Steel Bonnets

Here’s a funny thing about Pirates of the Caribbean. You can watch the whole oeuvre, all five of them (which takes some fortitude) and you won’t see a single bit of piracy. Not once.

Actually, I tell a lie. There is a sole instance of nailed-on, bona fide buccaneering, which is in the very first film when Geoffrey Rush’s heavies ransack Port Royal. That’s it. Other than that, it’s just fifteen hours of fleeing zombies, swinging from rigging and snogging each other, to a reassuring soundtrack of Hans Zimmer-y and yo ho ho. And jolly entertaining it is too.

There is, of course, a reason for this dearth of piratical behaviour. Which is that if Johnny Depp and friends engaged in any of it, we’d be hollering for the East India Trading Company to blow them out of the water before you could say “aaaaarr”. Because pirates were, and are, the most vicious, merciless, barbaric bunch of murderers, torturers, rapists and thieves who ever sucked rum bottles.

Take Henry Every, the inspiration for everyone from Long John Silver to Orlando Bloom. In the raid that made his name, he and his band of brothers overhauled the Grand Mughal’s fleet, including his treasure ship the Ganj-i-Sawai. At which point they spent three days perpetrating the most unspeakable horrors upon the crew, before running off with six hundred grand. That’s 52 mill in modern parlance, or the approximate current cost of Macallan Genesis on the secondary market. Every, incidentally, then retired and disappeared; one of the few significant pirates not to meet a documented grisly end.

Pirates, of course, are scarcely the only villains for whom history has done sensational PR. Thanks to dancing Claude Duval, Highwaymen are dashing, erudite, Errol Flynn types; romantic desperadoes on thundering stallions, galloping hither and thither about suitably bleak, Brontënian moors. Then there’s Robin Hood. Didn’t exist of course, but the folk he’s based on certainly didn’t hold any truck with giving to the poor. And we mustn’t forget Vikings – Edrington’s favourite felons – who were just another bunch of pirates in a slightly chillier sea. Much, it seems, can be made of a rotten egg who can cut a dash with some aesthetic weaponry. Bottle flippers are probably just a few cutlasses and a smashed chandelier away from their own Hollywood franchise.

At which point I should introduce you to Steel Bonnets.

Steel Bonnets is a blended malt put together by the Lakes Distillery, lately famous for thinking a quartet of inaugural single malts is worth £895, and for creating the second-most overpriced whisky called “Genesis”of 2018. This blended creation marries an unknown-sized dollop of their single malt with “some of the most respected malts from Scotland”. Who will remain anonymous.

Historically, the “Steel Bonnets” were border folk who lived in the Marches of England and Scotland between the 13th and 17th centuries. Specifically those of them who rode out from the Marches, tartarred ever farmer they came upon, robbed, burned, looted, pillaged and doubtless swang from whatever convenient dangling furniture was going.

The proffered caveat is that these people lived in pretty violent times, and if the Scottish and English armies were tramping through your garden every other year, you’d probably be hacked off too. And I certainly can’t fault the Lakes Distillery’s dedication to their theme. My press release arrived with not only a map, but a name-by-name breakdown of every one of the border clans. All seventy nine of them, which argues pretty thorough Wikipedia searching. But this begs the question that, if they were prepared to go into such depth in telling me about the border folk of pre-1700, why have they accompanied that with so little information about the whisky itself?

I’m not a gambling man, but I’d wager there are fewer than seventy nine whiskies buttressing this blend. Which seem, if you’ll pardon the glibness, somewhat more pertinent to what I’m drinking than Clans Curwen, Routledge, Dixon, Maxwell and co. The sum-total of my knowledge of Steel Bonnets the whisky, is that it is a blend of Scottish and English malts. I don’t know age, I don’t know cask types, I don’t know how often those casks had been used previously. I don’t know what the constituents are and I don’t know in what percentage each constituent has been included. Let alone any of the really nerdy stuff that Mark and I go on about from time to time.

And then there’s the price. £65 RRP. You can find it a smidge cheaper if you shop around, but that’s what the Lakes Distillery itself charges online. And I’m sorry, but for that sort of money I want a little more than a gimmick without an age statement, and a story about a few historical cut-throats north of Hadrian’s Wall. For the same sort of cash I could buy Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year old (which comes with twice the product information) and have enough pennies left over for two or three Reiver-themed books.

If you are in the business of making whisky, and certainly if you are in the business of charging what the Lakes Distillery has decided are fair prices, you have (I believe) a duty of information to your customer. Of transparency. Of disclosure. Of demonstrating exactly what it is that you are selling, and why it is worth the customer’s money to purchase. Not one iota of which has been considered in the creation and marketing of Steel Bonnets.

“This is the world’s first blend of English malt and Scottish malt whisky.” I’m sorry: so f***ing what? You’ve made a drink. Tell me the reasons I should actually want to drink it. Not two-hundred words of Mills & Boon history for Victorian six year olds.

Anyhow. Much can be forgiven of a shoddy marketing spin if the whisky itself tastes drinkable. So let’s see whether Steel Bonnets does.

Steel Bonnets

Steel Bonnets – Review

Colour: Pale gold bonnets.

On the nose: Malt and smoke are far and away the dominant characters here, in somewhat two-dimensional aspect. It’s overtly young, and the character of the smoke is a little ashy and acrid. Behind these there’s some sawdust, a little vanilla and peardrop. Within the smoke, a nuance of herby oregano.

In the mouth: At once rather sharp and slightly sweetly smoky. A honey and green fruit element absent from the nose becomes apparent. Still very cereal-forward, perhaps accompanied by a touch of biscuit. The acerbic immaturity and acetone hasn’t gone away. I feel reived.


All story and no substance. And for £65 I want a much better story than two sides of border-country vagabond romanticism. I strongly suspect that there is so little information about the actual whisky simply because, made available, the information would be as unpalatable as the pour. Steel Bonnets is precisely the sort of smoke-and-mirrors, faux-value-added marketing that increasingly frustrates those of us who love whisky, who want to learn more about whisky, and who want to share our enthusiasm with friends. It is a thwarted, arrogant paean to cynicism for which I cannot offer a single redeeming feature.

There is a story of a Reiver who once sat down for dinner, only to be presented by his wife with a plate of spurs. The message: “get on your horse and filch something, or there’s no supper for you tonight.”

At least she didn’t pour him a glass of Steel Bonnets.

Score: 3/10

 This sample was sent to Malt on behalf of The Lakes Distillery. But, as is probably apparent, such things don’t factor in our scores or reviews.

Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles, one geophysicist and a small fluffy whirlwind called Nutmeg. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at

  1. Kevin Hill says:

    Adam. Maybe you should focus more on reviewing the liquid rather than trying to write War and Peace. You have berated the Lakes Distillery for their focus on the ‘story over liquid’, then you’ve harped on at me about Pirates of the Caribbean for paragraphs.

    I think this liquid is great, and maybe you should actually get to grips with what you’re drinking before you berate a great dram because it has a story attached.

    1. Adam says:

      Hi Kevin

      Firstly, thanks very much for taking the time to read and comment.

      I’m afraid I strongly disagree with your assessment that the liquid is great, as is clear from my review above. Regardless of any marketing, in the context of all whiskies at any price it is poor at best, and in the context of £65-per-bottle whiskies it is very poor indeed.

      As regards my pre-amble, there are plenty of sites which offer contextless, uncritical, opinion-free tasting notes. At Malt we generally try to have an opinion on such things as marketing spin and price and transparency, and we try to communicate this opinion with a sense of fun. Eg the Pirates analogy. Indeed it is this sort of attitude that seems to keep tens of thousands of people coming back every month.

      Can’t be all things to all people though, and you’re perfectly entitled to the opinion that we are (or I am) doing things terribly and ought to shut up. If that’s the case then you have my whole-hearted sympathies. Though not, as is no doubt clear, my apologies.

      Thanks once again for taking the time to engage though. Hopefully future, less piratical posts, will be more to your taste.

      Best wishes.


  2. Wolf Snyder says:

    After reading your review, I will put off buying a bottle of “Steel Bonnets” whisky. I feel you have been honest and forthright in the tasting. Having 5 reiver Clans in my Scottish heritage, I was drawn to the name, and yes, the bottle and case, provided the horse and rider are part of the bottle and not just an applique. So, maybe if it comes to the states for a better price 55 pounds, minus the 35 pounds for shipping. (my apology’s, I can’t locate the pound sign on my keyboard).

  3. David Hills-Taylor says:

    I agree with this review and I really didn’t want to. I bought this at the distillery after an excellent and very enjoyable tour, and tasted it back to back with other blended malts such as Johnnie Walker Green Label, Monkey Shoulder and Copper Dog. Although ‘ok’ this whisky fell well short of all of the above in terms of richness of flavour and general interest. Put simply, it was boring in comparison, and when you consider how much more expensive it is I could not recommend it, which is a real shame. I really wanted to like this whisky and if sold at £20 I’d probably take a different view. But at £55 there are far, far better options out there.

    1. Adam Wells says:

      Hi David

      They certainly run a friendly tour at The Lakes, having taken it a couple of times now.

      I must admit, I’ve never been a fan of their blended malts or blended whisky (fondness for the Sherried The One aside.) But the Steel Bonnets felt, on drinking, a particularly egregious instance of style over substance.

      I’ve crossed bonnets with it a couple of times since, and my score would be the same if I reviewed it today.

      Their single malts are far better for a very modest amount more than the original launch price of this bottling.

      As an aside, the actual story of the Reivers – the Steel Bonnets – is a jaw-droppingly fascinating one, best recounted by George Macdonald Fraser in his history of the same name. Warmly recommended!

      Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to feed back. Always much appreciated.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *