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Brora 1981 21 Year old Sherry Cask

My Personal Benchmark

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@NockReview by @Nock

5th Sep 2014


Brora 1981 21 Year old Sherry Cask
  • Nose
  • Taste
  • Finish
  • Balance
  • Overall

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As this is my here on connsor I thought I would review a very special whisky from my personal whisky journey: Brora 21 year old by Douglas Laing’s Old Malt Cask (distilled June 1981; bottled October 2002) one of 360 bottles taken from an ex-sherry cask. Bottled at 50% ABV (for the USA market only).

As this will be a very lengthy review for me (which means super-duper long for most folks) I have decided to post the quick and simple review here:

There is that lovely “Brora-mustard-tone” behind which you find peat, wax, leather gloves, wood, fruit, farmyard animals, and back to mustard.

Peat and mustard followed by spices, fruit, wax and leather.

Medium large wave of peat that transitions into mustard. There is leather gloves, fruit, chaps, wood, spice, and still peat and mustard. I love it and wish it were bigger.

What you get on the nose you get in the taste and finish; with the peat and mustard achieving a harmony around which many other flavors can be detected.

I love everything about this bottle . . . except I wish the ABV were higher.

This is a fantastic whisky, and I wish you could all try it. It is a “top 3 whiskies I own,” and in the “top 10 whiskies I have ever tasted,” category. On most nights I love it = 97.

. . . you might need a packed lunch . . . and a nap . . . and a few changes of clothes. Seriously, this review is almost 4,000 words in length.

Like many of you I began my whisky journey looking for advice from those with more experience. However, when I first went looking for online reviews . . . there really was only one source: whiskyfun.com by Serge Valentin. I was on a quest for peat monsters (a decade later and I’m still on that quest). And for anyone who has spent any amount of time at whiskyfun you will know that one distillery stands head-and-shoulders above the rest in Serge’s heart: Brora.

The year was 2005 and I was visiting my family in Nashville and I happened to see a bottle with the name “Brora” on a shelf at Red Dog Wine and Spirits. Further, it was on sale for only $119 . . . (only? In 2005? Yup). So with some trepidation I picked up a single bottle. After several years of faithfully reading Serge I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And then like so many of us . . . I saved it. I didn’t get around to opening it until my birthday in 2007! But what a whisky . . . it really opened my world beyond the confines of the big 3 peat monsters. There were just so many different and unique flavors in this bottle! I finally was able to put words that Serge used (wet dog, farm yard, mustard, wax) with actual smells coming from my glass . . . it was mind blowing. I slowly savored that bottle sharing it with only a few friends who were initiated to the single malt obsession. But the main thing I wanted – more of those flavors. Over the years I have tried a number of other Brora bottles, but few have come close to this one for me.

When I left Seattle in 2010 I had only 2 ounces of this precious liquid left. You cannot imagine my surprise when I walked into a liquor store . . . and saw one lone bottle of Old Malt Cask Brora on a shelf . . . I hadn’t looked at my bottle in a while so I asked the store to hold it for me as I rushed home to check and make sure it was the same. Sure enough it was one of 360 bottles bottled in 2002 – and it was still sitting on a shelf in 2010!!! So I ran back and bought it. Can you imagine my shock to discover another bottle in a different liquor store in a different state only 6 months later? Can you imagine my utter amazement that days before my wedding I walked into Frugal MacDoogal in Nashville to buy alcohol for the reception . . . and saw ANOTHER bottle of this Brora on the shelf?

Yes, I managed to find 3 bottles of this precious Brora (bottled in 2002 mind you) between March of 2010 and December of 2011 in three different liquor stores in two different states . . . all were the last bottle in inventory (I asked). Maybe a distributor had this sitting in a warehouse for several years and finally sold it to some stores in the Mid-south in early 2010? Maybe, coincidentally, all three stores had this random bottle of Brora sitting on their shelf for 8 years waiting for me? It almost felt like the universe was speaking to me . . . things that come in threes . . . I cannot explain it.

I opened one bottle on my first anniversary . . . and that bottle is just now empty (I have a few samples saved from different stages on the bottle’s journey). The following notes (I’m getting there . . . don’t rush me) come from my comprehensive experience of drinking two bottles over 6 years. I have scored it on 10 different occasions with pen in hand. The scores have ranged all over the high end of the map: 95, 98, 98, 97, 95, 96, 92, 97, 97, and 95. The average score is 95.999 . . . but I am going to bump it up to a 97 . . . because I love this bottle, it is my review, and my enjoyment level is “usually” a 97.

Because of this bottle I have been looking for other Broras over the years to “take me to that next level”, and I have been slowing saving up samples from different Brora bottles for my own personal Ultimate-Brora-Tasting. In April of 2014 I had a whole afternoon and evening to myself (a rare occurrence) . . . so I decided it was the time to compare and contrast what I had: five different official bottles and this one OMC from this mythic distillery: 25yo (2008), 30yo’s (2005, 2007, & 2009), 32yo (2011), and this 21yo Old Malt Cask bottled in 2002.

So these notes (and my subsequent reviews of these other Broras) use this bottle as the benchmark, the template, or the standard by which I look at all other Brora bottles.

1st point:

You can’t find many reviews for this bottle online (there were only 360 bottle after all). There is one review at L.A. Whisky, one at divingforpearls, and one at myannoyingopinions. The blogger at myannoyingopinions donated a sample for sku at L. A. Whisky from his bottle. Two of these reviews mention sulfur in the nose (especially the guy at divingforpearls) with no mention of it from sku at L. A. Whisky. What is the deal? I read all of these reviews . . . and I think I can see a person nosing this and thinking that this is a sulfur tainted cask.

I have noticed a slight difference between these two bottles of this Brora. The second bottle I opened did have a lower neck level than my other two bottles in reserve. Further, the cork fell apart as I opened the bottle (glad I had extra corks around). I had a small sample still left from my first bottle, and so I put them head-to-head. The first bottle was simply better. It had more farmyard and less mustard . . . but I wouldn’t have said that the second bottled was off, tainted, corked, or bad. It just wasn’t as good. Granted my first bottle had been open since October of 2007!! I didn’t put it into a sample bottle until December of 2010 (three full years of oxidation).

Myannoyingopinions also has had his bottle open for several years and notes that the “sulfur” seemed to get more pronounced as the bottle aged. My experience is that my first bottle seemed to have less of the “mustard/sulfur” tone and never really got worse. My second bottle (with a bad cork and some evaporation) had more pronounced mustard/sulfur that never really changed after a year and a half of being opened. I will be curious to see what my next bottle tastes like . . . when I decided it is time to open it.

Maybe the blogger at divingforpearls had a bad bottle? Maybe some bottles from this US release were stored improperly? Maybe sku and I can’t detect sulfur? Maybe people are on the sulfur-phobia-train with Jim Murray and cry “sulfur!” at any offensive sharp smell? Maybe this mustard/sulfur tone is a characteristic of Brora (as it is with Mortlach)?

I don’t know the answers. All I can tell you is my experience: there is a very strong “mustard or horseradish” tone that is at the core of this bottle. But is it sulfur? The honest answer is that I don’t know. However, I can detect this “mustard” note in EVERY Brora bottle that I have had the pleasure of tasting. This leads me to the conclusion that it is a characteristic of the distillery and not the result of a sulfur tainted cask. Perhaps a bad sherry cask can enhance the “mustard/sulfur” tone? But this note, from my experience, is at the heart of Brora. For the remainder of this review I will refer to this “mustard/sulfur” smell as the “Brora-mustard-tone,” or simply “mustard.” That is my name for it. I got that name reading other Brora reviews by Serge at whiskyfun . . . and I think it is the best term for describing the smell/tone/note.

Look back up at the “generic whisky bottle” that connosr uses when no other image is uploaded: that is the color. It is not as dark as you would expect for 21 years in an ex-sherry cask. It must be a second or third fill cask.

Strong fresh ground mustard seed greets the nose with an undercurrent of fruit followed by a wave of peat. The mustard is powerful and singes your nose. Some people might think this is sulfur, but I beg to differ! This “Brora-mustard-tone” (or the signature “Brora-tone” as I think of it) is detectable in every one of the six Broras I am going to review. Granted, it is only a whisper in the fruity 30yo from 2009 – but it is there! Back to the 21yo – mustard runs in circles around fruit: Granny Smith apples, peaches, pears, tart cherries, and blueberries. Seaweed and grass mix perfectly with figs, raisins, and a hint of mint. Now chocolate and hazelnuts take a turn followed by barn hay, malt, and a low smoldering campfire. The sherry influence is there, but it is far from the star of the show. My guess would be that it is a second or – more likely – third fill ex-sherry cask. The peat is still there in the background acting as a foundation for everything. Something earthy, raw, waxy, and mineral makes its presence felt, but manages to elude the senses.

There behind the peat and the mustard is that Brora-farmy smell I love so much: hay, wooden barn, animal hair, and . . . a whiff of manure (yes – manure). I will tell you that the farm smells are not there with every glass. Some nights it is huge; other nights it is only an elusive impression. After two bottles I will still tell you that you never quite know what you are going to get out of this nose on any given night. On this night of Brorageddon it is very strong with tons of Grandpa’s old farm. In this mental image I feel like I am walking with him out to his old office in the chicken barn. That was a long walk, and his office was huge and dirty – old rusted metal, old chicken droppings and fresh Angora goat dung from down the hall. Everything is here: the old horse blankets, tack and saddles, the wood for his fireplace, the leather gloves and apron he wore to put up barbwire . . . amazing.

Now I am dialing into that farmyard. No manure here today, but plenty of hay and animals (Angora goats, horses, rabbits etc.). Ok, the farm and mustard-tone have blended together. I think it might be the same trigger for my memory. At first all I get is mustard, but then as a focus I am taken back to Grandpa’s breezway and basement. I see his outdoor coat (red plaid), hat (blue) and gloves (leather). I feel like I can see several pairs of boots on the stairs down to the cellar. This mustard-memory trip is a blast!

When I spend a lot of time with this nose you realize how peaty it is. However, most of the time the peat exists to push other things up to the fore. Huge deep peat notes are the foundation for this amazing whisky from a bygone era. In my imagination this is what whisky was like back in the 1920’s. I don’t actually know because I have never tasted a whisky distilled in the early 20th century, but every time I nose this bottle I wonder what Scotch was like a hundred years ago. I wonder if there are other lost distilleries that produced such richly flavored single malt . . . only to be closed because the trend was for “less flavor: more smooth” in a scotch whisky. But most importantly I am taken back to my memories of Grandpa’s old farm . . . I miss him and those days. Simply put – this is time travel in a glass.

In future reviews I will come back to the 25yo from 2008, the 30yo from 2009, and the 32yo from 2011. That said, this 21yo really has far more in common with the two 30 year olds from 2005 and 2007.

This 21yo seems to sit right between the 2005 and 2007 in flavor. All have similar family characteristics, and all show sherry cask influences (with the 21yo being the strongest). However, the lower ABV (50% compared with 55.5% and 56.3%) does cause it to seem less intense when given a cursory nosing. On closer inspection the 21yo seems to have the strongest similarity with the 30yo from 2007. They have very similar “farm” smells with the 21yo having a bit more animal hay and seaweed (does that mean more peat than the 2007?). However, the 2007 is deeper, rounder and more refined - it really is like an older brother. So the 21yo seems more focused than the 30yo from 2007. That said, the “Brora-mustard-tone” is far more subdued in 2007 while it is going hog wild with the 21yo. For all the similarity it has with the 2007, I end up liking the 21yo more because it is more edgy. Compared with the strong baritone pitch of the 30yo from 2005 the 21yo is a higher tenor. The 21yo has slightly more mustard while the 2005 has stronger mildew, manure, and animal smells. At only 50% the 21yo is far less bruising then the 2005, and so naturally does end up seeming more balanced. The down side in my book is that the “Brora-mustard-tone” might actually be too sharp and dominating in the first few minutes of nosing the 21yo, and it doesn’t have as much peat and depth as the 2005. For all that it has in common with the 2005, the 30yo has more of everything – with the exception of that “Brora-mustard-tone” which really is the loudest and most prominent in this 21yo bottle. The 21yo ends up as my second favorite Brora nose of the night behind the 2005, and it is in my top 10 whiskies noses of all time.

The nose on this 21yo is dang near perfection.

When you add water it actually does help open up some aspects of the nose. The sweet fruits in the background do become more pronounced: pears, pineapples, sweet mangos, and other sweet tropical fruit. Further, the “Brora-mustard-tone” becomes more subtle, but the farm notes also recede. Because I love the farm smells . . . I would not add water.

Sweet peat and mustard, red fruits, seaweed, and sea salt. It is sweet but not as sweet as the two 30yo from 2005 & 2007. Sweet peat, sharp mustard, earth, leather, chocolate, Granny Smith apples, sour pears, smoke, wood, lemon rind, wax, and tons of spices (cinnamon, cloves, cumin, cardamom, and black peppercorns: basically garam masala). The peat forms a nice bedrock behind the “Brora-mustard-tone.” Oh, this is nice. Now I am getting leather armchair, peat fire and bacon. Awesome.

With water: better. Simply: better. Everything takes its place very nicely. Still beautiful sweet fruits, sharp mustard, something sour, and peat.

Big wave of peat fire, spice, mustard, and wax. The peat mixes with farm sheep, leather gloves, and that “Brora-mustard-tone” . . . the mustard really sticks with you. Now a sour note . . . but it isn’t like sour apples (there was a quick blip of bitter coco). It is a sour earth thing that is wonderful in its “non-sweetness.” To me Ardbeg can taste like black earth: this Brora is more like brown earth. I love it. Tastes like pure old time leather farm gloves. That tart sour thing is like an “air-head” of sorts. It isn’t quite as explosive on the finish as the 2005 and 2007 tonight . . . but then this was diluted down to 50% ABV (more’s the pity). Medium large wave, (not the huge explosion of Ardbeg Supernova) but very long, peaty and complex. This has the complexity and refinement that speaks of close-working-melding-flavors. I’m not even sure what I mean by that. Still the mustard is the treat that lingers and lingers.

With water: Fantastic. It goes up a bit. All around water improves this guy. Note to self: water = better Brora! Sure, it doesn’t get any bigger, but you gain more perspective on the individual notes.

Huge complexity and surprising balance. This might be the only malt where I wish for more peat, BUT I am able to understand why it isn’t there (it reminds me of Benromach 10yo in that way). I am surprised the sherry doesn’t dominate more. The sherry does its thing, but only in a supporting-role sort of way. In most whiskies either the sherry, the peat, or the fruit dominate. This is a whisky where all three act to elevate the whole. I would call this a near perfect balance of unimaginable complexity: peat, malt, fruit, sherry, wax, spices, and oak . . . with the mustard-tone of Brora shining through.

I adore this Old Malt Cask style bottle from Douglas Laing. I am sorry it won’t ever be repeated. Every time I see a bottle like this I assume it will taste as good as this Brora (even though I know it won’t). Perfect age at 21 years old . . . more and more I think that is my ideal age for a single malt. My only complaint is the ABV at only 50%. I get why they did it (far better then 40, 43, 46 or even 48!) so that you can compare others in the Old Malt Cask range all at the same level – which is far closer to cask strength than most bottles from the late 90’s. But I wish this would have been at cask strength even if that meant only 51.2% . . . or something like that. I think a cask strength presentation would put this bottle at perfection. Further, I wish they would have put the cask number on the bottle. Granted there actually is a bottle code on the bottom . . . but wouldn’t you know . . . all the numbers are smeared on all 3 bottles I have!

This is a single malt that is both big and subdued, edgy and refined, offensive and delightful, chaotic and serene. It is the complexity of this whisky that really catapulted my whisky journey . . . and may have ruined me. Ruined how you ask? This bottle hints at so much: the peat, fruit, wax, farm, hay, sherry, oak, and leather all act to tease my nose. This bottle makes me want a stronger version in much the same way that Ardbeg TEN leads me to want Ardbeg Supernova. And the closest thing I have tasted to this 21yo is the Brora 30yo from 2005. But even that has some differences (which I will get to in another review). The biggest complaint is that even the 2005 isn’t peaty enough for me. I am not sure Brora made a peated spirit to compete with standard Ardbeg at 55ppm. I have seen one chart from whiskyscience that puts the peating level of Brora from 7-40ppm. That would mean that the most heavily peated Brora (possibly from 1972) would have been equal to Lagavulin (35-40ppm). That makes sense because that would have been the main Islay malt needed at the time for Johnnie Walker (Caol Ilas was demolished in 1972 and rebuilt by 1974). The quick history of Brora is that the old Clynelish distillery was reopened in 1970 to produce a peated spirit because of a drought on Islay. That meant no peat monsters for popular blends like Johnnie Walker. So Brora was originally a substitute for Lagavulin? Makes sense to me.

I play acoustic guitars. The two most basic wood options are mahogany or rosewood. Mahogany provides a much more punchy and complex midrange. The rosewood typically has more bass and more sparkle in the high range. To me this perfectly describes the difference between Brora and Ardbeg. This 21yo Brora (as well as the others that I have tried) has TONS of midrange complexity and punch. However, it sacrifices at the very low and very high end of the spectrum. A standard Ardbeg will have a deeper bass and higher soaring soprano notes. But it will lack the complex midrange. Which one I prefer will often depend on the mood I am in on any given night.

Is this a perfect whisky? No. But it is an experience outside the norm for modern whiskies. In that regard I expect the average whisky drinker to find it offensive. However, I love offensive whisky. On some nights I think it is my favorite dram ever. On other nights I think I am making too much of it. Either way, this Brora has changed my whisky drinking life. It has started me down the path of alternative-Islay-peated whiskies – always looking for that farmy style whisky riding the edge of offensive and delightful.

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Victor commented

@Nock, congratulations on your 100th review!

This whisky is every bit as good as you say that it is, and it is my personal favourite of all of the whiskies which I have tried which you own.

Thank you for giving me a sample of this whisky. I fully intend to review it, and expect to give it a score similar to the one you have given it, though I am sure that my review of it will not be as long!

9 years ago 0

Nozinan commented

Nice review...makes me hope that one day I'll get to try a Brora.

9 years ago 0

Nock commented

Thank you both for taking the time to read (or just skim) this inordinately long review.

@Victor - I am looking forward to reading your take. And one day I'll crack open another bottle . . .

@Nozinan - as much as I love this bottle (and I do) I can't imagine paying the prices for some of the Brora's going at auction. Especially, because not all Brora's are equal! Sure, some are great. But others can be very disappointing. I do hope you get to try a good one some day.

9 years ago 0

Ol_Jas commented

Nock, I called your review to the attention of the MyAnnoyingOpinions blogger. He's not a member over here but he left a comment back on his blog that you might be interested in:


9 years ago 0

Nock commented

@OIJas thanks for letting me know. I'll have to have a look at what he says . . . maybe post a comment or two.

9 years ago 0