A Tale of the Forest

Take a bramble through the woods in this review of Glenmorangie's limited edition whisky.

Botanical Scotch sounds like heresy. Never shall the two meet… Until now. 

But before the rage sets in at the very mention of the two combining, take a moment to see the wood from the trees and open your mind to what might just be possible when done respectfully. For those who do, you may well find something that dares to be different while actually not being different at all, just re-imagined.

Curious? Let’s start the ‘Tale’ at the beginning… 

Who are Glenmorangie?

Glenmorangie is one of the biggest selling Single Malt Scotch Whisky brands. They are owned by Moet Hennessey and the distillery is a giant in the world of Scotch by most metrics – be it volume, reputation and global distribution.

It’s both old (it was founded in 1843 by William Matheson), big (it has an annual production capacity of over six million litres) and tall (the stills are the tallest in Scotland standing at over five metres). 

Glenmorangie’s ‘Tale’ series is an annual limited-edition release. Some tout it as the successor to their now discontinued Private Edition line, although, I don’t think it is as clear cut as that given the frequency and where it’s being placed but irrespective - A Tale of the Forest is the third release in the series making its debut in November 2022, following on from A Tale of Cake from 2020 and A Tale of Winter from 2021. 

Despite this being just the third, there’s a lot of sustained interest around the series as a whole and its ‘experimental’ nature has caught the whisky community’s attention.

Some context on Whisky innovation and experimental ideas

Experimental Scotch sounds like an oxymoron. As a person who has been on the front line of gin’s journey from anonymity to juggernaut category, I find is that the pace of actual innovation in scotch whisky is glacial because it is only ever done in fractions of a degree at a time. 

That’s not intended as a slight. The rules governing the whisky’s production are notoriously constrictive and while frustrating for those us who want to see producers unleash chaos in a cask, it’s also what keeps the category coherent and valuable. That’s especially true when it comes to Single Malt Scotch. 

Producers know they must work within the confines of tight regulation or face stiff fines, stiffer verbal reprimanding over the language they use to even present concepts, and a hard slog to get experimental products off the ground. To avoid this, they tend to look at incremental riffs on previously established processes and carefully position it as to not infringe on those precious regs… 

Despite the many reviews of this product and discussion about what it means for Scotch as a whole, few seem to address that all too often the stifling of ideas is also due to a reserved mentality. Many don't try and push the boat. Ever. And too many producers subscribe to the concept of because there is a way they’ve always done it, that has to be the way it’s done going forward. For all, in perpetuity. 

Put bluntly, many just aren’t that adventurous with their desire to be disruptive. That attitude and approach is shared by more than a fair share of older whisky community too.

That’s not all negative if we return to the comparison to gin – the rampant, explosion of ideas and unique concepts has been exciting, but it’s also a key contributing factor in why that category is in now free-fall. It was the same for Vodka in the 90’s and part of the reason Rum has struggled for credibility over the years. When left unchecked, new and novel quickly becomes mere novelty… 

Longevity comes from a tempered cadence and the constant friction between progress and history being ground against each other to only let the best ideas through.

Which takes us full circle and why Tale of the Forest is so clever. It is super progressive for Scotch yet ancient as an idea. The approach to innovation and the way the distillery team have applied it needs to be noted and celebrated - it breaks the mould without breaking anything at all. More over if they - the big boys of Scotch - can poke at a boundary surely others can take inspiration and push their agenda forward a little more proactively…

Botanical whisky or alternative fuels?

“A good few years ago we started to look back into the history of kilning specifically” says Gillian Macdonald, Master Blender & Head of Whisky Creation, Glenmorangie & Ardbeg. “Our company archivist revealed interesting information dating back to references from the 1880s and Alfred Barnard.” 

In the exhumed materials there were references to heather flowers and juniper being used alongside peat and other combustible materials in the process of drying malt. No doubt, they were probably doing this more for the heat rather than flavour back then, but their inclusion would have been palpable – just as peat is when it's burned.

“Other references we found from a similar era mentioned the use of birchwood being used with great success in drying the malt as a strong and steady source of heat and an alternative to peat at distilleries” continued Macdonald.

Indeed there were even descriptions of not fully decomposed peat with visible plants being present during kilning. An idea started to form to use alternative kilning fuels found in nature across Scotland for a batch, and emulate a process that would have plausibly been used by distilleries in the past.

A kiln is an oven used in the whisky making process to dry malt. By applying heat, the moisture of the barley is reduced and once low enough, stops the germination process from continuing (ensuring the grain’s starch content remains steady and ready for the next stage). 

It’s doesn’t just perform an entirely practical function though, the kiln also provides distillers with the opportunity to further develop the character of the malt and it’s where the likes of peat (or botanicals in the case of Glenmorangie Tale of the Forest) can be added so that other flavours can be imbued into the barely.

In layman’s terms - if the heat source used has smoke containing air-bound flavour compounds, those will be “trapped” in the drying malt. So long as the next stages don’t overtly minimise their presence, those compounds will become part of final spirit.

An old-fashioned technique recreated in modern times.

With the idea in place, the team set out to distil barley kilned with woodland botanicals (peat, juniper, pine, heather, rowan berries and birch bark). Once distilled, the whisky was matured in a combination of first-fill and re-fill ex-bourbon casks. 

There’s no age statement on the release, but it’s fair to assume the whisky inside is around 10-12 years old, which is interesting in and of itself. 

The concept of kilning other materials is new to Scotch, but globally the likes of Mackmyra, Stauning or Vor across Scandinavia and a couple more niche releases over in Tasmania have each made whiskies that play in this area. That said, while my knowledge of their respective histories is limited, it’s highly unlikely that these wouldn’t have been around at the time when Glenmorangie implemented this (circa 2008-2010), making the creative pursuit even more novel than it seems now.  

And then there’s the scale of it all too. 

Glenmorangie is massive. Kilning at the scale they need for the size of washbacks, stills and subsequent demand for the end product would have been a monstrous feat. In terms of taking a gamble it’s a big call to make as a batch at scale would have been the equivalent of a week’s worth of production. Brave to say the least! 

Glenmorangie Distillery's bolt-on extension - The Lighthouse

I think that leap of faith paid off. 

It’s notably smoky on the nose, which is unusual for Glenmorangie, but it’s not distinctly peated nor that familiar smoke note you can find within Scotch. It’s more akin to a woodland campfire that rises from the glass and for as much as we are all susceptible to being lead by concept and visuals (the bottle provides lots of inspiration to evoke a wildflower clearing in a botanical woodland), the nose matches the “forest” pitch being made here. 

To taste, it’s sappy and those juniper notes of pine and wood-floor come through alongside a big does of cloves before the usual Glenmorangie honeyed malt and pear-like ripe fruit. The more you return and play with adding water and dilution, the more you notice eucalyptus, menthol and wood sap and the way they influence the whisky. They are fundamental to the flavour of the liquid and not a gimmicky layer on top - especially on the finish where more minty pine and barley linger with charred oak.

For £75-£85, it’s a great release and for those interested in trying a concept that’s gone from being a curious idea to bottled product – this really delivers what it set out to do; It’s a tale of the forest told through the medium of whisky.

Deliciously different

A Tale of the Forest is as unlike Glenmorangie’s house style as you’re going to get, yet in an experimental way it feels intrinsically linked to them and right for where they are wanting to go. 

The concept was executed in a way that works as a liquid - if you didn't know the concept and had this blind, it'll be a weird dram but an enjoyable one. It’s not a world of contrasts or novelty, just a different story told by a familiar voice. 

A Tale of the Forest threads a needle in being a please all kind of ‘innovation’. It's the kind of bottling that demonstrates it is still possible to evolve production methods within the rules governing Scotch whisky, and the kind that shows a unique process can be more interesting that yet another cask finish. 

So much flavour variance can be generated during “primary” stages like malting, kilning fermentation.

It shows that a producer exploring a boundary doesn't have to alienate nor be insular. I can be something that both the hardened whisky community like the taste of, as well as be something to appeal to those whose interest in the spirit is only fleeting. 

Holding that position where all these desires intersect while managing to do something different is no mean feat of innovation in itself!

As for the big picture? Being known for innovation is something you can achieve through doing, it’s not something that can be self-proclaimed. Glenmorangie are pushing that agenda and in whisky terms, that’s got to be something that’s judged over a span of a decade of releases where never-ending combinations of raw materials, process and cask choices are explored. 

So far so good and Glenmorangie have laid down some impressive markers with the Tales series, backed by the completion of The Lighthouse in 2021, their state-of-the-art innovation distillery that allows for extra capacity and the further pursuit of odd-ball ideas. 

What lies ahead is promising and what they have shown so far displays a commitment to evolution. For all the calls for Scotch to stay in its lane, there is the counter that a 180 year history is only an asset if you continue to be relevant. Consumer demands never stop shifting and the need to cater to that while remaining authentic and within the confines of a category is paramount to success. 

Their journey is underway and it's something Macdonald is looking forward to already “Glenmorangie this has stepped up a gear and our imaginations are running wild, which is super exciting for the future”. 

I couldn’t agree more.

Spirits Kiosk
Glenmorangie Original 10yo Single Malt
Glenmorangie Original 10yo Single Malt
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Single Malt
Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban Single Malt
Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or Single Malt Sauternes Cask
Glenmorangie Nectar D'Or Single Malt Sauternes Cask

By Olivier Ward

22 February 2023