It is not often that you can recall the exact moment that you realise you are in love. In reality I suppose its a gradual process whereby you suddenly realise that you just are head over heels.
My journey with Clynelish has been exactly like that.
A gradual appreciation, from finding it initially a little overwhelming, to realising I have well and truly fallen for it.
Clynelish Distillery is located near the town of Brora, Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland.
Much like the character of the spirit, even the history of the distillery is a little complex.
Initially founded by the then Duke of Sutherland, historically an unpopular figure due to his role in the darkest chapter of Scottish history, The Highland Clearances, in 1892. The distillery changed hands several times, notably being acquired by Distillers Company Limited (the forerunner to what we now know as Diageo) in 1912 before falling silent in 1931.
Clynelish started producing again in 1960 and by 1967 a new distillery was built next door. This new distillery was also called Clynelish and in the following year the old Clynelish distillery was mothballed.
For a short time it ran alongside Clynelish as ‘Clynelish B’ before being renamed Brora and switching its production from 1969 until 1983 to a more heavily peated syle which was mostly destined for blends.
Brora continued distillation until 1983 when it was again closed and has remained so ever since.
Today Clynelish forms an important constituent part of the Johnnie Walker blend and in the Diageo portfolio as a whole. 95% of what is produced at Clynelish is used for Johnnie Walker blends and it is most prevalent in the Gold Label Reserve.
So, to sum up. Clynelish was what is now Brora, until they built what is now Clynelish and after that what was previously Clynelish was renamed Brora. With me so far?
The distillery gets its water from the nearby Clynemilton Burn and currently the distillery produces 4.2 million litres of spirit per year.
Work is currently underway at the Distillery which, when complete, will see the production levels double from its current output.
Quirkily the spirit stills at Clynelish are bigger than its wash stills which allows for more copper contact which gives rise to elegant and fruity spirit. The naturally occuring oils in the Feints Receiver help to give a mouthcoating waxy feeling to the product, even when the plant is cleaned these oils are returned within the receiver to ensure this important component of Clynelish DNA is not removed completely.
When I visited last year (October 2016) the work was well underway and the new stills and washbacks were in place. Although I was disappointed not to be able to see Clynelish itself it did mean that we were able to have a tour of Brora which was a fascinating experience.
I am hoping to revisit and see the newly renovated Clynelish when it opens for tours again.
The Tasting Notes
I am going to try and approach this vertical in a reasonably structured way.
It will start off with a cask sample (which I drew from a cask myself in the warehouse) as my base, then I’ll move through the core expressions ( Clynelish 14 and the Distillers edition) the Distillery exclusive and then a whole host of independent bottlings from a variety of sources.
Clynelish, unbottled, unknown abv, cask sample, distilled in 1988, drawn in 2016.
The nose is powerful, but this is straight from the cask so Im guessing not far off 60% abv, I think some water will be required. There are strong elements of florality mixed with pear drops and a crisp white wine-esque note is noticable amoung a fresh citrus and grassy boquet.
The palate is dominated by a wonderful heather honey feeling. Sweet yet with a crisp florality. Crisp and fresh green apples and perhaps some green grapes are also here.
The finish is all about the fruit. Apple notes mixed with pineapple and apricots give a tropical flavour until a slight tannic element emerges along with nettle tea and a faint coastal note. Given time there is a buttery feeling that creeps up. Delightful.
Pretty much heaven in a glass. Wonderful stuff. Perhaps I have set the bar too high…
Clynelish 14yo, OB, 46%abv, from my collection, (available here)
The nose is filled with apricots, honey and a dash of sicillian lemon zest, There’s a green apple note along with intense honeycomb which develops into a perfumed element at the tail end.
The palate is a mixture of heather honey, beeswax and apples (specifically tangy green cooking apples) The waxy tones turn into savoury vanilla and a mild brine tone emerges before a savory twist.
As for the finish there are spices, lemon pepper and some deliciously tangy tanins, all alongside the distinctive beeswax and the emergence of a grassy note.
It is full bodied, mouthfilling, charcterful and I’d probably place it as my favourite core release from any distillery.
Clynelish Distillers Edition, OB, 14yo, from my own collection, 46%abv, (available here)
Upfront on the nose are the same heather honey and perfumed base elements but with the addition of raisins, dates and muscovado sugar, mixed with tropical fruits.
The palate is led by apples baked in spice and some mint and chocolate tones. The sherry wood has lent lovely warming spices to the waxy palate and also to the finish where gentle cinnamon and nutmeg infused raisins fade alongside some gentle oaky tones.
The double maturation in Oloroso casks has done enough to enhance the Clynelish DNA but most importantly not cover it completely or overpower it.
Clynelish Distillery Exclusive, OB, 57.3%abv, from my own collection, (available from the distillery)
The nose is a little more peppery than the others so far. Similar in style to the cask sample. As expected its waxy and fruity but has a slightly wood note lurking underneath some of the more perfumed tones. Water opens up and calms the spirit, alowing the perfume notes to open slightly and become a little grassy, alongside softer vanilla elements.
The palate is the usual mix of honey, beeswax and apples but doesnt feel quite as balanced and smooth as the others I have tried.
Crisp and punchy throught, the finish is quite long and has just the faintest wisp of smoke and coastal notes.
And now onto the Independents…
Berry Bros. & Rudd, Clynelish, IB, 16yo, 55.4%abv, Cask no:6871, (no longer available)
This particular bottling was my first EVER review on the website and to this day is my favourite independent bottling from the distillery. Sadly its almost impossible to find now, if you do see one then buy it straight away. Then send it to me… (Seriously if you do see one then let me know)
The nose is light and fresh. Fruity and with a wisp of crispness and sea breeze. Pineapple and apricot notes alongside grassy, citrusy and mineral elements mix fantastically with vanilla custard.
The palate is honey infused with some nice vanilla tones. There are some very pleasant biscuit notes alongside beeswax (subtle) and some very gentle woody tones. Lemon and some gentle tea tannins lead to a soft, gentle and slowly fading finish. Danish pastries and custard.
This bottle was originally bought to share with my father in law to celebrate becoming a father myself so it really is not only an exceptional example of an independent Clynelish, but an iconic bottle for me personally.
Wemyss Malts Peppered Biltong (Clynelish), IB, 21yo, 303 bottles, 46%abv, sample swap (available here)
The nose is very subtle with elements of gentle sea spray, crisp apples and soft leather.
The palate leads with the usual waxy undertones but alongside some delicious tannins and some coastal notes. Given time a buttery feeling emerges as we move along to a soft and peppery finish. Gentle spices emerge at the end alongside a hint of gooseberries.
This has the softest nose of all of the expressions I have tried but yet still delivers.
Douglas Laing Old Particular, Clynelish, IB, 48.4%abv, 18yo (available here)
This is the oldest expression so far, lets see how it holds up to the others.
Initially the nose has some good fruity elements, some ripe bananas, a touch of maple syrup and a slight Danish pastry type note. There is a faint malty quality alongside some good citrus tones.
The palate is very waxy, even by Clynelish standards. Strong honeycomb here along with a fruity undertone but these soon diminish under some salted caramel and cedar elements.
The finish is surprisingly tannic and its only here that a buttery vanilla feeling emerges. A mild herbaceous note makes itself known right at the end.
That Boutique-y Whisky Company Clynelish, IB, 49.3%abv, Batch 3, press sample (available here)
From the company with the best bottle labels comes a 3rd batch of Clynelishy goodness…
The nose is unusually tropical with a dusting of icing sugar over green apple peelings and candied papaya. There is a slight crisp note developing over time.
The palate is light and refreshing. There are elements of white chocolate and has a subtle waxiness. Lemon sherberts are here alongside some coastal notes and the smallest puff of lingering smoke. The palate definitely has a slight dry white wine style crispness to it.
The finish is quite light and starts with a cereal note alongside some solid citrus elements. A slight pepperiness is evident on the tongue.
Gordon & MacPhail Clynelish, IB, 15yo, 54%abv, from my own collection, (available here)
A change of pace as we look at an expression matured in a refill sherry cask.
The nose has the unmistakable sherry influence. Brown sugar (demerara rather than muscovado) soft leather and some gentle spice overlays, but doesn’t mask, the heather honey and spiced apple undertones.
The palate is very soft. The waxy elements we know so well are here but there is a lovely tinge of oranges and a big dollop of honey and cedar wood.
The finish is buttery and tannic, with warming spice and a lingering oak note. Water really opens up and improves all aspects of this dram, most notably unleashing the Clynelish-ness from under the sherry.
Clynelish, IB, Adelphi, 19y.o, sourced via sample sawp, 47.1%abv (available here)
The nose is not what I expected. There is a slightly more tropical fruit feeling and a mild florality, which isn’t what I would associate with Clynelish. There is also a slight damp element here and some oak notes. There are the more waxy feeling elements underneath but I’m used to these being more dominant. Interesting…
The palate sees the strong emergence of the waxy, tannic and orange notes alongside some nice buttery and salted caramel tones. Again a surprise in store with the amount of vanilla which has just popped up.
The finish is quite smooth with the waxy feeling still present. There is a tannic and spiced tone here but also elements of pineapple and green banana.
The addition of water seems to really open this up. In fact I would say that it really improves it. Much more open and softer, with the vanilla and beeswax notes really accelerating. Definitely more mellow and approachable.
Clynelish, 24y.o, IB (Cadenheads) 44.7%abv, (available here)
Now its another surprising nose. There is definitely a fudgy undertone here but with some zingy citrus notes (orange zest mainly) and a sprinkle of lemon pepper and something reminiscent of linseed oil.
The palate is sweet and savoury, there is a great deal of heather honey along with the ever present beeswax and a dollop of salted caramel.
The finish is quite long and really just continues where the palate left off but with a nice added florality that I hadn’t noticed anywhere before.
These independents are all great examples of spirit from the same distillery, undergoing the same processes with the same ingredients but in the end the dark arts of maturation have yielded entirely different drams all of which share a common DNA there is no escaping from.
I’d like to thank everyone that has swapped or sent me samples of various expressions of Clynelish throught this project. It’s been an eduction to try so many.
I’d also like to thank Alia and Joanne at the Diageo archives for supplying some amazing images, which are used with their kind permission.
Thanks also to you for reading something which has become a labour of love for me, an article selfishly indulging my love for a distillery, a spirit and a legendary whisky.