Monday, 22 September 2014

Darkness! Range of Sherry Cask Finished Whiskies

Whisky Discovery
Way back in May of this year, UK Drinks Distributor Maverick Drinks announced the launch of Darkness! – a range of exceedingly dark single malt and single grain whiskies with an enormously punchy, unashamedly brazen character (their words, not mine!)

The range is the first of its kind, and these so-called “sherry monsters” are gloriously dark in colour thanks to the use of small, specially crafted sherry casks for finishing. 

They attain their deep, dark colour from a 3-month finish in specially coopered 50-litre first-fill sherry casks. These previously held some of Spain’s top sherries, including Pedro Ximénez – the sticky, sweet dessert sherry, and Oloroso – the semi-dry, nutty delicacy. These casks not only impart a deep colour but bring wonderful sherry flavours such as Christmas Cake, rich spice, prunes, raisins and dates. The small size of the casks allows more wood contact with the whisky, increasing both dark colour and rich flavour dramatically.
Whisky Discovery
The Darkness! range includes spirit from Scotland’s most prestigious distilleries. Notable bottlings include the delectable 21-year-old Ardbeg, finished in Oloroso sherry casks, a 16-year-old Clynelish, and a sublime Macallan finished in a Pedro Ximénez cask. The range doesn't aim for sophistication, but instead is made up of big, bold “sherry monsters”.

The stunning labels for Darkness! are beautifully foiled and embossed, and were hand-illustrated by Tom Lane – designer of the very popular Bicycle Playing Cards, as well as the artwork for the accompanying book for Heston Blumenthal’s Fantastical Feasts.

Dave started on his own Sherry journey because he wanted to understand the effect of the Sherry Cask on maturing whisky (you can read more about that here) The Darkness! Range takes this to the extreme! 

We were sent five samples from the range at the time of release and these are Dave's thoughts:

Whisky Discovery #827

Darkness! Clynelish 16 Year Old Oloroso Cask Finish 54.9% abv
Highland Single Malt
£74.95 50cl
Those of you that know me may be surprised that I picked this first, it wasn't the youngest in the box and alphabetically wasn't the first one I should be visiting. However, Clynelish was one of my 'pre-journey' whiskies and I have a soft spot for them (see The Beginning) and tend to gravitate to them whenever I see one.

So What Did I Think?
Nose: The Oloroso cask impart some lovely date and walnut notes, alongside figs and dried fruit. I found salted oranges with mint chocolate notes following.
Palate: Lots of rich spices with clove and licorice being the dominant ones. Dark fruit, plum skins and black cherry. The chocolate found on the nose comes through to the palate too, but with caramel now.
Finish: Licorice, dates and the slightest hint of fragrant pipe smoke. The empty glass the following morning has lovely minty chocolate notes 

Whisky Discovery #987

Darkness! Benrinnes 15 Year Old Oloroso Cask Finish 52.9% abv
Speyside Single Malt
£59.95 50cl
Whisky Discovery
Perhaps my OCD was kicking in subconsciously as reviewing my notes show that I picked the Oloroso cask finished malts first before moving onto the Pedro Ximénez finshed ones?

You don't often get to see Benrinnes bottlings, as the lion share of their malts is used in blended Scotch. In fact as far as I can tell there is only one official bottling, a 15 Year Old from the Flora and Fauna range.

What I was a little annoyed at was that I didn't use my head and try the two Benrinnes 15 Year Old expressions alongside each other. I was more than a little annoyed actually, and calling myself a muppet was about all I'm safely able to write here.

So what did I think?
Nose: I love the nose of a good Oloroso sherry and this has many of these lovely flavours. Young fresh walnuts, blackcurrant, dates and dried fruit with a dusting of pepper. With a little air a rich toffee note develops with just a hint of Licorice
Palate: This is a 'meaty' jammy mouth-feel, certainly has some chewy body to it, and is both rich and sweet. Rich fruit Christmas cake comes through, heavy and chewy fruit, finishing dry and nutty.
Finish: A long finish, starting sweet and ending dry and nutty.The following morning the empty glass gives a dark bitter chocolate note

Whisky Discovery #996

Darkness! Macallan 15 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish 52.3% abv
Speyside Single Malt
£109.95 50cl
Whisky Discovery
Checking the Liquid Log I've not got a great deal of experience of Macallans. I bought a couple of their 10 Year Old expressions (Fine Oak and Sherry Cask) at the end of my first year, I've tasted their recent NAS 1824 Series and a handful of other independent releases. I know Macallans are a sought after brand with investors and hence prices always seem a little higher (notable against the 15 Year Old Benrinnes) and sell out quickly so can be a bit of a bun fight getting hold of one when released, so I don't tend to bother trying when there's a new or limited release

So What Did I think?
Nose: Lord this is truly a 'Sherry Monster'  and the first one of this series that really said that to me! Whether that was the PX cask or simply the way the whisky has reacted in the cask this time I don't know. All the dried fruit sherry notes are here; figs, dates, raisins and sultanas in bucket loads. A sweet walnut syrup follows and nosing this was simply heavenly!
Palate: I'm fairly certain that I inhaled more of this than I drank! Lovely rich dark fruits in this one for me; Black cherry and Blackberries along with figs and dates, with a nuttiness later.
Finish: Another long finish with sweet fragrant fruit, sultana, and lingering dark caramel. The empty glass the following morning was a treat of rich minty Chocolate notes with a hint of waxy furniture polish.
Overall: Attractive cereal, some good, clean Sherry and all manner of fruits in here.

Whisky Discovery #987

Darkness! Benrinnes 15 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish 52.9% abv
Speyside Single Malt
£59.95 50cl
Whisky Discovery
The second of the two Benrinnes, and this time finished in a PX cask. Benrinnes is one of the few distilleries that use a worm tub which will contribute to the character of this Speyside single malt. My notes tell me that this was the darkest of the five I tasted and almost the colour of mahogany.

So What Did I Think?
Nose: Oh wow! This had immediately become my favourite with its rich and sticky nose. I was instantly reminded of Ribena (other blackcurrant drinks are available) but not the poured squash concentrate, more like the sticky drying syrup that always seems to glue the screw top lid onto the glass bottle when I was a lad. There was prunes and raisins alongside rich resinous hardwood notes and the hint of aniseed.
Palate: Another big meaty dram from Benrinnes (the worm tubs?) that started sweet, then slowly builds up a to a spicy woody crescendo, before falling back with dark chocolate flavours and licorice root
Finish: A good length finish that I wished wouldn't end with woody spices, clove and just a hint of cinnamon. The following morning the empty glass gave up the rich dark chocolate in a wooden pencil box.

Whisky Discovery #988

Darkness! Ardbeg 22 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Cask Finish 40.1% abv
Islay Single Malt
£119.95 50cl
Whisky Discovery
OK, I saved the Ardbeg to last for a reason, I'm not quite sure what my reason was, perhaps it was because it was the only Islay I had, or that it was the oldest in the series? Ardbeg is another distillery that seems to attract an army of collectors for new releases, and hence plenty of 'flippers' who have the patience/perseverance to buy one of the new releases only to sell it on at the next auction without actually tasting it for themselves. I'm not one for queueing and have been known to walkout of shops leaving a full trolley of good near the tills if I deem the cashier to customer ratio is not high enough! That said, I am a fan of the standard Ardbeg range with Uigeadail being a particular favourite. So getting back to the Darkness! Ardbeg, this was the lightest of the five and hardly coloured from the PX cask at all, it was a bright gold.

So What Did I Think?
Nose: Just what I was expecting from this lightly coloured Ardbeg, opening with its characteristic sooty ash and peat smoke, but later fruits develop, and most notably for me the hints of BBQ'd pineapple, perfect! 
Palate: Surprisingly fruity, although after writing that note reminded myself that a PX cask had been used! It's sweet and juicy initially but later drier charcoal flavours develop with chocolate and coffee grounds
Finish: Smouldering charcoal and BBQ'd pineapple ending with chocolate and coffee grounds. The following morning the empty glass yields more chocolate and cigar tobacco.

For my money, the Benrinnes' were my favourites of the five tasted here, with the PX cask just pushing into first place over the Oloroso cask, but I really enjoyed each of these. Although I loved the Macallan, I'm fairly certain I wouldn't have splashed out on a bottle when I could have had both of the Benrinnes for just a little more, but the Ardbeg certainly seemed value for money, considering it's age. Whilst a number of these have now sold out, the Darkness! range is still available at Master of Malt, and if 'Sherry Monsters' are your thing, they really are worth seeking out as the flavours are so intense!

You can find out more information on the Master of Malt website here: 

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