...where distraction is the main attraction.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Talisker 10 year old: six batches across 20 years

Talisker's early history was a bit bumpy. In the 1820s, the MacAskill brothers bought a piece of land on Skye, then set about booting all of the rural renters off the property, Clearance-style. They built Talisker distillery in 1830, but the poor jerks couldn't figure out the business, filing for bankruptcy in 1848 and turning the distillery over to the bank. Donald MacLennan bought the distillery, then sold it ten years later when he couldn't turn a profit. The new owner, John Anderson, lasted all of twelve years before he went to prison for fraud. Robert Kemp, one of the next co-owners, only stayed on for twelve years as well, choosing instead to buy some distillery called "Macallan". In 1898, Talisker ownership merged with Dailuaine and Imperial. This lasted less than 18 years when the owner died and Distillers Company Limited took over. DCL → UD → Diageo has run Talisker ever since.

Though the distillery's ownership has remained stable for nearly a century, Talisker has seen changes. Triple distillation was discontinued in 1928, the distillery burst into flames in 1960, on-site malting ended in 1972 and in 1988, Talisker 10 year old was born as part of United Distillers' Classic Malts series.

This Taste Off has been a long time coming. Talisker 10 and I go back about 18 years. And that's been a long 18 years. But the whisky has survived, and apparently so have I. Over the past eight years I've had a suspicion that the whisky's quality has sunk. Or my palate has shifted dramatically. Or both.

With this same curiosity and concern I compared three bottlings of Talisker 18 year old, back in 2020. Not only did that Taste Off prove my point, but I was able to hypothesize what had happened to the whisky over the years. Three years before that writeup, I compared seven batches of Ardbeg Ten, and I fairly enjoyed that experience. May this Taste Off find the best elements of both of those posts!

Here's the lineup:

  1. 1990s Map Label, brown bottle, US release - From a very healthy bottle split.
  2. 2001 bottling, Stone Label, L15T03328098 - My bottle, about 1/3 of the way down.
  3. 2009 bottling, from the ol' blue box - Bottle split!
  4. 2012 bottling, end of the ol' blue box era, L2107CM000 - My bottle, originally reviewed in 2014.
  5. 2015 bottling, Made by the Sea era, L5224CM000 - Sample courtesy of one Florin.
  6. 2019 bottling, Made by the Sea era, L9023 - My 200mL bottle.

A technical note: For the purposes of this tasting, I am opening both windows behind me. As with the consumption of Springbank's single malts, the drinking of Talisker goes best with fresh air. And it is raining.

Whisky Notes
Map Label (1990s)Smoked salmon, uncooked uncured bacon and ocean water. Green grapes, honeydew, newspaper print. Hints of toffee pudding and mesquite.
L15T03328098 (2001)Possibly the smokiest of the group. Smoked almonds, smoky bacon and burnt grass. Ocean water, fresh sage and green bell peppers. With time it develops a combo of dark chocolate and berries.
L9 (2009)Oh dear. Plastic siding in the summer + mesquite chips + white peaches + mint leaves. Green apples, milk chocolate and a hint of fresh herbs drift through the background.
L2107CM000 (2012)The loudest nose. Mezcal, apple skins and serrano oil up front. Nutritional yeast and saline in the middle. Lemons and fish in the background.
L5224CM000 (2015)Bologna (the "meat", not the place) meets heavily charred veg. Mesquite ashes, horseradish and dry soil. It gets ashier with time, while picking up notes of raw cocoa and black walnuts.
L9023 (2019)Vanilla extract mixes with cinnamon, caramel, fresh sage, mesquite and woody ashes. Floral soap and candy cane notes arrive later.

Whisky Notes
Map Label (1990s)The nose's lox, bacon and mesquite merge flawlessly with yellow plums and lemons. Kelp and cayenne dot the edges.
L15T03328098 (2001)Milder than the '90s version. Mellow pepper, salt, sweet and smoke. Mint and limes in the middle. Picks up a pleasant fresh berry fruitiness after a half hour.
L9 (2009)Gloriously peppery, but also full of nectarines, yellow plums and lychees. Minerals and smoke frame it all.
L2107CM000 (2012)Very smoky. Plenty of cinnamon and (Cajun) blackened seasoning as well. A bit of alcohol heat never lets up. Smoked salt and lemons are waaaaaay in the back.
L5224CM000 (2015)Hay and salt. Tangy citrus and tangy pepper sauce. Artificial sweetener and a touch of soap.
L9023 (2019)Bitter and watery at first. It gains mint, pepper and hay after 20 minutes. Some lemon and mezcal later on.

Whisky Notes
Map Label (1990s)Plums and lemons at the beachside. Gentle earthiness and light sweetness in the background.
L15T03328098 (2001)Sweet oranges meet pepper sauce and a little bit of minerals.
L9 (2009)Stone fruit sweetness, green herbs, truffle salt and roasted chiles.
L2107CM000 (2012)Sweeter and tarter here. Good length. Smoke and chiles in the background.
L5224CM000 (2015)Sweet, ashy, lightly peppery, with a hint of citron.
L9023 (2019)Black peppercorns, simple syrup and a squeeze of lemon.

Whisky Notes Rating
Map Label (1990s)A perfectly assembled single malt. I don't think there's anything like this on the market right now, from Talisker or anyone else.
L15T03328098 (2001)I was a little worried about the palate on this one (especially since I have most of a bottle remaining), but once the fruit slipped in I was reassured.
L9 (2009)Fanfuckingtastic. Depth, balance, glory, strobe lights. Even better than I remembered this era of the 10 year old to be.
L2107CM000 (2012)Much rawer than the previous three. My palate had to recalibrate because this was a different whisky. Decent stuff though overall, with plenty of entertainment in the nose.
L5224CM000 (2015)A very unfortunate palate. The nose saves the whole thing from descending into C-grade territory. A strange, but limp, batch of casks perhaps?
L9023 (2019)Another startling shift to a different style, that of the contemporary era. Youth, oak, and thinness. Barely recognizable as Talisker.


I wanted to be proven wrong. I was not. To repeat my final note, the 2019 bottling was barely recognizable as Talisker. Unfortunately I have two bottles of it. Fortunately they are both 200mL. But the problems did not start with the 2019, as the 2015 had the most regrettable palate of the group. Though the 2012 survived following the big guns, it revealed the start of a less-balanced approach to the 10 year old. Did the older bottlings have older whisky within?

Speaking of which, of course my two favorites were the batches I know the least about. The 1990s version was a sparkling gem, while the 2009 edition somehow topped it. The first trio made Talisker feel like Caol Ila's saucy cousin. So what was responsible for the change in style? Younger ingredients? Or could it have been due to new mash tun and worm tubs installed in 1998?

No matter what, I am reassured that older batches of Talisker 10 are indeed lovely, but I doubt I'll be buying any current versions of Skye's oldest distillery's output any time soon.