As I am sitting here, finalizing this review of The Lakes’ Single Malt Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.2, I finally get the philosophy behind the brand. It’s about tasting, defining what you like, and improving upon that. It’s about making mistakes, learning from them, and allowing them to happen again, each time moving a bit closer to the ideal goal, but also realizing there is no such thing as the ‘perfect’ whisky. Then again, their “No.2” just won a Gold medal in the 2020 World Whiskies Awards (Single Malt, No Age Statement). Here’s why.
Truth be told, I was sceptic about this whisky. Well, perhaps “concerned” is a better word. I was concerned that this very young distillery (it opened up in 2014) simply covered their products with a veneer of ‘mumbo-jumbo’. Holism? The cry of nature? Searching for inspiration? It all sounded like a sales-talk for hollow Instagram users looking for a ‘deeper meaning’ and pseudo-existentialist consumerism. I wrote the middle part of this article before I wrote the introduction, and I have since tweaked it a little bit. Now, it might be that some of you are not convinced, and this is all simply a trick to make you buy the products of The Lakes. And that’s okay. You do not have to believe in their story. You don’t even have to read up on it. The only thing you need to do, as is almost always the case with whisky or any product that influences your senses, is to experience it.
Whether you like their expressions or not, is a matter of perspective, but so is their ethos. It is as empty and as inspirational as you want it to be. But it makes more sense in my head after tasting the whisky. It’s an emotional approach, rather than a scientific one, and it yields results.
The Lakes Distillery – A Sense of Place
As mentioned above, The Lakes Distillery is a very young distillery. They have been producing their single malts, blended (malt) whiskies, gins, and vodkas since 2014. Their approach: an artistic one. At The Lakes, their whisky is more than a drink. It provokes an ‘emotional response‘. Is it something you like? Or adore? Is it something that you want to share with your friends on special occasions? Or is it simply a ‘Friday-evening-after-work-dram’? The choice is yours.
The distillery is situated in a landscape that ‘resonates’ with their whiskies, or vice-versa. It’s a matter of perspective. Where do I want to produce whisky? Where do I want to drink it? On their website, you can read the following:
“If you strip it back to basics what you need for a new distillery is access to lots of cold, clean water, space for storing the casks, and access to market. You could make whisky anywhere these requirements are met. What makes you choose the place, speaks of the person.” (lakesdistillery.com)
The people behind the distillery chose their location simply because they felt like they could produce good whiskies there. Added to that, the restoration of a ‘disused, broken down dairy farm’ brought history and the future together in a Celtic symbol, found several times during renovation work: the quatrefoil, a symbol of faith, hope, luck, and love. Talk about un-earthing core values.
The Concept of Élevage
Choosing the location of the distillery was ‘an emotional one, rather than a practical one’. There’s a sense of poetry to that. The artistic approach is carried further in the work ethos of the people employed by the distillery: every step of production is a necessary one, a solid, separate task on its own, and it helps to create a better product. Whiskymaker Dhavall Gandhi believes that creating a whisky is a conscious choice, and every step is as important as the next one. Read up on the full distillation ethos and their whisky story here.
But how does this ‘holistic‘ approach translate into the production process? Well, the final blend of single malt casks is ‘allowed to marry for up to one year‘, longer than any other whisky. According to the distillery, this offers a whisky which has depth, is rounded out nicely, and is especially harmonious in character (lakesdistillery.com). This, to me, would mean a perfectly balanced whisky without any sharp edges. I am reminded of one of my favourite Youtube chefs, who urges his viewers to ‘let the ingredients sit together so they can get to know each other‘.
It’s the same approach that winemakers, sherry producers, and the cellarmasters of cognacs have perfected over hundreds of years, before science and laboratories turned whisky into an industrial product. Flavour is key, and rather than finding out what the whisky tastes like after maturation, The Lakes works the other way around. They choose to mature the whisky on different casks because they know (or can predict) what the influence of a specific cask will be on the flavours in your glass (a concept called “élevage“). It sounds like a ‘hit or miss’, but it also weirdly makes sense. It brings back the creational aspect to the production process. Perhaps this kind of approach has value, perhaps it doesn’t. It certainly does not speed up the production process. Then again, who wants to drink whisky which is produced ‘as quickly as possible’?
The Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.2
The sample that I received from The Nectar’s brand ambassador Rens Defrenne comes from “The Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.2“, which has won a gold medal (see introduction), and is now sold-out on their website. The “No.2”, obviously, is the second single malt that has been commercially released by the distillery. The website mentions that there were only 4,788 bottles available in the UK, with numbers for the international market unknown (help me out on this one, Rens).
The description on the website states that this whisky is “new, intense and robust” and that it is “bottled at cask strength – 60.9% ABV – and matured in the finest, meticulously sourced PX, red wine and bourbon casks” (lakesdistillery.com). Pedro Ximénez sherry -, red wine -, and bourbon casks. Not really a groundbreaking combination. But not a disappointing one either.
In the nose, this expressions is mellow, warm, with a feint red wine scent, some sweetness, and a very delicate alcohol scent. It’s a welcoming blend of scents, and I instinctively thought I was going to like this dram. And I was right!
The texture can be best described as a bit ‘rugged‘, a bit more ‘grainy’ (not the taste) than water, like the lowest grit size sandpaper you can image. Just a tickle.
Tasting the dram, I got red berries, sugary sweetness (toffee?), some orange and a little spice. It’s all-encompassing, beautifully mouth-filling, with a reassuring burning sensation. Rather diminished for a cask strength, and therefore surprising, and very enjoyable.
As a finish, just the slightest hint of a dry element, but mostly a warm quilted blanket wrapped around your tongue. There are fruits, with juicy red apple as a major element for me.
The Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.2 is a high-quality single malt whisky, eager to join the ‘big boys’ in the line-up. It’s proof that cask strengths are not always blazing infernos in your mouth. With its sophisticated yet accessible flavours, this expression has what it takes to convince and impress. If this is the product of holistic whisky-making, I’m eager to join their masterclass.