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The New Kid: Abhainn Dearg Single Malt Special Edition

There’s a semi-regular turnover of distilleries in Scotland, some closing temporarily and reopening later to start production again. Others are closed and sold and opened under new ownership. Occasionally you have high-profile new distilleries such as Kilchoman. One distillery that has flown somewhat under the radar is Abhainn Dearg, located in the Outer Hebrides. This fall, their spirit had aged three years in wood and met the minimum requirements to be called “whisky” according to Scottish law. For the moment, that makes it the newest single malt on the market. (Glenglassaugh, recently reopened, will lay claim to that title on the 16th of December).

Abhainn Dearg’s malt was being sold at the traditionally sky-high prices for young whiskey and I’d held off on it. However, when The Whiskey Barrel showed a 50mL sample in stock, I jumped on it immediately as I’d been wanting to try this new whiskey that seemed to carry no baggage with it.

At three years old, it’s still a very raw, unrefined whiskey. It’s very pale, but it’s clear that it’s not new make or the product of a twenty-fifth fill cask that’s completely tired and dead.

The nose of this whiskey does nothing to hide its youth. It’s got a big wood note to it, some pine, but it’s a very distinct and sharp wood note. It has some qualities to it like a wet popsicle stick or a damp unbleached napkin. It’s very saturated and raw. It’s also got some vaguely raw sugar notes that still are hanging on from its life as a young spirit – however, the sweetness is balanced by some saltiness you might expect from an Islay. It’s not extreme, but it’s noticeable. There’s also a faintly detectible note that’s almost burned or caramelized – it’s almost creme brûlée but not quite.

The whiskey is medium-light on its entry – it’s not thick and viscous but it’s not thin, hot and watery. Despite its 46%, it’s very well-balanced and not overly hot. Given how some whiskies can just run away this is very welcome. If anything I’d be interested to try this at cask strength. The wood note is unfortunately fairly forward, having all the notes that exist on the nose. There’s some raw sugar, some slightly piney notes and a vague hint of vanilla. It’s definitely malty and has a slightly vegetal hint – again, more towards the pine and resin side of things than the wet corn husks you’d expect with a bourbon. The longer this hangs around, the more the sweetness develops into being faintly fruity, like a tart apple or a pear.

The finish dries from the palate and the wood is present. It’s sugary and slightly vegetal. Again, as you progress, the sugar notes start to coalesce into the pears and apples that were on the palate.

This is a tricky whisky. It’s undeniably young and brash. It’s out of balance and raw, and has a lot of growing up to do. However, 3 years is very young for a scotch and this has at least another 6-7 years to grow up in. It’s certainly nowhere near as raw as a white whiskey. It’s got a lot pointing in the right direction and I’m very curious to see how this develops – will the pears and apples start taking form? Will the sweetness come up and give it more of a vanilla note? It’s very interesting. I could see this having a profile similar to Glenfiddich, or becoming more straightforward malty and vanilla like some of the ’70s Banffs out there. I’m not sure that this will be one that takes sherry as well as other spirits; it seems somewhat light despite its age. Whatever happens, I will watch this with great interest.

The bottom line is that if your traditional whiskey is a 12-15 year old sherry-casked or bourbon-casked whiskey, this is not ready for you. If you’re not a stranger to white whiskey or you’re looking to start experimenting, this could be a good one. Make sure you can tolerate wood and you like the slightly more estery and sweet profiles. This may not necessarily be the success that Kilchoman was (in my opinion, a very well executed 3 year old), but it’s a very interesting case study, and not an opportunity that comes around frequently. For the adventurous, try and split a bottle or lay your hands on a sample.

I will note, however, that the cork used to seal this bottle was quite saturated though not falling apart. It may be possible this contributed to the wood notes and threw them out of balance. If that’s the case, I can only hope Abhainn Dearg changes their stopper.

At a glance:

Nose:  Malty, woody and piney. It’s a very distinctly young wood note; it almost goes into kind of a saturated note reminiscent of a popsicle stick or a wet unbleached napkin. Slightly salty, but with a vague raw sugar note to it. It’s almost faintly creme-brulee, but not quite.
Medium-light on the palate. The wood note is again pretty forward. Slight raw sugar, light pine, a vague hint of vanilla. Also faintly vegetal. Malty. The longer it’s around, you get these pear and apple notes. 
Drying again. Wood present. Sugar and malt. Slightly vegetal. There’s some late fruit notes that are like tart apples or pears. 
This is a tricky one. This is fundamentally a young whisky so it’s got a lot of growing up to do – at least another six years. It’s easier drinking than a white whiskey. It’s also got a lot pointing in the right direction. I can’t recommend this as a general purchase to everyone, but it is a very interesting study in a new whiskey in development. 
  C+ (though recommended for the adventurous).