Review: Five Recent Pale Drams (Port Charlotte, Caol Ila, Highland Park, Bowmore and Benriach)

Natural colour is not always suitable to predict taste, although most of us usually go for ‚the darker one‘. Bright drams are underestimated. Thinking back I must say that some of the finest whiskies I had were as pale as young Chardonnay. With a good distillate and long maturation, inactive wood can be a blessing and display the true style of a distillery.

The following five Single Malts range in the ‚pale category‘. Let’s see if they lack character:


Benriach 15 y.o. Single Cask Collection 1996, Bourbon Hogshead, 54,3%

Comment: This dram comes from the first Austrian independent bottler. Our friend Roland Hinterreiter, who also organizes the Austrian Whisky Fair in Linz this year, is the man behind the project. I am going to write more on his bottlings soon.

His Benriach is very typical. A plate of mature garden fruit in autumn (apple, pear, plumcake), licorice and slightly greenish malt are in the leading roles. More restrained there are flowers, coal, banana skin, grapefruit and orange zest. And of course, leather! In terms of taste it seems more mature and sweet: vanilla, fruitiness, Bourbon wood, leather, natural caramel and dried flowers caress the mid-palate with medium weight  – no water needed. The finish is quite long and mainly on apple and sweet malt. Gimme a second glass…

Score: 85


Highland Park 30 y.o. The Whisky Agency ‚Fungi‘, 1981 – 2011, ex-Bourbon Wood, 198 btl., 52,2%

Comment: What a beautiful fresh nose, it reminds me of the HP-versions called ‚Old Man of Hoy‘ by Blackadder, perfectly round and encapsulating everything great about highlands and coast. Wonderful fruitiness (tangerines, grapefruit, lime), berries (cassis), whiffs of mossy peat smoke, heather, almonds  (marzipan-like) and coconut traces, latte macchiato and fudge. And all that is in place. It tastes like it noses, but adds some hay and turkish delight. It is clean, Riesling-like and has amazing cassis notes reminding me of old 1960ies Bowmore at times. No edges, just great, austere and very drinkable. Sorry Carsten that I couldn’t taste this earlier. I promise to be better – in my own interest to get a bottle.

Score: 92


Bowmore 22 y.o. Liquid Sun, 1989 – 2011, ex-Bourbon Wood, 50,7%

Comment: Bowmore, but on the peaty and herbal side altogether. Tea, ferns, seaweed and nori, sweet iodine and sulphur. A Sushi dram because it smells like a Maki roll! Great balance on the palate, where it becomes more typical in a good way. A great dram with a medium-length finish which also shows some flintiness. Sensitive Islay.

Score: 90


Caol Ila 10 y.o. Archives 11. 2000, – 08.2011, Bourbon Barrel 3309899, 220 btl., 59,1%

Comment: now also bottles whisky – and they started very well. This out-of-the-ordinary Caol Ila is powerful yet clean on peat, juniper, green olives, lemon juice, sulphur, some seaweed, oysters, pipe tobacco, chalk and herbs (nettles). Despite high abv. it should be savoured without water, but it also can swim well. Great smoke like a put-out bonfire with peat on the beach, the flinty sulphur and iodine-combo leads into a finish that was invented for Islay devotees – long and satisfying. This perfect finish is worth 93 points but the rest is ‚only‘ jolly good. Altogether: one great pick! I want a bottle of this.

Score: 89


Port Charlotte 9 y.o. SMWS 127.16, 2002 – 2011, refill ex-Bourbon Barrel, 242 btl., 65,4%

Comment: Closed somehow, menthol at first, followed by pebbles on the beach, loads of salt, minerality, peat, lavender, roots, chalk, lemon juice, leather, ashes and bonfire smoke. I recommend water for this one. In the mouth it displays a lot of resin and peat smoke, then the phenoly peat-sulphur-flint finish has its say. Not bad at all, we are talking about a 9 year-old dram, but it lacks the finesse and complexity some other PCs already have at that age. Anyway, if you are into full-on peat power and salt, this one is not to miss.

Score: 87

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