Knowing where to start with Clynelish is tough. Where many distilleries have a defining characteristic, historic or otherwise, Clynelish is ostensibly far less extravagant. Not unlike Caol Ila, Clynelish’s present claim to fame isn’t even a claim for itself: it’s the whisky’s role in Johnnie Walker blends. The brand’s history is similarly unembellished. The original distillery was established by the Duke of Sutherland in 1819, where it mainly existed without much success until the early 20th century.
Arguably the most interesting historical bit came in the late 60s when a new plant with six stills was built. The old distillery became Brora and was used to produce peated malts, due to Caol Ila suffering a drought. Brora eventually closed in 1983, but reopened in 2021. As for the “new” distillery built in 1969, that has become the current Clynelish site. Only a select few labels don the distillery’s moniker, with the 14-Year being the most widely known. Details on the whisky are difficult to procure, from the question of chill filtration to coloring and even cask type (presumably ex-bourbon). What is known (and appreciated) is the bottling strength of 46% ABV. Locally I’ve seen this for around $80-$85, but tried it as part of Diageo’s Coastal Collection.
Nose: Fruity with some tart and floral undercurrents. Honey and vanilla upfront with a strong pear and apple juice backbone. Has a vaguely savory undercurrent. Pineapple cake and cantaloupe with a hint of clove. Get the impression this is exclusively ex-bourbon matured.
Palate: Rich, oily, and oddly waxy. Cornucopia of desserts and sweet-tart fruit flavors; cake-like vanilla and caramel notes; butterscotch, pear, and white grape juice. Sweetly floral with hints of lychee.
Finish: Mild spice gradually builds and settles while the pineapple from the nose slips back in. Residuals of poached pear complete with added notes of caramel and white chocolate. Closes out with crisp red apple.
To say this whisky caught me off-guard would be an understatement. Many of the flavors Clynelish 14 brings to the table overlap with the likes of Glenmorangie and The Singleton, particularly their entry-level bottlings. Think bright fruit, honey, and perhaps a stronger dessert note here and there. It’s the profile I commonly associate with budget-minded scotch and the occasional Irish whiskey. Consequently, my response to this type of profile is often one of apathy rather than enjoyment. I’d even assume this isn’t unlike when scotch fans struggle to get into bourbon due to its arguably more homogenous nature.
So what makes Clynelish 14 any different?
The proof starts in the details. Although 14 years isn’t a drastic jump in age from 10 or 12, particularly in the realm of scotch, it can still bestow a stronger, more developed profile. I’d say that’s been achieved here. Being bottled at a respectable 46% ABV does wonders for the final product as well, allowing the aforementioned notes to flourish in a way that feels deeper, richer, and so much more fulfilling. No small part of this can be attributed to the mouthfeel, achieving a lovely balance of richness and heft. Drinking Clynelish 14 feels like consuming an ensemble of fruity desserts without the caloric consequences.
Take all these factors in tandem and we have what I’d handily call my favorite expression from the Diageo Coastal Collection. Given my general feelings towards peated and unpeated malts, that’s no small feat.