Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Whisky Review: Clynelish 14

Clynelish is a somewhat less well-known member of the Diageo family of whisky distilleries, having recently been a part of their "Hidden Malts" collection of single malts that were previously rare or unavailable. In the case of Clynelish, much of this has to do with the tumultuous history of the distillery.


It was established on the Dornoch Firth in 1819 to serve as a market for grain grown by the Duke of Sutherland's tenant farmers. Clynelish quickly built an extremely strong reputation during the 19th century. However, the distillery fell on hard times in 1931 and closed its doors. The distillery reopened briefly after 1938, but was once again shuttered amid the grain shortages of WWII. Reopening once again in the post-War years, the distillery was updated in the 1960s and a new distillery was built alongside the original in 1967, copying the old stills as closely as possible but installing a significantly greater number of stills to increase production capacity. The original distillery closed for a short time and was then renamed and operated as Brora starting in 1969. The old distillery began to make a more heavily peated whisky to fill a gap in the owner's portfolio as heavier Islay-style whiskies were an important component in their blends. This ended in 1983, at which point the old distillery was closed for good. The new distillery continued to operate under the Clynelish name, primarily producing whisky for the Johnnie Walker Gold Label blend. Single malt Clynelish bottlings were semi-available during the 1990s in the "Flauna and Flora" incarnation, but got a bigger push in 2002, releasing the now standard 14 Year bottling.

Clynelish 14 Year

Nose: briny, a bit of sherry, malt and peat, which becomes saltwater taffy, malt and bitter chocolate after dilution

Taste: sweet & sour up front, then malt, leading into sherry, salty chocolate and vegetal peat, which becomes sweeter with water, gaining gobs of creamy malt and honey up front

Finish: malt, sherry, a touch of salty peat, bittersweet chocolate and pepper, which becomes drier with water

This whisky really introduced me to the concept of maritime flavors in a single malt. While there are long, heated debates about whether or not whisky can really taste salty, my guess is that much like the way that a whisky can smell sweet even though there's no way for the nose to directly detect sugar (check out the first video around 2:30), there are flavors and smells in the whisky that the brain associates with saltiness, so it assumes that there must be actual NaCl present and fills in the perceived blank. But whatever it is, this whisky really reminds me of a seashore, with the salt tang and wet vegetation all swirling around.

To me this whisky falls somewhere in between Arran 10 and Highland Park 12 in terms of peat. Much like the Arran the peat seems more vegetal than smoky, but unlike Arran, Clynelish does use a medium-peated barley malt. This makes it an excellent way to ease into peat-ier single malts without going all the way into heavier Island and Islay whiskies. In terms of sherry influence, Clynelish is much closer to the Arran than Highland Park. Though if you want to try a version with greater sherry influence, there is a Distiller's Edition, which is unfortunately seems to be difficult to find in the States. But the regular Clynelish 14 is still solid and usually runs somewhere between $45 and $55, which makes it a rather good value given its age and the quality of the whisky.


  1. Nice review. This is one I've been eyeing for some time. I've stayed away primarily because I've seen in a couple places that this whisky ends up being a bit light and thin, which surprised me given the 46% abv. It sounds delicious though... right up my alley. What do you think? Does this whisky have good "presence" in the mouth?

  2. Ryan, I'm also not too fond on thinner whiskies (I'm looking at you, Speysiders that are bottled at 43% ABV or less), so I'd say that Clynelish does just fine. It's a little below Highland Park 12, but that's likely due to the fact that there's more bourbon barrel and less sherry cask influence in the Clynelish.

    1. Thanks Jordan, exactly the kind of description I was looking for. I guess that being a Diageo product, the Clynelish is chill-filtered even at the 46%. Also, I'm not sure if there's any real difference in mouthfeel based on bourbon vs. sherry, but I think the main influence comes from what proportion are first-fill casks vs. refill, and also the age of the first-fill casks. For example, I think The Macallan uses a lot of sherry casks that have only held sherry for about 2 years, meaning that the oak is still fairly fresh and lively, resulting in a lot of oakiness and good mouthfeel. But, the casks that have held sherry (or bourbon) longer end up delivering less oak to the whisky. Again since this is Diageo, my guess is that they have a large output supporting blends and they used a lot of older casks resulting in the thinner mouthfeel. But, this is all speculation on my part!