Another month, another slab of Whisky Squad related delight Chez Jeff, the lovely landlord of The Gunmakers. This month we were treated to another special guest following in the rather hefty footsteps of Colin Dunn – Rob Whitehead from Berry Brothers & Rudd. Regular Whisky Guy Darren was off recovering from a whisky related sojourn state-side, so we were left in the capable hands of Rob to run us through some of the whiskies that Berry Brothers bottle.
Berry Brothers & Rudd are the oldest family owned wine and spirit merchant in the world. Generally they’ve been known in more recent times for their wine, with their cellars extending for quite a way under St James’s, but they are also a very well respected independent bottler of spirits. Despite having known about them for a while, something that is inevitable when your dad sells wine, I didn’t realise that they also did whisky until recently. Having tried a couple of drams at whisky live earlier this year I did a bit of research and found that they’d won Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottler of the Year award last year, a feat they’ve recently repeated for a second time.
The shop started out in 1698 as grocers on the same site that it is now, 3 St James’s Street. The Berry clan became part of the business in the 1780s through marriage and Hugh Rudd joined the company in 1914 as a junior partner, completing its current name. While the wine side of things is more well known these days, with the full cellars of St James’s as well as a warehouse in Basingstoke allowing them to store 6 million bottles of wine, a million of which are looked after for customers needing proper cellaring, it was whisky that helped them keep going through the post-war period. In 1923 they released Cutty Sark, their own blend, which had great success in the US during the 50s and 60s giving a well needed boost in the still struggling British economic climate. They recently did a trade with the Edrington Group, swapping Cutty Sark for Glenrothes (which they already had a part share in) and a share in the Anchor brewery in San Francisco, but the whisky loving streak runs deep in the company.
Rob works with the BBR spirit’s manager Doug McIvor to put together an impressive selection of spirits, from distillery bottlings to a range of their own – the Berry’s Own Selection. This doesn’t only cover whisky, but also rums, and they also bottle their own cognacs and gin – the spirits room at their shop is rather full of interesting looking bottles. However, the whisky is where we were at for the evening. They bottle quite a range, with their youngest being a 4 year old Ledaig and the oldest a 42 year old Carsebridge, from all over Scotland. They buy casks from various distillers and mature them in a variety of locations, having their own warehouse in Scotland as well as leaving many with the distillers themselves, although in order for a whisky to be called scotch it does have to be matured in Scotland. Their bottling policy is very simple – it’s bottled when it’s at what Doug thinks is the whisky’s best. If they miss that point or if they don’t think it will reach it they sell the cask on – the trade in casks is very active, with many companies needing whisky for blending and not worrying if it’s not up to single cask bottling as it will only be one component of many in a finished product.
In traditional Whisky Squad style we tried the whiskies blind, with Rob helping this along by bringing along a set of whisky socks to conceal the bottles. We started on what he described as ‘Breakfast Whisky’, a lightly coloured introduction to the evening. On the nose it had boiled sweets, liquid caramel and apples. To taste it had spice, orange candy, sherbert, polished wood and a hint of floral (rather than peppery) olive oil. Water brought out more of the woody flavours, with vanilla and sour wood joining the rest, along with blackjacks, menthol and a biscuity graininess. Guesses were made and Rob revealed the bottle to be a 14yr old Aberlour matured in a many times refilled cask. The standard Aberlour style is quite heavily sherried (as I’ve mentioned before), so this less active cask, as most of the wood flavour had been leeched out through the previous fillings, gave a more ‘naked’ tasting Aberlour, revealing the underlying new make more than usual.
We moved on quickly to number 2, a rather different beast. On the nose it had rubber boots, earthy smoke, turpentine, chilli and charcoal, with a sweet hit at the back of the nose. My tasting notes start with ‘charcoal butter’, continuing with lemons, brine and a smoky mineral (granite?) finish. Water tamed things slightly, revealing a rich spicy sweetness and more of a prickly mouthfeel – maybe revealing a hint of horseradish. This one at first seemed easier to guess, being quite blatantly made in the style of an Islay whisky, and predictions were made. However, this was another deliberate curve ball – a 12 year old heavily peated Bunnahaibhain. The regular production bottlings of Bunnahabhain are unique on Islay due to being almost entirely unpeated, however for two weeks a year, just before they close down for summer, they distill a heavily peated spirit that is generally used in making Black Bottle (a smoky blend using a bit of most of the Islay malts). They then thoroughly clean out the stills and tuns before returning to their regular spirit production when the distilling starts up again. Berry’s bought some casks either side of the closedown one year and released this rare peated version – the others are still waiting to reach their peaks.
Number 3 was my favourite of the night. On the nose it had flowers, wax, pears and linseed oil, along with a sweetness that I described at the time as ‘like when you mix together the strawberry and vanilla sections of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream after it has started to melt. There’s not chocolate because the chocolate bit in neapolitan ice cream is rubbish’. I ate a lot of Sainsbury’s neapolitan ice cream as a child. To taste it had a big creamy sweetness with fizzy lemons, opal fruits, sour plums, and some oiliness and spicy dry wood. A drop of water opened it more with strawberries and custard, but it stilled retained the woody spiciness. An interesting dram that I dreaded discovering the price of. The sock was whipped off and it was shown to be a 26 year old Glen Mhor. This didn’t enlighten me much, but Rob continued with the story. Glen Mhor (pronounced ‘Vor’) was an undistinguished distillery in Inverness, not particularly admired but producing okay whisky until it closed in 1983. It was demolished in 1986 and is now a Co-op. This cask was distilled in 1982, just before the closure, and bottled in 2009, and unlike the regular whisky the distillery produced it has come out to be rather special. It’s an older style of whisky, as you might expect from a slowing down distillery in the early 80s, and Rob told us about whisky lovers who tried things back in the early 80s waxing lyrical about its old school flavour. The writing of this post was accompanied by a dram of it.
Number 4, the ‘official’ last whisky of the tasting, was poured out and sat a deep bronze in the glass. On the nose it had sweet orange, dark rum, vanilla and coconut. ‘Like a milk chocolate Bounty’ someone offered from the room. To taste it had a cool creamy sweetness with a touch of woodiness and a drying finish. Water brought out more flavours, with butter icing and sour fruit making an appearance. The finish was still woody, with some astringent booziness to the sides of the tongue. While the guessing went on I rather proudly detected the key USP of this whisky – it’s a single grain. With my recent discovery of and continued searching for grain whiskies I shouldn’t be quite so preening, but preen I did. The sock was removed and it was shown to be a 39 year old Invergordon single grain. I tried one of their previous bottlings of Invergordon at Whisky Live when I first discovered the Berry’s Own Selection range and thought it was quite special – this one beat it hands down. Distilled in 1971 this was bottled 5 weeks ago, with an outturn of about 190 bottles, missing out on its 40th birthday by a few months. After 39 years it still came in at a strength of 47%, which was helped along by the cask being filled with much higher alcohol distillate than usual – maybe 70% or above. The empty barrel has since been filled with Laphroaig new spirit and is now sitting somewhere thinking about what it’s done, waiting to be bottled some time in the future. This whisky reminded me of the Port Dundas that I own as well as the one that Colin Dunn brought along to Whisky Squad #5 even though this was matured in a first fill bourbon cask rather than sherry, as used in the other two. An interesting whisky that shows the delicate common characteristics of well aged grain and one that I was very tempted by.
Now that the tasting had officially finished Rob unveiled a special fifth bottle. Grabbed on the way out of the shop it’s one that was used for customer tastings of a whisky that sold out that day. Rather than leave it hidden in a cupboard Rob kindly brought it along for us to have a try. On the nose it was waxy with linseed oil, sherbert and thick vanilla. To taste it started with leather and stones before moving to a floral sweetness with red fruit and citrus, and a dry woody finish. Watter brought a chalkiness with the fruitiness, described as ‘fruit rennies’, sherry wood and more vanilla. Rob gave us a few hints, starting with the fact that the distillery is now closed. It’s a triple distilled (rather than the more regular double) lowland whisky that was matured in a fourth fill sherry cask. With blank faces all around the sock was removed for one last time to reveal a 26 year old St Magdalene from 1982. The distillery closed in 1983, another victim of the over production of the 70s, and is now a block of flats. This bottling sold for £90 and is now completely sold out.
We repaired, as usual, downstairs to find the place had been overrun by the London Perl Mongers on their monthly meetup. Being an occasional monger of Perl I knew a bunch of people and they soon started digging in to the left over whiskies that made it behind the bar – the Invergordon didn’t last long. I ended up running down to Berry’s the next evening to grab a bottle of the Glen Mhor (one of the last 5 or 6) and caught them just before they closed. I’m not sure if it counts as a lock-in but Rob walked me through a couple of their other whiskies including the fabled 4 year old Ledaig, the youngest they’ve bottled and also completely sold out, which was a young peaty slap to face (and good with it), and also their Guyanan demerera rum, which was dark, dangerous tasting and unlike any other rum I’ve tried before. It’s definitely worth the trip down to St James’s.
Berry’s Own Selection Aberlour 1994
14 year old speyside single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£35. No longer available online.
Berry’s Own Selection Bunnahabhain 1997
12 year old cask strength Islay single malt scotch whisky. 55.3%. ~£45. No longer available online.
Berry’s Own Selection Glen Mhor 1982
26 year old cask strength highland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£70. No longer available online.
Berry’s Own Selection Invergordon 1971
39 year old cask strength single grain scotch whisky. 47%. ~£100. Available on bbr.com
Berry’s Own Selection St Magdalene 1982
26 year old lowland single malt scotch whisky. 46%. ~£90. Sold out.
There’s a chance that the whiskies that aren’t online are available at their St James’s Street shop, so it’s worth wandering in if you’re interested.