Less is more, and sometimes I feel in whisky that we’re in danger of overlooking simple pleasures. A good example of this in the flesh is the modest ex-bourbon cask, the vessel of maturation that forms the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry and, quite rightly as Tony points out, that the Americans give to us so we can make our whisky taste good.
In recent times, the simplistic nature of a bourbon cask has become almost frowned upon. The market wants something different, whether it is a sherry butt, sherry seasoned, port, IPA or an aggressive wine finish. Have we fallen out of love with the wholesome American oak? You can argue both sides, and the economic forces want a whisky that differentiates itself from the bulk of the market. Finishes and other cask types also come at a premium, which we accept as consumers, and this at times is taken advantage of by the industry.
When it comes to bourbon casks, there is a line that needs to be drawn. Cask quality from America has slipped in recent times, and I’ve listened to some distillers complain about the quality of casks from Jack Daniels and their ilk, where the stave thickness has been reduced to a worrying thinness. A less robust cask means that when it reaches Scotland, it is unsurprisingly a bit worse for wear. These casks are battered, contain less flavour, and have in some situations been heavily charred. Scotch distilleries are left to plug leaks and make the most of a less-than-stellar cask.
Sourcing is an important aspect as well. Many chase casks from Heaven Hill for their supposed quality, with other notable names prompting criticism. Smaller Scottish distilleries without contacts abroad, or representatives, are often at the bottom of the list when it comes to what’s left after the big boys have made their cask purchases from brokers and importers. This is the way of things, as they don’t have the financial muscle or buy in the sheer numbers that wholesalers prefer.
The other legacy is more from a Scotch perspective, as there are numerous quality ex-bourbon casks out there. Yes, we’re about to highlight one of Mark’s favourite little huffy rants: namely, the art of refilling. I’d love Scottish distilleries to quote, wherever possible, the number of times a cask has been used. Sadly, it rarely happens. The last time was the Chivas 1981 Glenugie release that highlighted its third-fill origins, and you know what? This totally defeats Mark, but it tasted fantastic, which shows what you put in is as almost as important as the cask itself. Put crap, badly made, rushed distillate into a crap cask, and guess what? It’s not rocket science.
However, as much as it pains me to say it, there is a logical foundation to Mark’s viewpoint. Personally, I’m seeing and tasting more inept casks than ever before: casks that don’t deserve to be bottled as a single malt. Casks that require a finish to inject some life into their flatline existence. Casks that are suffering because of their original quality and/or the number of times they’ve been refilled.
Recently, an independent bottler asked for my opinion on what I’d like to see from them. It was just a conversation over a cuppa, rather than some boardroom blitzkrieg session. I simply replied “good ex-bourbon cask releases”; simple as that, really. This was an interesting reply, as they expanded upon the feedback from distributors who wanted more finishes and their ilk. Yet when this independent had visited whisky clubs and tastings abroad, the general feedback was also for good ex-bourbon casks without any finishes or sherry influence. Have we lost sight of what a great cask can bring to the final product?
I’ve been fairly critical of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and their pursuit of finishes. I am a thorn in the side of many, and will continue to be so as long as I am a member, or a whisky consumer in general. However, I am also a reasonable and straightforward person, which means giving credit where it is due. By this I mean that whomever handles the maturing stock at the SMWS knows a good bourbon cask when they nose and taste it, and such a thing doesn’t require a finish or any tampering with at all. It’s a cask that tells you when it is ready, regardless of age. Are these a growing rarity in Scotch nowadays? I’m on the fence, but seemingly they are becoming an almost unicorn whisky in their own right.
Needless to say, this is going to be a positive review. When I first tasted this Miltonduff in early May with Noortje, we were both impressed. I managed to purchase the last bottle online for the bargain price of £46.50. Then, upon my return to the Vaults in late June, I welcomed the news that they still had some for sale to members. Armed with a £5 off email, I walked away with another bottle for £41.50. Justine, who was with me that evening, returned to the Vaults the next day to purchase a bottle for a forthcoming tasting. By all accounts it went down rather well at her event. It’s a no-brainer, and whilst I’m sure the SMWS will have more 72’s lined up for release, I sincerely doubt they’ll come close to this one. If they do, though, I will see you down the front.
Number 72.73 is called The Epitome of Enjoyment, distilled on 16th July 2009, and bottled for the SMWS May 2019 outturn at a robust strength of 60.8%, with a first-fill ex-bourbon barrel that produced 212 bottles.
SMWS SMWS 72.73 The epitome of enjoyment – review
On the nose: tinned fruits in syrup, pine sap and a hint of smoke. There’s fruit loaf, palm sugar and loose tea leaves. Apple strudel, cinnamon bark and a buttery nature follow. Kindling and wine gums arise alongside a balanced integration of vanilla. Water showcases rock candy, love hearts, brown onion skin and Refreshers.
In the mouth: : texture and poise, with a touch of alcohol, but perfectly acceptable. A fruit salad assortment, baked vanilla cheesecake and hazelnuts. Memories are revived of my mum’s rice pudding, rich and creamy with a burnt layer on top hinting at cask char. Stewed apples with a scattering of cinnamon. Water brings benefits with more fruits, a jammy doughnut, rose petals and a little dryness.
This Miltonduff is excellent, an unexpected, but delightful, surprise. Finally, I’m able to award a score to an SMWS release after many purchases, tastings and years of struggle. Oddly, to a simple whisky, devoid of the flannel of bling, the curse of an overhyped distillery, or the bitter taste of an overpriced release.
Here we have something that reminds us that whisky isn’t about a finish, a sizeable maturation or fancy packaging. Rather than the flawed gold label releases that carry hefty price tags at the SMWS, there needs to be a range, or a mark, that highlights whiskies of distinction. Currently, they seem to have an healthy fixation with big age statements. Well, here’s something that tramples on most of their frivolous releases over the past 18 months. If anything, my haphazard membership has highlighted the sheer lack of top-class drams in recent times. For under £50, this Miltonduff has been almost worth the long wait.