There’s a phrase in the whisky community that is used to describe those special bottles that are very hard to find and are therefore incredibly expensive. ‘Unicorn expressions’ have an almost mythical status, as plenty of people in the community want to turn their fantasy of tasting, or even owning, such an expression into reality. For this review, I am not going to claim the Fettercairn 12 is a ‘Unicorn expression’, although it has a unicorn on its label. I am, however, going to put it to the test: is this an expression worth chasing, or not?
The reason I’m starting my review in such a manner is because, while I was preparing for my tasting session, I was getting conflicting information: people that I consider ‘those in the know‘ concerning whisky, told me that the Fettercairn 12 was, I paraphrase, ‘not worth it‘, ‘too expensive’, and ‘a stinker’. But those comments did not correspond with the reviews* I was seeing. To be more precise, the ratings are generally more favourable towards this expression, ranging from a solid 3,5/5 to 4,5/5 on multiple occasions.
Perhaps it was because the ‘old’ Fettercairn distillery was never very popular with whisky journalists. But that’s the old distillery, and here’s an article about it by Whiskymag.com. As the Fettercairn 12 is celebrated as the ‘re-launch‘ of the brand, it might be interesting to read up on the distillery’s public image.
In an Instagram conversation between me and a ‘whisky detective’ (cryptic shout-out!), I was told that, perhaps, those reviews were written by people who had received samples, and that those people were not eager to bash a gifted expression. That’s understandable, as you do not want to anger a distributor or brand in such a way that they refuse to provide you with subsequent samples. But what is the possible downside then? Well, according to the sleuth, this expression is merely 40% ABV, is chill filtered, and is very expensive. But are these points we can put in the “negative” list? Let’s find out! For this review, I’m going to look my gifted unicorn in the mouth, and by doing so, will talk about chill filtering, ABV percentages, and supply/demand. Oh, and I will also provide my tasting notes, obviously!
* Disclaimer: I refrained from reading reviews and tasting notes, as to be not influenced by other people’s opinions. I did, however, look up various ratings online. Also, I value everyone’s opinion, whether I agree or disagree with you. It’s all about flavours and aromas, and whether we like them. Oh, and also about ‘rewarding tastes for money’.
Let me start by adding that there is little extra information to be found on the Fettercairn 12 expression. It’s a 12 year old single malt whisky, matured on American White Oak ex-bourbon casks. There are some tasting notes on the website, but that’s it. A similar story is repeated for their 28-, 40-, and 50-year old expressions. In general, the Fettercairn website is not as informative as other brands’ websites. Objectively, this is not an issue. A brand can reveal what it wants about its expressions.
This brings me to the absence of “non-chill filtered” on the label or on the website. Nowadays, it is a statement quite a lot of brands like to boast with on their bottles. But what does this mean? Well, as always, Wikipedia is your friend: “Chill filtering is a method in whisky making for removing residue. In chill filtering, whisky is cooled to between −10° and 4° Celsius (often roughly 0°) and passed through a fine adsorption filter. This is done mostly for cosmetic reasons – to remove cloudiness – rather than to improve taste or consistency. Chill filtering prevents the whisky from becoming hazy when in the bottle, when served, when chilled, or when water or ice is added, as well as precluding sedimentation from occurring in the bottles. It works by reducing the temperature sufficiently so that some fatty acids, proteins and esters (created during the distillation process) precipitate out and are caught on the filter.” (Chill filtering, Wikipedia).
If that is a bit much, here’s the gist: chill filtration makes sure your whisky does not ‘fog up’. It removes the fatty acids, proteins, and esters from the whisky, and these are responsible for your whisky turning less translucent. Nowadays, it has become popular not to use this process before bottling the whisky, as the market is eager to buy more ‘natural‘ and ‘organic‘ products. It’s a good selling point, but it does not say anything about the taste. On this, the community is divided as well:
Some consider chill filtering to be a process during which the flavour of the whisky changes. The residue, especially the esters (little molecules providing for flavours and aromas), is removed. So the flavours and aromas change. Using chill filtering, therefore, makes your whisky taste less ‘natural’. But is that a bad thing?
People who do not think that chill filtering is a bad thing often mention that it allows whisky makers to keep producing an expression which, on the level of flavours and aromas, is more consistent. Because of chill filtering, and a couple of other things, brands are able to keep producing whisky that tastes and smells the same. This is especially helpful for mass-market products. It has nothing to do with quality, however.
Back to the Fettercairn 12. It is true that the label does not state “non-chill filtered”. This does not automatically mean that it is chill-filtered, although for the sake of the argument, I’ll assume it is. This is not a problem to me, as I am only tasting this version of the expression. As Whisky For Everyone correctly states: “it is difficult to compare as no one releases the same whisky in a chill filtered and non chill filtered form” (whiskyforeveryone.com). I will never be able to find out what the whisky tastes like non-chill filtered, unless I go to the distillery and compare the product before and after chill filtering.
Alcohol By Volume (ABV) Percentages
Back to the drawing board. The next ‘problem area’ lies with the low ABV percentage. Fettercairn 12 has 40% ABV. Is this good? Is this bad? Well, it’s neither. At least if you think about quality.
The reason why we often think that lower ABV percentages are not as good as higher ABVS, is simply because lower ABVs normally cost less. There are more taxes to be paid for whiskies of 46% ABV than for whiskies of 42% ABV. It’s a simple fact, which can be read about on the website of Whisky.com here. Browsing this page, which is titled “The Alcohol Content of Scotch Whisky”, I also read that ‘46% ABV is the new norm in the whisky world‘, and that it is the direct result of… non-chill filtering. It turns out that when you leave your whisky non-chill filtered, you can still counter the ‘fog’ in the bottle by raising the alcohol percentage to 46% ABV (Whisky.com).
Additionally, to be legally classified as (Scotch) whisky, “[t]he law states that whisky must have a minimum alcohol content of 40%” (Whisky.com). Fettercairn 12, therefore, is within the limits of being called Scotch whisky (duh). Moreover, our perception of alcohol by volume percentages is twisted, as we think that ‘more expensive bottles, with higher ABV percentages, are automatically better whiskies’. Well, it’s not true. Not from an analytical point of view.
Supply/Demand, and the Price of Whisky
Lastly, before I offer up my tasting notes, let me briefly talk about one of the biggest selling points of the whisky industry: the price. I have noticed that more and more people have started sending me links to newspaper articles stating that “a single malt of brand X, of Y years old, was sold at an auction for ZZZZZZ dollars/euros/pounds sterling”. Whisky is expensive, yes, and single malts are even more expensive than other whiskies. Why? Well, because of the following factors, which I will paraphrase from the following Insider article: “Why a bottle of single malt whisky can cost up to $1.5M”.
Producing whisky is expensive. More expensive than creating other types of distilled products. Before you can call a distilled product “whisky”, it needs to mature for at least 3 years. This maturation needs to happen on wooden casks made from oak not exceeding 700l in volume (Scotch Whisky Act of 1988 and 1990). It takes time to produce or repair casks in a cooperage, and maturation on specific casks often mean a hefty price to procure specific casks of the highest quality, whether they are made from virgin oak, first-fill ex-bourbon, or more widely available casks. In short, the type of maturation also dictates the price of a whisky bottle.
Single malt whiskies are also more expensive than other whiskies. A single malt whisky is defined as “whisky made from malted barley, at a single distillery, aged for at least three years in either American oak or European (Spanish) oak casks, and bottled at a minimum ABV of 40%” (Glenfiddich.com). Contrary to popular belief, single malts are also ‘blends’, but there is a huge difference with blended whiskies: a blended whisky has whiskies from different distilleries blended together, whereas a single malt whisky is a blend of casks which contained the same type of distilled malted barley, and the casks all came from the same distillery. A single cask whisky is exactly that: whisky from one cask from one distillery. If the amount of casks you use is limited, your price per bottle will rise as well.
There’s also something called the “Angel’s Share“, the process where alcohol evaporates while it is being matured in a cask (which is a living thing, and ‘breathes’). Up to 1% of the volume of the cask can evaporate per year, which means that the longer that maturation, the more spirit evaporates. Old whiskies are more expensive, partially, because there’s simply less to bottle after their full maturation.
I could also start talking about deliberate acts to drive prices up by making whisky less available or ‘market-exclusives’, but that would muddle up the point I’m trying to make here. Whisky is ‘expensive’, but the price does not say anything about the way it tastes. Your 50,000 dollar bottle does not taste better than my 200 dollar bottle, because whether you like certain flavours and aromas is a personal thing.
Fettercairn 12 is priced on average at around 50 euros online. This, to me, is an acceptable price for a 12 year old whisky, although slighty above what I personally would spend. Prices may vary depending on your location and local taxe rates for alcohol in general, and whisky specifically.
Fettercairn 12: The Tasting Notes
This might have been the longest ‘running-up-to-reviewing-a-whisky’ I have ever written. But I think it serves a purpose. I have been able to bring this discussion down to a simple balance between the tasting notes and the price I need to pay to buy a full bottle. Here’s my review.
There are aromas of vanilla and citrus, with creamy butter cake as a distinct element. Flavour-wise, I’m getting a very gentle dram, filled with sweetness (the coconut is really there!), followed by a creamier aspect, and the slightest hint of (slightly unripe) pineapple. The texture is of a water-like viscosity, which means this whisky goes down quite well, and it’s a bit more difficult to keep it swirling around in your mouth. As a finish, more vanilla, with barely any dry element to round the dram out. Very down-to-earth, easy to process. Okay in my book, nothing bad about it at all.
To me, the Fettercairn 12 fits well in the group of ‘12y old whiskies which are decent for any occasion‘. Although slightly above my personal ‘ideal price’ in my head, this expression offers up a palate which is perfect for people who are starting their whisky journey. It is not overly complex, but allows you to taste a couple of flavours and experience a couple of aromas. Because it is only 40% ABV, it is also easier to drink than most other whiskies in the same age category. This might also be a factor that convinces people to try out their first whisky expression.
Experienced whisky drinkers might find the Fettercairn 12 to be lacking some substance, but I have a feeling this expression is more oriented towards a wider market. It’s a fun bottle to have in a range of other 12 year old whiskies to offer up some contrast in your collection, if you are willing to spend a bit more money. I also like unicorns.
Photographs are © Fettercairn Distillery.