What, in my mind, makes for a good distillery? I can hear precisely none of you asking me this.
So I have asked the question myself. I could easily go on about the production methods, the questions that no one really cares about – okay, maybe you lot – but which are probably the most important. And for me, it’s all about the production variables that contribute to maximum flavour. Fermentation times (the longer the better), when the cut is taken to capture the heart of the spirit, the quality of wood being used, and any interest in the prime ingredient of whisky – barley – above and beyond posing for a photo in a field with a farmer once a year.
Smögen, run by the talented Pär Caldenby, excels at many of these points, to my knowledge. Its fermentation times are often in excess of 6 days, which is huge compared to other distilleries. I don’t know much information about the distillation of the spirit, other than the focus is on low yields (rather than maximising yield at the expense of quality). There’s a curiosity from them around different barley varieties and the resulting flavours. And there’s a very good wood policy there too – with very active maturations being a key consideration.
Given the absence of many of these things on the label – because for better or worse, these things almost never appear on the label – what else floats my boat about a good distillery? What kind of signals do I look for?
I suppose, perhaps more than anything else then, I’m interested in seeing lots of inconsistency.
Yes, you heard. Inconsistency. I do not want the same thing again and again. I don’t want to be able to drink one thing one day and pick up a second, slightly different bottle for it to be more or less the same sort of thing. I also don’t really want the same bottling to be the same year in year out. If you want consistency, you drink Coca-Cola – life is too short to drink the same thing day in, day out. But I like the fact that a distillery has numerous cards up its sleeve and isn’t afraid to show them. There are too few of these distilleries about: Springbank, Chichibu, Bruichladdich and Smögen are perhaps just some of those who produce gloriously inconsistent whiskies.
Which brings me to another couple of Smögen whiskies. In fact, today I’ll have covered my eighth tasting note of the distillery’s whiskies. And as each one proves, they’re all very different experiences. Still a great spirit at the heart of it all, but there’s just a lot of fun and exploration to be had above and beyond merely using different cask types. I’m afraid I don’t have prices of these to hand, but you can usually expect to pay around £100-£150 for these sorts of whiskies. They’re limited in the real sense that this is small-scale production, not the manufactured marketing sense of trying to create some fake story and a limited release of eight million bottles.
Smögen Sherry Quarters – Sherry Project 2:2 Svensk Single Malt Whisky – 61% ABV
Smögen Single Cask 51/2011 Svensk Single Malt Whisky – 64% ABV
I will say it here, I’d place Smögen in my top 5 whisky distilleries at the moment. These aren’t the best examples, but they’re reminders of the distillery’s diversity of flavour and, importantly, the quality spirit that goes into whatever cask types it chooses.
So yes, they’re pricey. They’re not widely available. They’re in smaller bottles than the usual. But this stuff is catnip to real whisky drinkers.