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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Single Malt Report: Fettercairn 17 year old 1995 Exclusive Malts (K&L exclusive)

Here's an acronym for you: FLAB.  Yes, FLAB.  Going in, I expected BALF, but I got FLAB.

When I had read that the two K&L Davids (Driscoll and Othenin-Girard) were working on a deal with a third David (Stirk) to bring some more of his Exclusive Malts to the US, I was pretty stoked.  I enjoyed the first round of EMs that he'd brought earlier in 2013.  More sounded good.

The whiskies were announced.  There would be an Aberlour, a Bowmore, a peated "Island" (also known as Ledaig), and a Fettercairn.  The Aberlour and Bowmore from the original round of single casks were two of my favorites, so I looked forward to K&L's casks.  The Ledaig was to be all of 7 years old; and a baby Ledaig is always at least interesting.  Then, Fettercairn.  Fettercairn doesn't have the best of reputations and I personally find the current official versions of all of Whyte & Mackay's distilleries' single malts to be underwhelming at best.  So I didn't give that exclusive single cask a second look.  I anticipated Bowmore to be the best, then the bourbon cask Aberlour, then the baby Ledaig, with Old Fett bringing up the rear.  B A L F

But the Bowmore was so-so (or worse in some folks' opinions), with disappointingly weird aggressive oak.  The Aberlour was a little better, but had much of the same strange ultra-new oak stuff.  The little Ledaig was quite good, better than just interesting.  And the Fettercairn...?  Here's to the F in F L A B.

Distillery: Fettercairn
Independent Bottler: The Creative Whisky Co. Ltd.
Series: The Exclusive Malts
Retailer: K&L only
Age: 17 years (October 25, 1995 - 2013)
Maturation: "Oak Casks" (information!)
Cask number2800
Bottle #:  ??? of 243
Region: Eastern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 57.1%
Chillfiltered: No
Colored: No
Thanks to Florin for the sample!

The color is just between light gold and amber.  The nose starts with vanillas, caramels, roses, and fresh stone fruits (white nectarines and white peaches).  Then comes butter, butterscotch, and ocean air.  After letting the whisky breathe a bit, out comes a burst of lemon zest.  The palate is syrupy and fizzy, with sweet golden raisins and lime juice.  It's very rich with fudge and toffee notes.  There's a spicy citrus thing that mixes with a little caramel and butterscotch.  After considerable air, the whisky develops a eucalyptus-flavored coffee (is that a thing?) note.  In the finish, the fudge becomes mocha.  The spicy citrus, caramel, golden raisins, and toffee remain.

The nose mellows out quickly, even with just a few drops of water.  It's still ocean-ish.  The floral, vanilla, and caramel notes remain.  More citrus and fudge.  There might be some soap, but that also might be my expectation of Fettercairn malt.  The palate is mildly sweet, and noticeably tarter.  There's sweet cream, brown sugar, mocha, a hint of wood smoke, and something prune-ish.  Spicy citrus again in the finish, along with brown sugar and caramel.

First off, this is much better without water.  It has none of the alcohol heat issues that the Linkwood (reviewed here) had, even though the Fettercairn is four years younger.  Its richness stands up best neat.

I'm not sure what sort of cask this came from because I found all sorts of things going on with it.  I'm thinking it may have been a refill sherry cask made from American oak.  I realize that Driscoll says this is "unsherried" in this post, but in the same paragraph he compares it to their 10yo Faultline North Highland which was definitely lightly sherried (also confirmed by folks who bought it).  To make this even blurrier... At a tasting I attended last year, Stirk mentioned that sometimes he has no idea what oak his casks are made of when he's purchased them.  After bottling the whisky inside, he has opened a few and found different char levels on different staves in the same cask.  Maybe this is one of those casks with a variety of lineages.  It's a nice one, whatever its makeup.

In addition to the richness and entertaining interplay between the oak and spirit, this whisky is a pleasure to drink.  It sold out the quickest of the four K&L exclusive Exclusive Malts, so someone clearly knew it was a good thing.  I won't take Fettercairn for granted anymore, specifically the indie releases.  I wish I had purchased the F, not the B.

Availability - K&L Wines, but it's now sold out
Pricing - $89.99
Rating - 88


  1. According to various sources, a big issue with Fettercairn was the distillery had been using stainless steel condensers which are already uncommon in the whisky industry. This might explain why older bottlings were rated better since the time in casks evened out the bad bits. Fettercairn switched back to copper in 1995 which is the year this whisky came off the stills.

    Incidentally, I'm pretty sure this was matured in an ex-bourbon cask (maybe refill maybe not). The North Highland had notable hints of sherry whereas the Fettercairn is more vanilla and citrus forward to my palate. It would interesting if this did come from a "Harlequin" cask (Ralfy mentioned that coopers do take apart random barrels and reassemble the staves).

    1. Yep, the Harlequin casks are what Stirk mentioned he sees quite often when opening up his used casks. As far as Old Fett goes, all of the ones I've tried before this one were soapy. One was soapier than FWP-era Bowmore. None of them were very old, so perhaps they're from this more recent period.

    2. Oddly enough, I recall Fettercairn has added powdered soap into the mash tun to prevent frothing. They claim the soap adds no flavor which I can agree with. Any lingering soap would get removed during the distillation process.

    3. Yeah, I've heard of soaping the mash (or it's called something like that). That once was one of the theories behind FWP Bowmore, but that idea was shot down due to the nature of distilling as you've mentioned. I'll bet quite a few distilleries do it, but don't want to admit it in order to avoid scaring away customers. It's possible the soap notes come from broadening the size of the "middle" cut; one gets more spirit but also gets more unusual stuff from what would have been foreshots and feints.

    4. By the way, I recently noticed a picture of the standard Fettercairn Fior (unavailable here) and I've never seen a whisky so vibrant orange besides official Dalmore.

    5. Wouldn't it be interesting if they were owned by the same company and had the same well known Master Distiller... *ahem* :)

    6. I know. It's just that when Fettercairn gets the middle child treatment to Dalmore and Jura, you'd think, just maybe, they won't mess too much with it. But no... it's a part of the family so it had better resemble the siblings.... Well, I like this Fettercairn so I hope Diageo sells the distillery to a new owner that will bring out it's potential.

    7. I liked this one too, enough to not overlook indie Fettercarins going forward. Don't want to start a Paterson gripe-fest, but for someone so famous in his field he sure does oversee A LOT of mediocre whisky. And it's not just the three distilleries (haven't tried Tamnavulin yet). I tried Whyte & Mackay "Special" and "Thirteen" blends and found them to be watery and bland.

      Could Paterson's craft have been hurt by all the dog and pony shows he's been doing? Was there ever a point that he was consistently creating good whisky or is he well known mostly for his personality and performances? I don't know the answer to these questions.