dark fruit. It strikes me as more tannic as well, with a drier finish that is slightly bitter. This is a contemplative dram, and a pretty complex one, but it’s not as much in my own personal wheelhouse as the others.
Cask type: Oloroso puncheon
ABV: 51.4% (102.8 proof)
Bottles produced: 633
If the 2008 cask we started out with is like a much bigger brother to The GlenDronach’s flagship 12 Year Old Original single malt, then this one is like the much older and more mature sibling. The proof has calmed down at 27 years, compared to when this spirit was merely 12 years old, but it’s also unveiled a lot of complexity.
On the nose, this one strikes a wonderful balance between richness, decadence and nuance. Toffee and toastiness are highlights, along with roasted nuts, molasses, dark chocolate and light coffee roastiness. Dark fruity jam and vanilla trail behind.
On the palate, this is less the sweet and bombastic 2008, and something more nuanced and complex. If that higher proof release is how you’d illustrate the depth of sweetness and richness in sherried single malt whisky to a bourbon drinker, this one is how you’d illustrate the complexity of age. I’m getting a lot of fruitcake-like notes, with spicy ginger, into coffee and roasted nuts. Despite being slightly older than the port-aged 1994 sample, this one also seems less oak-influenced and tannic, instead revolving around gentle fruit impressions of cherry compote and dried fruits, with vanilla cream.
All in all, lovely stuff. Together, these four expressions do highlight the transformative effect that both maturation type and maturation time have on the distillery’s single malt spirit.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.