Once more Tom has kindly supplied us with some nice reviews of things I normally don’t have on my radar. In this case, it’s a trio of Flora & Fauna releases by Diageo. With a Blair Athol, still regularly available, to a Caol Ila that is not so common anymore. Of course, the Rosebank 12 is in there too, which is one of my personal favorites in the range. Let’s see what his findings are!
In the early days of whisky passion and discovery, it was sometimes easier to obtain a certain whisky from an independent bottler than from the proprietor itself. Especially when it came to Diageo owned distilleries. My first introductions to malts like Inchgower, Rosebank and Clynelish came through the channels of G&M, Signatory and Cadenhead. But there was this quaint little series with birds, animals and flowers on their label, and therefore nicknamed Flora & Fauna by the late whisky author Michael Jackson. Then and now it proved to be a nice go-to series to get to know Diageo malts. They provide a benchmark for what the owner intended with a particular malt. I managed to acquire a few samples in recent months, so let’s taste them at random.
Rosebank 12 Years Old, bottled at 43%
After the closure of Rosebank in 1993 these bottlings kept appearing for quite some time, so after a while the liquid inside must have been older than stated (unless Diageo kept the whisky in stainless steel tanks, you never know). Over the years, it turned out that there is a lot of batch variation in these expressions. Some tend to be typically grassy and oily; others lean towards a more smoky, almost peaty character. Let’s see what this sample provides:
Oh my, this first sniff is like a time machine, and takes me back to the days I didn’t really know how to describe what I smelled, except that it smelled like “whisky”. Nowadays I would say lemon, high grass that desperately needs cutting, hay, a rich flowerbed untouched by humans, grown so impenetrably thick that when it rains the water will bounce of it. I just holds so much promise I am stunned. Certainly not the light character one would expect from a triple distilled malt.
It is hard to live up to the introduction, and yes, this Rosebank delivers a rather straightforward and dare I say one dimensional character. Wood spices, anise, and a sweetness from white tea.
The finish lacks punch, but it is smooth to perfection. I cannot help but wonder if there are not much older casks in this vatting. It has tamed this expression a little and replaced youth for maturity.
Upon returning to the glass the smells keep developing, incredibly versatile.
Blair Athol 12 Years Old, bottled at 43%
A special place in my heart for this one, as Blair Athol was the very first distillery I visited in Scotland, back in 2005. I bought a bottle there, appearing to be filled in the year 2000. The details of the sample I tasted, however, is unknown to me. I expect it to be from a later date, as this bottling is still core range for Blair Athol.
Much more subtle compared to the Rosebank, despite it being influenced by some sherry in the mix. All fruits from the red category are there, from cherries to strawberries. Smells like paradise, really.
The palate can’t live up to the promise. It comes off a bit dusty and there is a hint of cardboard, but not disturbing too much. After the nosing the mouthfeel is really a bit dry and hard (not harsh). The body is strong, and underlines Blair Athol is one of those malts that can withstand sherry maturation very well.
Warming, a good example of the Highland-Perthshire style, which to me is “accessible” but not necessarily “easy”. One for connoisseurs, and this expression is the jump off point.
Caol Ila 15 Years old, bottled at 43%
Well, this one hardly needs an introduction, does it? We all know what happened to Caol Ila, at one time being promoted to having an excellent range of its own. Let’s try this rare official Caol Ila from days past.
Immediately medicinal, like band aids, the brown ones. Whiffs of iodine. Such a classic smell. The sample comes from a 1999 bottling, so the stuff inside originates at least from 1984. Would not be farfetched to conclude older casks were used. The mid-80s were crisis years of course. Anyway, you keep on sniffing, the sea character just blowing in your face, like wet spray on the Caol Ila pier on a wild winter day. Under the obvious layers you smell a pine forest. The balance is exquisite.
Consistent with previous samples, the Caol Ila also fails to deliver on the palate. Still, lots to be experienced here, with a rather different mouthfeel. I am missing the oiliness of the modern day Caol Ila. I think that diluting this whisky to 43 percent abv was a crime, the malt and especially the peat becomes a bit too friendly. Quality remains überclean though, that’s very impressive.
Balanced, fresh, and polished to smooth perfection. A gentle giant. Something to ponder over near a crackling fire.
These randomly chosen malt whiskies from the lowlands, highlands and Islay region underline the fact that the Flora & Fauna series were excellent examples of extremely fragrant whisky. If you would score only the fragrance aspect, you would easily pass the 90-points-mark every time. But of course, keeping up the promise at 43 percent, that is too much to ask. Still, very impressive quality, where I might add the years in the bottle have added an extra vibe to the Rosebank and Caol Ila. Don’t tell this to anyone, but they are worth hunting down on the secondary market.
About Tom van Engelen
I’m a writer in a variety of fields and have a soft spot for whisky, mainly malt, mainly from Scotland. In other times I enjoyed a stint as editor-in-chief of one of the first whisky magazines in the world. When not sipping a good glass I like to write some more, read, watch 007 movies or listen Bowie music. I’m married to Dasha, I have a sweet daughter and I live somewhere between the big rivers in the middle of The Netherlands.