Rating the Taste of a Rare Bottling

There are currently several thousand single malt whisky bottlings on the market. Only a small percentage is exceptional. The majority is average. There's also much below average.

How do you choose the whisky you want to buy next? How can you find out about the taste of a bottle you're offered?

The following example is more than a decade old, but it still highlights the basic problem of choice. Coleburn was explicitly chosen because the distillery has long been closed and their bottlings aren't available anymore. That way we avoid influencing present-day connoisseurs.

What about a Coleburn 1979 from the Rare Malts Selection, for example? Is this whisky good, average or bad? Can we ask somebody? Is there a description in a book? Has the retailer that recommends this single malt whisky tried it themselves?

Coleburn 21 y.o. 1979 Rare Malts Selection with the cardboard box
Coleburn 21 y.o. 1979 Rare Malts Selection

1. Asking Somebody

Asking people who have tried this whisky is an obvious option. If you know someone who knows something about this bottling you should be aware of your and their preferences and dislikes. If you ask someone who doesn't like peated or sherried whiskies about an exceptional sherry cask whisky, you will get negative responses. A lover of peated malts will also be of little help when asked about this Coleburn.

But even with matching basic taste preferences there are still enough differences between individual connoisseurs. You can clearly see this with the authors of the famous whisky books.

2. Whisky Experts

Example: Three whisky authors and experts give the following notes for the very same single malt:

1. Michael Jackson

Nose: Smoky, "garden bonfire" sweetness, heathery, malty, hint of sherry.

Palate: Exceptionally smooth. Succulent, with smoky dryness, heathery-honey sweetness and maltiness.

Finish: Teasing, heathery, delicious.

2. Jim Murray

Nose: Delicate wafts of smoke mingle effortlessly with sweet malt, a hint of oaky salt, apples, old polished leather and trademark heather.

Palate: Intensely malty and fresh at first, and then a lingering smoky depth adds weight. Fabulous bitter-sweet balance which pans out on the sweet side with a gentle build-up of honey.

Finish: Long, smoky with a heathers dryness and spice.

3. Walter Schobert

Nose: Fresh and sweet, smooth, honey sweetness and a hint of peat smoke.

Palate: Nice, warm heat, combined with honey sweetness and a bit of malt.

Finish: Stays nicely, subtle smoke and heather sweetness linger on.

These three descriptions highlight the problems of individual tasting notes. The experts all found smoke, malt, honey and heather in this malt. Less-trained private individuals are rarely in such clear agreement. But the divergent parts of the notes draw three different pictures.

Michael Jackson describes a basically sweet, smooth tenor, with only the smoky dryness diverging on the palate. Jim Murray also describes this malt as sweet but doesn't mention anything smooth. The emphasis on salty oak, polished leather, the smoky depth, the word bitter-sweet and the mention of spices all set a clear counterpoint.

Walter Schobert's notes seem to stand somewhere in between in their German plainness. Fresh is set against smooth, nice against heat and heather sweetness softens the smoke.

What kind of single malt have we got here? Is it strong or subtle? Is it a spicy, smoky malt or a honey-sweet heather malt? As you can see, everything is possible. All tasting notes were taken for the Highland Park 12 y.o. Walter Schobert's notes were translated from German.

Highland Park 12 y.o. with its box
Highland Park 12 y.o.

If the notes from three professional whisky authors already differ that much, how much will the notes from less experienced friends differ? As you can see, the statements from friends, acquaintances and self-declared experts must be treated with caution. You must know the preferences of the person you ask in order to assess their statements properly.

In the long run you should compare your own experiences with those of the authors and choose the author whose taste matches yours best. The same holds true for our online tasting videos by Horst Luening. (link) With whiskies you already know you can check whether your taste matches the taste of the expert. If you find many similarities you can also trust the other videos. However, exceptions can never be ruled out.

3. Independent Bottlers

This works quite well for original bottlings by the distilleries since they are usually listed in books and there are videos about them. But what to do with independent bottlers that are not mentioned in these books? Due to high demand, these bottlings are often only available for a few months up to two years maximum. Then all bottles are sold, and new casks that taste differently are bottled, if available. If you want to know more about the independent bottlers we have an article for you. (link)

The following approach to buying an unknown malt has been established among experimenting connoisseurs: You read about other bottlings from this distillery in books and try to find out whether this distillery appeals to you. In addition, you can also consult your own memory of other bottles from the same distillery, the experiences of friends and acquaintances as well as those of the book authors and video bloggers.

4. An Example

Here's a clean example: Let's assume the Coleburn distillery was completely unknown to me, but I wanted to try a bottle anyway. Which one should I choose?

Coleburn 21 y.o. 1979/2010 Rare Malts Selection 59.4% with cardboard box
Coleburn 21 y.o. 1979/2010 Rare Malts Selection 59.4%
Coleburn Connoisseur’s Choice Gordon & MacPhail 1972/99 40% with cardboard box
Coleburn Connoisseur’s Choice Gordon & MacPhail 1972/99 40%

When I ask my friends, some tell me about outstanding, long sold-out old Coleburns from independent bottlers unknown to me, others talk of a mediocre, typical Speyside malt. With prices ranging from 78 to 100 euros, Coleburn is not really a bargain if I should happen to get one of these totally average Speyside malts.

A bit of research reveals that the distillery stopped production in 1985. A certain extra charge for collectors seems to be already included. But is this extra charge due to the exceptional quality or the scarcity of the product?

Next I consult Michel Jackson’s book. Here two Coleburns from independent bottlers are listed. Both are not available anymore and don't seem to be very good. They were both rated at the lower end of Michael Jackson's point scale (67 + 68 points). But Michael Jackson isn't infallible. What do others say? Walter Schobert has something in his notebook. It's almost exactly what I'm looking for. A Coleburn bottled some time ago by Gordon & MacPhail is described. But the words sourishness and astringent irritate me. This matches the statements by Michael Jackson, who describes the independent bottlings as sticky, syrupy and reminiscent of fruit peel.

By now the prospective buyer should hear the warning bells ringing. There seems to be no more good dram from this distillery on the market.

If you still want to try a bottle, the last risky option is to buy the relatively well-rated Rare Malts bottling in cask strength for 100 euros.

As a value-collector I would buy the Rare Malts bottling of the company that owned the distillery back then and put a sticker on the backside: Don't drink. As a connoisseur-collector I would avoid all Coleburns. For less than 100 euros I already get a Glenlivet Sign. 26/03/76-15/04/02 56.6% Sherry Cask, which most connoisseurs certainly like a lot better.

A Glenlivet Sign. from 1997 with the tin box
Glenlivet Sign. 1997

Of course there are whisky connoisseurs whose taste differs significantly from the average taste of Michael Jackson and co. For them life is hard. They must try the various malts without the help from others. However, since the independent bottlers try to match the average taste of the customers as well as possible to boost sales, this small group of outsiders is bound to be disappointed regularly.

5. Statics

Let's try a completely new approach. On the basis of the preferences of their customers, a big whisky retailer must be able to make a quantitative statistical statement about the whiskies sold to their customers. Keeping in mind that "the customers buy what they like", the retailer should be able to see which distilleries appeal to their average customers and thus be able to make recommendations to them. But here also the devil is in the details. The marketing of the big companies distorts the market just like some independent bottlers who must push their shelf warmers into the market.

6. Shelves of a whisky retailer

But a really big retailer who buys from more than just two or three distributors is independent and not subject to these marketing and shelf warmer necessities. From 100,000 bottles sold onwards, a clear picture of the quality of the distilleries from the point of view of the customers emerges for the retailer.

However, from the majority of the distilleries only a few hundred bottles are sold per year, while others make up up to 5% to 10% of all bottles sold. This doesn't mean cheap beginners’ bottlings like Glen Grant The Major's Reserve or Glenfiddich 12 y.o. We're talking about many different bottlings of one distillery at different prices and from different bottlers, which all together paint a big picture.

A good retailer will therefore regularly adjust their product range accordingly.

7. Risk...

If a customer is not satisfied with a purchase or even feels taken in, they will remember three things:

1. The retailer who explicitly and directly recommends a less good bottle. The customer equates this bottle with the personal taste of the retailer. If it doesn't appeal to them, they won't take advice from this retailer anymore or stop buying there altogether. It doesn't matter why the retailer sells this whisky. Do they try to dispose of a shelf warmer or do they not know better? Both is equally fatal to their reputation.

2. The bottler whose flashy label is on the bottle. They get a black mark for this bad-tasting bottle. Whenever the customer sees a label of this company, they will be reminded of the bad taste of this bottle. And if this was the customer's first bottle bearing this label, they will always equate bottlings from this range with bad whisky.

3. The distillery, which eventually collects the negative experiences of customers with all bottlings (original and independent). The name of the distillery stands for the production method and the choice of casks.

Considering these laws of the market, it becomes clear why some distilleries are unsuccessful. Let's get back to Coleburn. If three bottlings on the market get negative feedback from the book authors, a new fourth bottling such as the Rare Malts bottling will have big problems, even if this Rare Malts series has a good reputation due to many other excellent bottlings. The majority of the customers remain sceptical towards Coleburn, even if individual people liked previous bottlings. Coleburn proves this thesis with its retail price. The Rare Malts from Teaninich and Cardhu, which came out at the same time in 2000, were soon sold out and their price soon increased by 20 euros. But the Coleburn bottling needed several years more until it was sold out. A real shelf warmer! The bottler is affected, too. If they have too many distilleries with a bad reputation in their range, their overall reputation will suffer. In the long run a bottler with many ill-reputed distilleries will never be very successful. The various ill-reputed bottlings make it hard to sell a good bottling from these 'burdened' distilleries.

You should therefore pay attention to the date of bottling. Three-year-old independent bottlings that haven't sold until today are usually shelf warmers. First-time buyers didn't buy more of them - otherwise they would already be sold out now. Why should you buy it now? Just because a retailer promotes their shelf warmers with a lot of effort?

Note: For many independent bottlings the age and the vintage are stated together, e.g. 14 years old, 1985. If you add age and vintage for the example, you get 1999 as the date of bottling. If this date lies more than three years in the past, like in this example, the whisky is probably not very good. Of course there are exceptions. But these clues should make you cautious. In the end retailers don't do themselves a favour if they have too many 'burdened' distilleries or independent bottlers in their product range. Of course no retailer can drop these often very rare collector bottles from their range, but an active recommendation of these bottles will put the customers off in the long run.

8. Tastings

Of course it's easiest if you have the chance to try the malt in advance. But be careful. The situation plays a crucial role when you taste a whisky. 

At the end there's always the risk of a mispurchase. But if you take the tips mentioned above into consideration, this risk can be minimised. Of course it is also recommendable to get together with friends if you want to buy an expensive unknown bottling.