Dornoch Distillery: Casks 1, 2, 3, 12 & 16


We all love a good underdog story. David versus Goliath, Rocky versus Apollo Creed, The Karate Kid, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory....I could go on. Somehow we always like to root for the underdog, the little guy that shouldn't make it in the face of innumerable obstacles or adversaries. When they triumph either in fiction or indeed in real life it's always an uplifting experience.

The modern whiskey and indeed drinks industry is rife with proverbial Goliaths. Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory, Bacardi, LVMH et al own multiple distilleries, brands and of course market share. It may seem pointless even trying to compete with such massive adversaries. 

Although well known, many of the brands owned by the industry goliaths are becoming increasingly about efficiencies and more and more commonly, blandness. Brands such as Aberlour, Lagavulin, Talisker to name just a few, are no longer what they once were and their current pricing leaves many wanting.

Thankfully there are brave souls out there who are interested in heritage, craft and flavour and are looking backwards as a way of looking forwards. In Ireland we have distilleries such as Echlinville, Killowen, Blackwater, Baoilleach. In Scotland we can look to Daftmill, 8 Doors, Lagg, Harris and of course Dornoch.

Dornoch Distillery was the brainchild of brothers Phil and Simon Thompson who ran the renowned whisky bar in the Dornoch Castle Hotel. In an effort to bring back old distilling styles the brothers sought capital for their own distillery through crowdfunding. The distillery was placed in a 47 square metre, 135 year old fire house attached to the hotel. 

In that small space the brothers managed to fit a 300kg semi-lauter mash tun, seven oak washbacks and a 1,000 litre wash still and a 600 litre spirit still, both of which are directly flame fired. Combined with their stills for producing gin and other spirits, Dornoch has the grand capacity of 30,000 lpa per year. Miniscule in modern terms.

Using floor maltings, heritage barley types and different strains of brewers yeast the brothers plan to make 'older' styles of distillate. They run their fermentation for at least 168 hours. Inefficient sure, but all in the name of flavour.

I have the pleasure of being able to sample 5 of their casks thanks to my favourite grumpy Scot, Whisky Rover, who kindly opened his bottles and did an online tasting. The entry fee was £60 from memory.

I'm not sure how much the bottles cost from the Dornoch website but I believe they were all around £95 to £100 per bottle.

Cask 1 59.4% abv (3 year old)

2017 vintage, aged in an ex oloroso butt from Bodegas Robles. 893 bottles.

Nose: Pretty calm for nearly 60% abv, no youthful alcohol notes. Definite sherry sweetness with brown sugar, vanilla and sticky raisins. Apple tart, rhubarb & custard sweets, salted butter. Barley husks are in the background. Some nutmeg and new leather.

Palate: A nice mouthfeel to this but on the palate the youthful alcohol is a little noticeable. Pretty zingy. On arrival the sherry sweetness is there again - lots of raisins, bread and butter pudding. Then it goes a little green and herbal mid palate - chicory and fennel before orange peel and chocolate truffles.

Finish: Fairly short with the raisins lingering, a little toffee, dry hay and cocoa

Score: 6 out of 10

Cask 2 58.3% abv (5 year old)

The Whisky Rover cask - distilled 5/7/17 and bottled 31/8/22. Matured in a 1st fill bourbon octave with an outturn of 91 bottles.

Nose: Initially quite closed compared to Cask 1. Spearmint, fresh oak, rye bread and a definite funk too. Time brings draff, orange peel, peach and tinned pineapples. Ginger, vanilla buttercream and pecans.

Palate: Sweet and a little spicy on arrival. Vanilla fudge, dried coconut, fresh ginger and black pepper. There's almost a rum like note here. That tinned peach and pineapple combo is still there followed by a menthol freshness. Barley sugar and malt too.

Finish: Medium length with fudge sweetness, ginger spice and a hint of coconut flakes.

Score: 7 out of 10

Cask 3 60% abv (5 year old)

A sister cask to the Rover casks. Same dates of distillation and bottling. Also a 1st fill bourbon octave for maturation and only 84 bottles from this one.

Nose: Lemon oil straight away. Candlewax, vanilla, brown sugar, malt, green apple slices and coconut. Sawn oak and woody spices - cinnamon and green peppercorns. A touch of cashew nut too.

Palate: A nice creamy palate with caramel sweetness and some pepper fizz on first sip. Peach and dried apricots. Poached pear too. Vanilla cream and coconut shavings. Some ginger, toasted oak and citrus peel. Again a little menthol.

Finish: Medium length with warming spices, orange peel and oak shavings

Score: 7 out of 10

Cask 12 59.1% abv (4 year old)

Distilled on 23/8/17 and bottled on 03/22 this was matured in a 1st fill bourbon octave and had an outturn of 73 bottles.

Nose: Super fruity - Apricot, banana, papaya and pineapple. Maple pecan Danish pastries. Apple blossom too. A new chamois leather, flint, candlewax. Fresh cream and nutmeg.

Palate: The fruitiness of the nose carries through - caramelised pineapple, apricots and mango. Whipped vanilla cream, icing sugar and caramel sauce. A little white pepper heat with nutmeg, cinnamon and toasted oak. A sherbet fizz too.

Finish: Medium with mocha, caramel and oak

Score: 7 out of 10

Cask 16 54.2% abv (4 year old)

Distilled on 28/8/17 and bottled 3/22. Matured in a 1st fill Journeyman bourbon octave, it used floor malted Archer barley along with Belgian Trappist brewers yeast with a 7 day ferment. Only 85 bottles.

Nose: Olive oil, lemon balm and black pepper. Chalk, pencil lead and petrichor. Salted butter and chamomile. Almost a hint of smoke here, dill and furniture polish.

Palate: Fresh, clean and bright. Honey, vanilla, lemon sherbet and mixed peppercorns. A salty aspect too. Ginger and green apple plus unripe peach. Lots of cereal.

Finish: Short, quite dry and woody with a little astringency.

Score: 5 out of 10

Overall: What a treat to finally get to try Dornoch Distillery's own liquid and many thanks to Jason for opening his bottles to let others try these highly sought after bottles. Thankfully none were a let down which shows Phil and Simon are doing things the right way as the quality of these were really high.

Cask 1 was a lovely introduction to all things Dornoch and showed quality that defied it's age. There was only a glimpse on the palate that this was such a young whisky but overall I think the sherry cask dominated the distillate and so the distillery character didn't get a chance to fully shine. Still a fine dram nonetheless and I can't see anyone who got a bottle being disappointed.

Cask 2, 3 and 12 were incredibly hard to separate. Casks 2 & 3 being sister casks, filled and subsequently bottled on the same days as each other, showed similarities but with enough of their own character that you'd enjoy mulling over their differences side by side if you were lucky enough to have bottles of each. My only complaint? I wish I'd had more.

Cask 12 was maybe the fruitiest of the three. But all were well balanced between nose and palate and also more importantly, just a joy to drink. Excellent malts at just 4 to 5 years of age, especially considering the use of octaves which can easily be excessively woody. Who knows what 10 to 12 years maturation in a full sized bourbon barrel will do to the Dornoch distillate?

Cask 16 was the least engaging of the five drams for me. Still perfectly acceptable but the others just set a bar that this couldn't attain too.

Hopefully I'll get to try more from Dornoch over time but these releases certainly paint a bright future for this passion project distillery. Shouldn't all distilleries be that way after all? It's great to see the little guys making an impact!

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