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SMWS 44.115 Cabinet of curiosities

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

Color: toffee.

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.

Conclusions

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.

Score: 7/10

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Brian says:

    I’ve often wondered if the SMWS membership was worth it especially for us in the US but based on these experiences I’m leaning towards no. Do you think Cadenhead’s offers a viable alternative for someone in the states even if they can’t get to their brick and mortar shop?
    Excellent review as always! Might have to search out a Craigellachie based on that. Thanks as always for the honesty in an industry sorely lacking it.

  2. Avatar
    Brian says:

    Great review…I always wondered if the SMWS membership was worth it for non-UK citizens (I’m in the US, and yes we have a SMWS club here with the same issues) but based on these experiences I’m thinking no. Would Cadenhead’s Club be a better alternative even for someone who cannot get to their brick and mortar shop?
    By the way, I now have added Craigellachie to my malt list to try. Not very prevalent here but making inroads lately. Thanks and keep up the excellent work!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Brian

      Thanks for the comments and feedback. I get asked a lot about whether the Malt Society membership is worth it. Simple answer currently is no, unless you live nearby a venue or have limited access to other cask strength independent releases.

      The Cadenhead’s Club is cheaper and on the whole, their whiskies are more diverse and of higher quality. However, a club member there doesn’t guarantee you anything apart from an early email and a free tour if you reach Campbeltown.

      Currently I wouldn’t do anything too hasty. Let’s see what happens with brexit. You could in theory be about to receive a whole load of Scotch at a reasonable price!

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Brian says:

        Thanks for the reply and thoughts on the clubs. I didn’t think about the potential Brexit affect so good call on that. I’ll sit tight and see how it all plays out before making a decision.

        Cheers and slàinte!

  3. Avatar
    Anon says:

    Two problems with SMWS at present: 1) they seem to be bottling a lot of young whiskies (< 10yo) and 2) anything interesting, such as the recent Laphroaig for Feis Ile, is almost impossible to obtain even as a member. Why bother?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Anon

      Sorry I missed your comment until now. Yes, the inventory which we keep hearing about is mainly ex-bourbon and young. It’s not been managed efficiently recently and we’re paying the price in more ways than one for it.

      Cheers, Jason.

  4. Avatar
    Rider says:

    I was a member between 2006-2016, and in that time I saw:

    – Dram prices go up significantly
    – Offers and promotions only being made available on-line and not at The Vaults.
    – Offers on bottles go up in price significantly. I remember being able to buy a pair of bottles for £80 in The Vaults and being able to chat to the staff about which bottles I could buy.
    – Increasing membership renewal. It used to be £50. Which at less than a pound a week, I was more than happy to pay.
    – With the Queen Street downstairs bar open to the public, I can just buy drams whisky without having to pay membership.

    At the current price level and how much the whisky costs, it just didn’t seem to be worth the money any more. I introduced 6 people to the society who became members. All of them have left due to the same reasons: COST!

    I cheekily asked after 10 years of loyal membership if they could offer me a bit of a discount for renewal and got a polite rejection. I’m surprised, they just rejected £100’s of annual income from me, because they wouldn’t take a little bit of money off renewal. At the end of the day it’s their business and as much as it is a shame I no longer go into The Vaults and have access to buying bottles (pretty much the only benefits of membership now) I can go into Queen Street and drink SMWS bottlings as and when I feel.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Rider

      Yes, your summary echoes the thoughts of many UK members I’ve chatted to recently. The value isn’t there and the SMWS has an unhealthy fascination with membership numbers.

      A good business not only attracts new clients, but also focuses on retention. Keep your membership happy and engaged. Made to feel valued. The recent Gathering Ardbeg (which event wise wasn’t a huge success in the UK for a variety of reasons), underlined their focus is wrong and unless something changes dramatically. Then, many more will leave.

      Cheers, Jason.

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