Variations on existing whiskies are good fun, but they sometimes undermine the original bottling. The Laphroaig 10 Year Old Cask Strength is a prime example of this. Although ask me several years back and I would have said the regular strength Laphroaig 10 would have been still exceptional. The Glenfarclas 105 – 20 Year Old is another, with 10 added years of wisdom and experience over the regular bottling – and many more pounds on the price tag too. These variations imply (or perhaps I just infer it) that the bottler or distillery believes the original product wasn’t special enough. It’s all in the mind though.
Today I have three variations. Indeed, I’ve only just reviewed three whiskies from independent bottler, Wemyss Malts – that very fine independent bottler of blends and single malts – and now another three have arrived.
I suppose my first proper interaction with Wemyss Malts and their range of whiskies, some time ago now, was via their blended malts – The Hive, Peat Chimney, and Spice King. Those three core releases were fine explorations of flavours through blended malts (for newcomers: a blended whisky made using single malt whiskies rather than adding cheaper grain whiskies), and were a good way of introducing relatively new whisky drinkers to this world.
Now, with Christmas on the horizon, Wemyss released a limited edition range of those same whiskies. The series is called Batch Strength based on the higher strength ABV, which presumably is simply averaged out from the strength of the individual components. Each of these bottles costs around £45.
The Hive Batch Strength Tasting Notes – 54.5% ABV
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: you can smell the honey from a mile off. Extremely fresh and fragrant nose. Fresh peaches and apricots. Buttery. Orange marmalade. Pineapple. Citrus notes. Some slight dried fruits in there – though at the lighter end. Sultanas. Ground almond. And yes. Honey.
In the mouth: slick and fizzy around the mouth – delightfully unusual. Much of the nose comes through perfectly. Hint of a hoppy ale. Dried apricots. Toffee. Blood oranges, dash of grapefruit. Fresh pastry. Melons. Black pepper. Only blemish is an ever-so-slightly dry, tannic and acidic finish.
Three years ago I reviewed the original The Hive, and wondered what it would be like with a little more oomph. Now I know. Though I didn’t refer to my old review until afterwards, it does share some of the characteristics, and for my tastes things are much better off at the higher strength (though potentially the blend would have changed over time anyway). Anyway. It’s a really lovely blended malt – very good fun indeed.
Spice King Batch Strength Tasting Notes – 56% ABV
Colour: burnished gold.
On the nose: fresh pastry, mince pies. Plums. Strawberry jam. Nutmeg. Cloves. Plenty of dried fruits beginning to show – raisins more than most. It is quite Christmas cake-like. Sandalwood. Tobacco.
In the mouth: yes, spice. There’s a dual between the dried fruits and the fiery black pepper, cloves and almost chilli-like heat. Redcurrant tartness. A little balsamic. But then returning to raisins, sultanas. Pepper and a huge amount of oak on the finish. It’s a bit aggressive – maybe that’s the point – but I’m not convinced about this one.
Peat Chimney Batch Strength Tasting Notes – 57% ABV
Colour: deep gold.
On the nose: fresh bread at first, rather than peat – any smoke is more subtle and takes time. Plenty of creamy fudge notes, with chocolate and digestive biscuits. That peat remains gentle even after time.
In the mouth: very pleasant and well-balanced. The smoke again is more subtle than I was expecting, which works much better here than on the nose. Very creamy, hoppy and it feels very malty. Vanilla and honey. Assam tea and a lovely clove and black pepper finish that merges well with the smoke. With time in the glass that vanilla sweetness and the gently warming peat become the two more dominant flavours and they compliment each other very well indeed. Again, good fun though my world is not rocked.
I very much enjoyed The Hive of all of these (if you’re going for one, go for that), and the other two don’t do all that much more for me compared to their original versions. I couldn’t get excited about them. I think that brings me to my problem: ultimately I’m not sure about the effectiveness of this range. I’m not even sure who it is aimed at, though Wemyss will know their audience better than I do.
Clearly the original releases were great ways to bring newcomers into the world of whisky via the flavour route, but would you give new drinkers cask strength whiskies? Probably not. I’m not sure there’s enough here to really entice more hardened single malt drinkers into making a purchase either. I get that there is a hardened sector of the whisky market that will only drink cask strength whiskies and maybe this is an attempt to reach out to those drinkers, if they wouldn’t buy the originals. But I don’t know. There isn’t enough here to really excite me.
My personal view would have been, rather than to dial-up these existing blended malt whiskies, to release some differently flavoured blended malts, such as bringing back things like the fabulous Velvet Fig whisky from two years ago and more recently their Kiln Embers. There are plenty of areas of the whisky flavour wheel to explore. But then I am a bit of a boring sod like that. On the plus side, these whiskies don’t undermine their original expressions. If anything, they confirm just how good they were to start with, and that is something worth thinking about.
Note: photo at the top stolen shamelessly from Wemyss’ Facebook page. And these were samples provided by Wemyss.