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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Single Malt Report: Bladnoch 18 year old (OB, sheep label, 55%abv)

On Tuesday, it was a Signatory.  On Wednesday, I reviewed a Provenance.  Today, it's an official bottling of Bladnoch.  Tomorrow's will be another indie.  What all of four of these Bladnochs have in common are that they were distilled by United Distillers (proto-Diageo), rather than by the more recent ownership.

As they did with the Benromach distillery, Diageo not only sold the Bladnoch distillery but also -- out of the goodness of their black hearts -- allowed the new ownership to actually distill spirit.  In this case, perhaps in order to prevent direct competition with their own Lowland distillery, Glenkinchie, Diageo only allowed the new ownership to distill a maximum of 100,000 liters annually (as opposed to the 1,300,000 liter capacity it had before).  While 100K sounds like a lot, it's not.  As of 2013, that production put them 96th out of 97 Scotch malt distilleries.  Only Edradour was producing less.  Glenkinchie's capacity is 24 times larger.  (Note: I have also seen a 250,000/liter current capacity listed for Bladnoch via some sources.)

Nonetheless, Raymond Armstrong and Co-ordinated Development Services did start producing spirit in 2000 and squeezed out quite a number of bottlings before they shut down the shop last year.  They had also been renting out 10 of their 11 warehouses to other companies for cask storage (according to the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2013) thus bringing in a more consistent revenue stream.

Meanwhile, they were also bottling some of the whisky that had been distilled by their predecessor.  Today's whisky, an 18 year old, was distilled just before proto-Diageo mothballed the joint in the early '90s.  It was bottled at 55%abv and had an image of two proud sheep on its label.

Distillery: Bladnoch
Ownership: ???
Age: 18 years
Region: Lowlands
Maturation: Sherry cask
Alcohol by Volume: 55%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(This sample was from Florin (a prince), bottled almost 2 1/2 years ago, back in the day.)

The color is Macallan (Sienna?) dark.  The nose feels very closed at first.  Light grassy and oat notes emerge first, with more and more cereal appearing with time.  Then orange peel and dry soil.  After a while the main scent that emerges is that of cucumber skin, taking over almost entirely.  With lots of air, out come golden raisins and polyester couch cushions.  The palate feels a bit tight too.  It goes floral→sweet→bitter.  A bit of single grain simplicity.  Then with air, notes of silverware and mold suddenly appear.  Then a hint of cream sherry.  But sometimes it's just austere and bitter.  Vanilla comes out in the finish, followed by confectioner's sugar and black raisins.  Notebook paper and simple bitterness last the longest.

WITH WATER (approx. 46%abv)
The nose picks up a good figgy note.  The grass and cucumber skin notes remain.  Notes of eucalyptus and circus peanuts follow.  And, oddly, it kinda works.  Ah ha, here's the sherry in the palate, appearing as a big chocolate hit.  An herbal bitterness grows with time, as does quite a bit of green grass/chlorophyll.  The finish is all bitter chocolate, chlorophyll, and baby powder.

WITH WATER (<40%abv)
The nose is gentle, like a light fruity tea. Little bits of orange peel and aromatic bitters, followed by a dry leafy, rooty note.  The palate gets slightly soapy.  Notes of Earl Grey, sugar, cherry candy, soil, and vanilla bounce around each other.  It finishes with cherry candy, caramel, and a light bitterness.

I rarely say this about a whisky, but water is a MUST for this one.  When neat, it's closed and forgettable.  Airing it out helps a little, but it gets more enjoyable when hydrated.  Overall, it's odd, as you may be able to gather from my notes.  I find the cucumber skin note on the nose very pleasant, though others may not.  The chocolate palate note at the 46%abv point is very nice.

These official bottlings were priced nicely back when they were available.  Sadly I missed out on grabbing one.  I doubt I'd go after this particular bottling, but this quirky grassy herbal character I've found in Bladnoch appeals to my nose and mouth.  If you've had some of the sheep/cow-labelled Bladnochs, please let me know in the comments what you thought of 'em.

Availability - Somewhere in Europe...
Pricing - I think it was $70-$90 (pre-shipping) as recently as 2013
Rating - 82 (with water only, when neat it's in the mid-70s)


  1. Trip down memory lane - I finished this bottle two years ago! Yeah it had sheep on it. My first bottle of Bladnoch - and because of that, my only one. Here were my unenthusiastic impressions:

    "Medium sherried, cask strength, triple distilled lowlander. Not a lot of personality on the nose, or on the body. Somewhere between mild and muddy. Probably an unskilled blend of sherry and bourbon casks. I had good luck with blending it with some non-sherried whiskies." 2.5*

    (Maybe I should have tried it with water!)

    Last night I had a sample of this Bladnoch and it strengthened the conviction that this is not my favorite distillery. You can easily take it for a blended whisky, but with a good, medium, oily, almost waxy, body (maybe because of cask strength). The fact that it's triple distilled shows - did they keep doing that during Armstrong's regime as well? I found the same simple combo of light cereals and grainy bitterness that you did in the 18yo. This one I may have tried with water, but what it seemed to need, and plenty of, was time in the glass - very muted at first.

    1. Unless I'm mistaken, Bladnoch has been double distilled for a long time. It seems that besides Auchentoshan and Rosebank, the Lowland distilleries gradually gave up on triple distillation around the mid 20th century.

    2. Yeah, I think Bladnoch did the 2x distillation. I thought that St. Mags did triple, but now I can't find that info anywhere. Littlemill gave up the 3x before WWII.

    3. @Florin - Thanks for the confirmation of which ruminant animals graced the label. I should have asked you about it before since that does matter. I'll update my info right now. I was surprised by how blah it was without water; perhaps my expectations were set too high. Some folks really like their sheep.

    4. Florin, I'll have a review of that 11 yo K&L lightly peated Bladnoch up sooner or later0---I'm not a fan either. I'd hate for you to judge Armstrong-era Bladnoch on that basis though. I think all that K&L cask demonstrates is what I suspect 80% of the time: the Davids have dodgy palates that are probably very influenced by enthusiasm from various directions. Almost all the Armstrong-era Bladnoch I've ordered directly from the UK in the past have been very good values, with some that would be very good even at much higher prices than Raymond A. ever charged.

    5. Also: my understanding is that Bladnoch under Raymond A. essentially only released single casks, whether they were labelled as such or no; and also that the sheep labels were always sherry casks; not sherry/bourbon vattings as Florin speculates.

    6. I have two other Bladnochs from you - a 9yo and a different 11yo. I enjoyed part of the 9yo much more than the 11yo already. So it can't be all bad - and I don't think it is. Just that based on my experience there are other distilleries ahead of it on my list. Way ahead.

    7. @MAO - I'd heard about the sheep-sherry/cow-bourbon labeling. I'm sure that's the case, but there's been some blurring of it online. Whiskybase lists at least one sheep label as a bourbon cask (which may be just be due to crowdsourcing issues). Also, on the Bladnoch Forum, Raymond says "we tended to use the sheep label for whisky that matured in hogsheads and the Beltie for whisky that matured in bourbon barrels but that rule doesn't work with sherry cask matured whisky with origins in butts" here: http://www.bladnoch.co.uk/threads/ubbthreads.php?ubb=showflat&Number=39977

  2. Raymond Armstrong actually convinced Diageo at some point to allow increased production. So the 250,000 liter capacity may be the correct number. Still comparatively small though...

    1. Do you remember where you saw that info? I think the 250K was their actual capacity, according to Malt Madness and the Malt Whisky Yearbook. But from what I've heard they were only distilling sporadically for most of their existence anyway.

    2. I remember a blurb in Charles Maclean's World Whisky (pretty good reference book by the way) that in 2000 Diageo allowed Bladnoch to produce up to 250,000 liters. However it's not clear if Bladnoch ever reached that capacity. At the very least it was the distillery's theoretical maximum.

    3. Good to know. I'll keep snooping around about this. Though, from second-, third-, and fourth-hand sources, I've heard that the actual production never risked getting to the limit levels.