On the SMWS, festival bottlings and handling demand

The Scottish whisky festival season came and went, and we were all in lockdown. No gatherings, just videoconferencing. No queues at distilleries, just order baskets on webpages.

Perhaps that increased demand? People knowing that they wouldn’t get to a tasting or Member’s Room to taste the festival whiskies?

Perhaps it’s just the ever-increasing demand hitting a point where the SMWS infrastructure can’t cope anymore.

It doesn’t matter which.

What matters is that it made people angry.

SMWS Outturn 289 - Hop Into Spring

SMWS 128.9 - ElectrochemysteryThe March list has lots of decent drams without breaking the bank. Nothing above a G price, and lots of decent scores of 4/5 for very reasonably priced drams. There's also plenty of variety, with almost all flavour profiles represented.

The star of the list was the Penderyn, which is a lighter and sweeter dram than our usual casks from that distillery.

Also worth looking at are the Strathisla, which is easily mistaken for sherry if you haven't read the details. The Caol Ila is the best peated dram on the list.

This has been a short turnaround due to late deliveries, so I apologise for the lack of analysis - it was all I could do to get the tasting notes written and formatted... Sadly Matt couldn't make it this month, so no notes from him to link to.

SMWS Outturn 288 - Get in the Mood

SMWS G10.23 - Honey on a cricket batIt’s February, so the Gods of Commerce demand their sacrifice to Hallmark Day Valentine’s Day. And this list is practically puppy love - a lot of youth, a lot of energy. More of a night clubbing than a candle-lit dinner...

The star of the list is the almost-too-spicy Strathclyde. That my romance with grain continues should surprise nobody, but this is yet another one of those divine noses that combines wood influence and fruit. More of this please! Also demanding multiple bottles is the Glen Deveron, which is a young fruit bomb with a little wood to back itself up - quite delightful.

Whilst the scores clustered around 4, there were only a couple of bottle candidates. One was the hilariously named Ardmore. Nowhere near as sherried as I expected, and nicely balanced, it’s a fun dram with a fun name. The other candidate was the Glen Scotia, which is full of citrus and hints of other flavours - a real joy to pick apart.

Honourable mentions would include the ludicrously named sherry monster that is the Glentauchers, and the destined-to-be-overlooked soft smoke of the Allt-a-Bhainne.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go and get some candles and set the mood. I plan on spending the evening drinking that grain... probably with another grain. I’m really not about sharing... 😉

(Not all the bottles arrived in time for previews, so this is about three bottles shorter than it should be.)

As ever Matt has the rest of the bottles over at The Dramble...

Things I Use - 2020

This is a list of things I use at the start of 2020. It's not completely canonical, but it's good enough. The idea is to track how things change from year to year.

Anything with a (£) is something I'm paying money for. Otherwise, assume it's free, or I'm on a free tier.

Battle Axe Islay Blend

50% abv, 8 years old.

SMWS Battle AxeThe nose has distant bonfire smoke, banana, and hints of peach and red apple. The mouthfeel is thin with no cling. The body has bonfire smoke, banana, dried coconut, salted caramels and grilled seafood. The finish has salted caramels, bonfire smoke and a little ginger - the latter builds in intensity (and heat) with repeated sips.

Water brings out thin, rapidly expanding whorling that doesn’t last long enough to mottle. The nose gains more smoke, banana and red apple, with the peach gone. The body gains red apple and more grilled seafood, and loses the dried coconut. The finish gains more bonfire smoke and salted caramels, and the ginger is diminished.

A very pleasant lightly peated dram, which I suspect has accomplished what it set out to do.

One for summer nights, under the stars.

Technical score: 4/5

Personal preference: I’d like a bottle.

SMWS Outturn 287 - Braw Beasties

SMWS G7.16 - Elixir of euphoriaIt’s a new year, and the holidays mean a late delivery. My colleague Matt can’t make it at all, so I have to hurry through the list on a Thursday night. London’s also missing five bottlings, which is easier on me but less good for everyone else! If you were hoping to see the 29, 53, 7, 46 or 112 then I’m afraid you’re out of luck. Sorry.

I did manage to taste the rest of the list. As is so often the case, it’s a mixed bag - overall a high standard, but my tongue was burning from spice a few times.

My favourite will probably surprise nobody - it’s the Girvan. Fruits, bread, rum, and polished wood - this is a real pleasure of a whisky. Closely on its heels is the Clynelish, which is young, fresh and sweet without ever being unbalanced or uninteresting. I’d like more than one bottle of both of these!

The Craigellachie has leather, tobacco and oranges - which I’m sure will be popular. And the Benrinnes has mango and other fruits - a superb nose, and it’s only held back by some spice after water. Both are highly recommended and I’d like a bottle of each.

As I sat racing through the list, others were going through their preview tasting tickets. It was interesting to hear the discussions - the Glen Grant seemed a little divisive, and there was some discussion as to whether the Old Pulteney or the Bunnahabhain was the better Oily and Coastal dram. (I preferred the Bunnahabhain.)

This is also the first time we see the new logo and labels. I’m ambivalent about the logo. The labels, however, have both good and bad changes. It’s good that they list both woods in the event of a second maturation, but I’d still like to see the age be smaller and the distillery/cask number be bigger. And using only colour on the label to show the flavour profile is an accessibility faux pax - colour blind people now have a harder time. Would it really be so difficult to write the flavour profile somewhere? But overall it’s an improvement on the old label, if only because we’ll not see dark stripes going behind the distillery number and name on some bottlings, making it hard to read...

53.308 - Let the tempest tout an’ blaw

30 years old, distilled 18th April 1989, 52.0% abv, Refill Ex-Sherry Butt, 186 bottles, dram price J

SMWS 53.308 - Let the tempest tout an’ blawThe nose has smoked bacon, grilled salmon, bitter chocolate and salted caramels - an unusual experience but somehow it works! The mouthfeel is decent but has little cling. The body has sherry smokey bacon crisps, marzipan, grilled salmon and then bitter chocolate. The finish is bitter chocolate, salmon and smokey bacon crisps.

Water brings out thick, compact whorling that settles quickly into brief mottling. The nose gains peat smoke and some lemon, but loses nothing. The body gains peat and ash, lemon juice and some hints of olives. The finish gains peat and lemon juice, with a hint of ash - and loses the salmon.

This is a big beast of a dram. Wonderfully balanced, with the sherry never dominant. The bitterness could be a bit too much for some, but I found it nicely conterpointed by the lemon and the smokey bacon.

One for summer nights.

Technical score: 5/5

Personal preference: I’d like a bottle.

97.22 - Emerald-masked triple thrill

29 years old, distilled 23rd April 1990, 57.5% abv, First Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel, 146 bottles, dram price J

SMWS 97.22 - Emerald-masked triple thrillThe nose has pine floorboards, brioche and some new make notes, but rapidly gives way to passion fruit and mango with a hint of gooseberry. The mouthfeel is thin with no cling. The body has passion fruit, mango, then citrus zest and a hint of zinc coated bicycle clips before croissants and new pine furniture notes sweep across the palate. Very light and fresh. The finish has passion fruit, zinc and gooseberry.

Water brings out thin, compact whorling that settles quickly into brief mottling. The nose gains more brioche and mango, and loses the new make notes completely. The body gains more pine and mango, and loses the gooseberry. The finish gains more mango and some pine, and loses the zinc. There’s also a hint of peppermint.

A fruity delight, balanced by some wood and pastry notes. For me, Littlemill often has a citrus zest and slightly zinc-like top note, which needs lots of flavour as a counterpoint - this dram manages that. It’s a pleasant window onto not only a closed distillery but also one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries. Sadly, that zinc note also reminds me that this was never my favourite Lowland malt experience. It’s remarkable that a 29 year old in a first fill bourbon cask can be this light, sweet and fruity - if that’s your style then this will satisfy. But I suspect many will value it more highly for its provenance than its flavours, which is rather a pity.

One for summer mornings - whisky for breakfast, anyone?

Technical score: 5/5

Personal preference: I’d have another dram.

SMWS Outturn 286 - Christmas Parcels

SMWS G6.9 - Listening to the frog chorusThe Society has previously put out a big list in November, followed by a much smaller Christmas Parcels list that’s mostly, um, parcels.

But this year, they’ve changed that and gone for a big - but still slightly smaller than November - list of 30 whiskies. And this doesn’t include some mid-month whiskies that will be coming out, including the traditional young Ardbeg bottling - a treat that no other bottler in the industry can get hold of. Unfortunately, a late delivery means I just didn’t have time to taste that - but I’d be doing you a disservice if I didn’t remind you it’s coming!

This list has a lot of Christmas spices. For a short while I thought that there may be something wrong with my palate - but swapping drams with Matt confirmed that this was the case.

The star of the list is the Port Dundas, which gently delivers fruits, leather and caramel from its toasted oak cask. This is the bottle that won the Society an award earlier this year, and it’s easy to see why.

At the other end of the spectrum comes the Glenturret - a return to the young peated ones we’ve had recently, which means dry earthy smoke and caramel, but this one is enhanced with pork crackling and floral notes. It’s the good kind of madness, and will no doubt sell out quickly.

I’d also like a bottle of the Glenlossie - which is a treat. Hazelnut, maple syrup, cherries and fruits of the forest hang in perfect balance. This dram really is brilliantly poised, with the port influence being so minimal that I didn’t even realise it at first.

An honourable mention should go to the Glen Deveron, which has fruits, dry earthiness and cinnamon in a very pleasing arrangement - a competent session dram.

The abundance of peat, sherry, port and toasted oak would be something of an embarrassment if the November list hadn’t primed us for it. Something for everyone here, but do remember that yet more will be arriving before Christmas!

As usual, Matt has the other half of the list over at The Dramble.

Season’s greetings - I hope you spend the time with those that matter to you, and a glass or two of something that makes the memories even better!

SMWS Outturn 285 - Big Party Animals

28.43 - Muscle-toned heft and punchIt’s the big one.

And size doesn’t mean compromising quality. Oh no.

Only two drams didn’t arrive in London - the Ardmore and the Glen Scotia. Of the 39 that did arrive, 9 of them are ones I’d like a bottle or more of, which is a remarkable ratio.

At the top of the list is the Tullibardine. Be honest, you weren’t expecting to read that, were you? Yet the delivery is perfect and the flavours complementary: dried fruits, Madeira, cinder toffee, dark chocolate and coffee grounds. It’s superb.

Next on the “more than one bottle” list is the Tomintoul. Another sherry monster, and only 7 years old. If the cask had been left longer, it would be far too much. It may have a little spirit on the nose, but everything else is superb. A lighter take on sherry, with peach, strawberry, apricot, dried apple - brilliant.

And the last on the podium is Rosdhu. Balsa wood and fruits - blackcurrant, pear, green apple, kiwi fruit, banana... It’s a sweet delight that shows grain doesn’t need to be old to be good.

There’s plenty in the “I’d like a bottle” category, too. For many the star will be the slightly bonkers Bunnahabhain, whose red wine cask brings a combination of pipe tobacco, soot, red berries and plums. It’s quite the combination! The Benrinnes is a steal, being perfectly matured at its age. It delivers peach, sponge cake, green apples and young oak. The Old Pulteney has rock pools, candle wax, pear, coconut and liniment - it’ll sell quickly. The Caol Ila is seafood barbecues, lemon, driftwood barbecues and ash. A familiar Coal Ila, yet lovely all the same. The Glentauchers is the other end of the spectrum - fresh cut grass, rosewater, pears, sponge cake. Brilliantly balanced and delightfully light. And finally the Glendronach has caramel, créme brûlée, cinder toffee and oranges. Softer and sweeter without water, bigger and heavier with it, it’s the best of both sherried worlds.

Honourable mentions? The unusual peated Allt-a-Bhainne, the elegant Glenfarclas, the first unpeated Glenturret for a while, and the Auchentoshan should all be investigated. There’s a lot of good whisky to go around... And we're not even at the end of the year yet!

Matt's reviews are available over at The Dramble, as per usual. The list was divided up randomly, but I think that worked in my favour this time - hence going back the next day to taste the other half! That having been said, he still got some of his favourite distilleries, so it all worked out well.

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