Let’s not dance around it. Malt isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Nor, for that matter, am I. When people in whisky Twitter’s more apotheotic corners talk about “moon-howlers”, or “the darker corners of whisky communication” or “the haters” or [insert preferred remonstrative term here] they’re talking about us. And that’s their prerogative, and that’s fine.
A meaty chunk of this site is dedicated to pointing out what we see as the shortcomings of modern whisky. The corners cut. The fermentations shortened. The casks more-travelled. The marketing that ignores all of this and says that whisky drinkers have never had it better. But pointing that out isn’t a two-fingered salute of loathing. It is the opposite.
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. What they don’t say breeds contempt is indifference. It takes a special sort of oddball to chisel a hunk of emotion from fermentation lengths or barley strains or distillation speeds or frequency of barrel-fills. The main reason I don’t talk much about whisky outside this site to more than a very small handful of family and friends is that most of them wouldn’t have a clue what I was on about, and those who vaguely did wouldn’t care.
Alain de Botton once posited that the real optimists are the folk who rage and blast when something goes awry. That the people who most sincerely expect something to be great – who believe that it will, it can, it should – are the people most deflated when it isn’t.
An interesting exercise, which I recommend with due caution and caveat, is to take a trip back in digital time to the first posts written by Mark and Jason. (And even me – though good luck finding mine.) They’re shorter, sunnier, softer-edged. More tasting note than preamble. More the fan, perhaps, than the critic.
The thing is – and this is the drawn battle line of whisky twitter, the divide between the perceived “everything is awesome” and “everything is dreadful” camps – the longer you’re mired in whisky, the more you look under the rock, the more the pities and peccadilloes are thrown into sharp relief. It is a fact that barley is chosen based on efficiency, not on taste. It is a fact that distilleries have moved from longer fermentation times to shorter ones that are less conducive to the creation of flavour. It is a fact that distillation has been sped up. It is a fact that casks are being re-used more often. It is a fact that non-age-statement bottlings are often a stock-managing necessity, rather than a specifically-desired choice. It is a fact that “sherry casks” are, more often than not, simply new oak rinsed through with never-to-be-real-sherry plonk. It is a fact that all of these decisions have been made through understandable commercial necessity and it is a fact that it is to the detriment of the ultimate flavour of the whisky.
Are wonderful whiskies still being made by distilleries who have made some or all of these decisions? Yes. Absolutely. Just spool through the several-thousand reviews on this site. Would they be better if the decisions made by those distilleries had been driven by flavour rather than by efficiency? Of course they would. This is the point at which detractors whine “but everyone’s palate is different”. Fine. But we’re not arguing the toss over the subjective here. We’re pointing out undercooked food. And if we’re to style ourselves critics on Malt – which I suspect my colleagues do – it would be a dereliction of responsibility not to. You wouldn’t excuse being served raw chicken on the grounds of being a Nando’s enthusiast.
That’s not, incidentally, to set critics up as holistic and virtuous guardians of truth and honesty (which, between ourselves, I think a fair few critics do and are far too up-themselves about it). But the whole point of criticism in any genre is to take your subject apart; to examine what it is and why through the prisms of your own experience and opinion. AA Gill described it as “like being able to unbake a cake”. It’s not about saying “whoopee” to everything or – just as dangerous – pitching your tent solely as a hatchet-job merchant; dishing out excessively low scores and condemnation just to please the mob and kid yourself that it proves impartial authority.
More happily, the flip-side responsibility of whisky criticism is to highlight the distilleries whose decisions are driven by flavour, rather than yield. And London’s Bimber is, I think, just such a place. Which is why they are my favourite new outfit since Cotswolds opened and why – full disclosure – I recently flung my money at joining their Founder’s Club.
I didn’t fling my money at this bottle though; it arrived entirely unexpectedly in my pigeon hole at work the day after the bottling was officially announced. And a sister bottle arrived at Mark’s gaff the same day, so yes, you have two sets of notes, and yes they’re both based on freebies. Mark wrote an excellent piece on this sort of thing here, which I won’t add to except to say that if, after however many years, you still think that good reviews on Malt can be bought, you possibly haven’t been paying a great deal of attention.
Anyhow, it’s the second release from Bimber and has matured entirely in re-charred American oak casks. I tasted a sample of this maturing spirit when I visited the distillery a few months back. My notes on that one are here, along with the full-fat rundown of all their production techniques and extra miles. Mark and I were much enamoured of their First Release and I have been mightily excited to try this one. If I hadn’t been sent a bottle I’d have bought one anyway, but I suppose you’ll have to take my word for that. Unlike the sample I previously tried this is a vatting of casks, with 5,000 bottles filled at 51.9% for £65 a go.
Bimber Re-Charred Oak Casks – Adam’s Review
On the nose: Plump, ripe, beguiling fruits are the stars. Peaches, red berries and orange blossom. Beside that is more of the cask; black pepper, nougat, caramel and peanuts. It’s complex stuff – I find myself writing ‘charming’ a lot. And it shows off the Bimber DNA more clearly than the first release.
In the mouth: Bimber’s texture is their ace-in-the-hole – it glides across your palate like treacle scored with vivacious freshness. More red fruits here, white chocolate, fudge, chopped nuts and strawberry jam. Fresh vanilla, caramel and a touch of nutmeggy spice. Stupidly well-defined flavours and stupidly easy to drink too. Rye fans, book your tickets now.
Drinks wonks like me – and quite possibly you – often get so hung up on whether a drink is “interesting” or “different” that we ignore the elephant in the room… would a normal drinker actually like this? Quite often I try phenomenal whiskies that, for reasons of strength or nicheness of flavour, friends wouldn’t go near.
The strength of this Bimber is that it manages the often-impossible double act of being interesting and complex and intense enough for long-in-the-tooth whisky nerds, whilst approachable and pleasant and downright drinkable (no apologies for that word) enough for me to pour with confidence for any friend that might visit. Though they’d have to be a very good friend.
Very far removed from the first Bimber, and yet there is a recognisable character showing through in both. I’ve said before that I ranked them only behind Cotswolds in the English distillery pantheon. But if their next release is as good as their first two, I may have to reconsider. What an utterly excellent place.
Bimber Re-Charred Oak Casks – Mark’s Review
On the nose: intensely oily – sunflower oil, olive oil – and full of dried apricots; a pleasing harmony of the savoury and sweet. Warm golden syrup sponge cake with a streak of raspberry jam. Hints of ginger, but then the savoury returns: bay leaves, thyme. Earthy before the sweeter notes of fudge shop and orange marmalade.
In the mouth: texture! This is so important. None of that watery, hastily made spirit – this is tongue-suffocatingly thick. Again the pleasing duo – balance – of sweet fruitiness and savoury umami, almost industrial quality. Hints of cinnamon, a little Chinese Five Spice. Seville Orange here, drifting into pink grapefruit, but the meat of this really is milk chocolate and caramel.
I will say it until I am blue in the face: making good spirit is the most important thing of all. Long fermentation, slow distillation, all expensive, all time-consuming, before it goes into very good wood (not finished off to flog a dead horse of a spirit, but from the beginning). Just good, honest whisky-making. And I would happily sip this toddler of a whisky than any of the grown-ups coming out of Scotland. £65 is about what you’d expect to pay for an excellent spirit like this. More please.
Photograph kindly provided by John Watkinson.