Tullibardine 20-Year-Old review

Tullibardine 20-Year-Old, 43% abv, NIS 450 (£90 in the UK).

As well as a review of this 20-Year-Old, I will try and give you a guide to drinking old whiskies.
Tullibardine distillery is situated in Blackford, Perthshire, north east of Glasgow and gateway to the Scottish Highlands. You don’t even need a GPS or map to get there. You simply follow the signs from Glasgow to the A9, the main central road that cuts through the heart of the Highlands. As soon as you turn left onto the beginning of the A9 you will see Tullibardine distillery on the left. You cannot miss it!
 

 
 
Despite its easy accessibility, Tullibardine distillery was virtually unknown even amongst single malt whisky aficionados up to about 2013. (The visitor’s centre was only opened in 2004). Up until about 2011, the distillery was producing malt whisky almost exclusively for one particular Scotch Blend. Indeed, the previous owners of Tullibardine were called “The Highland Queen Scotch Whisky Company”.




Back in the day, the Blended Scotch “Highland Queen” used to be a very famous brand but has declined in popularly since the 1980s. First launched way back in 1893, it reached its height of fame and fortune around the 1970s where almost every well stocked cocktail cabinet in Britain would not be complete without a bottle of Her Majesty with the symbol of the elegantly dressed lady riding side-saddle on a horse.


In 2011 the company was taken over by a French Spirits company called “Terroir Distillers” (Picard Vins & Spirits), better known for their Louis Royer Cognac (which incidentally produce a special production run of Kasher LePesach cognacs with an OU hechshir which are very tasty and a worthy substitute for the Chametz free Pesach period).
Almost immediately, the new owners released a range of Tullibardine single malts. Today they market around eight standard Tullibardine releases as well as special limited and single cask releases and are gaining awareness in the whisky market.


As well as the range of Tullibardine single malts and the resurrection of the Highland Queen Blended whisky, just to confuse things, you can also see in the shops, bottles of Single Malt Whisky branded with the name “Highland Queen Single Malt”. Nowhere on the label does it say from which distillery this single malt is from but many argue that as the company only owns one distillery, it obviously comes from there.
I personally would not be so quick to make that assumption. As well as Tullibardine single malt, the company is also in the business of securing additional cheap single malt whiskies on the open market to blend with their column still spirit. They may well be bottling casks of single malts bought at the whisky cask auctions but now surplus to requirements.
Tullibardine also produce two premium standard releases, namely the 20 and 25-Year-Old.
I decided to buy the 20-Year-Old to review.
Let’s talk about how to drink old whiskies:

I have a good friend who has a rule when it comes to whisky. He refuses to give someone a whisky to drink who is younger than the age of the whisky. I suppose it comes from the notion that you really have to have been around throughout the life of the maturing whisky, to experience and share in its journey. Only then will you have sufficient reverence for the whisky.
One of the enjoyments of drinking an old whisky is to try and remember what you were doing and what your life was like all those years ago when the new-spirit was poured into that cask. As the spirit was quietly maturing in that warehouse, how has your life and the world around you changed? All the events both happy and sad that took place.  The kids growing up. Do you remember the Nokia or Motorola mobile phone with antenna sticking out of it? This is all part of the experience of drinking an old whisky.
Old Single Malts need to be given a lot of respect and time. You need patience in order to appreciate them. Many people (perhaps with more money than sense), just don’t get it! They spend a fortune at the bar for that 30 Year-Old “Glen Something-or-other” from the top shelf, to celebrate some occasion. The barman pours it into a tumbler (perhaps even adding ice), and the guy knocks it back like a shot of tequila. After a short pause they say, “What’s the big deal? It tastes like musky Scotch!”.
 
I saw a quote from a popular American sitcom once which said something like “I would never drink a whisky that wasn’t old enough to order its own whisky!”. Well, in answer to that humorous quip I would add, "OK, but along with maturity comes respect and responsibility. It has taken 20 plus long years of patience and care to reach this level of maturation and finally end up in your glass. Do you really think it should be knocked back in a second?" (as they shamelessly frequently demonstrated in the TV show).
Ralfy, (Ralfy.com), the Grand Daddy of YouTube whisky reviews. who celebrated last week getting over 100,000 subscribers, celebrated by opening a £3,000 bottle of Brora 30-Year-Old which he bought some 12 years ago for £155. He has his own ceremonial rules for drinking old whiskies himself. The following is based on his notes with teh addition of some of my own.
Chose a special occasion.

It could be anything as long as you think it’s worth celebrating.
Don’t eat spicy foods for at least 3 hours beforehand.

(This applies even if you are Dutch and if you don’t hold by the German minhag, you can be meikel on your 6-hour rule when it comes to whisky!).

Relax!
 
Chose a time when you are relaxed and will not be disturbed. Invite someone or a few guests (family and/or friends), who you feel comfortable with, to share the experience. Just like your guests, chose a suitable comfortable, relaxed environment.
Usually for me, I would hold this special occasion on a Shabbat but even if it isn’t, please make sure your phones are on silent or better still, turned off.
After opening the bottle, pour the dram into a glass and wait….
As Ralfy says, “Wait one minute for every year in the bottle.”
Establish a Baseline
Meanwhile, pour yourself another dram of something similar but far more affordable and simpler. Nose it and sip it while the older whisky is sitting there acclimatising and oxidating. Don’t start with anything heavy or peated. A standard 10 or 12 Year-Old will do it. For me, my current favourite choices are the Glencadam 10, the Deanston 12 or the Glen Rothes Alba (Bourbon) Reserve. All good choices for calibrating the palette to identify and familiarise your brain to malt grain and wood maturity interaction. This way you have a “Flavour” base line for comparison when you eventually come to drink the older whisky.
Be careful adding water

Ralfy explains that the chemical balance of old whiskies is very fragile so even if it was bottled at Cask Strength or near Cask Strength, be very careful adding water. The golden rule says Ralfy is “Less is More”. Start off with a few drops and add according to nosing every few minutes. Also, explains Ralfy, after opening an old bottle, it can change character very rapidly being slightly harsh when first opened, superb for a week and then become stale and musty after only a few weeks. Just be aware that with old whiskies, this is a real risk.
Unfortunately, all official bottlings of your favourite 20-Year plus single malt will be very expensive. In the UK, we are talking £150 and up. For instance, the Caol 25 is around £170, the Tomintoul 25 is £185 and the Glencadam 25 is £220. Really old affordable single malts.



Past 20-Years and the prices skyrocket. For 30-Years Plus you are talking £300 and up. Take for instance, the Tullibardine 25, just 5 years older, will set you back about NIS 800 shekels (£160).
There is a cheaper option and that is to go for independent bottling of your favourite drams. The main disadvantage with them is that very often you do not get the typical flavour house style associated with the official bottlings.
Tullibardine 20-Year-Old, 43% abv, Around 450 Shekels.


Packaging





This 20 Year-Old comes in a completely over-the-top fancy Jewel case, three times the size of the bottle it contains. (Incidentally, the 25-Year-Old comes in a similar style box but four times the size of the actual bottle. One wonders if you would need a forklift truck to bring a possible future 30-Year-Old through the door?)

 
 

This photo will give you an idea of just how massive this box is, standing next to a standard Laphroaig 10 canister.

Opening the case, you are presented with the whisky resting majestically inside a bed of black foam like some enormous precious gemstone. It’s all very impressive looking but I what I hadn’t realised at the time was that the box is so large that it takes up an inordinate amount of real estate in my cocktail cabinet, of which I can ill afford. This has turned my initially positive impression of the case into somewhat of an annoyance.
The artwork is very 1980s retro with traditional shaped bottle and labelling. The bottle comes with a tasteful glossy pamphlet showing the other expressions in the range:

 
 
There is no mention on the label of whether they have chill-filtered the whisky so one should assume that it is chill-filtered although who in their right mind would add an ice cube or soda to a 20-Year-Old whisky? (On second thoughts, I’m sure there are people out there with more money than sense who probably would!)
I thought it would be interesting to show you a short official Distillery Video introducing Tullibardine 20-Year-Old
I was glad to see that the video wasn’t all marketing flannel and we did actually get one very useful piece of information. That is that this whisky has been matured exclusively in First and Second Fill Ex-Bourbon barrels. Indeed, the colour of the whisky seems to bear this out.
The official tasting notes are Butter scotch, baked apples. No dry oaky bitter off flavours. It’s all lovely and sweet. Sweet vanilla and smooth barley notes…..
Let’s see how closely I concur with these notes.
Colour:
 

 
A rich copper brown colour. It is just an educated guess as there is no information on the label but I would guess that this is pretty much natural colour. E150a caramel colouring would tend to give a whisky an almost florescent orangy tan and I cannot see a trace of orange here.
Thickness and appearance:

 
 
Despite the Tullibardine being bottled at slightly above minimum as 43% abv, it does not appear to be a thick whisky. You don’t have to wait long at all after swirling the whisky around in the glass for the alcohol tears (or legs) to drop back into the glass.

 Moreover, adding water seems to have no effect on the clean-clear appearance of this dram which only confirms my assumption that this has been heavily chill-filtered.

Why oh-why do they chill-filter a 20-Year-Old malt whisky? After sitting patiently for all those years in order to get all those delicious woody complex flavours and oils do they go ad strip 25% of it away in order to make it look prettier in the tumbler?

 

Nose:
Honeycomb toffee crunch with oodles and oodles of sweet wood spices.
Adding a few drops of water brings out a lot more fruitiness.
Old Cocktail Cabinet Polished wood, Caramelised Popcorn. Salted Caramel ice-cream, melted gooey marshmallows, Honeycomb, vanilla, old sweet Straight Bourbon, maple syrup, honey, ripe nectarines, yellow apples, caramel liquor. Lots of Mixed Allspice, hazelnuts, shortbread biscuits, a whiff of cigar smoke.
Taste:
There is medium creamy but not oily mouth feel.
Brandy Snaps, malty toffee, prominent Allspice fruit cake, fresh cigars, soft yellow apples, stewed peaches and cream, heather honey, white vanilla honey, soft milky toffee, shortbread biscuits, dried apricots, soft ripe nectarines, sweet almonds.
Finish:
Stewed Apricot and Peaches with Salty Caramel ice-cream, Caramelised walnuts and lots of sweet wood spices which remain in the mouth for along time.
It is delicious and well balanced. It just leaves me with the impression that it is too sanitised and polished. It seems to be missing some body.
Conclusions:
For a 20-Year-Old this Tullibardine represents excellent value for money. Even for its age, it is certainly not fragile. It is very well behaved with no overpowering wood off notes whatsoever. A lot of people are scared to try an old whisky, fearing that there is going to be overpowering old musty books and sawdust smells and flavours. This Tullibardine has all the maturity without the wrinkles. It makes an excellent no-risk introduction into the world of old whiskies and with its striking fancy box and Jewel case packaging is an absolute sure thing if your intention is to impress a VIP by serving them this ornate 20-Year-Old Single malt. Everyone will be sure to enjoy this. It tastes exactly like anyone would expect an old polished sophisticated whisky to taste like. If you enjoy the occasional single malt and want something extra-special but affordable in your cabinet for that special occasion or person, then this is the one. Just make sure the cabinet is big enough to fit this colossal oversized box in it.
As for me? I think I’ve become too spoilt with all these non-chill filtered natural coloured high strength craft distillery expressions and this whisky is aimed at a completely different market.  It just seems all a bit too perfectly polite and reserved for my palate.
Going back to my cocktail cabinet analogy. You have two beautifully polished antique cabinets before you. One is extremely well made and the quality shines through. It’s wood and shelves are in perfect condition with no scratches anywhere. The second is also of the highest quality but it shows signs of history. It’s been looked after but showing the inevitable scratches and dents of years of faithful use. You open the doors and there is a slight squeak. The inside smells of whiskies and other spirits, long since drunk. It shows its age and history and it is that which, if you ask any antique expert, is what gives it its distinguished character and higher prices in auction.
I would really like to try this at a higher alcohol strength and non-chill filtered which would expose more of the distillery’s character. It’s often the slight off notes, the imperfections, the strange unusual flavour notes, the inevitable wrinkles of maturity which transform a whisky from a good to outstanding one. It is this which gives an old whisky that uniqueness. But then, we would probably be looking at a price tag, four times what this delicious single malt costs.
Would I buy another bottle? Possibly.  Maybe in another year. I have to admit that I did enjoy it very much, despite all its technical short comings. The main problem is finding room for this massive box in my cabinet!


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