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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Single Malt Report: North Port-Brechin 19 year old 1976 Cadenhead's

There has been much weeping over the closing of the Brora and Port Ellen distilleries.  Nary a tear has fallen for the fate of North Port.  But is the short shrift this rarely-discussed distillery receives well earned or undue?  I'm going to make a final generalized opinion on it via a single 50mL with a questionable neck fill.

North Port isn't a 'port' in the way most of us know the word.  In fact, the distillery's location was at least five miles from the North Sea coast.  "Port" is actually a Scots word for a town's gate.  In this case, the gate was on the north side of the Scottish town of Brechin.  Though the distillery is gone, the town is still there, near the River Esk in corn country, with a thousand year old cathedral in its center.

Built by David Guthrie in 1823, the distillery stayed with his family until it was bought by DCL ninety-nine years later.  During its lifetime the names Townhead, Brechin, and North Port were all used; at some point in recent history the name became hyphenated as North Port-Brechin.  When the worldwide whisky market faltered, DCL (part of what would later become Diageo) went on its infamous distillery closing campaign in 1983.  North Port got the ax that May.  Today a Safeway supermarket stands in its place.

Since North Port's product was almost exclusively used for blends, and its malt was not one coveted, there haven't been many single malt releases.  Diageo dribbled out a few 'Rare Malts' releases.  The main independent bottlers Cadenhead's, Gordon & MacPhail, Laing, and Duncan Taylor have about three dozen of their own, in total.  I'm uncertain when the distillery picked up its current reputation for lower quality, but it may something to do with the reception of some of G&M's Connoisseur's Choice bottlings.  The Rare Malts output didn't seem to win North Port too many new fans either.  (I recommend Scotch and Ice Cream's great post on Tim's North Port-Brechin experience as it parallels most of the word of mouth I've personally heard on NP-B.)  But the Malt Maniacs do have some nice things to say about some of the Cadenhead's and Laing releases.  So how about an old Cadenhead's?

Distillery: North Port (Brechin)
Ownership: Diageo
Independent Bottler: Cadenhead's
Age: 19 years (December 1976 - December 1995)
Maturation: a much refilled former bourbon barrel (or Oak Cask, per the label)
Region: Eastern Highlands
Alcohol by Volume: 63.3% (woo-wee!)

Now that's an ABV.  A little unusual to have such a heavy hitter after 19 years in an "Oak Cask".  With the negative whisky word on the street about this distillery and the massive ABV, I was very excited.  Oh, this could be such a hot mess!  Or, looking at that neck, er, shoulder-fill it could be totally oxidized after seventeen years in glass.

Color - Rich dark gold
Nose - Much less burn or prickle than anticipated.  Honeydew melon and honey.  Salted caramels and a little yeast.  Bourbon-like vanilla with cherry and apple candies.
Palate - HOT S***, the taste buds have been torched! Earthy with some barrel char and chlorine.  Salty and sweet.  Fresh apples.  And also burning.
Finish - Salt and chlorine.  Cocoa, molasses, and sour apple candies.

Nose - Holds up well, though doesn't open up much: swimming pools, apples, vanilla extract, apple juice, fruity candies, barrel char, a little earthy.
Palate - The fire is now out, but the whisky doesn't open up at all, even with some time in the glass.  There's more sourness and bitterness.  And it's a little salty with mild malt and soil notes.
Finish - More oak shows up here along with mint and menthol. Lightly bitter and salty.

It wasn't terrible.  I was bracing for The Craptacular.  But the flaws don't seem to have entirely come from bad spirit (the nose was pretty good actually), rather the whisky seems to have been bottled too early and/or it sat in a worn out cask and/or it was in warehouse's hot spot.

Having just bottled my own little whiskey, I'm getting some first hand experience with maturation rates.  My rye lost tons of liquid, but much less alcohol.  That may have been due to warm storage, very porous oak, or questionable cooperage (or all of the above).  I had to bottle the whiskey before losing too much liquid and thus avoiding a bottle of undrinkable poison.  But that was me, a Long Beach shnook making one bottle of rye in his dining room.

Why was Cadenhead's in such a rush to bottle a 19 year old spirit at 63.3% ABV?  It's a white hot blast of new make on the palate with the oak showing up only a little on the nose (or with a lot of water added).  Would another 11 years in a different warehouse location or a different cask have hurt?  Then Cadenhead's would have been able to sell it at a premium due to the age and rarity alone.  Think of the price on a 30 year 1976 55+% ABV extinct single malt with less than 200 bottles available.  If that resulting whisky matured properly and actually tasted good, the word of mouth would have done them additional favors.

With a good cask and good management, North Port-Brechin malt could turn out decently.  As mentioned before, there are a few bottles that have gotten warm regards from the MMs.  Could Diageo be sitting on some 30-40 year old casks they're waiting to drop on a market devoid of North Port, with bloated prices attached?

I can understand the gripes against the distillery, but I can also see how something good can come of their malt.  I'm not necessarily encouraging anyone to hurry out and scoop up the existing $300+ bottles of NP-B, but I won't be as quick to mock the distillery going forward.  Plus I need to be a little more careful with super-high ABV whisky in the future.  Those behemoths may be fun but, damn, I'd like to keep most of my taste buds for future Single Malt Reports.

Availability - None
Pricing - Unknown
Rating - 74