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Malt’s Review of 2018

The honour falls upon me to introduce you to our thoughts and opinions looking back across 2018. A simple task was dished out to the team, or a polite nudge in political speak if you will. This is the only time annually that we ask our band of merry folk to come up with something on demand.

The most commercial request would be to come up with a top 10 list for 2018, or pre-Christmas the ideal shopping list. However, you’re here right now and more than likely know we tend to do things our own way, as stubborn as we are collectively. And it is working. From an editorial standpoint, such articles or clickbait as they are commonly known would be a timely boost to our stats.

Being transparent as we always endeavour to be, for December we’re currently standing at 146,998 views and already a record-breaking month. For 2018 as a whole – given we’re talking about the year in review here – the total is a mindboggling 1,241,449 views with just over a day left. That’s down to your support and appreciation of what we’re doing. A big thank you to you all and especially to our Patreon supporters that cover our bills and ensure our team of writers receive a monthly thank you.

Personally, I have enjoyed every minute of every day I spend on Malt. Believe me I’d love to have a tally for that figure! We have a great team, full of character and personalities. Folk we asked to join us on the good ship Malt for a reason. Former strangers that have become good friends and in some cases very close buddies. People that I find great reward in knowing individually. All of this because of our united love and appreciation of an alcoholic spirit. Truly remarkable and humbling.

We’ll do this alphabetically, we hope that you enjoy this brief look back over 2018, before we step outside and rush into the arms of 2019. I’m excited about what a new year holds for me personally and collectively around what we’re building here. Do we have plans? No, not really, despite receiving queries about merchandise, monetarisation and what’s next. We let the whisky do the talking and it seems a simple enough recipe for success.

The request we issued to the team was a simple one on paper but I’m sure prompted much retrospective thought and slaying of demons. Mark and I asked for a moment, memory or bottle that summed up 2018. Good or bad, the glorious or the ugly. A couple of hundred words around this and hey presto! You have what we hope is an enjoyable community piece that you can read whilst recovering from any seasonal excesses.

Adam’s choice

It has been, for so many reasons, a monumental year for English whisky. The number of distilleries with bottles on shelves has doubled from four to eight, and we’ve had the first bottling from both the North and the Capital. Not forgetting Wharf, who rewrote the manual for micro-whisky opportunity. If such things impact on your day-to-day, 2018 has also been the year that English and Welsh whisky earned its own Jim Murray category, and had its own trail created.

But it has also been a year in which English whisky has grown a slightly cynical edge. £85 was the cheapest inaugural launch, and eye-watering prices have been celebrated and trumpeted by news articles both in and out of the industry with barely a morsel of professional criticism or questioning.

Which is why the whisky that stands out to me this year is the Cotswolds Founder’s Choice. Without any question or debate, Cotswolds has been England’s outstanding distillery in 2018; stepping up their flagship malt, hosting the World Whisky Forum and, in a final flourish, bottling this absolute stonker. I adored it at first taste at The Whisky Show, and was suitably peeved when Mark got the review sample (though he loves these folk as much as I do, so fair’s fair.)

Nonetheless, my own bottle has been ample consolation. You might baulk at the £65 price tag for a three-year-old whisky – it certainly isn’t cheap. But scaled up from the price of the flagship it’s fair enough, especially given they’ve only used the pricier STR casks. And, most importantly, it’s simply better than most other whiskies for the same money.

At least three other English distilleries “come of age” in 2019 off the top of my head. I can only hope, when they bottle their inaugural malts, that Cotswolds is the distillery they hold as their role model. For value, as much as for quality.

Alexandra’s choice

While Rover has been kind enough to explain to me approximately 9,342,246.69 times the theme of this end-of-the-year piece, I am a very poor listener and typically ignore everything he says — mostly because I can’t understand his weird Scottish-isms — so I’ll just have to wing this article. Despite this I expect it’s at least bound to be better than Phil the Leprechaun’s submission.

2018 has been quite a year for innovation in whiskey, for better or worse. Overwhelmingly it seems the result has often been poor and that, while intriguing, these ‘advancements’ have taken the spirit out of whiskey making, so to speak. Largely these newer, non-traditional techniques of whisky production (or manufacture more like) conjure images of aseptic, cold laboratories with “robotic noses” as opposed to the arguably romanticized hardy copper and wood behemoths that craft our whisky in a time-consuming and seemingly alchemical process.

Thankfully not all whisky advancements this year have been cold and dispassionate as is evidenced by the work and philosophy of distilleries like Waterford, Westland, and Wilderness Trail. I’ll admit I have a big crush on Wilderness Trail and that they have been my stand-out distillery for 2018 and I suspect they will continue to achieve even greater things in 2019. The face of Wilderness Trail is co-founder Dr. Pat Heist, who often sports a long, wispy, two-pronged beard and Larry the Cable Guy accent (forgive me Pat). But don’t underestimate the man because let me tell you, he is smart as Hell. His all too apparent fluency in microbiology and biochemistry coupled with he and his partner’s decades-long experience in the industry via their other company Ferm Solutions (whose clientele includes hundreds of distilleries around the world) are tell-tale signs that on the topic of yeast and fermentation, they are uniquely qualified. In fact, they are the first Kentucky distiller to openly employ the sweet mash process. You can expect an expanded background on the distillery and upcoming review on Malt in the near future. In the meantime I suggest you utilize any shameless begging or thieving of Wilderness Trail-having-friends necessary to weasel a sample of any of their small batch releases.

Jason’s choice

This Daftmill isn’t the best whisky I’ve had during 2018, although a fine dram in its own right. But it is the most emotional dram of the year. Having visited and followed the progress of this local distillery for what seems like decades. I’ve put up with Francis Cuthbert’s (Daftmill’s co-owner, distiller and everything in-between) chat around the whisky not being ready and his relentless search for a classic Lowland expression.

Thankfully the wait was worth it and Daftmill nailed it.

Reviving fond memories of Littlemill and some Rosebank’s this is a whisky that shows patience is everything and rewards us all in the end. No scramble to bottle at 3 years old, a ridiculous asking price or scaled down to 50cl. Ignoring the reliance on casks and virgin oak to inject some flavour into a timid spirit. The whisky has been given time to integrate and develop. Creating what was envisaged and hey presto!

A winter release is incoming and in typical Daftmill style will hit retail maybe sometime during February? We can laugh but there’s a sense that this distillery is going about its business on its own terms and with a meandering Fife sense of time. For this, I’m eternally thankful and I hope other incoming distilleries are taking note.

The Daftmill summer release is a rare thing indeed nowadays. A whisky that has been worth the wait and priced accordingly. A whisky I want to open with friends and family. The liquid to take them on the journey and showcase this is why we love this stuff so passionately! And I certainly will be doing that with my tasting at the Fife Whisky Festival in 2019 and any visitors who find the golden ticket for an invite back to my humble home.

Justine’s choice

Apart from the whisky itself, there are many other factors which can influence one’s appreciation of a dram. Variables such as time, location, company, mood and, dare I say, price. What may have tasted amazing on one particular occasion can disappoint on another. And vice versa, of course.

As drams go, there have been a few which I would consider as close contenders for my own highlight of 2018, simply on the grounds that they have delivered regardless of such variables. The Gordon & MacPhail Highland Park 9 years and the Ledaig 13 years Amontillado Finish, both reviewed here on MALT, proved to be great examples of substance over style with equally as pleasing price tags. Had Jason not beaten me to it with his review, I would have awarded the James Eadie Blair Athol 14 years a score of 8/10. However, there was only ever one real contender for my 2018 top spot and, if you’re a regular reader of MALT, you’ve probably already guessed it; JJ Corry The Gael from The Chapel Gate Whiskey Company.

Having tried this whiskey on three separate occasions prior to writing my review – we understand the importance of quality assurance here at MALT – and on every other occasion since, this is one of those rarities which simultaneously delivers something comfortingly familiar and excitingly original each and every time. It’s complex yet accessible; well balanced yet nuanced; one of those drams which keeps you guessing whilst also telling you exactly what you want to hear. It’s a well crafted whiskey of countless contradictions and is all the more welcome because of that.

Mark’s choice

I should probably not encourage those Finnish nudists. But I was first excited about Kyro when I reviewed one of their whiskies – blind – for Whisky Magazine in 2017. It was not the most complex I had tasted, nor my top scoring whisky for the magazine, but it had something about it. It had flavour, it had soul. So when I managed to get their Suomi 100 Ruisviski release, I was tremendously excited. And I gave that young rye whisky a 9/10.

As I wade through another year’s samples for the World Whiskies Award, I am reminded by how much dull whisky there is out there. I’m sorry, but there is. A lot of it is, quite simply, dull. Short on flavour, not at all complex. Yes, we can write about the lovely moments we have with a dram, and that’s all quite good, but I’m not here to tell you about a nice evening I had (and anyway, I have a toddler, so I never have nice evenings). And yes, we can talk about those big age statement whiskies that have spent all of their lives in terrible barrels, and persuade ourselves that it was worth selling a liver for (we didn’t need it anyway).

But distilleries like Kyro, and whiskies like the Suomi 100 Ruisviski, remind me of something else. That there are new distilleries outside of Scotland, and by and large they’re producing far more exciting stuff. Big, voluptuous spirits, charged with flavour before they go into barrels, and the barrels they go into are high quality and are not one lorry journey away from the garden centre.

Now, not all ‘craft’ whisky (by which we probably mean ‘small-ish’ distilleries) is good. Indeed some of it can be a bit rough around the edges. So one has to tread carefully. But out there are some astonishing new whisky producers that are quite simply offering much better flavour, value and wholesomeness than anything we’ve seen before. Cotswolds, as Adam points out, would be high up my list too. Smogen. Langatun.

So yes, Kyro is a symbolic whisky for me: it heralds the new wave of distilleries bringing us out of the doldrums of paying far too much cash for far too little flavour, if indeed flavour and not posing with bottles is your thing.

The good times are just about to begin.

Noortje’s choice

Ok, this may not be the best I’ve tasted this year, but it has certainly been the most surprising and refreshing one. I am talking about a 16 year old single cask Hampden, a Jamaican rum. My year was, to put it mildly, rumorous, busy and, above all, almost 24/7 about whisky. Despite the fact that whisky is and remains my number 1 passion, I needed a short break from it.

It was so overwhelming that I no longer had any inspiration to write about it, nor could I really enjoy it anymore. It was simply just too much. And then this rum came my way. Funky as hell, completely different from whisky, but oh so good and therefore exactly what I needed at that moment. It was something else! Now I slowly start to pick up writing again, I can appreciate whisky again as I have always done. But this Hampden has also opened my eyes to discover rum a bit more. A nice change from the whisky madness in my life. 😉

Phil’s choice

I’d love to be writing this piece about Redbreast 21 or the Glendalough 13 Mizunara or some other Irish whiskey deserving of your time and cash but it could only really be about one whiskey this year couldn’t it….the name I don’t like to mention….Proper Twelve.

I posted a photo of the bottle when I bought it on Instagram and to date it is the most liked photo on my account (sadly). Since my review was posted on September 24th it has garnered over 35,000 views…the most viewed piece on Malt since its relaunch in 2017. I have never had a piece on Malt before or since that has had so much engagement. Indeed that piece has given birth to hashtags on twitter that will follow me to my deathbed I imagine.

And yet none of that level of interest has anything do with me whatsoever. Nothing to do at all with my imperious wit, charm or mastery of the English language. No, it has EVERYTHING to do with Conor McGregor and his tremendous social media presence and fan base.

Lets face it, our Conor could have bottled cat pee (which I believe he essentially did) and it would still have sold over and over and over again such is the fanaticism of his supporters (Look at the comments section of the review and you will see it falls into two camps – whiskey drinkers and fanboys).

Of course, all the furore and hype led to quite the debate amongst Irish whiskey fans as to whether Proper Twelve was a good thing of Irish whiskey or not.

There are those who think that it can only be for the good. Introducing Irish whiskey to a whole new, previously untapped generation of consumer. Possibly consumers who have never touched whiskey before. The levels of sales would suggest they are right as Proper Twelve has been a massive success. I doubt Jameson are complaining either. McGregors constant whining that he was gonna knock them off their perch has probably led to a massive increase in their sales as the McGregor fanbase does side by side comparisons before fairly and unbiasedly coming to the conclusion that Proper Twelve is indeed the King of Irish whiskey.

You may be surprised to find out I stand on the other side of the argument. In fact I’d tend to side with Louise McGuane of Chapel Gate Whiskey (they of JJ Corry fame) who wrote this interesting piece on the launch of Proper Twelve….its a good read.

Essentially to abridge it most Irish whiskey brands in the U.S. have made their name and cultivated their market share based on shots. Irish whiskey, in its biggest export market is not seen as a cultured, sophisticated, mature drink like Scotch, but rather as a means to make Budweiser palatable.

It amazes me the respect something like Johnnie Walker Red label is given, you will not see that being done as a shot in the States, and yet Irish blends like Black Bush and Jameson Crested which would be considered shot material, trump it easily as a sipping whiskey.

Simply put, Proper Twelve does nothing to dispel the association between Irish whiskey and cheap shots to get you plastered and so for me is not good for Irish whiskey.

Here’s my challenge to Conor. You’re a wealthy man, you would have no problem getting financial backers due to your status and profile. Do it Proper. Build a distillery in Crumlin, Dublin 12. Make a Proper Whiskey. Provide local employment and a legacy. Have a long term view rather than passing off a cheap shot whiskey. In fact if you did, I’d wager you actually might make the big Irish players a little nervous.

Taylor’s choice

Reflecting on 2018, two memories spring to mind as being particularly noteworthy:

The first was the time I sat down and mapped all the distilleries in the Chicago area. I knew there were a handful, but the actual quantity – 12 at last count, more than Islay! – was really a wake-up call. I’m about halfway down the list now, and I continue to discover more, and smaller, distilleries. It’s given me a sense of energy and excitement about my local whisky scene, particularly when I stumble into something seriously delicious like the Laughton Bros. Bourbon from Quincy Street. I’m also overjoyed to be calling attention to my hometown in front of a worldwide audience. Inspired by Adam’s intrepid pavement-pounding, hopefully, 2019 will see the completion of MALT’s survey of our indigenous distillers.

The other moment that jumps out is breaking open the bottle of Samaroli Caol Ila. It wasn’t the most expensive bottle in the world but it seemed so rare, so precious, that I had a hard time figuring out when I was going to get up the nerve to pull the cork and have a dram. Fortunately, writing for MALT has given me the opportunity to “share,” in a digital sense, this bottle (and the Samaroli story, for better or worse) with a much broader whisky-drinking public. There’s still plenty of whisky left in the bottle; I’ve already sent a dram to Mark, and I’ve earmarked the rest for future encounters with the MALT crew.

It’s been a short but incredible ride so far. Thanks to Jason, Mark, Adam, Phil, Alexandra, Noortje, Justine, all my new friends on Twitter, and the fantastic MALT readership. Your support and encouragement are appreciated in the utmost. Here’s to a cracking 2019!

Conclusions

There aren’t any to be made here or proclaimed. We’re done with 2018 and just in time for Hogmanay. Whatever your plans are to see of this year and welcome in the next. Do it with friends, family, complete strangers but always in style and a warm heart. Preferably with a dram of your favourite in hand and being passed around the room. Break the seal and share, because that’s what whisky is all about, closely followed by Malt.

The lead image has nothing to do with whisky being taken on the Isle of Skye. Maybe it shows us the way ahead?

Jason
Jason

JJ is based in Scotland, which means he’s able to reach out and enjoy a wealth of distillery trips and whiskies. Although, it’s more than likely you’ll find him in the Edinburgh Cadenhead's shop or in front of a laptop.

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