Thursday, 3 November 2016

Over 20 years, under £50. Tasting the Lidl Special Releases.

I’m meant to be running my stocks down. I was accusingly reminded of this when I returned home yesterday and, in fairness, my accuser has a point. There is, after all, finite space on my desk. At this stage, calling it a desk is rather stretching credulity. But for the three bottles I brought back, I’m inclined to forgive myself and make an allowance.

I have nothing against NAS whisky in principle. Heck, the first article I ever wrote that wasn’t a tour write-up was on the subject. If it’s well made, good value, tasty whisky I’m happy. Just look how much I go on about A’Bunadh. But there is something undeniably profound and special about holding something in your hand that was committed to barrel years and years ago. Something that makes you think back to who you were then, and what you were doing. Perhaps something distilled before you were even born, or thought of. 

I have never owned a whisky older than myself. I have tasted scores of them, of course, and on two occasions I have bought such bottles for friends, but my budget simply doesn’t stretch to that sort of thing. It wasn’t something that especially concerned me – as ought to be fairly clear, I’m fascinated by exploring the more affordable galaxies in the whisky universe. There were more than enough bottles within my budget to prevent me from worrying about those that weren’t. But, as I’m sure there is for any serious whiskyer, there was always that little niggle; that pang at the back of the brain that wouldn’t quite make itself disappear.

Last year, in the run up to Christmas, Lidl, who are not necessarily the first folks you’d think of when the subject of aqua vitae is broached, made some serious waves. In partnership with the Clydesdale Scotch Whisky Company they bottled two single malts: an Islay and a Speyside, and three blended, sherry-finish whiskies. The malts went under their Ben Bracken brand, the blends Glenalba. So far so regular – but then we come to age and price. The Islay was 22 years old, the Speyside 28 years old and the blends 22, 25 and 34 respectively. Prices: £45, £50, £30, £35 and £50.

Naturally there were several sceptics. But reviews from the likes of Malt, Great Drams and Scotchwhisky.com convinced this cynic to take them seriously. Unfortunately, as might be expected given those staggering price tags, anyone who took a couple of moments to have second thoughts missed out on the opportunity to buy the malts. 

Yesterday I was idly scrolling through Twitter (during my lunch hour, I hasten to add) and I noticed that someone had spotted the Glenalba blends at Lidl’s Wokingham branch. In need of a birthday present for a friend, and Wokingham being just a quarter of an hour from my house, I decided to take a punt. So that evening found me hopping in the corsa after work and making a bee-line for the spirits aisle.

Where I discovered, to my great surprise, that the Glenalbas were not alone. I hadn’t even heard that Lidl were relaunching the Ben Brackens, but there, on the top shelf were two sets of very smart
boxes. Single Malt Islay 22 years old said one. Single Malt Speyside 27 said the second. ‘Well ok then’ said the third. Which was me. Not that I'm a very smart box. I didn’t even have the 'should I-shouldn’t I' waver that inevitably pops up whenever I make an impromptu purchase. I added two bottles of Glenalba 22 (one for my friend and one for me) and, following a hideously embarrassing fifteen minute interlude during which the rest of the store was held up as the shop assistant rummaged through the stock room, was back on my way to Château Pilgrim.

Let’s cut to the chase: are they any good? Well, within seconds of being through the door I had lined up three Glencairns, preparing to answer that very question. I began with the 22 year old sherry-finished Glenalba, then the 27 year old Ben Bracken Speyside and finally the 22 year old Ben Bracken Islay, and my tidied-up notes are below:

Glenalba 22yo Sherry Finish – The nose is ever so slightly faint at first (grows considerably with the tasting.) Very sherry – but clean and ripe. Raisins, currants and dates rather than anything dry or nutty. There’s definitely a sense of maturity – some nice rancio elements creeping in, and the lightest, lightest suggestion of smoke. There’s still a liveliness and freshness though – squeeze of citrus fruits cutting through the deeper characters. Palate is very juicy and very sherried. Has taken away an element of potential complexity, but can’t knock the flavours, which are excellent. Datey and slightly pruney. Mild suggestion of cigar tobacco too, and the merest hint of struck match on the finish. It isn’t immensely intense, but there’s plenty going on. Wingback chair in the evening whisky! 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 27yo Speyside – Charming nose. Whistle clean, and
goes like an ‘ex-Bourbon Classic Hits’ playlist. Tropical fruit? Tick. Sponge Cake? Tick. Vanillas and honeys? Tick. Also massive quantities of Apple pie! Surprisingly light on its feet for the age – the fruit is fresh and the malt is crisp. I’m put in mind of things like Tomintoul, Glen Grant and Glencadam. (Though I’m pretty certain it’s neither of the first two, and obviously it can’t be the third.) The palate is silky and middle-weight, with the flavours essentially exactly the same as the nose. Plus perhaps a banana-bread suggestion. Doesn’t lack intensity either despite the ABV. Definitely feels younger than 27, but still a developed and immensely drinkable ex-bourbon Speyside. 40%ABV

Ben Bracken 22yo Islay – What a splendid nose! The peat is distinctly mid-level – just how I like it – and of an earthy, sort of farmyard disposition. Behind that there’s pine wood, medicine cabinet and a truly gorgeous kipper smoke. There’s some sweeter elements of honeys, fruits and vanillas too, but they are very much second fiddle. Far and away the biggest of the Lidl noses. The good things continue on the palate, where there is actually more complexity. Some lifted, almost floral aspects arrive, balancing out the murkier, charcoal depths. A dark chocolate backdrop before the peat – which takes a little while to ‘rev up’ – adds lashings of beach bonfire, maritime seaweed and pipe tobacco. Huge flavour for a chill filtered 40%. My pick of the bunch. Islay fans, and indeed Talisker and Ardmore fans, will find a lot to love. 40%ABV

When I mentioned these whiskies on twitter, and to a few friends, a couple of questions were raised over alcohol level and filtration. And sure, another 6% would do great things, especially to the
Glenalba, and non-chill-filtered would be lovely. (I did chuckle that the Brackens have ‘Chill Filtered’ proudly stamped on the box.) But to be honest, in the face of what you get for the money, such quibbles seem almost greedy!

The Lidl Special Releases are not quite the best whiskies I have tasted for under £50 this year. (Although the Islay and probably the Speyside are top ten.) But to someone like me, who tries to promote affordable and interesting expressions, their value goes beyond the number on the flashy green Lidl price tag. I understand why whisky is hyperinflating so quickly, but beside the pecuniary silliness of the newly launched Longmorns and the nonsense of the Golden Decanters, Ben Bracken and Glenalba stand as something special. Of course I recommend them – I also recommend moving quickly, because once they’re officially announced they aren’t going to last. The Islay is my tip, but for what you pay, none will let you down.

And I finally own a whisky distilled before I was. Which I think adds up to £49.99 well spent. But fine - I'll start trying to run my stocks down again.

No promises, mind...

Cheers!

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