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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Single Malt Report: Wolfburn Single Malt Whisky

Wolfburn distillery is now the most northern mainland Scotch distillery, up and to the west of Old Pulteney.  Almost two hundred years ago, a different Wolfburn distillery opened in the same town (Thurso) and functioned for anywhere between sixteen and forty years before its permanent closure.  That distillery, like this new one, was named after the water source, The Wolf Burn.  The current distillery has a production capacity almost the same size as Kilchoman's, and they're currently keeping all of their production for single malt, not trading any casks out to blending companies.  For more distillery data, click over here.

The release of Wolfburn's single malt heralds the first hint of what will result from the recent boom of new Scottish distilleries (Annandale, Ardnamurchan, Ballindalloch, etc.).  Wolfburn's construction did have a slight jump on some of the other newbies, but they have also decided to bottle their stuff just as it hits the legal age of three years (distilling began in January 2013, the whisky was released in February 2016).  This may be due to the production team thinking their whisky is ready OR the distillery investors were demanding to see some revenue OR everyone involved wants to strike while the scotch iron is hot, er, hasn't cooled entirely.  (With the opposite approach, the Cuthbert family's small Daftmill farm distillery has been tucking away casks for eleven years without a single public release.)  Though cautiously hopeful about this new whisky era, I realize Wolfburn's product is only three years old, and thus won't reveal much about the bigger picture, unless all the other new distilleries also start dumping at age three.

(One random observation: Who at Wolfburn okayed the use of "Handcrafted" on the front of the label?  I can see a Diageo marketing unit utilizing that word for a Caol Ila release, but Wolfburn?  Thanks to constant marketing abuse, "Handcrafted" has become a meaningless term in the whisk(e)y industry, or even worse, a joke.  Sort of like McDonald's Artisan Chicken Sandwiches.  And what part of the whisky is handcrafted?  Even at Springbank, the most old school of scotch distilleries, not a single hand touches the product from the sweeping of the malted barley into the milling chute until the cask valinch many years later.  Machines, chemistry, and time craft whisky, and there's nothing wrong with that.  So, boo to the use of "Handcrafted" on the label, especially since it's printed larger than "Natural Color", "Non-Chill Filtered", and "Product of Scotland". )

Distillery: Wolfburn
Owner: Aurora Brewing
Region: Northern Highlands
Age: minimum 3 years
Bottling Date: 2016
Limited bottling: 16,000 or 62,000 depending on what site one reads
Alcohol by Volume: 46%
Chillfiltration? No
Colorant? No
This sample was poured at a Scottish bar, deposited into a sample bottle, and then spirited back to the United States.

Its color is very pale, with a slight green tint.  Bushels of roasted barley in the nose, followed by soil, burnt butter, yeast, and circus peanuts.  With 20 minutes in the glass some new notes take over: fresh thyme, eau de vie, and toddler pee.  The palate leads with burnt plastic, charred tobacco leaves, and sweet barley syrup.  Lots of ethyl heat throughout.  After 20 minutes, there's baseball card bubblegum powder and a hint of lemon.  There's a bitter burnt note in the finish as well as a metallic note.  Then yeast, sorghum beer, and heat.  But mostly it's whisky wash.

Some of the palate's burnt notes come up into the nose, especially something like burnt yeast.  The circus peanut note expands.  Some new notes of caramel, cucumber-melon hand soap, and mint extract appear.  There's a decent bitter thing in the palate along with horseradish and dried herbs.  It's less sweet too.  But there are also lead and burnt bread notes in foreground.  The finish is yeasty and bitter, but not sugary.

I've met a few whisky geeks in the LA area who distill and age their own malt whisky.  Their 6-12 month old stuff is of about the same quality as Wolfburn's three year old.  But their whisky is not on the market.  Wolfburn's is.  Because Wolfburn's whisky is three years old, it's neither complex or complete, nor should anyone expect it to be.  Instead its spirit's edge hangs right out front, flapping in the wind.  That's a confident way to go, but that doesn't necessarily mean the stuff is great.  There's plenty of promise to it, so I look forward to trying their whisky again when it's seven years older.

Availability - A dozen retailers in the US, several dozen in Europe
Pricing - US $55-$70, Europe $45-$65
Rating - 74