For Iain Croucher, the founder and mainman of Scottish indie bottler North Star Spirits, whisky is a pretty simple thing. At the end of the day, he claims, a good bottling must only meet four criteria: It must be honest. It must be fun. It must be tasty. And it must be opened and shared. Even if you never had the pleasure of meeting Iain in person, these straightforward words should give you a good first impression of this helluva cool dude, who started his own spirits company in 2016. Prior to that, he was a bar man, a restaurant owner and a BizDev & Sales Manager for A.D. Rattray. Ever since North Star appeared on the whisky firmament, however, Iain put all his creativity, energy and expertise into this young but go-getting endeavour. With success! In 2020, North Star was named “Indie Bottler of the Year” at the Scottish Whisky Awards. In 2021, the company released its 100th bottling as part of its 14th outturn (to not challenge their karma too much, they skipped the unlucky number before).
On Thursday, 20 May 2021, Iain logged in to Zoom to show a cross-section of his work to round about 25 drammers from Germany. The virtual blind tasting was organized by my pal Basti, who is very active on Instagram with the profile @WhiskyGermany. He has a great reputation as an organizer of brilliant whisky events; and this three-hour dramming session was no exception! The six-piece line-up took us zigzag through North Star’s history: There were drams from the first outturn. There were drams from the twelfth outturn. There were drams from the outturns in between. There were drams without age statementa. There were drams that were over three decades old. There were drams with maturation times in between. There were drams with price tags below 50 Euro. There were drams that would set you back more than 500 Euro. There were drams that cost amounts in between.
Providing a broad variety has always been part of North Star’s philosophy. Every outturn is composed in a way so that it has something to offer for everybody, no matter how deep their pockets are. For the remainder of this year, however, Iain decided to adjust the course a little. “The last months have been rough,” he said. “Right now, not everybody can still afford to spend as much money on whisky as they could before. Therefore, North Star will put a stronger focus on accessible bottlings in the next months, rather than releasing more old Springbanks or Macallans.” If you still need another reason to love this guy and his company, there you have it!
On to the drams: We started with the Highland Star, a sherry-matured Teaninich 11yo. It was creamy and easy-going with lots of biscuits, lemon creme and icing sugar on the nose as well as citrus zest, pineapple and cinnamon on the tongue. Further back, the whisky also produced some oak and even a wee touch of ash. This lovely palate pleaser was followed by a Bunnahabhain 26yo from North Star’s debut Series 001. It was a light, elegant and super-fruity pour with a very tropical, exotic character. When we guessed the distillery after the first few sips, none of the participants had expected this to be an Islay malt. Emerging from my glass, I smelled lychee, orange, apple, peach and pancake. And I tasted violet drops, almond splinters, citrus peel and apple puree. The medium finish did also bring forth a peppermint freshness and a pomelo bitterness. After this surprisingly different Ileach, we hopped over to Speyside. There, we added another ten years to the dram’s age! Yeah, that’s right, the ex-bourbon-matured Miltonduff we drank third was no less than 36 years old! To the nostrils, it presented itself as a total fruit basked: apples, pears, mangoes, grapes. Additionally, there were also scents of yellow tea and spring twigs. On the palate, the whisky was immensely fruity at first, too. But then a noticable spiciness made itself known as well (grated ginger, white pepper). The ongoing aftertaste produced another unforeseen note: creamy milk choloclate. This sweet treat interplayed very nicely with the bananas, tangerines, pineapples and other bright, ripe fruits in there.
Next up, things became oily and grimy with a 15-year-old Bruichladdich from a French red wine cask. This extraordinary pour was really heavy and rich with tannins. Plus, it offered many maritime aromas such as sea-sprayed wood planks, water-splashed harbor walls and diesel-spilled engine rooms. From underneath, some nuts and mushy fruits showed themselves, too. The mouthfeel was full and voluminous. As this massive Laddie bellowed on my tongue, I tasted an abundance of autumnal fruits appearing together with cough candy, black bread and plum jelly. The neverending finish also had some charred smoke notes alongside the oily, malty and sweetish notes from before.
How do you best counter such an intense dram? Well, the answer is easy: Go over to Campbeltown and sip a Hazelburn 22yo. In case you have not heard that term before, Hazelburn is the name of the triple-distilled whisky made at Springbank Distillery. The expression we tasted was special in many ways. For starters, it had an ABV of exactly 46 per cent. Iain swore to us that the spirit came out of the cask like that without being further diluted. Personally, he would have preferred it to have 0.2 per cent more or less, so that people would better understand that it came in natural cask strength. But hey, sometimes things just are as they are. And how did this rare and precious whisky taste? Well, it was a total sherry bomb in which a rush of sherry sweetness clashed with an invigorating citrus freshness and a classic Campbeltown smuttiness. The profile was both immensely challenging and complex. Besides the notes already mentioned, it also had sulphur, spearmint, rhubarb, hard candy and even carpaccio. I don’t think it comes as much of a surprise to you that this unique drop received a ton of praise afterwards.
As one of the other guys in the audience perfectly put it, our evening was destined to end in chaos! The reason for this: We culminated the blind tasting with a glass of North Star Chaos. This very approachable NAS bottling is Iain’s answer to an ongoing customer request: “We’d like you to offer us a whisky that comes from Islay. That is very peaty. That is fully sherry matured. And while you’re at it, can you also make sure that it’s more on the cheap side?” Getting some of these boxes checked is rather easy for a seasoned indie bottler. But all of them? That is quite a challenge; a challenge that Iain mastered with flying colors. Tapping into his first-class Diageo stock, he produced three casks of Caol Ila that were filled in 2009 and 2010. Two of these vessels contained spirit that was fully oloroso-matured and the last one contained spirit that was oloroso-finished. The result of this vatting is an absolute stunner that offers incredible value for money. The nosing of North Star Chaos revealed lots of sweet, smoky, and bacon-y aromas. Plus, of course, a big cloud of peat smoke. The tasting raised similar associations: Among others, I made out chimney puff, pork roast, baked goods, burnt wood, whipped creme, strawberry pudding, lime juice and lots n’ lots of sherry sweetness! In my opinion, this fabulous Islay whisky marked a perfect finale for such a fine evening. On the one hand, it ran down the throat like nectar. But on the other hand, it also gave you a lot to explore and ponder about. And things got even better! Before they bid us farewell, Iain and Basti told us that North Star Chaos is still available from specialist whisky dealers like DeinWhisky.de … for under 50 quid!
The drams — and my uneducated guesses
Highland Star 11yo (Single Malt / Highlands / Sherry cask / 50% / EUR 45) — Linkwood 10yo
Bunnahabhain 26yo (Single Malt / Islay / Bourbon cask / 51.1% / EUR 200) — Auchroisk 16yo
Miltonduff 36yo (Single Malt / Speyside / Ref. Hogshead / 53.7% / EUR 350) — Tobermory 19yo
Bruichladdich 15yo (Single Malt / Islay / Red wine cask / 57.1% / EUR 200) — Springbank 19yo
Hazelburn 22yo (Single Malt / Campbeltown / Sherry cask / 46% / EUR 580) — Unknown 13yo
North Star Chaos (Single Malt / Islay / Sherry casks / 50% / EUR 45) — Caol Ila 10yo
North Star @ Web: https://northstarspirits.com/ (Indie bottler)
Sansibar Whisky @ Web: https://www.sansibar-whisky.com/ (Importer)
WhiskyGermany @ Insta: https://www.instagram.com/whiskygermany/ (Host)
*** I bought the samples for the tasting myself. ***