Continuing our journey through the realm of the smaller independent bottlers, we arrive at the Scottish based Dramfool. This one-man company, or Bruce as he’s known, has over the past couple of years, focused on single cask releases at cask strength and natural presentation.
There is a preference for Islay, but the other regions have been featured across the eye-catching range of releases. This appearance also marks Dramfool’s debut on MALT, which is well overdue when noting that I occasionally bump into Bruce in local whisky circles. As an onlooker, I always appreciate the lengths that such smaller independents go to in order to procure and release a whisky.
Malt: You’ve been a collector of whisky for 20 years prior to starting Dramfool in 2015, what prompted you to make that move?
Dramfool: A group of friends I used to work with were all keen whisky drinkers and collectors. In 2005 we found out that Bruichladdich were selling casks to the public, and we thought it would be a great idea to buy a cask between the six of us, so I organised the purchase of the cask. We visited the distillery in May 2008 to get a sample of the whisky as it turned 3 years old and stumbled on the Feis Ile while we were there. At the Bruichladdich open day there was a sign outside the stillroom saying “casks for sale”, one thing led to another, and 2 months later we were the owners of a 6 and a half year old first fill sherry hogshead of Port Charlotte. We bottled this at 8 years old and I arranged all the various activities required to make this happen, including the design of our labels. Many people approached us to buy the bottles, but legally we could not sell as none of us had a personal licence and premises licence. I enjoyed organising the bottling of all our whiskies, and thought to myself that there was an opportunity to make some money doing something I enjoyed if I were to get all the appropriate licences.
Malt: Has it been as straightforward or as difficult as you anticipated?
Dramfool: It has been much more difficult that I thought. One of the licences required was quite a traumatic experience to obtain, so it took about a year from when I first set the company up until when I had all the necessary licences required to start trading.
Malt: What advice would you give anyone considering starting their own independent bottling company?
Dramfool: You need a bit of cash to start obviously. Think carefully about what customers you are going to target. Choose your whiskies carefully.
Malt: How difficult is it to source casks in the current market?
Dramfool: Sourcing of quality casks can be difficult for a small company. Generally, distilleries will only sell parcels of casks, and a small one-person company obviously does not have the capital to do this. I have to rely on the various contacts I have made with private individuals and brokers to source casks. I only bottle whisky that I like (one bad whisky could ruin my reputation) and sometimes I have to buy casks blind, so if they do not meet my standard I have to be ruthless and sell them on.
Malt: The majority of your releases come from the Islay region is this a reflection of your own personal preferences or an indication that peated whiskies are more popular currently?
Dramfool: Basically, it has been by chance not by choice. I have been fortunate enough to have been offered some quality casks from Islay.
Malt: Is there a particular distillery you’d like to bottle at some stage?
Dramfool: Port Ellen!
Malt: What do you think of the moves from certain distilleries to withhold use of their name for independent releases? Is this a growing trend?
Dramfool: From what I can see, distilleries only withhold the name if the cask passes through a third party first. If casks are sold direct to the bottler by the distillery, then the name is allowed. I don’t think it is a growing trend, but I’ve only been involved in this for 3 years.
Malt: Do you think there are too many independents bottling currently or just that too much choice can be a bad thing?
Dramfool: No, I don’t think too much choice is a bad thing, but I do think that some bottlers are just bottling any single cask they can get their hands on. That’s where I have benefitted, as I am very selective in what I bottle. So I hope that the Dramfool brand is gaining a reputation as being different from some bottlers as only quality whiskies are bottled.
Malt: Dramfool seems extremely popular in Scandinavia – is this your main market now?
Dramfool: Yes, I have many customers in Sweden and am beginning to see more in Finland. I also have a large number of customers in Germany. The Scandinavians and the Germans are fond of smoky whiskies, so this has obviously been a factor. I think they also like the exclusivity of the bottlings, and also the story behind the Dramfool company – a one-person operation.
Malt: Have you given much though or preparation to the soap opera that is Brexit?
Dramfool: No, what will be will be. Whatever happens with Brexit will affect all retailers of whisky, so I hope that Dramfool will not be adversely affected.
Malt: What releases do you have incoming in 2019 and is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
Dramfool: I have a superb cask of Port Charlotte that will be released as an official Feis Ile bottling. It is a first fill sherry hogshead and will be bottled at 14 years old. The cask was personally selected by Jim McEwan and the artist Ian Gray for Ian, and is a sherry monster without any rubbery, sulphury notes. I also have a 25 year old secret Speyside for the Spirit of Speyside Festival that is a great example of a bourbon matured Speyside with hints of tropical fruit along with vanilla.
Malt: For 2019, the Feis Ile festival has acknowledged the independent genre with their own event, which you’ll be attending. How important a step is this?
Dramfool: I have been working with The Feis Ile Committee over the last 6 months or so to set up “The Indie Whisky Feis Ile”. I always felt that an independent bottlers’ event would be a great addition to The Feis Ile, to show the wide array of whisky styles and unique single cask bottlings that Islay and Jura has to offer. We are holding the event on Thursday 30th May from 12pm to 5pm in the Bowmore Village Hall on Main Street (just down the hill from the round Church). The hall has a capacity of 300, and I hope we will have a full house. The event will be run much in the same manner as the very successful Glasgow’s Whisky Festival, where you pay £25 for entry and can sample all the whiskies on show. There will also be the opportunity to buy bottles of whisky direct from the exhibitors. I’m very excited about the event, and hope it will become a highlight of The Feis Ile in years to come.
Malt: What do you think of the current state of the whisky industry and is there a burning issue that needs to be addressed?
Dramfool: I’m disappointed at the number of expressions that some distilleries are releasing without age statements. I know some distilleries such as Bowmore have reversed this recently after feedback from customers, so that is good to see. I personally would rather see an age statement on the whisky (even if it is only 3!) and a bit more information about cask types etc. This information gives you a guide on what the whisky may taste like, and provides an insight into the whisky maturation processes used, even when it doesn’t taste like you thought it would! A good whisky is a good whisky in its own right, regardless of age.
Dramfool Bruichladdich 11 year old – review
Bottled at 57% from an ex-bourbon cask with an outturn of just 95 bottles which have sold out.
Colour: Bashed gold.
On the nose: Vanilla tablet, sponge and buttery. Lemon pips with marzipan, poached apples and white chocolate. That cereal biscuit note I pick up so often with Bruichladdich. Thoughts of lemon pie and fresh batter? Water unleashes an oiliness.
In the mouth: Popcorn laced in butter, biscuits and more vanilla caramel and waffles. Water showcases olives and a bitterness from the wood with lemons and a dough-like aspect.
Dramfool Cola Ali Three 10 year old – review
Bottled at 59.8% from an ex-bourbon cask with an outturn of just 129 bottles which has sold out.
Colour: A faint morning dew.
On the nose: Peat yes, but a swirling intoxicating example with salt, squashed limes, bruised apples and vanilla essence. Driftwood, the green end of a leek and sweet white onions. Water highlights the wood and a mugginess that returns to the peat.
In the mouth: Not as pronounced and instead its gentle and salty with a sweet peat, candy floss, more lime. There’s smoked haddock, ripe apples and with water nuttiness, drying and more citrus.
Dramfool Cola Ali Too 10 year old – review
Bottled at 57.5% from an Oloroso hogshead with an outturn of just 175 bottles, which has sold out.
Colour: Bashed copper pan.
On the nose: Autumnal toffee with sea salt and a rich earthiness. Dark chocolate, maple syrup, nutmeg and orange peel. A little liquorice (Rose’s favourite), varnish, mahogany, pecan, fudge and aniseed. Water showcases roasted coffee beans, cola cubes and blackberries.
In the mouth: Dark chocolate, treacle and wholemeal bread. Cracked black pepper, bacon fat and a very salty finish. Returning, there’s smoke and a well balanced peatiness. Water unlocks more peat, beef jerky and tar.
Dramfool Elderly Elvis Tilting 25 year old – review
Bottled at 51.2% from an ex-bourbon barrel with an outturn of 109 bottles.
Colour: Radiant sunshine.
On the nose: Creamed corn and buttery with a slight woody bitterness. Lemon pip, raw sweet pastry dough and a floral aspect reviving memories of buttercups. Wet cotton, vanilla, peanuts, pineapple cubes and barley sweets. I like its engaging and fun nature. Water showcases vanilla ice cream and honeycomb.
In the mouth: Very gentle almost a trace of candle wax but then the lemon sherbet kicks in with tart apples, white chocolate and a creamy nature. A pleasant vanilla more refined than those uncouth borebuns. Familiar flavors of caramel and honey drift past. Water? I preferred it without in all honesty but if you do there’s some candied lemon and grapefruit.
Dramfool Girvan 2007 – review
Bottled at 65.1% from an ex-bourbon hogshead with an outturn of 162 bottles and still available for a reasonable £40.
Colour: Apple juice.
On the nose: Fresh, light and with a citrus element and grain element. Sugarcubes, vanilla toffee and stale white bread. Cooking apples, white pepper and mustard seeds. Those breadcrumbs you can purchase for fish, the traditional banana note and sesame seeds. Water reveals soda, latte and a chemical aspect. Time showcases more citrus, balsamic and malted milk biscuits.
In the mouth: A paraffin lamp, a lemon sharpness and UHT glue. Pungent and yet warming with cooking apples, vanilla poached pears and parmesan. Water makes things more approachable and relaxed with that typical Girvan industrial taint.
Dramfool Girvan 2007 – review
Bottled at 64.4% from an ex-bourbon hogshead for 10 years, then finished for a year in an ex-Laphroaig sherry octave.
Colour: Varnished pine.
On the nose: More muted, less forceful and immediately different. Cranberries, pancake batter and apples with rubbed brass and orange peel. Driftwood and an earthiness that comes across like HP Sauce with spices. Water highlights all-spice, incense, coffee beans and rhubarb.
In the mouth: Texture is noticeably different, more lavish and lasting. Still a bit hot and peppery, beef stock and a used tea bag. Water reveals a funky gravy mix that’s hard to pin down but the autumnal earthiness comes through with added pepper.
Dramfool Octomore 2011 – review
Bottled at 62% from an ex-bourbon barrel with an outturn of 253 bottles at 150ppm and still available for £160.
Colour: White gold.
On the nose: Sweet smoke, vanilla, bonfire and blazing bourbon. Smoked cheddar, chocolate, resin, butterscotch, driftwood and bacon – what a combination! We’re not done, beef dripping and a pine-freshness.
In the mouth: The sweetness is a surprise, lingering sweet peat that rides throughout into the finish. This brings a mineral-like aspect to proceedings, salty driftwood and smoked apples. A touch of ash before water reveals a funky melon and grapefruit vibe.
Dramfool Port Charlotte 16 year old – review
Bottled at 62% from an ex-bourbon barrel with an outturn of 253 bottles at 150ppm and thishas sold out.
On the nose: Caramel wrapped with peat smoke and a herbaceous note. Kindling, wood shavings, toffee apples. With water, it’s much improved and more open with honey, candle wax, vanilla and a little cream with a fleeting fruity note.
In the mouth: More peaty now and quite dominant. A little salt, cask char and a coarse vanilla followed by bitter dark chocolate. Water shows another side with a chewy texture, toffee, cardamon and the realisation this can take a great deal of water. A whisky that may have hidden depths with a full bottle.
The Cola Ali Three is a solid cask pick and showcases the elements that many enjoy in this huge Islay distillery. Very drinkable and pleasant, it’s the more affordable end of the Islay spectrum. Whereas the Caol Ali Too is for those who want more of a sheer Islay blast. Rugged and forceful, but in harmony with the cask, it’s been plucked at just the right time and has a great deal to say. There are no prisoners with this one so tread carefully.
The Girvan in its original bourbon presentation is solid and very affordable. I’ve had some terribly overpriced whiskies from this distillery, backed up a ferociously infantile nature that sends you reeling. At £40, I think its solid value and a good pick. The Girvan evolution with the cask finish showcases what an octave can do in just 12 months. Here it’s just different rather than any real improvement or relegation. Given the choice, I’d go with the au naturel bourbon cask.
The Octomore and Port Charlotte may reward further exploration. Price wise they may seem a bit steep, but I’ve never understood how Bruichladdich can charge what they do for Octomore? This, in turn, pushes up independent prices and also a 16yo PC is never going to be an everyday thing. It’s just a case of whether you’re willing to pay the entry fee.
All in all, a solid selection from Bruce at Dramfool and our thanks for providing 6 of the samples to review. There are a few flourishes for those that do like their dynamic Islay whiskies and the Speyside festival release is good fun.