Introductory Comments: Diageo catches a lot of flak from whisky enthusiasts for the ways that they choose to bottle and present the numerous distilleries in their portfolio. The notable examples that are easiest to criticize are their insistence on chill-filtering, artificially coloring, and watering down the vast majority of their distilleries' releases. But one thing you have to give Diageo credit for is the fact that they have allowed several of their distilleries to continue to produce whisky using materials and methods that are not optimal for high throughput and high efficiency, but which often lead to more characterful and interesting distillates.
Oban is a distillery that exemplifies this oft-overlooked "craft" aspect of many of the Diageo distilleries. As you can read about in various sources including scotchwhisky.com's profile and Charlie MacLean's Whiskypedia, they use longer fermentation times, wooden washbacks instead of stainless steel, and worm tubs instead of shell-and-tube condensers. Worm tubs offer less copper interaction, which results in a heavier spirit, while the combination of wooden washbacks and longer fermentation times allows for lactic acid bacteria to grow during fermentation, which adds extra flavor compounds to the spirit.
When you combine all of that with Oban's use of lightly peated malt and its sea-side location, you've got all the elements of a robust and nuanced spirit. Of course, this is neutered to some extent by chill-filtration and dilution down to 43% ABV, but Oban 14 still manages to bring a lot to the table...
Oban 14 (43% ABV, chill-filtered, E150 added, aged for 14 years)
Comments: This whisky is defined mostly by fruit and honey, and it may be the most honeyed malt that I've tasted thus far, but there are earthy, salty, and faintly smoky aromas and flavors in the background that give it some balance and depth. And what's nice about the fruit is that it isn't just the standard green apple, etc.; there's also some tropical fruitiness to it as well. It's also worth pointing out that there seems to be very minimal oak influence here, making this a very spirit-driven bottling. But despite the low proof and chill-filtration, it's a fairly robust distillate with a lot facets to it, so it makes for a really solid whisky that doesn't need any assertive wood.
At the time of this review, 83/100 is currently my median score, which feels like the right spot for Oban 14. I'm not a huge fan of honeyed notes, so that biases my score a little bit. It's too bad that Oban has such a small throughput, so few original bottlings, and virtually no independent bottlings, because this distillate has a lot going for it and I could see it being stunning stuff if it was wasn't neutered so much.
Scoring & Recommendation Guide: Assigning a rating to a whisky is a subjective and imperfect process. I have adapted the 100 point, American-style grading scale mainly because that's what most of the entries in the whisky review archive use. I tend to write a lot about the whiskies I review, beyond just a list of tasting notes and a score, because I think that's where most of the value in a review is to be found. But here are my scoring statistics thus far. I regard 90 and above as being great and something I would happily buy again, while 50 and below is undrinkable.
Introductory Comments: Today I'll be reviewing the heart of the GlenDronach lineup, the Original 12, Revival 15, and Allardice 18. Before I get into it, I'm going to touch briefly on GlenDronach's recent history, namely their brief closure and differences in production before and after the closure. I know that many of the veterans here already know this stuff, but there always seems to be someone who isn't familiar with it when a GlenDronach review is posted, so I figured I would rehash it. After my discussion, I'll review the 18, 15, and 12, with brief comments for each, followed by a summarizing comparison of all three.
An important thing to keep in mind when you look at a bottling of GlenDronach is that the distillery was closed from 1996 until May 2002. This means that depending on the bottling date of the bottle that you get, the whisky may have been matured for significantly longer than the age statement indicates. But for all of the GlenDronach expressions with stated ages, there will come a point where the age statement subtracted from the bottling date falls after the distillery was re-opened in 2002, which means that nominally identical bottles that were bottled before and after this point could differ in the actual age of the matured whisky by up to six years (this Words of Whisky post on the topic includes a nice chart to help you visualize this). In theory, this means that the "pre-mothball" bottlings of the Original 12 and the Revival 15 should be more mature and exhibit a richer, sherried character than the "post-mothball" bottlings.
Of course, the story is a bit more nuanced than that. First, the quality of sherry-seasoned casks is just as important as the maturation time. Even though reviewers consistently rate the pre-mothball Original 12 and Revival 15 higher than the post-mothball versions, it's possible that the older releases also spent time in more active sherry casks, in addition to simply spending more time in sherry casks. We may be seeing evidence of this with the Allardice 18, which despite still containing pre-mothball distillate, has had some less than flattering appraisals for the recent 2018 bottlings: For examples, see this review by /u/playingwithfire and comments by /u/bpnelson7.
The second difference between the pre- and post-mothball bottlings is the distillate itself. Prior to the closure, GlenDronach did their own floor maltings and directly fired their stills, but after the closure, they stopped using their own malting floor and in September 2005 they switched to indirect firing. Although a brand ambassador recently told us in a AMA that the distillery attempts to simulate the effects of direct firing (hat tip to /u/forswearThinPotation for asking this question back then):
> In layman's terms, we have made a mechanism that recreates the "hot spots" that you would have on a still that is directly heated. The whisky is pumped through this machine and then reintroduced into the stills.
The distillery used lightly peated malt prior to the closure, but according to scotchwhisky.com and Charlie MacLean's Whiskypedia, they are still using lightly peated malt. But of course, it's possible that the exact ppm has changed.
When you add all of this up, there's a lot of variables at play and it's hard to make the blanket statement that pre-mothball is guaranteed to be great and post-mothball is guaranteed to be not so great. But when you look at the reviews over the years for the Original 12 and Revival 15, that certainly seems to be the consensus opinion. It will be interesting, and potentially disappointing, to see if the Allardice 18 follows the same trend over the course of the next year.
GlenDronach Allardice 18 (46% ABV, non-chillfiltered, natural color, aged in Oloroso sherry-seasoned casks, bottled on 2014/06/17)
Comments: This is a tremendous sherried whisky that shows just how good this style can be when you have active casks and 20+ years for the spirit to spend in them. It's not the most complex whisky, but the aromas and flavors that are here are rich and intense, but at the same time it exhibits a lot of maturity and harmony among its flavors.
GlenDronach Revival 15 (46% ABV, non-chillfiltered, natural color, aged for 15 years in Oloroso and PX sherry-seasoned casks, bottled on 2018/08/15)
Comments: This is a really nice sherried whisky that is similar to the Allardice 18 in many of its core traits, but is noticeably less rich and less complex. Those dank earthy notes that the Allardice has are not to be found in the new Revival, and the Revival is a touch sweeter on the palate but more bitter on the finish.
GlenDronach Original 12 (43% ABV, non-chillfiltered, natural color, aged in Oloroso and PX sherry-seasoned casks, bottled on 2017/11/13)
Comments: This is very typical of the modern entry-level sherried whisky: Sweet, creamy, and toffeed, it's very accessible and easy to drink, but the sherry influence is not especially assertive and at this point we have lost almost everything that defined the Allardice 18. I don't think I could identify this as GlenDronach if it was given to me blind.
Side-by-Side Comments: First, a comment on color. The lighting in my pictures is not the best, but this picture tells the story: The Original and the Revival are almost identical in color, with the Allardice being significantly darker than both of them.
There used to be a time several years ago when the Original 12 was considered one of the best values in sherried scotch, and the Revival 15 was lauded as being as good as any sherried scotch at its price point, and it was not uncommon to see people rating the pre-mothball Revival 15 as highly as the Allardice 18. Those glory days for the 12 and the 15 are over. The 18 is now the bottle of choice from the GlenDronach lineup if you want something exceptionally sherried.
The 18 is intense on both the nose and the palate and has a strong and long-lasting finish, with a profile defined in large part by tannic oak, chocolate, baking spices, oranges, dark fruits, and a musty earthiness that really adds to its overall character. It tilts more towards spicy and bitter than sweet, but not overly so, and there's harmony between all of the flavors and a wonderful level of maturity.
When you step down to the 15, you are still getting most of that core profile, but the richness and intensity is dialed down, and a bit of balance is lost. The influence of the PX casks is noticeable, both on the nose and with a bit more sweetness on the palate. But then the finish is more bitter than the 18, and I'm also not getting the dank earth notes that the 18 had. Stepping down to the 12 is an even more dramatic shift, with the Oloroso influence now taking a backseat to the sweet and creamy notes. I mentioned above that I don't think I could identify this as being GlenDronach if I was given it blind. The first time I tried the 12, it was in a restaurant, and I found it so lacking in sherry influence (both taste and color) that I honestly thought they misheard me and poured me Glenmorangie or something else.
Despite its ever-increasing price, the Allardice 18 remains an exemplary bottling of Oloroso-matured whisky, although whether or not it maintains this level of quality remains to be seen. The new Revival 15 is very nice, and serves as an acceptable alternative if you can't stomach shelling out $150-$200 for the 18, although it's tough to find the Revival on the shelves and even tougher to find it for less than $100. It's hard to recommend it unless you can get it for less than $100. The Original 12 is a perfectly drinkable whisky, but the sherry influence is not especially assertive, and it's usually priced above its age-stated sherry-matured competitors while not being head and shoulders above them. So for that reason, like the Revival 15, it's something I would only tentatively recommend.