This should have been the 33.137 review, which was the big release from the SMWS as part of their Gathering celebration last month. I’m not going to discuss that event, as I’ve already made my thoughts clear via the 1978 Fettercairn review—have a look if you haven’t already, and don’t be scared by the mention of Fettercairn.
Visiting the Queen Street branch, I wondered which whisky would be of most interest to our readership. I felt the exclusive and much-hyped 10-year-old Ardbeg might be a prime candidate. For many of the membership, it would have been out of reach. Exclusively available by the dram at branches, it represents a new facet to the SMWS. A desirable whisky from a notable whisky, not up for ballot, purchase online or via a venue. This is one you can only experience by visiting and buying at the bar, which I can see the positive aspect of in these flipper days.
Then, I asked the bartender how much for a dram? He replied northwards of £13.50. It’s been priced as an F dram, so almost top of the tree in terms of bar pricing. I was slightly shocked by this. I let my feelings known, before deciding upon something else. Members pay an annual membership and then they are expected to pay an excessive price for a decade-old bourbon-barrel Ardbeg? That’s not rewarding loyalty or encouraging members; surely this goes against the whole Gathering ethic? How about sending members, where possible, a 3cl dram as a thank you? It’s not rocket science. Unfortunately, it’s another example of a poor commercial decision.
A simple bit of maths based on a 25ml pour and a standard UK bottle equates to 28 measures. On the price above (that I’ve rounded down by a few pence to make things easier), a bottle is £378. Not a bad mark-up if you can get it, and as the SMWS has all 231 bottles, a whisky I won’t be swallowing soon.
Posting this price via my Instagram stories sparked an unusually high response rate. Mainly along the same themes, so I’m only quoting Anthony @whiskytravelscotland on his recent SMWS membership:
‘This is why I’m not renewing my membership after October; SMWS are gradually raising their prices for bang average whisky, and if it’s a good one, it’s extortionate.’
It’s getting ridiculous now; why pay for a yearly membership and then get charged those prices? They should have two price brackets: one for members, and one for non-members. I’ll be sticking to Cadenhead’s from now on, because you get good quality whisky for a reasonable price. Even for the new Springbank, since if you’re a member, you got it for £80, which is a brilliant value.
Continuing Anthony’s response: ‘Yeah, exactly; when I first joined, it was reasonable, but couldn’t agree more with you; got an email from them trying to get me to renew and offering me a bottle for £30; obviously, it’s going to be a bad bottle that they can’t sell.’
I’ve heard similar tales from friends and other readers. My own membership with the SMWS is slightly different, because it exists to facilitate content for MALT, and to let me explore bottles with friends abroad. If I did not have these considerations, given the huge variety of independents I can purchase from in Scotland (unlike further afield), then I would no longer be a member either. I’m just disappointed that what could have been a strong selling point or a reward to existing members was turned into a money-making exercise.
Moving on, I immediately returned to the current outturn list as it was at the time. I was immediately pulled towards the #44, as quite often, this is a good choice within the monthly outturns. The fact that it was not finished was an added bonus, although at £7 a dram (B listing), I felt prices had risen recently. That might just be my hazy memory. Consequently, instead of the Ardbeg, you’re getting something from Craigellachie!
Craigellachie distillery is hideous, and there’s no escaping such a fact. You pass it on the way to Dufftown, and it languishes on the outskirts of the village near a petrol station. It’s an ugly duckling, but like Caol Ila, it’s the whisky that proves more attractive. Due to its distillation, the spirit at the distillery registers on the sulphurous scale and has a density and presence. The use of worm tubs amplifies this nature and gives Speyside one of its more characterful styles.
The distillery itself is a survivor of the ravages of the Scotch whisky industry, thanks to its allegiance to the blending market. Prized by blenders for its nature, this ensured Craigellachie remained in demand when many others closed their doors. The most notable blend is the famous White Horse, which has fallen on hard times nowadays, but was known worldwide during the boom of the 19th century.
For most of its existence, Craigellachie has been posted missing in the single malt market. It wasn’t until 2004 that we received an official debut or the most prominent range launched by its current owners (Bacardi) in 2014. In between all of this, we’ve been able to rely on the independents for releases of this seemingly shy whisky with a bold character. I find it’s a distillate that always has something to say, especially when left to mature in an ex-bourbon cask without any interference.
This release was bottled at 60.8% strength with an outturn of just 135 bottles. Distilled on 21 February 2007, maturing in a refill ex-bourbon barrel, this 12-year-old will set you back £59 and is still available—and that’s a commission free link.
SMWS 44.115 Cabinet of Curiosities – Review
On the nose: a little sulphur and density, fresh varnish, and memories of Brasso. Lemongrass, stewed apples, caramel, orange zest and beeswax. Oddly, sea salt! Chilli flakes, toasted sourdough, tayberry jam, honey and candy cigarettes. Water reveals more fruit, oils, resin, grapefruit especially and quince.
In the mouth: a rich and oily texture. I cannot shake off the sense of rust, lots of pungent metallic rust. More pulped apples, malty and freshly plucked lemons. Salted caramel with a very peppery finish. Caramac, green bananas and plenty of wood influence. Water isn’t hugely beneficial, bringing out bread-like qualities and lemon, and removing its dynamic qualities.
A bonkers single cask. Full of character and vitality. Thankfully, devoid of a finish and left to sing its own tune. And what a warped tune it is, ladies and gentlemen. A whisky for the adventurer within, and half the dram price of that Ardbeg. Gather round this.