I recently reviewed an independent bottling of Caol Ila by the legendary house of Samaroli. Please refer to that article if you’d care to read a potted history of the man and the enterprise.
Silvano Samaroli had a reputation for discerning selection of exquisite single casks. However, he turned the management of the company over to Antonio Bleve, of Rome’s Casa Bleve restaurant, in 2008. Though it is reported that Silvano remained active in cask selection until his passing last year, a discerning eye will notice some differences in Samaroli under the new management.
Some of these changes are for the positive. Distribution expanded internationally. Bleve ditched the staid old “Coilltean” labels for some more exuberant artwork. If there is a bottler – original or independent – with a more attractive presentation, I have yet to become aware of them. Colorful, pretty, stylish; they pop off the shelf in the way that whisky labels typically don’t. Of course, they don’t change the contents of the bottles. However, I’m pleased to see a marketing budget devoted to producing something of aesthetic value as opposed to, say, spurious Viking lore.
Other changes, not so much. As previously mentioned: prices for the current single cask releases are typically in the $200-and-up range, which seems to have dampened enthusiasm on the part of retailers, based on a few conversations I’ve had. I know a merchant who refuses to stock them on purely economic grounds (despite acknowledging the generally high quality of the range); another lamented that he was unable to move the bottles he bought and was forced to discount the bunch to get them off the shelf. Sadder and wiser, he’s presumably not planning to replenish his inventories anytime soon.
There’s also been a move into the production of blended malts. Though Samaroli himself had toyed with blending since at least 1992 (the range of pure malt blends was branded “No Age,” in an aggressive refutation of the primacy of age-statement bottlings), this has really taken off in recent years. The current range features blended malts called “Islay,” “Ferry to Islay,” Over an Islay Rainbow,” “’S Peaty,” “Samaroli Sherry,” “Samaroli Diamond,” “Samaroli Speyside,” and so on. You get the drift. The company has even been overt about tiering them into greater and lesser categories.
I can imagine that going this route this was a difficult decision for those involved in the management of the company, which also entails the maintenance of a departed friend’s legacy. Samaroli made its name in single cask bottlings from top distilleries. Is it worth risking brand dilution to move a few dodgy casks that didn’t mature along the hoped-for trajectory? Or is the siren-call of being able to sell second-or-third rate stock at first-rate prices irresistible?
Today’s bottle is a case in point. The official notes on this are vague, filled with a lot of quasi-poetic meandering that probably sounds more convincing when a sultry Italian woman (or swarthy Italian fellow, if that’s your preference) is whispering it to you across a plate of fresh tagliatelle and a bottle of Barbaresco. Here are the facts: this is a blend of Speyside malts, selected by “A.W. Bleve,” per the label. Some additional sleuthing indicates that this is a blend of Glenallachie, Glentauchers, and Macduff, three workhorse distilleries that have been more-or-less-tepidly reviewed by my colleagues here at MALT. Not the type of names you expect to see on a list of “desert island drams.”
I was able to pick up a bottle of this First Edition at $70, though I noticed the Second Edition on the shelf for $165 during a stroll through one of the better bottle shops in my area. I don’t care if the Lord almighty came down from the firmament and anointed these as the Chosen Casks- that’s quite a punchy price for blend of 8-year-old Speyside malts. Can the blender’s skill coax greatness from these humble components, creating something which transcends the sum of its parts? We’ll see, shortly, if the contents justify the cost.
This blended whisky was distilled in 2008, bottled in 2015 in a run of 1,236 bottles, at 43%.
Samaroli by Samaroli 2008, First Edition 2015 – review
Color: Palest straw color.
On the nose: Malty and winey nose, with floral scents of honeysuckle and lychee. Some yeasty notes of freshly-baked bread, angel-food cake, unripe kiwi fruit, and a wisp of white pepper.
In the mouth: Pure, clean malt on the palate. Starts almost silently before evolving a hint of wood, with a slightly soapy texture at midpalate. This perks up at the back of the mouth, with a hint of stone and salinity, before finishing with a nondescript warmth and the faintest residual flavor of lemon peel.
This is light-bodied, in the “breakfast malt” style, one I’m not entirely in love with. Even so, it’s interesting in that it captures something elemental about Speyside malts, before sherry casks or master blenders get involved. At $70, I’m happy to try it once for the experience, but am not likely to be a repeat customer. I’ll be saving my pennies for the single malt casks. At prevailing retail prices, I’m sad to say that this seems to be a case of exploiting a venerable old name. Or, as the Romans wisely counseled: caveat emptor.
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