Knackered casks. You’ll hear us say this a lot here at Malt, along with cursing Jura, lamenting cask finishes, and criticising the lack of information and/or the price point. These are some of the pitfalls for any whisky drinker nowadays. Hopefully, we guide you through the bottle maze with a gentle tow or a boot up the ass.
Recently I sat down with the James Eadie Outturn; the scores and experiences were variable at best. I pontificated in the piece about this being a boom time for independents. I mentioned the huge range of choice that stuns any visitors to Scotland who eagerly venture into a whisky shop. I have a suspicion that a large proportion of single malts currently being released from lesser names were probably intended for blends. Names such as Strathmill, Glen Spey etc. might not command the best casks or the most enjoyable of distillate. Just because it is single malt doesn’t mean it is superior.
Some might say that the good casks are being withheld by the major independents and the corporate giants for their own delivery. This is, perhaps, partially true. However, there is another end of the market that is well worth seeking out: independent bottlers that only release a handful of casks each year, sourced through brokers, third parties, or even private cask owners. These bottlers rest upon their pursuit of quality and uncovering hidden gems.
These small independents are only as good as their current release. Stock sitting unsold on a shelf will affect what they can purchase for a future release. Therefore, they must pick wisely and deliver at a price point that is reasonable.
Amongst this interesting segment I’d place the Thompson Bros. releases. The brothers are driven by the quality of the experience and the liquid. They also care about the presentation, with some of the most eye-catching labels in the market being created by Katie Guthrie. For the record, I know both brothers, and I’m a semi-regular at the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar (not enough in my opinion), as well as a cask owner with Dornoch distillery. Regardless, as you can see from previous reviews, such facts don’t guarantee a good score — nor should they.
The brothers kindly sent down four samples to be reviewed. These include the now-sold-out Carsebridge and Imperial releases; yep, sadly, even I missed out on those. Value and reputation means that they don’t hang around too long.
Thankfully, we also have their two new releases in the form of a Bunnahabhain and a Ben Nevis. Both distilleries were previously bottled in 2018 to impressive result, with a 1989 Bunnahbhain and a 1996 Ben Nevis—and who doesn’t love that? We’ll tackle the two new releases first, and then head back in time.
Thompson Bros. Bunnahabhain 1990 – review
This 28 year old is bottled at 42.5% abv and will set you back £180, having being matured in an American Oak Hogshead Refill with an outturn of 255 bottles.
Colour: Sand dunes.
On the nose: Very light with a coastal breeze. Subtle, relaxed, and not screaming I’m 28 years old! Gentle vanilla, a sprinkling of salt, subtle oiliness and ripe apples. There’s lemon peel, a touch of smoke and caramel.
In the mouth: Less coastal on the palate. Green apples, wafers and vanilla. Grapefruit, some sourness and more lemons with olives. There’s smoked almonds and bitterness from the wood.
Thompson Bros. Ben Nevis 1996 – review
Bottled at 22 years of age, from a refill sherry butt, this release costs £125. Bottled at 44.4% abv with an outturn of 531 bottles.
Colour: Apple peel.
On the nose: Balanced and those typical ’96 meadow fruits with a degree of harmony and elegance. A buttery, oily nature with pine sap and heather honey. Olives, grapefruit, white chocolate and with time, lemon. A subtle sherry cask influence. Gentle cloves, decayed vanilla, mace and a touch of smoke.
In the mouth: A full menu. From the burst of greeness as a starter, to savoury notes and then the fruitiness. Kiwi fruit on the finish and prior to this mangoes, pineapple and grapefruit. Tarrago provides a twist amongst the apples and pears. Perhaps not as layered as their previous Ben Nevis, but still very good.
Thompson Bros. Carsebridge 1973 – review
This release has sadly sold out, bottled at 45 years of age from a sherry butt, 349 bottles were unleashed at 53.5%.
Colour: A decadent toffee.
On the nose: A rich arrival with chocolate, hazelnuts and peanut brittle. Pecan pie? A faint echo of grain, honeycomb, banana chews with chocolate digestives and paraffin.
In the mouth: More nuttiness with chocolate and charcoal. Resin, blood orange and toffee. Leather and a pleasurable simplistic nature. Well rounded, but not hugely detailed. A drying finish with memories of cracked leather, cloves and black pepper.
Thompson Bros. Imperial 1996 – review
This release has sadly sold out, bottled at 21 years of age from a bourbon barrel, 152 bottles were unleashed at 44.8%.
Colour: A light pine.
On the nose: An understated arrival, icing sugar, pink lady apples, white chocolate, vanilla pod, pear drops and cotton sheets. Cream soda and pinewood give this Imperial a graceful nature.
In the mouth: Classic Speyside notes that stomps of most of what we see today produced by the overly commercial distilleries. Oily, a vanilla sponge moving into a Victoria cake with creaminess, pancakes and an oaky aspect. White grapes and grapefruit on the finish, which all adds up to a lovely drop.
An above average selection on the whole, which based on some of my recent experiences from the independent sector, is a big ask. Of the new releases, both the Bunnahabhain and the Ben Nevis warrant your attention; especially if you missed out on the 2018 versions. In fact, the other Bunnahabhain is still available and comes with a rather splendid label as well.
Trying these whiskies and previous entries in the range, you begin to appreciate a certain standard must be upheld. Whilst, not every pick is to my liking, they are united not only by a colourful label but by the fact they are always interesting. I’d rather have an interesting whisky over many of the inept and consistently dull bottlings we’re seeing on a regular basis nowadays.