Caperdonich: Then & Now

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For many years, Scotch whisky producers maintained that the vast majority of a whisky's flavour came from the cask that it had been matured in. In fact, one very well-known independent bottler used the tagline "the wood makes the whisky" so effectively that it still sticks in many folks' minds even today. Well, it does mine.

These days, although some continue to believe that the wood is still the main influence on the flavour of the end product, many others believe that this isn't necessarily the case. In recent times, there has been much more of a focus on other variables such as barley strains, types of yeast, fermentation times, distillation cut-off points and, of course, the size and shape of the stills themselves. 

Personally, when it comes to the end product, I always think that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that, in fact, it's incredibly difficult (if not impossible) to isolate that one variable as having the only impact, above all others, on the end product's flavour. I believe that all of these variables combined create the unique character of each distillery's distillate.

With this in mind, though, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at these three whiskies (well, I shouldn't say 'three' as one of them is just 2½ years old) to see if there are any similarities between them. Because despite hailing from three different distilleries, each distillate came off the same stills.

The third whisky in this lineup is from the lost Caperdonich Distillery, which closed in 2002. Of the distillery site, there's just one warehouse left, I think, now part of Forsyth's copper works in Rothes. If you've never been to Rothes, it's not exactly a heaving metropolis and you'd be hard pushed to miss the wonderful Station Hotel on the main road, with its copper pot still in the adjacent car park. Behind the hotel, which is incidentally also owned by Forsyth's, is the copper works itself. Here you'll see the above mentioned warehouse which is, as far as I'm aware, the only remnant of what was the Caperdonich Distillery site.

Construction of Caperdonich was completed in 1898, which, as we know with hindsight, was probably not the best year for opening a new distillery (thanks to those pesky Pattisons). The 1890s had been a boom decade for the Scotch whisky trade, and as a result, the owners of Glen Grant decided to build Caperdonich - or Glen Grant 2 as it was known at the time. However, the distillery lasted just four years before it was closed in 1902.

Later on - quite a lot later on, in fact -  the distillery reopened under its then owners, who later become known as The Glenlivet Distillers Limited. Links between Glen Grant and Italy had been formed by the early 1960s and Glen Grant whisky had proved to be particularly popular with Italians. In order to meet the demand, the second distillery was reopened in 1965 and production restarted.

By 1977, the distillery had been acquired by Seagram, who later adapted the stills to match those of Glen Grant. The company was then acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2001. The following year, struggling with surplus stocks in what was a very gloomy time for Scotch whisky, the directors at Pernod Ricard asked themselves whether they really needed ten distilleries in Scotland. The answer was 'no' and, as a result, production was put on hold at Allt-a-Bhainne, Braeval, Glen Keith and Caperdonich; the last of which was subsequently closed later that year.

Photo Credit: the late Martyn Jenkins aka The Whisky Cyclist

Forsyth's, the copper works mentioned earlier, acquired the distillery site in 2010 and it was around this time that Caperdonich was demolished with the exception of one warehouse, which, as I mentioned, I believe is still standing today.

But what happened to Caperdonich's stills? Well, one pair made its way to Belgium whilst the other pair stayed a little closer to home, ending up in Falkirk.

So, although clearly not comparing like for like, I just thought it might be interesting to see if it's possible to detect any similarities in the spirit from these three expressions which were, for all intents and purposes, distilled using the same stills. Why? For no other reason than I don't get out so much these days.

First up, we have a Belgian single malt whisky, distilled at the Belgian Owl distillery in Hesbaye. This bottle was given to me by a friend a good wee while ago. Taking a look at the Belgian Owl website, it looks as though they've since rebranded and given the bottles a bit of a makeover. The spirit was matured in a first fill bourbon cask and was bottled at 46%. Age wise, this is 36 months old. So, three years. Why they didn't write three years on the label, I don't know. It's good to see that this was non-chill filtered and no colour has been added.

Belgian Owl Single Malt - 3 years - 46%

Nose: notes of lemon sponge cake; barley sugar sweets; porridge with honey; a slight hint of pencil sharpenings; notes of pink bubblegum; very slight hint of menthol.

Palate: a little sharp at first; notes of tart green apple; lemon bonbons; the fruity note becomes more like unripe pears after a while.

Finish: quite bitter; a little drying; a hint of Campari (or is that just the power of suggestion after writing the above?).

Next up, we have some spirit from Falkirk Distillery. It's not quite whisky, being only 2½ years old, and this has been matured in a first fill oloroso cask. There's no strength indicated on the label of this sample I was given. (But at just 2½ years old I suspect it's going to be in the low 60s; that's if the distillery's filling strength is 63.5%. I'll be visiting next month so will ask and update this post then).

Falkirk Distillery Aged Spirit - 2½ years - abv unknown

Nose: notes of stewed winter berries; black cherries in syrup; Bakewell tart; a little figgy note in the background.

Palate: quite thin; notes of blackberry crumble with custard; syrup of figs; it actually doesn't feel too strong on the palate.

Finish: fairly short - to be expected from such a young spirit; some almond notes appear; well sherried. 

Finally, we have a Caperdonich bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (bottling 38.31 The Magic Is So Strong). This is a 26-year-old distilled in 1994 and matured initially in ex bourbon hogsheads before being re-racked into a second fill bourbon barrel for two years. This was bottled at the end of 2020; at 53.9%

Caperdonich - 26 years - 53.9%

Nose: notes of peardrops; a slight hint of tinned clementines; some notes of melted milk chocolate; old sheets of paper; lemonade. 

Palate: hints of warm pain au chocolat; Sprite; a whack of pepper at the back; a note akin to a chewed pencil; a hint of rum and raisin ice cream.

Finish: long; warm; hints of aniseed appear; notes of poached pears and syrup. 

Overall, they really didn't have much in common. Perhaps it would have been better to try this with some spirit from Falkirk Distillery which had been matured in an ex bourbon cask. With hindsight, the playing field would have been more level as, even at just 2½ years old, the spirit has been heavily influenced by the oloroso cask. However, this was the sample I received and the only one I had.

Comparing the Caperdonich and the Belgian Owl single malts, the pear note came through on both, for sure. Side by side though, they really are chalk and cheese.

At best, this was an extremely flawed experiment. But hey, at least I got to try three different drams on this cold November evening which precluded having to put the heating on. 

Huge thanks to Malcom Marr for the Belgian Owl bottle and John Connolly for the Falkirk Distillery sample.

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