GlenDronach traditionally used sherry casks to mature its malts, and has thus long been known as “sherry bomb” maker. As discussed in my commentary of their 12 year old expression, the distillery was shut down between 1996 and early 2002. When production re-started with new owners, the focus was on aging in more typical ex-bourbon casks.
Over time though, GlenDronach re-discovered its sherry mojo, and now emphasizes this aspect in most of their new releases. As an aside, I find some of their vintage single casks expressions to be among the best heavily-sherried single malts that I have tried.
For those on more of a budget, a good option to consider are the batch releases of the GlenDronach Cask Strength. Lacking an age statement, these releases (now up to five) combine whiskies aged in different sherry barrels, bottled at cask-strength. They are also reasonably well priced (although this has been going up on recent batches).
I haven’t had the pleasure of trying the early ones, but I do have on hand a sample of Batch 4 from Redditor xile_, and a recent bottle of Batch 5 that I purchased at the SAQ in Quebec (regularly $150 CAD, got it on sale for $128).
Here is how they compare in the Meta-Critic Whisky Database, relative to other Glendronachs, and to other cask-strength sherry-bombs.
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 1): 9.06 ± 0.28 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 2): 9.05 ± 0.09 on 6 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 3): 9.05 ± 0.33 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 4): 8.92 ± 0.31 on 9 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach Cask Strength (batch 5): 8.92 ± 0.08 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 12yo Original: 8.57 ± 0.22 on 20 reviews ($$$)
GlenDronach 15yo Revival: 8.91 ± 0.29 on 18 reviews ($$$$)
GlenDronach 18yo Allardice: 8.70 ± 0.40 on 15 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach 21yo Parliament: 8.68 ± 0.39 on 13 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 20yo Single Cask (all vintages): 9.05 ± 0.44 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
GlenDronach vintage 19yo Single Cask (all vintages): 8.96 ± 0.38 on 12 reviews ($$$$$)
Aberlour A’Bunadh (all batches): 8.97 ± 0.20 on 22 reviews ($$$$)
Glenfarclas 105: 8.78 ± 0.37 on 20 reviews ($$$$)
Kavalan Solist Sherry Cask: 9.14 ± 0.35 on 14 reviews ($$$$$)
Macallan Cask Strength: 8.89 ± 0.40 on 12 reviews ($$$$$+)
And now my tasting notes:
Batch 4 consists of 17,806 bottles released in early-mid 2014, bottled at 54.7% ABV. The whisky was drawn from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks. While you would normally expect a dark sherry appearance, I note the colour is more of a light golden brown (suggesting a sweeter and fruitier ride is in store). Note that GlenDronach does not artificially alter the colour of these whiskies.
Nose: Syrupy, like stewed fruits. Main fruit notes are pear, peaches, plums and some raisins. Baking spices, like cinnamon. Very sweet overall, makes me think of rum-raisin ice cream on top of a moist dessert cake. Some nose hair singe due to the high ABV. Water brings up the cereal/cakey notes more.
Palate: Thick, luxurious mouthfeel – like a good cask-strength sherried whisky should be. Very fruity, getting more of the classic prunes, raisins and plums now from the sherry. Cereal again. The rum-like flavours only intensify on the palate. A touch of bitterness creeps in too over time. Water really brings up the baking spices, cinnamon and nutmeg especially. Doesn’t need much to tame the burn.
Finish: Sweetness dies down a little, reminding me more of dried fruits now (still raisins and prunes mainly). Pretty good balance of sweet and bitter (although perhaps a bit too much of both, if that is possible?).
I don’t know the exact mix of sherry casks that went into this, but I’m going to guess it is biased toward the sweeter PX. Indeed, it is so sweet that it actually reminds of some rum-finished malts, like the Glenfiddich 21 year old Gran Reserva. Certainly a decent malt, but the sticky sweetness seems a bit out of character for GlenDronach.
Batch 5 is again from a mix of Pedro Ximénez and Oloroso sherry casks, bottled at 55.3%. Released at the end of 2015, this batch has just shown up here in Canada. Colour is quite a bit darker now, more of the expected medium red gold.
Nose: Less fragrant than Batch 4. Definitely dryer, not as overtly sweet (think dried fruits instead of stewed ones). Lighter fruits dominate again, mainly pear, apple and apricot this time, and a bit of orange. Also getting some cocoa now, and a slightly nutty aroma (almonds?). No real nose hair singe, but a touch of glue is present unfortunately. Time in the glass helps with the solvent note (as does water, which also brings up the sweetness). I recommend adding a few drops of water, for the improved effect.
Palate: Rich, with dark berries join the other fruits now. Citrus picks up further, with some lemon. Silky and syrupy in texture, without being overly sweet – very nice. Milder baking spices, like nutmeg, mixed with some brown sugar. Not bitter, and the glue note from the nose turns into a dry cardboard sensation in the mouth. Malty. Surprisingly drinkable at this ABV. Water lightens the mouthfeel slightly, and raises the sweet fruit factor. Enjoyable either way, frankly.
Finish: Medium long finish. The lingering fruit notes are mainly raisins and sultanas (but not too sweet). Some oak comes in at the end – but this is again more drying than bitter.
Personally, I find this to be closer to the Glendronach core style than Batch 4 (although perhaps somewhat fruitier here). It seems like a good selection of the drier Oloroso sherry casks went into this. If it weren’t for the glue note, this would get an unreservedly high score in my books.
Ranking these two whiskies is difficult. On initial tasting, I was inclined to give Batch 5 a higher score – but that was mainly because the sweeter Batch 4 wasn’t quite what I was expecting. On re-tasting the next day, I’ve revised my opinion, and would give Batch 4 a very slight edge. It is interesting that the current Meta-Critic has the same average score for the two of them.
In the end, it really comes down to how much sweetness you like. If you are a fan of Pedro Ximenez, I suggest you try to hunt down an old bottle of the Batch 4. Drier Oloroso fans should stick with the new Batch 5.
For reviews of Batch 4, I recommend you check out the guys at Quebec Whisky, Serge of Whisky Fun, and Ruben of Whisky Notes. For Batch 5, I suggest you check out Thomas of Whisky Saga, along again with Serge of Whisky Fun and Ruben of Whisky Notes.