The Accelerator And The Brake: An Exceptional 33-Year-Old Scotch From The House Of Hazelwood
Nestled behind the worn black doors of Duty Free Warehouse “No 3” lies a treasure trove of whisky barrels, meticulously stored over decades by the Gordon family. As proprietors of William Grant, the parent company behind brands such as The Balvenie and Glenfiddich, their 80-year legacy of astute laying down of casks has yielded an extraordinary collection of malt, grain and blended whiskies, notable for their high age statements.
The latest creation under their House of Hazelwood label is “The Accelerator and The Brake,” a 33-year-old Blended Scotch born from a collaboration with the eminent whisky writer, Dave Broom. At first glance at the label, I mistakenly interpreted its moniker as a nod to the world of motoring, but it actually pays homage to the trailblazing partnership of the Gordon brothers, Charles (The Accelerator) and Sandy (The Brake), whose transformative influence reshaped the whisky landscape during the latter half of the 20th century.
In this feature, I will delve into the fascinating narrative behind this exceptional whisky. However, for those eager to just learn about how good it is, I can confirm that it is simply delicious. It may seem paradoxical to describe a 33-year-old whisky as youthful, yet in the context of the House of Hazelwood, it is relatively young, such is the depth of their collection.
The nose has notes of zesty orange marmalade, hints of tangerine, and buttered rich tea biscuits, with the palate maintaining a vibrancy with an impressive 57.6% abv. The flavour profile took me to America, with a medley of maple pie, vanilla, spice, and a lingering mocha coffee finish. The layers of flavour built and stayed long after I had enjoyed each sip. It is a whisky to be contemplated and enjoyed, hopefully in the company of friends, where you can take a moment to consider it and discuss the complexities. The more chat you have, the more flavours you seem to find. It is one of those whiskies that once discussed should simply be enjoyed.
The complexity has developed from years of maturation in American white oak casks, with a proportion being virgin oak. The seamless integration of grain and malt components is something of a House of Hazelwood trademark, with the past releases also perfectly balanced between the two. This whisky is made all the more special by the story of its creation in collaboration with Dave Broom.
Before I discuss the collaboration and creation of the whisky, I feel it’s important to recognise the significance of the dunnage warehouse, given that 60-80% of a whisky’s flavour is derived from the casks, and the storage conditions play a pivotal role. Unlike modern, rack warehouses designed for efficiency, dunnage warehouses are a rarity, characterised by their relatively limited capacity and the extra labour needed. The only nod to modernity is the bar-coding of each barrel.
Dunnage warehouses usually feature earthen floors, which enable a stable temperature conducive to gradual interaction between the spirit and the wood. The interplay between wood and spirit could easily fill a book, such is its importance. These single-story structures, mostly decades old, maintain consistent temperature conditions throughout the year, foregoing the multi-tiered barrel storage seen in contemporary rack warehouses. Barrels are carefully stacked in rows with ample spacing, ensuring proper air circulation and minimising the risk of damage. Thick walls and small, sparse windows preserve insulation with stable environmental conditions – cool and damp. This is ideal for the ageing process, helping to nurture complex flavours and aromas over time.
Stepping into a dunnage warehouse always brings a smile to my face. It is a journey taking you back in time with beautiful aromas hitting you as soon as you walk through the door. During my visit, I had the privilege of meeting George Paterson, the sample custodian responsible for overseeing the barrels, and I couldn’t help but envy his role, of safeguarding these treasures and ensuring sample quality for the master blender.
What makes House of Hazelwood even more intriguing is the secret nature of these barrels. They rested in quiet obscurity for a generation, locked away and patiently awaiting their moment to shine. George told me how excited he gets when a sample request comes through, he being the first person, sometimes in years to taste the liquid within.
If not for the Gordons family’s decision to bottle them, one can only wonder what their fate might have been. Given their status as one of Scotland’s most unknown, yet exceptional collections of barrels, their releases have been of immense interest to me. They have been well-timed too, with the trend for ultra-high-age statement whiskies gaining momentum.
The House of Hazelwood distinguishes itself not only through its exceptional quality and packaging but also its relative value. While not inexpensive, these whiskies offer fantastic value when compared to single malts of a similar age. Importantly, they are priced at a level where enthusiasts are encouraged to open them, appreciating their historical significance and unique flavours derived from these mature grain spirits. The House of Hazelwood stands alone in a category of its own, with no rivals capable of replicating its offerings due to the age and rarity of its holdings.
During my visit, George graciously extracted samples from a barrel for me to taste, employing a copper whisky thief, a long rod dipped into the cask to draw out the whisky. What added a unique dimension to this experience was the presence of Dennis McBain, a coppersmith who had joined the company in 1958. George jokingly remarked that the copper thief had to remain spotless to avoid Dennis’s disapproval – a testament to the mutual respect between them. Though Dennis had retired in 2008, he occasionally still takes on the odd job, making him an integral part of the distillery’s team still. I couldn’t help but ponder whether he had ever commissioned a piece of oak furniture crafted from the barrel staves, adorned with polished copper. It’s a question I’ll have to enquire about in the future.
“The Accelerator and The Brake” weaves a narrative around the Gordon brothers, Charlie and Sandy, to which I, in some small way, feel connected. Not in the creation of this whisky, but in the philosophy that underpins it. My stay at Hazelwood House, still the Gordon family’s residence in Dufftown, offered me a glimpse into their world. As I walked through the front door, past the pale yellow walls adorned with family portraits, and an old-fashioned rotary telephone, I ventured into the sitting room where I would later sit with Kirsten Grant Meikle who is the great-great-granddaughter of William Grant and brought into the family business in 2011 by her uncle, Charles Gordon. She recalled she was sent around the globe, working in different departments, to fully understand the business.
Adjoining the open-plan sitting room was a space where the Gordon brothers likely crafted their correspondence on the period desk overlooking the manicured gardens., I couldn’t help but wonder how many crucial decisions had been made within these walls. Given that the company remains 100% privately owned, and reach in well over 100 markets worldwide, one can only surmise that it was the birthplace of many pivotal choices. What intrigues me most, though, is the whisky that might have accompanied these decisions – a question for another day, which I’ll explore further in the future with Andy Fairgreaves the company archivist. It was a highlight to speak with Andy, being such a fountain of knowledge. Having gained a degree in Cultural History from Aberdeen University, he moved to Speyside in the 1980s and is passionate about unearthing and looking after the family archives. I hope to sit down with him again and delve into his vast knowledge.
Charlie and Sandy Gordon emerged as industry pioneers, credited with introducing the first Single Malt (for the American market) back in the early 1960s, thereby laying the foundation for the category we know today. Charlie, seemingly brimming with ideas, energy, and ambition, was often reined in by Sandy, whose persona aligned more with the stereotypical role of the accountant he was.
When their primary grain supplier, DCL, threatened to halt deliveries if the brothers ventured into television advertising, they took the audacious step of establishing their own grain distillery. Remarkably, Girvan was operational within a mere nine months – an achievement that would surely require five or ten years in the contemporary regulatory landscape. This move secured their grain supply and allowed them to lay down their own stocks for maturation. It’s as though Enzo Ferrari had removed cars from production and hidden them away, known to only a select few, until being revealed today.
Resisting multiple offers to sell the company over the years, the Gordons have maintained their commitment to family ownership. Had they succumbed to temptation and sold, these remarkable whiskies might never have been born.
As mentioned previously, “The Accelerator and The Brake” is a collaborative achievement between the renowned whisky writer, Dave Broom, and the House of Hazelwood. Working closely with Eilidh Muir, who curated around 40 samples for his assessment, Dave embarked on the enviable task of individually evaluating each one, meticulously formulating a blend from them that transcends the sum of its parts. This is a painstaking and highly skilled task, but one that Dave has clearly excelled at.
To help tell the story, a film documenting the creation of “The Accelerator and The Brake.” was commissioned. This cinematic piece provides a window into the whiskies’ creation, characterised by a commitment to challenging conventions and transcending category labels – traits that epitomize the ethos of House of Hazelwood as underlined by Dave in the film. It is beautifully shot and can be viewed at houseofhazelwood.com.
What House of Hazelwood is doing excites me. As consumers, we ought to move beyond the notion that single malts are the definitive expression of whisky. The single malt category didn’t even exist until the 1960s, and our perceptions have been heavily influenced by the presence of mega-brands of blended whisky on supermarket shelves. Consider our passion for Champagne, a blend of wines from various vineyards and vintages, skillfully blended to achieve a consistent house style. Bordeaux, too, is a blend of different grape varieties. Surely it’s time we appreciated that premium blended whisky can be superb?
As I was writing this feature, I felt a sense of passion and excitement about what is to come from the brand. I dreamt of becoming their global brand ambassador, showing these remarkable whiskies to the world. I haven’t harboured these thoughts before, so took a moment to consider why. Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that I genuinely love all of their expressions and that they have unknown barrels, apart to a select few people, slowly maturing in the warehouses. I am curious and intrigued by what will come next, the thoughts behind it, and of course the actual whisky. I want to share with the world just how special it this brand is. Until that position becomes available, this article will hopefully provide you with a flavour of just how much I am in love with House of Hazelwood.
The 209 bottles of The Accelerator and The Brake are available to pre-order now for £1700 from www.houseofhazelwood.com/whiskies/the-legacy-collection/accelerator-brake