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SMWS 7.221 Hop Scotch

When the latest Scotch Malt Whisky Society outturn line-up was revealed, I was optimistic. Dubbed the “Wonder of Wood,” this would finally give us some gems from their sizeable inventory. You know: the one we keep hearing about after all this investment, and yet each month, members receive the same old, same old on a regular basis.

Friends will know my preference for an ex-bourbon-cask-matured whisky, but even my patience was being tested with similar outturns that tasted repetitive over a prolonged period. I joked that since re-joining the SMWS, I’ve yet to give out an 8 or above score. That’s the naked truth, and a reflection of the current state of play.

I appreciate that the former owners may have ram-raided the inventory and released a large proportion of the best and most interesting casks. I also appreciate that to turn this around will take sizeable investment, and more elusively, time. Whisky cannot be rushed. Nor can a maturating inventory that I presume consists mainly of ex-bourbon casks. After all, this is the bread and butter of the industry. Anything that deviates from this recipe is in high demand currently and comes at a higher cost.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that we’re seeing short-term finishes utilised over a period of one, two or three years. This is what the Wonder of Wood consisted of, with seven short-term finishes, and the remainder, ex-bourbon casks. In essence, this wasn’t a Wonder of Wood, but a Wonder of Finishing. I know I’m having a grumble here, yet I hear the same from fellow Society members.

I ask myself: will things change, and hopefully improve? That old saying “time is a healer” certainly applies go whisky! We’re in turbulent waters right now, and you can see it on a monthly basis. When I browse an outturn, I really do want to make a handful to purchases that take me on a journey—and not the well-trodden road that I’ve previously taken with the Society, or that of an independent. I can see the reactions from friends when I take them to an Edinburgh venue and they enjoy the surroundings and company, but the showstoppers that should come from the glass are sadly lacking. I can listen to the staff and take a punt on their recommendation and leave somewhat nonplussed. I’m stubborn as well; I’ll keep dropping by and searching for that special something that underlines the value of being a member.

My membership renewal is on the horizon. I remain somewhat undecided as to its fate overall. I could continue and bring you some coverage here at MALT, or switch to another independent and hope for a better outcome. Like Brexit, I’ll keep kicking that can down the road for a wee while yet. What’s worth reflecting upon is that the SMWS isn’t alone with the problem of casks. Just because something is a single-cask single malt doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worthwhile or suitable for release. We’re seeing more tired casks, more youthful whiskies and more choice than ever before. Such a staple seems to mirror the more youthful drinker that the Society is aiming for nowadays. Yet when I visit a venue, it is populated by the older and long term member crowd. Those that have more money than the millennials to spend on whisky; don’t forget about them.

Personally, I’m finding myself walking away from more whiskies than I can remember. There is a glut on the MALT scale of 4-5-6 scoring whiskies, which are solid overall, but our money isn’t limitless and neither is yours. When I’m seeing small scale independents like Chorlton Whiskies or Dornoch, sourcing good casks and interesting releases, then I have to ask myself: why are others going so wrong? Content to bottle too soon, and charging more than you would normally anticipate?

Faced with a disappointing outturn and limited options, there were only two points of interest for me: the Red Diesel 93.106, a Glen Scotia, finished in a fresh Port hogshead for a year, or what I decided to purchase in the end. We’re sitting down with this 7.221, 16-year-old from Longmorn, entitled Hop Scotch. Bottled at 50.3% and distilled on the 4th June 2002, it has been finished for a year in a bespoke IPA cask.

I’ve had mixed experiences with the IPA approach, with the Glenfiddich IPA Experiment proving little more than a botched primary school attempt. Then there was the more rugged and determined Chichibu IPA cask that showcased what is possible – my justification for seeing how an IPA finished Longmorn might fare in comparison. The cask outturn was 171 bottles in total, and just 41 of these hit the website for the UK membership at £75. I was fortunate to make/complete the purchase; hopefully, this leads to a new experience.

SMWS 7.221 Hop Scotch – review

Colour: Olive Oil.

On the nose: Honeysuckle followed by a fresh pine that resonates throughout the arrival. There are hops but towards the end with a hint of wax. A citrus dynamic with pineapple, lemon and apricots. Some sweetness as well with fudge and buttery caramel. Hickory, then honeycomb before the oddity of white button mushrooms (unwashed) and a pleasant kindling ending with marzipan. Water I felt disrupted the experience with only pine nuts being noticeable.

In the mouth: Green mangoes, pineapple and again towards the end we have more hops. There’s wax and a little bitterness midway. There is a sense of marriage and harmony. Apples, a green tartness with a pleasing drying quality making this an easy drinker. Water turns the dram more woody with pine and resin.

Conclusions

I do like this whisky, but I don’t love it. I’d have hoped for a more funky IPA influence and instead, there’s a sense of playing it safe. Fun nevertheless, it is quite drinkable, but I’m here for new experiences.

As for keeping the membership alive? The musical chairs act will continue for now, but unlike our woeful politicians, I’ll make a decision by the summer. As much as I do enjoy providing some SMWS coverage on MALT there are plenty of other opportunities out there waiting to be discovered.

Score: 6/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Just joined the SMWS for the first time. I’d heard mixed reviews but thought I’d give it a year and see if I like it. Brought a couple of bottles a Glen Grant and an Ardmore which I’m yet to open.

    One thing that has struck me is how high the abv% of a lot of their bottles is. Noticeably higher than other independents like Cadenheads. The Glen Grant I have is over 60% which is very unusual for a whisky over 20 years old. I wonder how they achieve that? Temperature controlled warehouse to 4educe evapouration?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Dan, thanks for dropping by. Yes, there are a few high strength whiskies which you’d expect to see at the younger age of the spectrum.

      For the Glen Grant you mention it could just be the beauty of the single cask format. That’s an aspect I personally enjoy about it. Indeed, the warehouse could play a part, or it was just a very tight cask, or even it was filled at a much higher strength.

      Watering down the spirit prior to filling is an additional cost. So if the distillery is selling a batch of casks they might want to keep overheads low and just fill ’em at a higher strength and sell them on. It may have just been a mistake at a higher strength as well, or an experiment they’ve decided to call quits upon. Ultimately we’ll never know and there could be a variety of reasons.

      From a bygone period where they didn’t water down the spirit, I’ve had older casks at a higher strength so it is possible. Thanks, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Michael says:

    I’m still quite happy with my membership, but I had to find out what works for me: cask(s), age, flavour profile and description have to form the right combination – then 9 out of 10 bottles would at least score a 7/10.

    The next SMWS IPA is already on the way: Batch 5 of the Blend Series (11yo, “Old Fashioned”) will contain Ex-IPA, bourbon and sherry casks…

  3. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Thanks for the reply. I’ve learned something new today. I didn’t know there was a practice of adding water before the spirit goes in the cask.

    With regard to your article I had noticed that there seem to be a few ‘finished’ bottles the SMWS sell. I was half tempted by a Cragganmore finished for a year in a red wine baroque 37.106 ‘Apple Harvest’. Like yourself I quite like the standard 12 (I’m just a bit bummed by the 40% abv) so was curious about an IB Cragganmore. But I’m naturally sceptical of a finished whisky. Generally assuming the finishing has taken place to try to spruce up a lackluster first cask and in the end my cynicism won out over my curiosity and I decided against the purchase.

  4. Avatar
    bifter says:

    The Society’s original vision was to improve the availability and range of single cask whisky, which seems almost quaint now. I’m sure it was still a fairly exclusive experience back in the days of Pip Hills (I get visions of old boys in red cords and Barbours) so perhaps I shouldn’t be too aggrieved that I was eventually priced out. However, when I quit the Society, the renewal was already approaching £60. Even if you were purchasing a bottle every month, that effectively added £5 to the cost of each. All the while the bottle (and dram) prices were just going up and up, as the quality of the contents was declining. It became an extravagance that I just couldn’t justify, especially if I wanted to share my whisky tokens around other bottlers. Whatever issues with casks and inventory exist, the marketing approach has consistently ‘premiumised’ the experience and exclusivity (even since LVMH departed). It’s a questionable tack to take when the whisky doesn’t actually measure up to the fluff and the impression given now, if not before, is that it’s all about the money. It is a business after all and perhaps the challenges are existential but I’ve lost my affection for the place and it just doesn’t represent value for money any more.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      All valid points Bifter and I’ve this from others. End of the day as a consumer there’s a wealth of choice out there and we can vote with our wallets if we deem it necessary.

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