The National Railway Museum’s Flying Scotsman Centenary Whisky

This year marks the centenary of the Flying Scotsman, arguably the world’s most famous locomotive. To celebrate the occasion, the National Railway Museum has released a commemorative whisky. This is an obvious choice given the subject of the celebration: it seems appropriate that the archetypal train to Scotland is commemorated with Scotland’s national drink. However, this does pose a question: are commemorative whiskies worth the money? Or are they just a gimmick?

The short answer to this, as with so many of the rhetorical questions we ask in our articles, is “it depends”. In brief, to appreciate a commemorative whisky, you will have to appreciate the reason for its release and the spirit itself. In some cases, it’s possible for the company releasing the bottling to find a distillery that links to the subject of celebration, increasing the impact of the endeavour. In this case, as in most cases, the task is simply finding a cask of suitable quality and releasing it with a bit of additional labelling or branding.

The distillery chosen for this commemorative whisky is Allt-a-Bhainne. This is a curious choice, as this is far from a household name. Established near Dufftown in 1975, the distillery sends almost all of its spirit to Chivas Regal for their blends, with only occasional bottlings under the Allt-a-Bhainne name reaching the market, usually courtesy of independent bottlers. In this case, Rare Find (a Gleann Mor Spirits Company brand) are the bottler in question, providing 100 bottles exclusively to the Science Museum Group for the occasion.

At first glance, the packaging seems quite impressive, with a striking cutaway box proudly displaying the bottle. The label is in the same green as the locomotive, displaying the “Flying Scotsman” nameplate. And… that’s it. That’s all the commemoration. In fact, the words “Flying Scotsman” feature twice on the packaging, while the name of the bottlers, Rare Find, features five times: at least once on each side. I wouldn’t say that the packaging is off-putting, but I feel that it is rather unimaginative, especially when there are some great examples of how this could have been better executed. While the company does not offer commemorative bottlings as such, the combination of art, animation, and whisky achieved by Fable Whisky really shows how whisky can be used in storytelling. This is what the industry should aspire to emulate – and surpass – when it comes to using whisky as part of a celebration.

As it is, the whisky itself will have to do some of the heavy lifting for this commemoration. Can a 13-year-old single cask, cask strength Allt-a-Bhainne successfully celebrate a centenary? Let’s take a closer look at it.

The National Railway Museum’s Flying Scotsman Centenary Whisky

Speyside Single Malt Whisky distilled at the Allt-a-Bhainne distillery, bottled by Rare Find.

52.6% ABV. Cask has not been declared, although we know it has spent 13 years in a single cask.

Natural colour; non-chill-filtered.

£70 (From the Science Museum Group’s online shop, or in person at the National Railway Museum)

Nose: Light and balanced. There is plenty of fruit, with peach, strawberry, apple, lemon, and a strong hit of pear drops. This is undercut by delicate biscuity aromas from shortbread and digestives, accompanied by toasted coconut, vanilla, and honey.

Palate: The first sip gives a big honey hit, with more flavours slowly revealed: vanilla, lemon curd, caramel, buttery shortbread, heather blossom, and a little orange zest. You’d almost forget this was a cask strength dram, until the belated spice kicks in: cinnamon, white pepper, and syrupy crystalised stem ginger pack a lovely punch.

Finish: Lingering and warm. Sweet sticky honey slowly fades, leaving a pleasant pepper and ginger.

Opinion: It’s rare to find a cask-strength whisky quite so light and balanced, and the result is extremely pleasant. Despite a remarkable delicacy, each flavour and aroma comes through with strength, allowing the dram to be properly savoured and explored. There is significant complexity, which means I want to keep revisiting the whisky and picking out new notes. This is a whisky that lives up to the £70 price tag.

That’s the problem, though. If I were to examine the whisky, based entirely on its own merits, I absolutely love it; Rare Find has picked an excellent cask. However, as a celebratory bottling, it really falls short. I’ve already discussed the issues with packaging. More importantly, I can’t help but think that this is the wrong whisky to celebrate the Flying Scotsman. If I were to pick something to celebrate one of the world’s most famous steam trains, you can bet that it would be something that absolutely reeked of smoke, not an excellently executed light Speyside. I feel that they should have just dressed up an Old Ballantruan in a train-themed tin tube: they would have been on to a winner.

To address the question that I asked at the start of the article: are commemorative whiskies worth it? I think they are, but the execution needs to be right: the packaging needs to be more than just noddingly acquainted with the subject matter of the celebration, and the whisky needs to be part of the storytelling. Just a little imagination and some clever design go a long way to making sure that a commemorative whisky is an important part of any anniversary, centenary, or jubilee.

Annoyingly, I must admit that no matter how badly linked to the subject or poorly packaged, if the whisky is excellent, I’ll probably end up buying it regardless, which is the case here. This really irks me, as I’m so disappointed by how unimaginatively this dram has been presented, and how poorly chosen it was to celebrate a famous train. But ultimately, I would absolutely buy another bottle. And if this dram is anything to go by, I need to keep an eye out for any and all Allt-a-Bhainne bottlings.

8/10 (extremely begrudgingly)

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