I’m a sucker for a label that shows a bit of effort went into the overall design. You can go too far, as seen with Corporate Box, who must invest vast sums into their concepts. The risk is that the visual appeal and splendour heightens expectations too much, thereby leaving you with a disappointing liquid experience.
This tends to be my general summary of releases from that hyped independent bottler. As with all things in life, it’s all about compromise and balance. There’s a fine line between a lavish decorative ornament and a bottle that’s intended for drinking. Push things too far, and a bottle becomes adored and plays into the flipper/investment brigade. A bottler needs to know what market they are pursuing. For instance, my personal favourite, Highland Park, has revealed a new photography-themed release this very evening that could have fallen off the back of a Macallan lorry.
When I first gazed upon this Baller release from St. George Spirits in Alameda, California, I thought it was a very cool thing. It took me back to the days of being able to purchase Japanese single malts without too much effort. They were priced to drink as well—a fair price for a fair whiskey. But enough reminiscing, as we have to deal with the here and now. The days of gorgeously-presented Japanese whiskies under £200 or even £2000 are banished to the history books, relegated to the back of pubs, with old enthusiasts berating today’s whisky scene.
St. George was established in 1982 as a one-man operation and has grown ever since. The driving passion has always been to create distillate of all shapes and kinds. Today, the distillery offers a wide range of spirits; offering something outside of whiskey isn’t unusual in the craft distilling scene in North America. However, St. George’s goes a little further, with three styles of gin, a handful of vodkas, Absinthe, liqueurs, and rounding off the list for good measure, a rum.
The Baller takes its inspiration and name from the popular Japanese-style highball drinks that are increasing in popularity in bars and at home. The team at St. George wondered what would be possible if they set out to create their own whiskey intended for use in such a concoction. Now I have to say, I’ve written arguably thousands of whiskey summaries over the years, but this one takes the biscuit. So much so, I’m just going to quote the official website like so:
“We start with 100% American barley (predominately two-row pale malted barley, the remainder is lightly roasted). After distillation in our eau de vie pot stills, the whiskey is aged in used bourbon casks and French oak wine casks, as well as filtered through maple charcoal. We then finish the whiskey in casks that had held house-made umeshu (a Japanese style of plum liqueur we made entirely from California-grown ume fruit).”
After all of this, the whiskey is bottled at three years of age and 47% strength. It sounds totally bonkers and off the chart, but that’s what I’m enjoying about my forays away from Scotland, even to deepest, darkest, California. I believe that same interest and intrigue prompted Rose to pick up a bottle, being a Californian local herself, and she kindly furnished me with a sample. Knowing her reasonably well, she’s a fan of labels, including the recent Dornoch Ardmore single cask release with its evocative artwork. No doubt tracking down a bottle was partially fuelled by the visual appeal and you may find this release in some West Coast airports.
St. George Spirits are available in the UK with Master of Malt playing host to several varieties, including a special 35th Anniversary whiskey bottling, which is sadly out of my price range just now. More realistic is a 2-year-old release from Boutique-y that available via Master of Malt for £54.95. However, I did manage to pick up a Baller myself on the secondary market at auction for under £90. Even armed with Rose’s sample that was unopened at the time of bidding, I felt the full experience with the labelling was warranted. Whether I regret the decision or not is besides the point. Whisky or whiskey is all about new experiences for me, and hopefully, I can share these with you now and perhaps at a future tasting I’ll pull out this wacky creation. For now, let’s do some digging.
St. George Spirits Baller Single Malt Whiskey – review
On the nose: fruity but a different spectrum to the Scotch we adore. Light, citrus-like and a real wine influence; or that’s how it feels. A white grape, pinot grigio style with lemons and grapefruit. Upon reflection is reminds me of one of those European spirit drinks you’re given to finish a meal but which one? Mangoes, sour green apples, jelly sweeties and then eureka! This noses like Sholer which is a non-alcoholic soft drink made from grape juice to mimic alcoholic wine. A sweet dessert wine with all-spice and a cream vanilla nature. Water reveals icing sugar, Kiwi fruit and tangerines.
In the mouth: Bizzare and utterly bonkers. Initially, there’s that sweet wine dynamic, then cardboard and then the overwhelming sense of a flat lager like Tennent’s that’s been sitting on the table for far too long. A bite of alcohol as well and a syrup-ish mouthfeel. Rotten apples, tonic water, green mango, lime and starfruit. Water reveals a chalky and mineral vibe – not recommended.
A tricky one to score as it is totally leftfield and wonderfully so. A dram that arguably has a better purpose as a mixer. I doubt it’s something you could go back to on a regular basis as a standalone malt in a single evening.
Kudos to St. George Spirits for trying something off the beaten path and sticking a 3 year old age statement on the bottle. We need more of this in whisky, or whiskey. I’d love some of the Scottish distilleries to try and do something novel and interesting despite the shackles of the SWA. There is a sense many are shipping out mundane whiskies in pursuit of revenue. When pitched against such releases, this Baller is a heck of a whiskey.
My thanks to @fromwhereidram for the sample and moody photographs; she is one of my favourite whisky photographers, proving there’s more to it than just a bottle.
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