Monday, July 4, 2016

Whisky Review: Signatory North British 16 Year 1997/2013 for Binny's

North British is a bit of an oddity for two reasons - first, ownership is shared between Diageo and Edrington. Second, it currently uses maize as its primary ingredient, unlike the bulk of other grain distilleries that use wheat. Additionally, it is the largest grain distillery in Scotland, churning out 65 million liters of spirit every year. While the bulk of that spirit goes to feed the blends of its respective owners, a few casks slip into the hands of independent bottlers that are chosen to be bottled unmixed with malt whisky.

This whisky was distilled on May 14th 1997, filled into an ex-bourbon barrel, then bottled on September 9th 2013 at 57.2% without coloring or chill filtration. It was hand picked as an exclusive for Binny's Beverage in Chicago.

Signatory North British 16 Year 1997/2013 Cask #246280

Nose: fresh wheat, vanilla, bourbon barrel (caramel, oak), berries, a touch of fresh vegetation. After adding a few drops of water the wheat gets a bit stronger while the barrel notes fade a bit, and a touch of something floral comes out

Taste: sweet wheat, honey, and oak up front, slowly transitioning into bittersweet chocolate as the tannins increase towards the back, berries and vanilla beginning around the middle and growing towards the back. After dilution the wheat and oak integrate - shifting it more towards a bittersweet mode, it has a more buttery mouthfeel, the berry notes become bigger and sync up with the oak, and some floral overtones come out around the middle.

Finish: bittersweet oak, dry wheat

Honestly, there's nothing terribly complex about this whisky. It reads a lot like a sweet and very smooth wheated bourbon due to the combination of (I think) being made largely from wheat and aged in what I'm guessing was a refill ex-bourbon barrel. Given that even older grain whiskies can often be somewhat flat and insipid, the bolder flavors here are a nice change of pace, especially as few of the flaws that can be found in young grain whiskies are in evidence.

North British 16 Year at 50%

Nose: relatively closed - wheat, maple syrup, vanilla, corn, raspberry

Taste: syrupy sweetness, grain-focused, berries in the middle, bittersweet near the back

Finish: alcohol, oak, dry grain

While not radically different than the other strengths, this one didn't offer much of anything new and the relatively closed aromas were a minus.

North British 16 Year at 45%

Nose: rather light - cream of wheat, berries, musky fruit, gentle oak

Taste: wheat and corn sweetness throughout, solid berry and muddled fruit notes in the middle, vanilla, herbal, bittersweet at the back with mild sherried tannins

Finish: vegetal, wheat, berries, gentle oak

With the exception of the alcohol burn and the intensity of the smells and flavors, this whisky remains remarkably consistent through different stages of dilution. Proofing the whisky down to this level didn't diminish its positive qualities, but did turn it into an exceptionally easy-drinking spirit. While I'm glad that it was released at full strength, doing it at 46% wouldn't have hurt too much.

In theory this should have been a really smart pick for Binny's - it hits a lot of the notes that appeal to bourbon drinkers while bringing big numbers at a very reasonable price. Unfortunately it appears to have taken several years to sell through, likely due to the lack of knowledge and interest in grain whisky. But more picks like this could really help to raise its profile in whisky geek circles if word gets out about the quality.

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