How have I not had Clynelish yet? This glaring hole in my whisky journey was remedied last night, thanks to a 30ml sample I purchased (along with 33 (!) others) from Master of Malt‘s Drinks by the Dram service. If you want to try a bunch of whisky without buying whole bottles, and your home state/country/province allows residential shipment of alcohol, there is NO better way than Drinks by the Dram. Just be warned that 30ml is not a lot of liquid.
Clynelish has a confusing history. What we see on the shelf now was distilled at a large, modern facility built in 1967-1968 to supplement the two pot stills at the old Clynelish distillery, which is now referred to as Brora. The old distillery, built in 1819, had a long and varied legacy of producing highly-regarded (and often sold-out) malt whisky. Today, the name Brora causes single-malt fanatics to foam at the mouth because of its rarity and exclusiveness – the distillery was closed for good in 1983. Bottles labeled “Clynelish” and distilled before 1967 would have been well-peated and originated in the old distillery. Bottles labeled “Clynelish” and distilled between 1967 and 1983 could have come from either distillery (which for a short time were named Clynelish 1 and Clynelish 2!) although the newer facility used lightly-peated malt (around 30ppm, compared to Highland Park’s 20ppm and Ardbeg’s 50ppm) and thus can be distinguished. Anything labeled “Brora” was distilled at the old distillery between 1967 and 1983 and is very valuable now.
Diageo uses the lion’s share of the “new” Clynelish distillery’s output to form the basis of its Johnnie Walker Gold Label blend, as well as other Diageo blends. Until recently, the only source of Clynelish single malt was through independent bottlers and one-off releases (such as Diageo’s Flora and Fauna series). Now, thankfully, official bottlings of Clynelish 14-year and a Distiller’s Edition are available. Clynelish distillery is positioned on the eastern coast of Scotland’s North Highland region, somewhat near Old Pulteney. Its malt is often said to be waxy, briny, and mildly peated. Although unconfirmed, I’ve read that the malt is aged in both ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks.
Nose: Fresh ripe plums, red grapes, indeed a whole fruit punch barely masking deep, nutty barley. A sour high note stands out – similar to Highland Park’s floral peatiness, this hint of citrus is very well-integrated – so much so that I didn’t realize the malt was peated at first. Everyone else detects a note of brine – but I’m not getting it. A very robust, multi-layered aroma, and one that stands up to a lot of analysis.
Palate: Somewhat thin mouthfeel, but also soft with round, welcoming flavors of caramel. The peat notes dance on the palate – sprightly and bright – while the whole evolves to a saltwater taffy-like interplay of sweet, salty, and fruity. I love a whisky that changes – progresses – on the tongue, and this does it better than most.
Finish: Ahh, now I get the brine. Like the taste of seawater in your mouth after swimming in the ocean. Drying, and more smoky now. Black pepper, sticky dates, and salted caramels. A twist of bitter lemon peel on the exit. Relatively short finish, except for the lemon peel.
With Water: Adds candied lemon peel to the nose, thins the already-thin palate, burns a bit more than expected on the tongue, and does little for the finish. I don’t see any reason to add water to this, although a sip of water AFTER a sip of malt plays nicely – mitigating that bitter lemon peel note.
Overall: This reminds me of Old Pulteney – with a chameleon-like shifting from briney and smoky to soft and sweet to fruity and sour. While eclectic, I cannot call it disjointed. The transitions between personalities is seamless, and the experience whole. I’ve never had anything quite like Clynelish, and I think it’s an experience that any serious malt drinker should have.
Frankly, it’s a travesty that the majority of this ends up in Johnnie Walker. While no doubt the Johnie Walker tastes better with the Clynelish in it, the Clynelish can’t be anything but worsened by the marriage. Luckily, Diageo has thrown single malt lovers a bone by releasing and continuing this 14 year-old official bottling. We can just tell ourselves that all the “bad” Clyenlish goes into JW, anyway.