My Grand Tour of Swedish whiskies continues this month, with two interesting Smögen whiskies that were released initially for the Systembolaget, although a few cases made their way to UK shores. I must admit, at first I didn’t know what the Systembolaget was. It read like some foreign police service in a Henning Mankel novel or at least some mysterious multi-layered bureaucratic entity that stops the lead detective from finding the murderer – but it turns out that, in fact, it’s just a retail chain that sells whisky.
Actually, I’m not far from the truth in my assumption, because it’s not just a place that sells whisky – it’s a government-controlled chain of liquor stores in Sweden and the only place you can purchase anything above 3.5% ABV, which, indeed, means all decent things. I’m sure not all government-controlled entities are mysterious or bureaucratic (any employees of the Systembolaget, feel free to correct me), but suffice to say that these Smögen whiskies are limited enough in Sweden, let alone anywhere else right now.
Life is quite tough for those who wish to promote Swedish whisky – in Sweden. Producers are restricted in how they promote or market any product with an alcohol content above 15%. Can you imagine that? So can you then imagine that, if lawyer turned author turned distiller – Pär Caldenby – can’t promote his wares so easily, for them to sell out in a matter of hours in a government-controlled liquor chain, then he must be doing something right. It’s word-of-mouth excitement, the stuff that marketing cannot buy. In fact, he’s building a bit of a cult around Smögen Distillery, the small craft operation located on a west-coast farm.
I’m hoping to get to talk more about Smögen in the near future. I’ve reviewed the distillery’s whiskies before – almost four years ago, and three years ago respectively. I’ve very much appreciated what Pär is up to. But today I have two more interesting releases.
Smögen Single Cask 18/2012 – 61.3% ABV
Distilled from heavily peated optic barley, filled in March 2012 and bottled at five years old in May 2017 this Fresh Bourbon Barrel is presented at cask strength of 61.3%. A single cask bottling of 362 bottles of which the Systembolaget release of 276 bottles sold out in seconds.
Colour: pale straw.
On the nose: ah, now a chance to get to know more of the natural Smögen spirit. This is much lighter than anything else, fresher and sweeter, almost reminding me of the Bruichladdich Bere Barley. Floral indeed, with plenty of bourbon-esque vanilla underneath. Pouring honey, geraniums, with a huskiness – Horlicks – underneath. Green apples towards the end.
In the mouth: excellent oily spirit, good viscosity. Huge amounts of soft, fresh fruits here: kiwi, nectarines, pineapple and banana. Not actually at all that peated. Instead we have a fresher, perhaps more vegetative peat. The vanilla sweetness is very clean, with lemon meringue, lime marmalade, hazelnut praline, and then some bright cracked black pepper. A touch of brine, before mellowing with floral honey. Very different for Smögen’s usually very active maturations, but superb stuff.
Smögen Sherry Octaves Sherry Project 2:1
A vatting of 18 Fresh Sherry Octaves filled in April 2013 and bottled in May 2017 at 4 years old at 53.6% ABV, a limited edition of 1382 bottles, of which the Systembolaget release of 1056 bottles sold out in hours.
Colour: russet, tawny. Very active casks.
On the nose: gorgeous. Some nuttiness right off the bat (Oloroso?), followed by huge dark fruit flavours: very much at the raisins, figs end of things, although there’s just a little cranberry tartness for balance. Wholemeal toast and strawberry jam. Pine needles, or perhaps a touch of aniseed. Maple syrup.
In the mouth: a flavour assault from all sides of the tasting wheel. Massive tea-like peat that’s somewhere between Assam and Lapsang Souchong and that balances some wonderfully rich jam tarts, strawberry jam, damson fruits; raisins again, sultanas now. A touch of orange marmalade when it settles. Then underneath that toasted note, like the burnt side buttered (something I like). Charred meats drizzled with a sweet onion sauce. Ginger and cloves on a massive finish.
I cannot state just how nice the Sherry Octaves whisky is. A proper, in-your-face shit-ton of flavours that – somehow – is still well-balanced despite that. Properly active maturation – great casks, and the fabulous spirit that’s gone into them. This is why we drink whisky – the only downside is its relative obscurity, but oh well. It’s also a bit pricey, over £100 easily no matter where you get it from, but guess what? Worth it.
And speaking of obscurity, the single cask is even rarer, but it was excellent to see the raw spirit and see if it’s good (it is). It just didn’t rock my world quite as much.
Note: thanks to Robert Ransom of Highfern Ltd, the UK distributor, for providing samples of these whiskies.