Do you remember the official bottlings? Generally overpriced, engulfed in fake tan and saturated in marketing and pointless statements. For the most part, official releases have become lazy and forgettable. There are exceptions such as the recent Ben Nevis 10 year old, but the most dynamic and interesting realm of the whisky industry currently is the independent bottler.
My colleague Mark is on the record complaining about many independent bottlings being inept due to 3rd or 4th fill casks. There might be an element of truth to his diatribe but he is on a diet of press samples – not an ideal scenario. For Malt and myself, I tend to let my own discoveries and wallet do the talking. Yes, there have been some Cadenhead releases in the past couple of months that really offered little character. When I attend a shop tasting it’s very rare that I’ll walk away without purchasing something at least. That’s happened a couple of times recently. If it’s not proving satisfying, interesting, unusual or is overpriced then don’t listen to others. Go with your gut instinct and walk away.
The Spirit Still is a new venture on the scene based in Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh. An admirable endeavour given the fierce competition in what is a buoyant market. To survive and prosper an independent must be as good as their last bottle and excess stock sitting around at retail will hamper future casks and revenue streams. It’s these young and dynamic bottlers that always interest Malt. Quite often pricing is reasonable and devoid of fancy marketing or packaging. Building a reputation is key, when some older well-established independents are having a laugh charging more for a 21 year Springbank than the distillery itself, you have to look elsewhere.
So when the Spirit Still reached out to Malt about their debut release programme our interest was piqued. Talking with Adam – someone who has been involved in the Edinburgh whisky scene for a few years now – via Facebook. The work that has gone into sourcing and releasing these whiskies is impressive. I know from speaking with some fledgeling independent bottlers over the years that releasing several casks at once is a big deal and fraught with risk. A rather dubious meeting to onlookers in a badly parked car one afternoon, resulted in a sample handoff in advance of their Spirit of Speyside Festival debut that laid the foundations of this article. Adam is already aware of the reputation of the artist formerly known as Whisky Rover so there are no favours – only the Malt honesty.
The concept behind Spirit Still is to release bottles in batches rather than drip feeding releases on a weekly or monthly basis. We’ve seen this outturn format utilised by North Star Spirits to great success. There isn’t a central theme behind this other than letting the whisky do the talking. Independently minded, independent bottlers. I do like the labelling style adopted and details shown.
We’re aware at Malt of more restrictions around casks than ever before when it comes to bottling. Especially in terms of using the distillery name. Whilst distilleries may have strong ties to established bottlers, the fledgeling companies are dictated to in terms of what details they can display. Lagavulin for instance has sought to protect its brand on several releases recently when it should be focusing on maintaining a decent quality for its now core 8 year old bottling. Caol Ila is apparently making similar noises. Where will it stop? In reality, this is all about blindfolding the consumer and separating official bottlings – often at ridiculous prices – from superior single cask releases from the independent sector.
Sometimes the details around cask origins might be lost to time in terms of the specific parent. Meaning what some of these Islay-type whiskies are unknown commodities. Others such as let’s say for example Cadenheads, bought such a large quantity of Lagavulin that pretty much all their core Islay staple releases herald from this iconic distillery. Although the agreement in place means they cannot use the actual aga wording, we know and you know exactly who is responsible. Remember that point as a whisky enthusiast where you became detached from the official bottlings and let loose in the independent realm? Or when you severed allegiances with distillery names. Ditching the Bowmore’s and Balvenie’s of this world and seeking out new illicit pleasures across the whisky spectrum? You’re truly free and liberated when you’ve opened your eyes to what else is out there.
Hence why Malt embraces all new startup bottlers and wishes them well. Speaking of which we have the initial batch of releases from Spirit Still to review and if you’re new to Malt please do check out our scoring system. It’s more transparent and fairer use of numbers.
Burnside 18 year old – review
Distilled in 2000, this ex-bourbon barrel resulted in an outturn of just 37 at 58.2% strength. Enthusiasts will know this is essentially Balvenie with a teaspoon of Glenfiddich added. Price £90.
Colour: a giant haystack
On the nose: classic Speyside presentation with the apples, vanilla sponge, green olives, pine cones and a twist of lime brings a citrus flash of freshness. There’s a noticeable buttery oiliness, a light honey and a touch of cinnamon. Water delivers more of the citrus element mixed with lemongrass and icing sugar.
In the mouth: the burst of sweetness across the palate comes as a surprise. It’s a fruit sugar rush with elements of apples, pears, pineapple and kumquat. There is a wine gum, resin quality, a mineral aspect with a touch of white vinegar on the finish. It’s not too far off an old-school fruit bomb whisky. A good cask. Water overall felt didn’t have too much of a beneficial effect. A touch of sourness, more wood spices and a vanilla custard but preferred it neat.
Carsebridge 52 year old – review
Distilled way back in 1964, just 31 bottles were harvested from an ex-bourbon barrel at a strength of 40.8%. Price £350.
Colour: crème caramel
On the nose: immediately it offers that silky grain apparel that many of us appreciate. A soft fresh vanilla pod coaxes us further into the experience. A light syrup, crumbly oat biscuits and a creamy caramel. Nutmeg, marzipan, white chocolate and butterscotch. In the background a raspberry coolie cuts through some of the density. So its a sweetie albeit a touch restrained and dignified.
In the mouth: that silkiness continues with more vanilla and crème brûlée. Nothing forceful on the palate an easy drinking whisky. Some strawberries and Kiwi fruit intertwine along with a light brown sugar.
Give ‘N’ Tell 25 year old – review
Distilled in 1992, residing in an ex-bourbon barrel before being bottled at a strength of 51.4% with an outturn of 270 bottles. Price £125.
Colour: apple juice
On the nose: vanilla poached pears, icing sugar and some white grapes. A real lightness and elegance without being hugely detailed followed by an oiliness, candle wax and peaches. Water brings out more citrus with lemon and mango rounded off with a green banana quality.
In the mouth: apples, vanilla, drop scones and lemon sponge cake. Rich tea biscuits and a gentle progression that you can enjoy without delving or working too hard to unlock. Cinnamon, marzipan are noticeable especially with a splash of water.
Like A Villain 9 year old – review
Distilled in 2008, this Islay whisky was finished in a Côtes du Rhône French oak butt for 6 months, producing 108 bottles at 52% strength. Price £100.
On the nose: there’s peat obviously but not as ferocious as anticipated. The cask here has had a calming zen effect. A leathery aspect then residual bacon fat left in the frying pan, sesame oil provides a twist and then a slight saltiness. More savoury notes with chorizo, red peppers and paprika. Amidst all these robust flavours is a medicinal TCP quality that cuts through the density. Water reveals a grilled lemon quality, seaweed, orange zest and a waft of smoke.
In the mouth: a little more watery and oak dominated than expected with the peat residue underneath. Elements of dark chocolate, cardboard, charcoal and treacle on the finish. Water turned this fella into an official Bowmore bottling, which isn’t high praise. Just murky vegetative peat with a soft salty tang.
The Quartet – review
A vatting of 4 distilleries ranging in ages 9-18 years from sherry hogsheads, bottled at 46% strength with an edition of 100 being released. Price £50.
Colour: bashed copper
On the nose: certainly not lacking character with honeycomb, red berries, almonds and peanuts. Orange pip, rolled tobacco, sweet cinnamon, all-spice, crème brûlée and radicchio. Given time a touch of peat is noticeable alongside well fired brown toast and roasted coffee beans.
In the mouth: classic flavours of worn leather, toffee, milk chocolate and a malted loaf. Brown sugar follows with red chard, a coffee mouse and a touch of soot towards the end. Underpinning the whole experience is a hint of peat and earthiness.
Starting with the Burnside it’s perfectly drinkable at cask strength – just a shame its a low outturn – and really engaging. The Villain in comparison is more of a mixed bag. Enticing nose that the palate fails to live up to ultimately. An oddity and an experience being solid enough, but ultimately not for me. The Give N’ Tell is a perfectly enjoyable Speysider that doesn’t require too much effort or focus but doesn’t come across as a 25 year old in terms of complexity. It does have the potential to grow upon you and become an easy drinker.
At 52 years of age the Carsebridge is the most elderly and therefore expensive of the bunch. It’s a nice grain whisky – arguably a little too wood dominated – but I’ve had better whiskies from this distillery that offer a bit more oomph. Just something nagging within me that this one has gone a bit too far. It’s extremely easy to drink and appreciate if you can afford the asking price. Grain is increasing in price regardless of whoever bottles it. 52 year old whiskies don’t come around that often. The Quartet is an interesting experiment. Character yes, but maybe not that touch of style or composure to lift it up the scoring chart. However, I believe its one you could rediscover with a bottle and friends as you lower the fill level. The asking price makes it a winner overall.
Overall, a diverse and promising selection of whiskies that are now available. Here’s to the next batch.