Dornoch Distillery

Write up by Luke Jones…

The latest virtual tasting from the London whisky club comes from the boys at Dornoch Distillery, the Thompson Bros, also know as Phil and Simon. For those of you who don’t know too much about the brothers, you may be more familiar with where they started their working life. The family hotel, Dornoch Castle Hotel, or more specifically the world-famous bar at the hotel. The bar is known for its very generous offerings of old and rare drams. 

Dornoch is a small town in the Northern Highlands of Scotland and can count the likes of Clynelish and Balblair as its neighbours. Phil and Simon have been producing some great indie bottle offerings over the years and in 2016 they branched out to open their own distillery. The brothers’ style is very much borrowed from older techniques, ingredients and a more relaxed, less yield-focused production. Fermentation takes at least seven days, and up to ten. Their interesting approach to whisky was discussed in more detail during the night and we will touch upon some of that detail shortly.

But first let’s introduce the great line up that was on offer. We were fortunate enough to be entertained with some of the indie bottling, a new make spirit drink and an advanced preview of two of their own whiskies that will be on offer. 

The full line up is as follows:

  • Ben Nevis 1996 / 21 Year, 47.5%
  • Bunnahabhain 1989 / 28 Year, 43.2%
  • Williamson 2005 / 13 Year, 52.6%
  • Dornoch Distillery New Make Spirit, 60%
  • Dornoch Cask Sample – Ex-Kovac Cask #130, 60.9%
  • Dornoch Cask Sampke – Ex-Laphroaig Quarter Cask #204, 61.3%

Dornoch Distillery Ex Koval

After the brief intro from the brothers we got straight into the tasting with the first dram of the night, Ben Nevis 1996 which happened to be the first Ben Nevis that the brothers bottled and to this day remains one of their favourites. The bottle itself has a pic of Mount Fuji which is a reference to the Japanese ownership of the distillery. And since this bottle, there have been a further three 1996 Ben Nevis bottlings. Some of the Ben Nevis cask came from the infamous scam in the 90s where casks were being sold well above market value. For the unfortunate punters they have had to hold onto those casks until very recently just to get the investment back. While we were all tucking into the first dram Simon provided some very interesting insights into the reasons of why and when casks may hit the market. With the face pace of the market a lot of the casks must be bought blind. This is where the knowledge of distilleries, casks and vintage is indispensable. Fortunately for us the brothers have had a lot of success in turning these blind purchases into great bottles but the less successful purchases are either sold at a lower price or are laid down to wait for the liquid to mature.

As the boys continued to offer up great insights into their whisky Simon reminded us all that we had come together for a whisky tasting and so swiftly moved us on to dram number 2 which is a Bunnahabhain 1989 refill hogshead. The bottle’s label has a captain being attacked by an octopus which is one of the more contentious labels they currently have. It was a low strength cask and so was bottled up quickly. Like most of the older Bunnahabhain’s this cask worked at 25-35 yo range. Like the Ben Nevis it’s a fruity style which is in keeping with the style that the brothers are looking for. 

On to dram 3, Williamson 2005. With Miss Williamson on the label this is a not so subtle hint as to what’s in the bottle. This is typically of the fruity notes that you get in 60s Islay whiskies. The boys know what they like and so through connections and contacts they hunt down cask and eras they like. The brothers leave the whiskies to talk for themselves but one thing that Phil did add was this dram is great as a highball. 

Moving on to their own liquid. New make spirit drink. The new make was mainly for the Japanese market, but once other countries caught on they also wanted some for themselves. It has been watered down to 60% abv and is slightly different to what goes into the casks with the cuts are a little different on the tails. This is a sweet, smooth liquid with a waxy texture, and I would never say it was 60% abv. 

As previously mentioned, the family own and run the Dornoch Castle Hotel and the boys work behind the bar. As responsibilities grew they started doing the whisky ordering which meant more tasting. This was the start of their love affair with whisky. In the early days of the bar there were maybe 20 different bottles, but with the brothers at the helm this grew very quickly. Shortly after came the whisky collecting and whisky research became a hobby rather than a job. As they say, the rest is history. Then in typical lockdown fashion Simon’s daughter interrupted the session. I’m sure all of us with kids can relate. I myself have lost count on the number of times that my kids have interrupted meetings.

We then moved on to the cask sample and the first one up is Ex-Kovac Cask #130, December 2018 vintage with samples drawn in June. The two cask samples tonight were chosen more so out of accessibility. The current warehouse is so full that it’s not possible to get beyond the door. Delays on the new warehouse mean the existing warehouse is at an unexpected capacity level. Back to the whisky, and the goal is to get that oily waxy texture without relying on peat. They way this is achieved is by taking the good part of the tails, with all cuts done by nose, taste, sight.

Last dram of the night, Ex-Laphroaig Quarter Cask #204. Filled 6th December 2018. Highland mezcal flavours which is an interesting mixture. More aggressive than the previous dram. At this point probably needs a drop of water. Long fermentation gives more time of more things to happened. Wild yeast activation, secondary fermentation, additional flavours, increased complexity

The guys were on great from all night with the anecdotes and side bars. Not all relevant but very interesting.

If was fairly unanimous at the end that the Ben Nevis was the dram of the night. Personally, I really enjoyed the Williamson, but I’m a sucker for a good Islay. Overall I have to say that for me the new make spirit was the best of the night. Maybe not in absolute terms but hands down this was the best new make I have had to date. The Thomson bros have set the bar very high and with the quality of the liquid into the casks, I’m very excited about what will be on offer in the future.

Tasting notes

Ben Nevis 1996 / 21 Year, 47.5% ABV.
Nose: Lush, fruity, waxy, texture, pretty waxy, creamy, white chocolate .
Taste: Cream, fruit, slight salt, touch of toffee

Bunnahabhain 1989 / 28 Year, 43.2% ABV.
Nose: Fruit, fresh, costal, mint, musky, syrup, peach.
Taste: Mellow, a little 1 dimensional, floral.

Williamson 2005 / 13 Year, 52.6% ABV.
Nose: Seaweed, smoked bacon, vanilla, cream.
Taste: Typical peat that you would expect, sea salt, chalky note.

Dornoch Distillery New Make Spirit, 60% ABV.
Nose: Clearly you get the spirit but there is a malty character with maybe a little mineral and lime note.
Taste: Sweat, clean, smooth, citrus, apple, vanilla.

Dornoch Cask Sample – Ex-Kovac Cask #130, 60.9% ABV.
Nose: The nose of the new make spirit is still coming through with the sweet, malty, fruity notes.
Taste: Toffee, salted caramel, boiled sweets.

Dornoch Cask Sample – Ex-Laphroaig Quarter Cask #204, 61.3% ABV.
Nose: Again it’s the new make coming through which is not a bad thing given how good the new make is.
Taste: I have to borrow the tasting notes of the on the participants for this dram given I just love the description. Wham bars and iron brew. What more could you want from a whisky!

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