Bimber bottle

I put this thought out on Twitter recently: though a totally unfair comparison, if you took the average quality of English whisky spirits versus the average of Scotch whisky spirits, the young new world would easily outclass the old. I mean, only a couple of people actually responded to the comment, but it was out there nonetheless, another opinion launched into the online void in hope of self-validation.

Unfair, yes, as there are but a smattering of English distilleries and they are all largely new and mostly motivated by quality. Though I shall not name names, the oldest and most easterly English operation drags the English average down. I have tasted, I think, most of them: we have good things already out from the Cotswolds and I know the Lakes Distillery is creating fine things, and will likely get better once they sort a few little brand issues. New distilleries such as White Peak (a mere 20 minutes from my door) is very, very promising indeed.  The times, if you’re English, are good.

The Scotch distilleries are largely owned by corporations and have had decades of accountants whittling away, refill barrel by fermentation hour, the standards that the English have to rise above in order to let themselves be heard. They can’t hide, as Derek pointed out, behind nostalgia, which is a line I shall steal.

I suppose we’re really starting to reach critical mass now as a global industry and I must admit, it will be very interesting to see just how the next few years pan out, in England as much as anywhere else. Is the market for single malts – niche whisky, let’s call it that – be enough to sustain so many new distillery projects. There are really two parallel industries, a bit like universes that live side by side, on top of each other perhaps; alternate dimensions. On the one hand is the staggeringly large volume industry for blends and obscure, international brands that you’ll have never heard of but which will sell by the shipping container; on the other is this, the one you lot pay attention to, the tip of a whisky iceberg, single malts, single casks. There are only so many of you, though you are growing, but will that few hundred bottles of a new release be enough to keep these new businesses afloat? Will the demand be there? Does the business model work? I do hope so.

One of the things I wonder about is just how easy it is for these new English distilleries to be heard amongst all the international noise? Indeed, for a distillery of any size competing for your eyeballs becomes rather hard when there are so many others saying similar kinds of things – a new release, something exciting, so and so casks, master whatever. How does one cut through? I am certain many of the distilleries will become a local celebrity like gin tends to be, but regional gins must find it hard to break across the county border. Will the same be said for whisky? Will the London distilleries find it hard to battle the likes of the Cotswolds or the Lakes on their home turf? Will sales become a regional thing? Is tourism the future?

The question, then, is how can they be sustained. Business models are built upon current beliefs, and as we all know with whisky, historically speaking, there are crashes as well as booms. What, then, of all of these smaller venues? Does the fact that they are little tourist experiences mean they’ll weather the storms? Or does it mean that interest in whisky tourism will one day subside? Worst-case scenario, much of the stock can, I suppose, be sold off to blenders, and the safety of having aged stock allows these places to roll the dice somewhat. But what will be the breaking point? What is the capacity of the English whisky industry as we see new places being granted planning permission in the middle of nowhere?

Anyway, enough about the English as a whole (and I shall attempt to be reasonably brief as there are three tasting notes). Bimber. Normally I would bang on about the production details, because (spoiler alert: this whisky is fantastic) those details matter. However, back in the summer, the much-missed Adam, currently on his cider sabbatical, visited Bimber Distillery and had many nice things to say about it. Do read his superb write-up to hear about super-long, but more importantly controlled fermentations, alembic stills and proper wood policy. Go on, read it. It’s all you’ll ever need to know about the place.

But at last, Bimber’s first whisky is here: the First Release. It has been matured in five properly active Pedro Ximénez casks for three years, and cost about £120. How does this stack up against the rest of the English?

Bimber

Bimber First Release – Mark’s Review

Colour: tawny. Remarkably good colour for this age.

On the nose: a sherry bomb, some might suggest, but it’s actually not as darkly rich: intense, yes, but lighter dried fruits such as apricots, sultanas, and then Seville orange marmalade. Mixed peel. Mince pies. Sour cherry and damsons; beeswax. Lots of sherry influence without a doubt, but there’s a real freshness, vibrancy about the spirit.

In the mouth: a hugely, thick texture – there’s a well-made spirit. Massive. Beautifully cloying with heavy dried fruits and a rush if tiramisu. This. Is. Gorgeous. A smidge of bitter dark chocolate, not at all woody or prickly. Headier dried fruits than the nose: figs, raisins; blackcurrant. Hedgerow jam. Cinnamon. Just a hint of mushroom earthiness, sourdough. But I want to come back to this texture, which is one of the nicest feeling spirits I have ever put in my mouth, if not the most complex (only five casks). Warming tobacco on the finish.

Mark’s Conclusions

I had more than one sample of this sent to me. I’ll be honest, I drank one casually – as I feel that’s what most of you might do, rather than sitting at a keyboard having to think – and I was just bowled over. It was gorgeous; a gregarious, voluptuous companion for the evening. I had no intention of sending any of this to Jason – he prefers to wrap his lips around some dodgy old bourbon cask releases, or being a Daftmill local fanboy, and has no interest in flavoursome, active sherry cask maturation that has happened south of the border. This would be wasted on him. If I had a flaw it would be that, being an inaugural release they’ve clearly wanted to go out of the blocks with something potent; it would be very interesting to get a touch more of the spirit, to observe some DNA, to really find out who Bimber is. That, I suspect, comes with time.

Anyway, despite that, one of the best whiskies of the year for me and it’s a whipper-snapper. Three. Years. Old. And one of the best things you’ll put in your mouth this year. See what paying attention to the production process does? Making good spirit – before it goes in casks? And then having, y’know: fresh wood and not tired old shit? I feel for £120 or thereabouts, this is good value – because it’s the inaugural release, and many distilleries would be quite happy to take the p*ss for their first whiskies. It’s reasonably priced, to my mind, no faffy auctions to make spurious press releases, no eye-wateringly bad behaviour that we saw up at the Lakes.

Good lord. English whisky is looking triumphant right now.

Score: 8/10 (almost 9)

And now for a special guest – Adam‘s back!

Adam’s Review

Colour: Bright new penny.

On the nose: Somewhere in darkest Derbyshire my editor will be sniffing this with peals of
pleasure. Just a beautiful, rounded, intense sherry nose, backed up by ripe, fruity spirit. Let
me count the layers of brown sugar, nutmeg, sultana, plum jam and leather.

In the mouth: The most gorgeously textured palate of any English whisky yet. Flavours are a
little more of distillate here – more tropical fruits, more strawberries – but slathered in rich,
dark chocolate. Raisins and a smatter of dunnage in behind, then another wave of chocolate
crashes over again. Alcohol is prominent, but not distractingly so.

Adam’s Conclusions

I’ve not tasted a better debut English whisky. In fact, I can’t remember tasting a better debut whisky from anywhere.

Score: 8/10

And now for the miserable Scotsman…

Jason’s Review

Colour: honeycomb

On the nose: Terry’s chocolate orange, kindling, apricot jam and quite sweet. Brown sugar, toffee and memories are revived of a Hampden funk ester dynamic. It’s not hugely complex and owes a chunk of its character to the wood with those inherent PX fruity qualities. A touch of smoke maybe a spent firework. Baby rusk biscuits, plasticine and rum fudge. Time, I felt revealed some butterscotch. Nothing inoffensive whatsoever. Water, I felt wasn’t that beneficial, reviving memories of iodine on the fringes.

In the mouth: all about the sherry in reality. A long finish it must be said for its age with a touch of dryness. Red apples, grapes and marmalade. Cloves, cinnamon bark, dried fruit and mixed spice. Water unlocks chocolate and cracked black pepper. All of which leaves me questioning where’s the Bimber?

Jason’s Conclusions

Well, I have to thank London Whisky Club and in particular @whitstablewhisky for this sample. Mark was going to send me some, but never got around to it and instead drunk his spare sample. I’m not surprised, so it was very fortuitous that this sample came my way during an Edinburgh tasting.

I haven’t read Mark’s review at the time of typing this, however, if I was betting man, I’d wager based on past rants and recent tweets, it’ll take the form about English whisky being so good at a young age compared to the Scottish dinosaurs. That and tired wood; I bet I’m right!

This whisky was very much on my mind when it was released. It may have sold out in a few hours but I was in early and thought long and hard about it. What put me off was the use of sherry. What I’m interested in isn’t sherry; I want to taste the character of Bimber and not the host. Ex-bourbon remains the best vessel for this and even Adam (who loves a wine or sherry cask), felt on his recent visit that it was the ex-bourbon and virgin oak that impressed. This was backed up by the LWC duo I met in Edinburgh – a tangible excitement around all things Bimber.

I expect the best is to come and when those moments of promise land in bottle form, I’ll be there. For now, this inaugural release ticks a box and I’m interested. The nose in particular with memories of esters is intriguing so let’s give these new distilleries the time they need; whether it is south of the border, in the homeland or further afield. There are plenty of whiskies to be enjoyed in our own time and this is a solid and expensive inaugural release, but nothing more.

Score: 6/10

Image from The Whisky Exhcange.

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  1. Avatar
    Marc says:

    I have to say Bimber has raised the bar. When quality is put first over profit the liquid will always speak for itself. I’m obviously a big fan but more so because I’m excited that a local distillery (5 mins from where I grew up) is doing stuff that everyone else could only dream of achieving especially in such a short time. I’m looking forward to following them on their journey and am super excited about the peat expressions when they are released.

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Great to have something as interesting as this nearby, Marc! And yes, quality – at least I hope – will set them apart in the long run.

      1. Avatar
        Shiv Joshi says:

        John, I’ll have to send you a sample. It really is a splendid debut! I love sherry matured whiskies but for me the real winner is their Virgin Oak which I was fortunate enough to try it multiple times and at different ages — Can’t wait time see how it develops and hopefully they’ll bottle it soon!

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Smiffy

          I don’t get swept away, unlike some my more emotional colleagues. If the price was under £100, it may have scored a 7, but no more in a million years

          Cheers, Jason.

        2. Avatar
          Vittu says:

          Why have they named it Bomber? It’s quintessentially Polish word. It means “moonshine”. Are the distillery owners of Polish descent?

          1. Avatar
            Vittu says:

            Bimber ofc not Bomber, I was writing it on my lame-ass mobile phone and stupid auto-correction twisted it.

            Anyway I’d rather that the distillery chaps are genuinely Polish than they went and did a blatant culture appropriation simply to market their liquid. Bimber has a cult, almost legendary status in Poland of a true rebel, underground drink and it’s been like that at least since the WW2 when folk songs were sung about it, including those of Stanisław Grzesiuk’s, Warsaw’s bard and German concentration camps survivor.

            Either way, Bimber doesn’t seem to be a fortunate name for a whisky from London. Why should London borrow a name so deeply embedded in different country’s culture? How “Waragi Single Malt London Distillery” would sound?

  2. Avatar
    Brian says:

    £120 for a three year old whisky from a new distillery looking to make there mark on the scene. I’m guessing they have just not for the reasons they would hope for. I can’t imagine the value being commensurate to the price in this case and for that alone I’m with Jason. I might even go so far as to knock it down a few more points simply on principle alone. Where will this madness end if £120 because acceptable for a juice barely able to be legally called whisky?

    I think we’ve crossed the Rubicon now and it’s a scary precedent. That’s my 2 cents anyway.

    Cheers!

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      It’s a first release, and likely to be the sort of thing flipped at auction, so in my mind, it’s not too bad a price. Plenty have charged far more for their first bottlings – and done indecent things like stuck it on auction to generate artificial/nonsense press releases. On the other hand, some distilleries like Cotswolds put their first out at about half this I believe.

      Future releases will be the real metric.

  3. Avatar
    Bruce says:

    Too bad it sold out (1000 bottles) in 3 hours. I was busy painting the house and the release (Friday the 13th) slipped my mind. Really bummed! Your reviews make it even worse!!

    At least I have my Founders releases to look forward to. Also, I am hoping that I might be able to taste it at the Whiskybase gathering.

    1. Avatar
      Mark P. says:

      Out of those 1000 bottles I wonder how many have since been opened? Less than 5% possibly? How many will have been opened in 12 months? 20% maybe?

      1. Avatar
        Bruce says:

        Mark,

        In order to encourage people to open their bottles, Bimber did have a contest. Send them a pic of your open bottle and win a special master tasting.

        ‘We would love as many people as possible to try our first release, and are therefore encouraging you to open and enjoy your bottles. Owners of The First, who share a photo or video of their numbered release with the cork clearly removed, will be entered into a draw to win a one-of-a-kind ‘Director’s Single Cask Tasting’ with Darius at the distillery.’

        So, at least they are trying. I am now seeing bottles for sale between 300 and 500 euros.

        It is lamentable that those who actually want to drink the stuff are so at the mercy of the hoarders/flippers.

        1. Avatar
          Mark says:

          What a nice initiative – yes, that’s the kind of thing we need more of. Impossible to know, but I’d love to just understand the ratio of people who buy for auction as opposed to those who bought it to drink.

      2. Avatar
        David says:

        Whilst I haven’t tried this release, I was very kindly sent 3 samples from a friend.
        I have to say I was far from impressed and for me there certainly wasn’t anything to rave about that’s for sure.
        That’s not to say I wouldn’t be interested in exploring more of what this distillery has to offer, however if future releases will also be £100+ I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

  4. Avatar
    Alex says:

    Bimber visit here I come! It’s not far from Battersea 🙂
    This sounds great, glad it’s lived up to the hype. They’ve found a gap in the market between the big guys and filled it with some good stuff.
    Curse those flippers and their quick fingers for denying those who want to treat whisky properly by drinking it!

  5. Avatar
    Alex says:

    Bimber visit here I come! It’s not far from Battersea 🙂
    This sounds great, glad it’s lived up to the hype. They’ve found a gap in the market between the big guys and filled it with something good.
    Curse those flippers and their quick fingers for denying those who want to treat whisky properly by drinking it!

  6. Avatar
    Alex says:

    Bimber visit here I come! It’s not far from Battersea 🙂
    This sounds great, glad it’s lived up to the hype. Looks like they’ve found a gap in the market between the big guys and filled it with something good.
    Curse those flippers and their quick fingers for denying those who want to treat whisky properly by drinking it!

  7. Avatar
    Alex says:

    Bimber visit here I come! It’s not far from Battersea 🙂

    This sounds great, glad it’s lived up to the hype. Looks like they’ve found a gap in the market between the big guys and filled it with something good.

    Curse those flippers and their quick fingers for denying those who want to treat whisky properly by drinking it!

  8. Avatar
    Craig says:

    Is it really a £120 whisky?
    If it’s THAT good and only 3 years old shouldn’t they have more than 1000 for sale?? Ultimately only a few people and whisky websites will have tried it
    If they misjudged its potential then can we expect them to make more in 3 more years (after acquiring new px casks) and sell it for a more reasonable price?

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      Let’s look at it another way. There are more ways that liquid costs are higher than just “time” which is arbitrary. How long are the fermentations? Very. Compare that to a scotch distillery with 48 hour fermentations- cheaper liquid but there isn’t as much flavour. Okay what about how long to run the stills? The expensive of fresh wood over reuse? (Triple the cost.)

      Making good whisky is expensive. I’d wager it cost more to make this than most Scotch blending fodder…

  9. Avatar
    Newckie says:

    It is indeed splendid whisky.
    You fail to mention the thought that has gone into the packaging with the solid wooden box that the whisky comes in, which must be worth a pretty shilling or three. The packaging could have been made of crappy card but as it’s your first, yeah go make a statement, “we’re here and we’re not cutting corners on anything we do”
    The Southport Whisky club opened and finished a bottle off in under 48 hrs thanks to the ever charitable Victor P. for putting it on the bar.
    Such a great initiative too from Bimber to encourage the drinking of it instead of flipping it, all in all, a very promising debut.

    1. Avatar
      Mark says:

      To be fair, I never got the box – I only had samples. But yes, you’re right that certainly adds to the cost. Hopefully they won’t be quite so flamboyant for future releases though if they want to bring the costs down.

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