Douglas Laing’s Rock Island – Sherry Edition review

What is it about blended scotch and blended malt that turns some people off? Is it the level of the shelves many of them are placed on? Or the low price they are being offered for? Or even the false notion of their lack of quality?

It is true that some blends are not always of the highest provenance, but I could easily say the same of some single malts. And believe you me, you’ll be far more disappointed given the prices so many single malts go for these days.

When I first got into scotch, one of my first bottles was the Johnny Walker Green Label. Bottled above the JW baseline of 40% and even indicating the distilleries that it came from, I really loved this one a lot. Far more than the first bottle of scotch I ever bought (Oban 14).

Then something happened to me. I went through some weird phase where I saw blended scotch as being beneath me. Like it was a lesser product only meant for the newbies. After a year or so of this inexcusable snobbery, I got to know a crowd in the local community who were singing its praises.

After this, I decided to get out of my head and give blended scotch and blended malt another try. I have never looked back. The number of blends I have in my collection is still small, but is steadily growing…and that’s a good thing.

Before I go any further, let’s define some terms. Blended scotch is a mixture of grain and single malt. Blended malt, however, only consists of single malts from different distilleries. Any age statement that is on the tin denotes the youngest whisky that is part of the blend.

In particular, blended malt scotches are going through a bit of a renaissance these days. One of the companies leading the charge is the independent bottler Douglas Laing & Co based in Glasgow. Their Remarkable Regional Malt lineup of blended malts includes Scallywag (Speyside), Big Pete (Islay), Epicurean (Lowlands), Timorous Beastie (Highlands), Gauldrons (Campbelltown) and Rock Island (Islands). Each one exemplifies the character of its respective region, but Rock Island is a little different than the others.

When you talk about a blended malt coming from the Scottish isles, that’s a pretty all inclusive proposition. Traditionally, Rock Island brings in malt from Orkney (read Highland Park), Islay (your guess is good as mine, but there’s probably Caol Ila in there), Arran and Jura. 

The Sherry Edition, sitting in my glass, is not just a sherry cask finish. All of this whisky was matured exclusively in ex-sherry casks. This is an NAS whisky, but the minimum has to be three years. This is bottled at a respectable 46.8%.

Nose: Well, there’s peat in here. Surprisingly, I’m actually getting a lot of notes that remind me of a Ledaig matured in a refill sherry butt. It’s the slight burnt rubber note that’s tipping me off in that direction. But there is no Ledaig in here, so let’s turn off that road. There is definitely quite a “walking out on a tidal flat” note about this. The salty air, the seaweed drying in the sun, crab shells not yet picked clean. A sweet smokiness lurks in the background. Perhaps from a BBQ smoker rather than a campfire. It’s hard to get past these peated whisky notes, but there is some lingering fruitiness in there. Smoked raisins, plums and some lemon peel. There’s just a little bit of the Highland Park heathered peat and honey, but it does become more prominent over time. Earthy spices such as ginger, nutmeg and a hint of clove are in there too. I could nose this all night, but I’m just dying to take a sip!

Pallet: The entry is luscious and oily. Big Seville orange marmalade note right off the bat. My favourite, especially with thick chunks of orange peel. The really good stuff is slightly more sour and bitter than sweet. A good dose of ginger and dark chocolate as well. It’s slightly salty and mineral as well. The development is actually quite light on the peat. It’s mostly a sour note in the form of lemon peel. The influence of the European oak is kept in check by the marmalade and dark chocolate that are carried over from the entry. This is joined by raisins and dark stone fruits along with a good dose of ground cloves. Towards the end of the development, there’s the beginnings of a rich, warm, spice cake fresh from the oven.

Finish: That spice cake note carries over from the development and lingers all the way through the finish. At the end, it’s like a gingerbread cookie you rescued from the oven just in time. All of this helps to balance out the oak. Given the light color of this whisky, I’m not surprised this whisky is not aggressive in that department. A citrus zing and some dark chocolate are also in the mix. There’s a bit of wet ash right at the end.

With water added…

With water, the earthy baking spices and oak start to make their presence more well known. The clove note is really shining here. Interesting. That orange marmalade note, although still present on the entry, actually builds during the development. Now that spice cake is being slathered in marmalade towards the finish. Also, that burnt rubber note follows from the nose now, but it’s not very strong. The finish is pretty much unchanged with no noticeable differences.

Conclusion

I love this whisky both with and without water. I’m not a fan of overly oaked whiskies, but I was actually craving some of it as it was barely present without water.

Personally, I think this would be a great introduction to peated whisky for those that aren’t fond of or want to start to explore the genre. There’s enough peated notes on the nose and pallet to introduce you to the standard flavours without blowing your mind (and taste buds) with iodine, heavy ash and smoke. As an added bonus, the sherry influence adds a good dose of flavours that will be familiar to those that like ex-sherry finished or matured scotch.

As for me, I am very much looking forward to more of what the other Remarkable Single Malts have to offer.

Instagram: @paul.bovis

The Black Bottle Showdown!

Black bottle Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS new bottle) – 40% ABV


This is the Black Bottle you will typically find on shelf at your local liquor store(and one you should definitely have on your bar at all times) It is simply a fine bottom shelf whisky that holds its own, neat in a glencairn, or even cooked up in your whisky cocktail of choice as well. Its been a bartender favourite for decades in the industry.

Nose

This one starts off sweet. Like burnt caramel or brown sugar on freshly made porridge. There is a slight maltiness. Some citrus notes are found but they are almost hidden behind the brown sugar notes. It reminds me of a young sherried highland malt.

Palate

Again starts off with caramel/brown sugar sweetness. It then ups the spice a bit, with some fresh baking like spices. Vanilla spread over a slice of wheat bread. There is a familiar aspect to this.

Finish

The finish makes me think of Bunnahabhain with that hint of smoke mixed with a nutty, and lightly spiced fruit. Like I mentioned, this is something everyone should have. It’s head and shoulders above most blends and for the price it is really hard to beat.

Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky (NAS Old bottling – green bottle) – 40% ABV


This is the fabled old bottle of black bottle. All but a ghost now. Said to be a blend of islay malts and mainland grains.

Nose

Anyone familiar with Islay blends will know this nose. The usual ashy smoke and brine hints are welcomed and prevalent. Followed by a beautiful sweet vanilla and honey note. A little further nosing finds light pear and green apple notes.

Palate

Starts with that ashy Islay smoke but lighter than most Islay malts. This quickly hands the torch off to orange peel and a lemon fruit note. A little bit of honeyed sweetness comes through just before the spice and heat from the peat comes back.

Finish

The finish is rather short but full of smoke and a nice lingering and pleasant peatiness. It was much lamented when the black bottle recipe changed from this blend to the current one which I can clearly understand why. This is a beautifully Islay influenced blend that is as balanced and good as most I have tried from the region but always at half the price. It sad to see these older bottlings work their way into extinction.

Black bottle 10 year Blended Scotch Whisky (2019/20 limited edition release) – 40% ABV

This was a surprise release when it came out, but for lovers of the cult classic, Black Bottle, it became a must have. Unfortunately for most, it was only released in the UK and a couple select countries.

Nose

The first element separating itself from the others is it’s age. There is oak in the nose that you didn’t get with the NAS releases, but not fresh oak, a rich soggy oakwood that been sitting next to a firepit all summer. Accompanying the oak, is a reduced brown sugar sweetness and floral honey.  A little bit of peat and smoke are evident as well.

Palate

This one has both the sweet and smoke, standing side by side. On the sweet side you have honey, vanilla, apple and sweet bready like notes. Like hot cross buns dripped with honey. On the other side you have some baking spices, fragrant peat smoke, and an almost gingerbread spice/sweet mix.

Finish

This one has that balance of sweet and smoke, peat and fruit. It’s a shame the stock was so limited and they couldn’t do a wider release. This shows just what a blend can do if left to age properly instead of being bottled as soon as it legally is allowed to be. A great dram if you can get your hands on it!

Conclusion
All three of these bottles are fairly different from one another. I wish it was possible for everyone to try all three but I know sadly, that is almost impossible. If you come across any of these bottles, do yourself a favour and pick it up. You will be hard pressed to find a better bang for your buck whisky on the market.

  • Review written by Sean Kincaid

Bunnahabhain 12 Year

A regular release from Bunnahabhain, this 12 year comes at us aged primarily in ex-bourbon casks but composed with 30% ex-sherry which elegantly lends some beautiful colour and fruit sweetness to the expression. This whisky is somewhat of a darling in my circle as I am sure it is in every circle, mostly because it comes at a price of $60ish CAD and is one of the most drinkable whiskies on the shelf.

Whenever I am introducing the land of Islay to a new whisky drinker, there is not a better choice than Bunna 12. With all the fresh sea like characteristics quintessential to the region but with less of the peat punch you’ll get in the Laphies and Laggies, makes it a perfectly palatable introduction to the genre.

ABV – 46.3% / Age – 12 Years / Mash – 100% Malted Barley / Region – Scotland (Islay) / Cask – ex-Bourbon (70%) & ex- Sherry (30%) 

Mike Brisebois (Distell Brand Ambassador) happens to be a good friend of the society which makes a lot of people around here pretty happy. The perk of this friendship is that Bunna 12 tends to flow around our tasting like water. Along with our other faithful pre-dram – Deanston 12 year, Bunna 12 is a perfect way to wet your palate and get those buds ready for the evening or even turn your buzz into a night ending fizzle. Like I said, water is sometimes the second most beverage consumed at these tastings…

It’s funny, I have been drinking this whisky for so long that when someone asked me what my tasting notes were… I kind of froze. I then thought to myself, I have been drinking and enjoying it for so long that I never really stopped to actually appreciate it. So… in the realization of my complacency, I figured I would pull myself together to complete a review and tasting notes. Here we go…

NOSE – A waft of sherry along with some fresh briny citrus from the get go. After nosing past the citrusy sting, the Islay character very subtly shines through with earthy smoke.

PALATE – A significant richness you do not normally find in a 12 year. Full of earthy, nutty, sherried fruitiness and spice with a slight botanical character reminiscent of an unripe mango or a lemon peel. Intermittently throughout is a very light peat and smokiness, but not a crude peat like we are used to but vegetal like you’re burning the fresh branches and leaves from the vineyard, grapes and all.

FINISH – The finish is light and pleasant but carries nicely with all the lingering qualities of the palate. Short to medium in length which is perfect for this dram because the drink-ability of it makes sure the next sip is never far behind.

I should really come up with a measuring basis for these reviews to provide some context but until then you will just have to read my mind. Based on value alone, Bunna 12 scores high for me. Its no secret that I have a soft spot for this whisky and highly recommend it to all drinkers alike. My rating is 8.6/10.

  • Review by Steven Shaw