It’s been a good long while since I’ve tasted anything from the SWMS. The reason? Well, there isn’t one. Life, too much whisky choice, the usual. Things slip in and out of my focus and, the more new producers that are out there, the more new bottlers that crop up, then the less time there seems to be to return to certain brands.
First of all, my interest will always, always, be with people who make whisky, not who bottle it. Blenders and the likes I find are not as interesting these days. They don’t do the hard work, that’s for sure, which is to say growing barley, mashing, fermenting, distilling it, and maturing it all themselves, at great cost to themselves. I’ll not apologise for putting these people first.
But what of the bottlers? There is clearly a need for bottlers today to make something of a name for themselves. Actually, no: there’s a cultural desire to do something different. It’s a brand mentality: you have to stand out etc. In a way, it goes completely against the whisky culture of yore. Indeed, traditionalists, puritans – in which I will lump the likes of Jason – yearn for literally nothing to happen once a spirit is in a barrel. No finishing or double maturation at all. (And, in fact, many of these traditionalists mistakenly yearn after just pure ex-bourbon casks, despite this not being the sort that whisky was necessarily matured in, in any great volume, a century ago.)
The old guard have resistance to finishing whiskies (I don’t consider myself among their ranks, as I always quite liked what finishing might achieve when done diligently). Back in the day, they viewed it with a suspicion they’ve not quite let go of. Granted, for 80% of the time – an abstract number, don’t take this as gospel – finishes are used to remediate god-awful casks, poor maturation; to roll that metaphorical whisky turd, which couldn’t be polished, in glitter.
But finishing – or rather, tinkering with all sorts of wood – has become that differentiator of late. Which is to say, it’s a quick way of doing two things: giving some sort of pseudo ownership over one tiny aspect of whisky production, but perhaps more importantly as a shorthand way of saying that our whisky is different. Both, in my mind, are mistakenly filed under innovation.
We will see increasingly more of this sort of thing. More whisky is being churned out than ever before and more whisky startups are appearing in liquid gold-rush towns (the most famous of which have been set up around the great Highland Park whisky tsunami). To differentiate themselves, these new brands will put their ‘signature’ on the whisky in the form of finishing. So it’s no longer really about the whisky having lived in terrible casks all its life (a sign the producer didn’t really care about making top-class spirit in the first place), but is about brands trying to stand out. To create a few headlines for jaded PR personnel to hurl into our collective inbox, god help them.
But it is to an old brand we return today: SMWS. And they, too, are looking to do something a bit different. To give us a story set in the final stage of whisky production. They partnered with Tempest Brew Co, shipped over a batch of ex-bourbon casks into which went the company’s Rye Double IPA. After the beer was used up, SMWS popped in a blend of single malts that had previously been in first-fill hogsheads (which is interesting, as presumably, these were good casks and not shagged-old third-fill that usually gets lined up for finishing). 14 months later it’s bottled at 50% ABV.
SMWS Old Fashioned – Dora’s Review
Colour: apple juice from concentrate.
On the nose: sweet with red berries and caramel sauce masking the scent of stewed apples. It is resinous with motor oil and drying with white pepper infused sawdust. Seems quite viscous from the nose with a scent of rubber and hot chillies. It has a sour mashiness giving it a high fermenting cereal note. Vinegar is present with that tangy harshness, alongside sugared pineapples and mangoes drowned in cloudy apple juice
In the mouth:I found this quite harsh to begin with but that gives way to a bittersweet note that remains quite dominant. It is spicy hot with chillies and freshly ground white and black pepper. There is sensation similar to drinking mulled wine at a Christmas market; spices from cinnamon and cloves, ginger and nutmeg come through. It is a spicy affair! It then turns more woody and drying. Something floral like lavender honey comes out along with traditional Český chleba; Czeck brown rye bread peppered with herbaceous caraway seeds. Bitter rinds from the likes of grapefruit and tangerines. Hints of rubber are present and the whisky becomes slightly tannic. The finish is medium with a drying bitterness. It remains hot and spicy with a toffee’ed sweetness. The tongue becomes numb with the tannins and that peppery burn, with a floral powderiness which remains to the end.
This was a nice whisky to savour but I found the sweet chilli spice and woodiness quite strong for late summer. However, I think this would be ideal for a winter dram in front of a roaring fire, wrapped up in a thick blanket in the snug. It was surprisingly floral, something that I don’t usually like but this was quite tasty. This seems to be another good value blend as an alternative to many increasingly pricey single malts. I would be happy to have another dram and if you’re looking for something a little bit different, I would recommend it.
SMWS Old Fashioned – Jason’s Review
On the nose: woody and marmalade, rubbed brass, barley drops, Old Spice original aftershave (yes!) and vanilla custard. Coconut ice, sauternes, brown sugar and ginger snaps. Water reveals syrup, Terry’s Chocolate Orange, more vanilla and a spent firework.
In the mouth: more wood, bitter and youthful. Uncouth to a certain extent and drying. Apricot jam, coconut, rubber-ish with a used band, chilli flakes and a touch of sweetness. Cloying with raspberries, water showcases more sweetness, orange pips and balsa wood.
Ever tried to fit something square into a round hole? That’s what this feels like to me. A botched experiment. Something that started life as a beer cask experiment that’s suddenly been forcibly shoved in another direction with the introduction of sherry casks. I appreciate the attempt to experiment, but this is almost verging on liqueur status. Not to my taste and I’ll stick to more traditional Old Fashioned versions.
SMWS Old Fashioned – Mark’s Review
Colour: chestnut, oloroso sherry.
On the nose: beer notes do rise up somewhat. Tangerines, straw; milk chocolate (the cheaper stuff). Golden syrup, baked apples. Vanilla, sure; quite pleasant on the whole. Stem ginger. Jasmine and green tea. Orange marmalade spread on toast.
In the mouth: a little bitter and overly spicy at first; it attacks the mouth aggressively. Husky, hoppy, straw-like notes. Candied fruits, malted barley. The spice fades with each sip, and becomes far more pleasant. Milk chocolate. Seville oranges marmalade, a touch of citrus zine. Lots of cereal, freshly baked bread, but lacks a certain diversity of flavours.
I do wonder if beer casks just aren’t for whisky that’s been in bourbon barrels. I would be more interested do see some heady sherry notes mingling among the lighter beer notes; I just feel there’d be more harmony, more parts of the flavour wheel being ticked off. I can appreciate this for what it’s worth: but it did not give me any real enjoyment. This perhaps is because of my intrinsic concern about beer-aged whiskies: popping spirit into something that has contained undistilled booze, whisky in a primitive form. It always feels regressive.