“You know, Bain’s is actually pretty good.” This is a statement guaranteed to be heard the moment you put a bunch of South African whisky drinkers together. It’s inevitable. And also entirely accurate.
Bain’s quickly become a South African institution. It seems the number of people I meet who made the switch from Jameson as a daily driver to Bain’s increases all the time – often without even knowing they traded a trendy blend for a small-batch single grain that eats awards for breakfast.
So the wait for the official-official, for-real-this-time release of Bain’s 15-year-old was particularly excruciating for those of us who love what Bain’s is doing. Unfortunately, it seems to be slated for Travel Retail only (sigh, whisky politics), but there are plenty of bottles floating around if you know where to look or who to suck up to! And suck up I did.
Aged for no fewer than 15 years in ex-bourbon barrels and bottled at a breathtaking 52.8%, hold onto your pants:
Bourbon. Bourbon all around. Sweet cornflakes, apples, vanilla, cherries. Plenty of that buttery popcorn of its younger brother, but with an added syrupy sweet (and somewhat…spicy?) layer. Excellent. And while you do get a little of the anticipated raw alcohol vapour, its nowhere near nose-hair-singeing levels – many whisky drinkers may not even whiff the ABV.
Helloooo nurse! Yes. Very yes. First off, here’s where the ABV takes you for a special ride – there’s no doubt this stuff is strong. However, the flavours – good grief, the flavours, and the texture – easily temper the flames.
It has that “can’t help but close my eyes with each sip” quality, that spontaneous sensory overload where your brain tries to shout out those pesky auditory and visual stimuli in favour of whatever short circuiting is going on in your tastebuds. Especially the first few sips. Like many cask-strengthers, the first sip is a sort of sacrifice to the whisky gods, but thereafter… phwooar.
The first few sips are dominated by the richest, oiliest caramel and vanilla, the likes of which you can only really find in truly top-shelf bourbon. An earthy, dry salt twang has the (awesome) side effect of making you even more thirsty, which can only be resolved by tucking in. As a result Bain’s 15 is bizarrely chuggable despite the numbers.
Once your brain has come to terms with your new environment, you get more of the fruit and wood flavours. As you might expect, red fruits, cherries and raisins, but also a lovely citrus oil, some Jelly Babies. A little pineapple. And plenty of oak – an ever-so-slighty burnt wood and charcoal bite at the back.
Unsurprisingly, Bain’s 15 can swim with the best of them. Water it or ice it as you prefer – BUT! Don’t be too hasty. It really does lose a lot of its magic given some time in the pool. Of course it becomes superficially easier (“smoother”) to drink, but the depth of that richness is gone almost immediately, and it becomes a different beast altogether. A lot more… I don’t want to say “standard”, or “run-of-the-mill”, but certainly more akin to other quality bourbons rather than a one-of-a-kind experience.
Andy seems to have been bang on releasing Bain’s 15 at this strength, and it really does deserve to be appreciated neat. Perhaps commit to having your first two glasses without water and see if you still feel compelled 🙂 Thereafter, of course – Coke Zero away.
The finish is not this endless river of blissful euphoria. Nope. No free ride here – Bain’s 15 requires drinking, and a semi-consistent rhythm of raising glass to lips in order to keep your Bain’s buzz. No dawdling! South Africa isn’t for sissies.
Certainly the best South African whisky I’ve ever had, right alongside Three Ships’ very own 10-year-old PX cask from a few years ago. Hellishly potent without being too complex or intellectual, this is South African style bourbon on steroids. A must-try, must-own bottle for any bourbon drinker and a real testament to some top-tier local talent. Bravo!