On Black Gunk And Interesting Whisky: Clynelish 14-Year-Old

Every once in a while, someone will ask me, “What whiskies do you like?” This question makes me wince internally; partly because I know that I’m only a few poorly-chosen words away from being accused of alcoholism, but also because I still don’t have a good answer. Limiting the introspection only to the Single Malt Scotch Whisky, my favourites span all regions and have precious little in common, other than possessing a small something that makes them interesting.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to talk about enjoying anything in the exclusionary terms of the unique or unusual. I’m desperate to avoid going down the route of, “Oh, I only drink whiskies you haven’t heard of.” and turning into some disparaging whisky hipster, sneering at anyone who would sully their mouth with Glenfiddich. Instead, I’ll mutter something about whichever distillery I’ve been drinking recently to avoid accusations of snobbishness (“Well, I’m quite into Ardbeg right now,”) while kicking myself for still not having a way to describe interesting whiskies.

But how would I categorise these interesting whiskies? Hypocritically, I have to admit that scarcity does play a part in this. There is a reason for the increasing frustration at “unicorn” releases being snapped up en masse as an investment. However, a few whiskies have some characteristic that makes them stand out, either because it is most pronounced in the spirit released by a single distillery, or it cannot be found elsewhere. Clynelish is lucky enough to fall into both categories, with a relatively limited distribution and a unique and interesting texture, described either as waxy or oily.

Situated on the coast of Sutherland in the far North of Scotland, Clynelish distillery supplies almost all of its spirit to Diageo’s Johnnie Walker Blends. Its history warrants an article of its own, with frequent closures, changes of ownership, and a split into two separate distilleries, with the original site, Brora, having reopened this year after having closed down in 1983. Its unique texture has long been attributed to the accumulation of waxy deposits, or black gunk, in the spirit receiver following distillation. However, while the texture is apparently tied to the presence of this black gunk, there doesn’t seem to be an explanation for the black gunk itself. Possible causes include the longer than industry standard distillation time, or peculiarities in the distillation equipment used, or perhaps even the mineral composition of the water used, drawn from the Clynemilton Burn a mile from the distillery.

Diageo initially released Clynelish 14-Year-Old as one of the Flora & Fauna bottlings, a range of bottlings for those distilleries whose spirit was otherwise rarely seen as single malt. However, its popularity has since earned it a place amongst Diageo’s Classic Malts Selection. This popularity has also earned the distillery an increase in its range. A 16-Year-Old expression released as part of the Four Corners of Scotland Collection and a no age statement Reserve edition as part of the Game of Thrones range feature among recent Clynelish limited releases.

Clynelish 14-Year-Old

Highland Single Malt Whisky

Diageo/Classic Malts Selection

46%

Chill-Filtering not disclosed

Wood not disclosed

Available from £43.85 (Amazon, Master of Malt)

About: Unfortunately, Diageo haven’t officially released much information about this expression. Beyond the age statement and strength, there is precious little to go off. We are told that the oak casks are “specially selected” and not much more; a bit of research suggests refill sherry and bourbon, and the number of single cask independent bottlings available in these woods would support this. There doesn’t seem to be a firm consensus on whether this whisky is chill-filtered, but, from its texture alone, I would suspect that it isn’t.

Nose: Citrus zest with sugar and Hobnob biscuits, underlined with a hint at smokiness.

Palate: Initially light and fruity, with floral and even tropical notes and vanilla quickly giving way to waxed oak, honey, ginger, and some salt. The distiller’s comment of “light yet firm-bodied” rings true.

Finish: A bitter-sweet waxiness lingers comfortably on the tongue long after the whisky has gone.

Opinion: Even without the trademark waxiness, the Clynelish 14-Year-Old is particularly complex for an entry-level whisky, transforming on its journey through the mouth. The addition of this texture makes for a great dram, particularly at its price point, balanced between robustness and possessing the intricacy to demand further examination. The fact that this is achieved in a whisky that doesn’t bother to declare the wood it’s been aged in really frustrates me: I’m desperate to know what longer ageing in better casks could do to this spirit. A little more refinement could make this a truly exceptional dram. Instead, we are presented with an incredibly narrow range, of which only the 14-Year-Old has any guarantee of availability. It feels like the Clynelish range is an afterthought to providing spirit to Johnnie Walker’s Blends. We can only turn to independent Clynelish bottlings to contemplate what this whisky could be.

7/10

Note: This article sneered at Glenfiddich for purely illustrative purposes, chosen due to its status as the best-selling Single Malt Scotch Whisky globally. I quite like some of their whisky: the Solera process used for the 15-Year-Old is, after all, quite interesting…

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