I’m not sure when the distillery-exclusive trend came to Scotland, but I know it was well before we Yanks embraced it stateside. Limited edition festival bottlings have been helping to drive turnout for years at events like the Feis Ile on Islay and Spirit of Speyside Festival, among many others. But long before that, I imagine at least a few distilleries were offering a special bottle to their visitors, even before the whisky tourism boom times. While it’s hard to say when the trend took off, I can safely attest, after my visit last year, that dedicated drinks tourists have no shortage of special liquid souvenirs to choose from today.
These bottlings essentially come in two forms. Pre-bottled distillery exclusives are available only at the distillery gift shops and can be drawn from something as small as a single cask up to a batch of thousands. Typically, even the batch releases remain on the smaller side, but “small” is of course relative to the size of the distillery. The second option is the made-for-social-media bottle-your-own offering where a whisky fan gets to draw their own whisky from a cask, label it, cork it, and smile for lots of cameras. With the recent advent of sexy, barrel-mounted bottle fillers, more and more of these experiences seem to be coming online.
I returned home from Scotland last year with three distillery exclusives, two pre-bottled and one do-it-yourself. I’m 99.9% certain that you won’t be able to find any of these particular expressions on the shelves currently, but the reviews below should give some sense of what to expect should you find yourself at a Scotch distillery gift shop in the future.
Dalwhinnie Distillery Exclusive Bottling – The Dalwhinnie gift shop was the only thing I was actually able to see during my visit, as Diageo was in the middle of a major renovation of the distillery’s Visitors Center (now completed). This pre-bottled expression is designated as Batch 01 of a run of 7,500 bottles, so a “limited edition” only by Diageo standards. It carries no age statement and has been matured in first-fill bourbon and red wine casks that have been “charred and rejuvenated.” Not stated, but this one was presumably chill-filtered before bottling. The aroma isn’t as malty or monotone as the standard 15-year expression with bright, pronounced notes of candied pineapple and lemon bars. Berry compote and grape skin add some nice depth. As it opens more, honey candies and a bit of ripe melon develop. On the palate, this is a round, silky single malt with a warming, gingery spice. Early notes of almond cookies and clove give way to buttery berry Danish and orange marmalade before a finish of custard and candied citrus. The flagship Dalwhinnie is a bit boring, but this distillery exclusive is something special. 96 proof. A- / $80
Glenfiddich Distillery Exclusive Hand-Filled – This bottle is a cask strength expression, hand-filled at the Glenfiddich Distillery as part of their bottle-your-own offering. The bottle label offers few details beyond a small print 15-year age statement, proof, batch (86), and bottle number (206), but I had it on good authority from my tour guide that the “cask” on tap was an expression of Solera Reserve aged in European oak sherry casks and new oak casks before a mellowing period in Glenfiddich’s Solera vat. It was also presumably chill filtered before entering the gift shop. The nose is rather tame, at first, with soft, airy notes of marshmallow, scone bread, and dried red fruits. It takes extra time to open, but eventually things shift toward the exotic with notes of sandalwood, incense, and chocolate-covered cherries. The palate, conversely, takes no time to showcase rich, complex notes of vanilla custard, sweet cereal, Honey Grahams, and fig jam. A mix of spice cabinet and oxidized wine notes are prominent on the midpalate and threaten to turn things a bit too ester-y before folding elegantly into a warming, peppered finish of Christmas cake and ginger snaps. In like a lamb, out like a lion. 116.4 proof. A- / $150
Auchentoshan Distillery Cask – This hand-bottled (not by me) Auchentoshan was aged in an oloroso sherry cask (No. 9124) for just under 10 years (per the distillation and bottling date), all of which I know thanks to the back label. Kudos to Auchentoshan for their transparency here. It was also bottled at natural cask strength without chill filtration. The aroma is sultry with dark spices and a winey, heavily sherried character. Initial notes of Medjool dates and roasted figs become a bit brighter and sweeter as things open to show dark cherry and marzipan. The palate is lush and rich with a dark, caramelized sugar sweetness, almost treacle, and a warming, minty spice. Notes of chocolate-covered blueberry and Oolong tea give way to subtle pipe smoke and overcooked S’mores before returning to dark fruits on the generous finish with lingering notes of cocktail cherry and old wine. If only every Auchentoshan could taste like this. 118 proof. A / $100