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The Lakes Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.1

The Lakes

My favourite book in all the world is a novel titled A Song for Nero. I don’t expect you’ve heard of it – no good reason you should have. It’s on the niche end of niche; it’s not taught in schools, it doesn’t feature in the canon of approved University literature. It’s a thickish historical novel of philosophical bent that parodies Homer’s Odyssey by imagining Emperor Nero did not, in fact, kill himself in 68AD, but that someone who looked very much like him did. Leaving Nero himself to wander the world for the next ten years with the doppelganger’s petty-criminal brother. A synopsis that I don’t suspect will have Malt readers scrambling for the shelves of Waterstones.

I was fifteen when I first read it, and I dare say I’ve re-read it more or less every year since. I loved it because it was written in a style I could never previously have imagined. It taught me that, with a sufficiently compelling tone of voice, you could write about any subject, from the sublime to the bollocks, and still bring a captivated reader along with you. It was for the same reason that I first became a disciple of Malt, back in its original iteration. It is for the same reason that I still rate Mark as whisky writing’s lodestar.

One passage in particular always stood out. In it, the petty criminal recalls a discussion he once had with Lucius Seneca on moral philosophy. (I don’t think Hollywood is drooling over the film rights.) As a demonstration of his point, Seneca presents first the case for the defence of Nero: Nero the lawmaker, the peacemaker, the encourager of arts, the man who, on assuming power, swept away the vices and corruptions that had marked and marred his uncle and adopted father’s reign as Emperor. It’s all historically verifiable – look it up, if you can be bothered. He then goes on, separately, to make the case for the prosecution. Nero the despot; the tyrant; the blood-soaked, bestial, murderous monster whose name has become a byword for every sort of depravity.

But it’s Seneca’s summary that’s really stuck with me. The one thing, he says, that neither side – defence nor prosecution – will permit you to believe, is that it’s all true. All the good, all the bad, and that someone can be separately good and evil and switch between the two like an actor flicking between roles.

There’s something in that, isn’t there? Something so resonant, so perfectly applicable to this furious, us-vs-them, with-us-or-against-us era of internet vitriol, wilfully-credited fake news, politics-turned-battlegrounds and tumultuous, tawdry tribalism. It infects every single walk of life, however trivial or important, this increasingly religious insistence on the world writ black and white. And it certainly permeates whisky.

In his recent, wonderful, piece on their Edition No.5, Mark questioned why most of you hate the Macallan, and “hate” is the right word. No one is ambivalent about Scotland’s ritziest malt; no one says “yeah… I quite like them”. In whisky circles – and I’m talking about the most wonkish of circles here – the circles that read a selection of blogs and grumble on twitter and would keep buying whisky if it was sold in brown bags lined with sheep guts – Macallan is the ultimate us vs them. It’s held as MacScapegoat, MacSellout; single malt Judas, the distillery which, through the writings of the late Michael Jackson, helped foster the modern culture of whisky nerdism and then abandoned its old devotees in search of twenty pieces of silver and zeroes on auction sites and bespoke decanters and investment bankers and posturing modern architecture.

Almost everything you read about Macallan on any whisky blog, or across any confessed whisky lover’s social media runs along the theme of “it lost its way”. As though grandiose marketing, the adulation of billionaires and £450 bottles that sell out in seconds represent some gargantuan, accidental blunder. Almost none of the chatter concerns whether the liquid itself is actually any good. And if it does, the conversation is generally reduced to “nowhere near as good as it used to be”, delivered with the smug tutting of a parable. The cautionary tale of whisky Midas, fallen from grace in search of gold. The Emperor’s new distillery.

Look, it’s quite true that many of those pre-90s Macallan 18s were a thing of rich and decadent great-sherry-cask-and-fine-distillate wonder. But let’s not pretend that Macallan is unique in the quality of its output showing a slide in the last thirty years. Almost every distillery in Scotland has creaked under the burden of demand; corners cut, fermentations shortened, barrels re-used, more efficient barley strains deployed. The question is: does Macallan still bottle good whisky? And the liquid evidence, as Mark’s tasting, particularly of the Edition series, demonstrates, suggests that the answer is: yes. Or, at least, that it can when it tries to. After all, if none of us actually wanted to drink the Macallan, there wouldn’t be such an online gnashing of teeth over it and whisky twitter would be a far quieter place.

Another distillery that incites a great deal of vented spleen is The Lakes. I know, because one of the angriest voices has been mine. The Lakes has made no secret of its ambition to be England’s Macallan, even down to hiring a Macallan whiskymaker, Dhavall Gandhi. The difference, as I have said more than once on Malt, is that the modern beast that is Macallan was born out of decades and decades spent making whisky that people who ought to know such things viewed as one of the best in the world. Whereas The Lakes’ school of marketing initially went more along the lines of “we’re-honestly-brilliant-please-believe-us-no-questions-thank-you”, and accompanied gimmicky blends that frequently ranged from bland to rotten.

So it was with some surprise that I visited The Lakes and discovered that their maturing single malt was, in fact, very good stuff, made using all sorts of swotty production methods scribbled up more thoroughly here. Which of course brings us back to our opening dichotomy: that a single distillery can spaff out all sorts of emetic PR, can shoddily renege on promises to founder members, can self-indulge in knowingly exclusionary preening inaugural auctions for the sole pursuit of a few headlines and a masturbatory brand image irrelevant to actual liquid quality… and can make very, very good whisky.

And it’s very easy to stuff one’s fingers in one’s ears, to say that you can’t have both sides on the same coin and to condemn any praise of such brands as rank apologism. I dare say I’ve been guilty of that on Malt on more than one occasion, and our Jason is practically online whisky’s witch hunter general. But that doesn’t mean it’s right, and occasionally it behoves us whisky zealots to admit it.

Philosophical ruminations aside, it’s time we took a look at today’s whisky. It’s called Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.1, which puts me rather in mind of Macallan’s Edition series, though I’m sure that’s just coincidence. The spiel in the press release says that it’s the first of several bottlings designed to show off the distillery’s “sherry-led house style”. Indeed literally as I was writing this I got an email announcing the second. For this first edition, bottles were filled at cask strength from PX and red wine casks made from American and European oak then flogged for £60 or thereabouts. So style-wise we’re in Bimber First Release territory, and price-wise we’re looking at Cotswolds Founder’s Choice. Lofty company.

One more observation, before we crack on: the box said that this is a release of 6,100 bottles, yet the PR – and my bottle – says that there were 5,922. Which begs the question of what happened to the other 178? I imagine it’ll remain forever shrouded in mystery, but I’d like to go with my colleague’s suggestion, that the whiskymaker “just smashed ‘em down” himself.

The Lakes

The Lakes Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.1 – Review

Colour: Umber

On the nose: This is single malt for lovers of classic old world red wines. Indeed there seems to be more of the wine casks than the PX, though a rumbling depth nods towards the sherry’s input. Dark cherries and dried cranberry. Stem ginger syrup, brown sugar and blackcurrant. Polished wood and a touch of pine sap. This is a cracking nose. Just a smidge boozy-fumey.

In the mouth: An unctuous, tongue-smothering wrap of all of the above, plus candied citrus rind, treacle and wild strawberries. There is, it must be said, a blast of alcohol and a big smear of casky wood tannin, but this is rich, indulgent and heady fare that could too-easily be poured with an over-generous hand.

Conclusions

Having reviewed a few dozen English whiskies on Malt over the last two years and never scored above a 7, in the space of one month I’ve now given three eights. This is the Lakes whisky I’ve been waiting for, and if you can still find it I wouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. I’ll be all over the second edition. I tasted this next to the Bimber Re-Charred and Cotswolds Founder’s Choice (which I would have also given an 8, had I reviewed it) and I couldn’t help but think, not for the first time, how lucky England is to have that trio of distilleries. They’re already making outrageous stuff … just think how much fun there is still to come.

Since I’ve blethered a fair bit about the general reluctance to consider whisky’s full picture, one final thought. Scotchwhisky.com closed its digital doors recently (at time of writing). I didn’t always agree with them; in fact I lambasted them in an article here once, got a swift ticking off and haven’t since been forgiven, which is fair enough and par for the course. Certainly their style differed vastly from ours. But they earnestly, sincerely, thoroughly and consistently endeavoured to open the widest possible window on the world of whisky to the broadest possible audience. My morning coffee, and the whisky community, is the poorer for its loss. I hope its many voices quickly find a new home.

Score: 8/10

 

CategoriesEnglish
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt, I've written about whisky (with or without an "e") for Distilled Magazine and the British Bourbon Society. Day to day I work in wine, and have passed the WSET Diploma, proving I have a colossal amount of time on my hands. By all means follow me on Twitter.com/WhiskyPilgrim as long as you don't mind vacuous drivel about Kit-Kat chunkies and geophysicists.

  1. Avatar
    sleuth says:

    Who knew the only thing missing from whisky reviews was a bit of Seneca?!?! No joke, lets have more!

    On the Macallan subject you are asking people to remove subjectivity, which just isn’t going to happen, nor should it. We leave that to you, the ‘official’ reviewers. You lot can try and be as objective as you like, separating flavour from cost, marketing practices from architecture. And that’s great. Throw in some Seneca and i’m all over it. BUT for the average drinker out there, whisky IS subjectivity in a bottle. Whisky conjures up memories of sharing with friends, special occasions, distillery visits etc etc. So regarding macallan, why should we suddenly try and be objective? I actually quite like the new distillery. The tour is a bit characterless, but the still house makes for an impressive photo. The distillery bar is a complete rip off, they should take a look at how the japanese do things. I like their 18 sherry oak, and if it were a third of the price, i’d probably own a bottle. Each part contributes to a subjective whole; macallan is supreme pretentiousness. I reserve the right to ridicule them for it, even if SOME of the whisky tastes good.

    1. Graham
      Graham says:

      Interesting review. I’ve been reading recently about how people source their news from only one news outlet and therefore that becomes “truth” allowing for the polarisation of politics in general and a loss of balance everywhere. Great to see Malt bucking this trend with a week of unique opinions and more doubt more to come.

      For me hearing about the strength of English whisky first in Cadenhead’s in Edinburgh, secondly from Adam’s review earlier this week about Bimber and now this triangulation of opinions.

      It triggered a hunt for this elusive release and on about page 16 of google snaffled one for original retail price! A whisky drinkers dream right there.

      So they’ve taken our Freedom and now our Whisky. Please keep your hands off Haggis.

      1. Avatar
        Adam Wells says:

        Glad you found a bottle Graham. Well worth the punt – hope you enjoy it. (And do check out Bimber if you get the chance!)

        As to haggis … I’m afraid I eat it almost weekly, south of the border. Albeit from good Scottish brands, as you’d expect. At any rate, I’d strongly advise you not to read this article: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2009/aug/03/haggis-scottish-english

        Thanks for taking the time to read and leave a comment.

        Best

        Adam

        1. Graham
          Graham says:

          Adam,

          Fascinating that the first written record of haggis is in England. Perhaps because the uneducated Scots simply could not write?

          Of course the reality of our shared history is of course more complex than the tour guides or Nationalist politicians would have anyone believe.

          A controversial opinion I hold is that Brexit voters and Scottish Nationalists hold a lot more in common than they would like to believe driven by similar socio-economic factors but with Scottish Nationalism having a slightly ‘sexier’ back story.

          Anyway nothing to do with whisky but I do enjoy a bit of cross-border pot-stirring.

    2. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Sleuth

      Many thanks for reading … perhaps we’ll have to wheel out another philosopher of antiquity again in future!

      I completely get the Macallan thing. They’ve deliberately repositioned themselves, and it’s inevitable that backlash would follow. (And on the ‘ridicule’ thing, I gather that mentions of the word ‘teletubbies’ are completely banned at Edrington HQ…)

      But we do a good bit of Macallan bashing here on Malt, as does pretty much every other whisky site, and I thought it would be an instructive exercise to consider the other position as well.

      As you say … all rights are reserved to lay into/ignore them.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Best

      Adam

  2. John
    John says:

    Hi Adam,

    Interesting 1st paragraph. It kinda reminds me of Nelo Angelo/Virgil in Devil May Cry.

    If you were a salesman of Lakes, you definitely have convinced me to buy one. Yet with your statement of them trying to be England’s Macallan… I fear that they will have a life similar to Robert Baratheon. An early prime and a miserable middle aged life. That is if, they follow the Macallan route of losing integrity.

    Cheers,

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi John – thanks for reading and commenting again!

      My Game of Thrones knowledge is decidedly tenuous, but I take your point on the difficulty of Lakes pitching themselves as England’s Macallan. (Indeed I’ve gone on about it in at least four Malt articles now).

      Remains to be seen how they’ll fare in the long term, I guess. In the meantime, I hope the whiskies they put out are as good as this one.

      Cheers

      Adam

      1. John
        John says:

        HA! Just to fill you in on the Robert Baratheon context. He is a good example of someone who entered the prime of his life early. Won a war he lead during his late teens(?) then became king. Lost the “love of his life” and married for money/political gain. Whored, drunk and ate his way into an early grave.

  3. Avatar
    Craig says:

    You’ve just described the internet. Everything has to be extreme answers with no place for nuances.
    Whisky drinkers are no better than any other group with a shared interest. Most of these same opinionated social media experts would be pretty reasonable face to face and open to differing opinions.

    PS: the lakes distillery is awful and nothing they make can be worth anyone’s time. Fact.

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Craig

      True, the internet’s a pretty raucous old place. Not much room for considered debate.

      As to the PS, I’ve been openly critical of the lakes, both on Malt and across social media. And it’s always interesting to note, given that they tend to retweet any article praising their whisky, that they left this one resolutely alone. (I guess much of the preamble wouldn’t really do them much good … and quite right too. I’m quietly pleased that I can write an article that gives a whisky a decent score but still can’t be used by a brand as PR.)

      However … with an objective hat on, they are doing cool things with the making of their spirit, and this whisky does taste nice. I still think the Quatrefoil releases were ridiculous, the Genesis auction thing was preening nonsense and it was shoddy of them to renege on promises made to their founders, but this particular whisky was worth (in my opinion) the entry fee.

      I do understand why many people feel completely burned and won’t be giving Lakes any more custom though. They’ve certainly quite a lot of making up to do over the next few years.

      Many thanks indeed for taking the time to read and comment.

      Best wishes

      Adam

      1. Avatar
        Adam Wells says:

        An addendum … I stand corrected. Lakes have now, in fact, publicised this review. Which, to be fair, is rather brave of them!

  4. Avatar
    PBMichiganWolverine says:

    I visited Lakes last year while on holiday from the US to UK. At the time, they didn’t have their own whisky, but had some sourced blends. I wasn’t impressed by the blends…thought it was middle of the road, and somewhat overpriced. This though sounds interesting.

    On a side note: their operations is in such an immaculately beautiful location!

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi PB

      Yes, I found almost all of the blends (the sherry cask aside) to be gimmicky and decidedly poor to average quality. Steel Bonnets, in particular, was a joke.

      Their own malt, though it slightly pains me to say it given some of their behaviour in the last two years, is very decent stuff. Do try some if you can. And yes – gorgeous location.

      They’re still on my mental naughty step, but let’s see what happens over the next few years. I’m potentially prepared to accept that they just got a bit overexcited and believed the hype that they’d made for themselves. And at the time, lots of other distilleries were also being silly with their inaugurals. (Though generally not quite as silly.)

      Thanks again for reading and commenting.

      All the best

      Adam

  5. Avatar
    Matt Bishop says:

    Great words Adam.
    My thoughts on initial releases and the price point. The Lakes are selling at £60, so the 5,922 bottles will bring in £355,320 revenue. Most businesses try to get at least a 100% profit margin so imagine their costs are around £180,000. The whisky is a minimum of 3 years old so that’s £60,000 per year, and this is probably equal to the money they have had to pay Mr Ghandi to move from Macallan.
    I recently had a round table discussion with my whisky drinking friends about what price to charge for the first outturn of a distillery. We had been asked to consider this by a contact who works for one of the new ‘Island’ distilleries. We had recently been shocked by the £80 bottle price of a new whisky that was frankly very poor after being finished quickly in a sherry cask to mask the young new make spirit. We agreed that the price had to be realistic simply by comparing to what you can get elsewhere. The £50 – £80 bracket is full of good, bad, and ugly spirits, so the only way to get ahead is to make whisky at least in the ‘good’ category and at the bottom end of the price range. What defines ‘good’ though? In ours minds, for a new whisky, it is one where you can taste the difference; not hurried, finished, or disguised in a fancy bottle, just what the master distiller was hired to do – use their experience and passion to make their own unique style of whisky. This will sell, this will bring the crowds, this will be drunk and not auctioned at the first opportunity. This is why the whisky festivals are a sell out, because there are lots of whisky fans out their wanting good, new whisky to experience.
    Slàinte.

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Matt

      Really interesting points about breaking down costs. £65 is by no means a cheap whisky, but I’m happy to spend that money if quality and effort stack up … and if the whisky is competitive at its price point, which I think this one is.

      As you say though, far too many expensive new whiskies being released where the spirit’s not up to snuff, all the effort goes into paying a PR team to gush about some boring finish or other, and whisky drinkers end up out of pocket, drinking rubbish and justifiably annoyed.

      Thanks very much for reading and posting such a thoughtful comment.

      Best

      Adam

  6. Avatar
    Dave Cole says:

    Hi Craig
    Have you tasted all the Lakes wiskys then because I am a founder and have just tasted my 4 year old and find it very good On another note would like to hear what any one thinks about Te BHEAG Blended from Isle of Sky have been getting this for some time as my cost cutter and find it really good

  7. Avatar
    Craig says:

    Hi Dave,
    I assume this is response to the end of my post.
    I’m also guessing my tongue being firmly in my cheek didn’t really come off in the comment?
    The whole post was about internet posting being an “either/or” situation with little space for nuance. I had hoped my extreme response about the lakes distillery may have been seen in that light? Maybe not.

  8. Jeremy Watt
    Jeremy Watt says:

    Interesting article, and I agree with the general point. I’m actually pretty ambivalent about Macallan – and agree they make decent enough whisky some of the time, but personally I’m basically not interested due to the price point and so just buy other stuff. I also agree it is not as good as it was – at least with anything below probably £1000 or so. If a distillery leaves their core fans, then it is best to move on and find the closest replacement that is still decent value/quality. Of course complaining is fine, but the only thing that will make a difference is not buying it – as Mortlach discovered when it tried to go premium.

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Jeremy

      To be honest I’ve not bought a Macallan in years – mainly because I missed out on Editions 2 and 3 (too much other stuff piquing my interest) – and wasn’t really interested in their other bits.

      They’ve very much created their own market, which I’m not a part of, and as you say, there are so many other (generally better – or at least more competitive/interesting) options at a much more reasonable price point. I think, to be honest, I’ve largely stopped caring. The existence of Macallan doesn’t much register on my day-to-day. (Still miss those old-school 12s and 18s though. Hey ho!

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Best wishes

      Adam

    2. Avatar
      bifter says:

      Balblair is another case in point. They churned out some great juice at good prices and I was very disappointed with their recent decision to drop vintages and multiply their tithes. I genuinely felt jilted and despairing. It’s all very well to say “just move on” but this has been the latest in a string of distilleries that I have parted company with. I noticed recently that the new Balblair 25 was available at a discount of £100 (yours for only £385!) on Master of Malt. It was telling that the offer expired after a few days still “0% claimed”. With any luck there’s only so much room in the premium sector and Balblair and others (including stablemate Old Pulteney) come crawling back to us.

      There is subjectivity in this, yes. Business is cut-throat but, as sleuth says above, being a fan of a product is all about subjectivity and these distilleries have unique expressions which can’t simply be replaced. They are favourites for a reason. I feel for anyone who enjoyed Macallan back in the day. You’d think increasing production to 15m litres or whatever would allow them to reduce prices, but they’re still going the other way. There aren’t that many other industries that can test the boundaries of what people are willing to pay rather than just having to compete with their rivals on price!

  9. Avatar
    Robin says:

    That’s some eloquent writing right there. Love reading your reviews! Also the scoring system makes more sense than other sites’ scoring methods. But that’s my opinion.
    I’m in any case glad i picked up a bottle of this and the second release which will be hopefully good stuff as well..

    1. Avatar
      Adam Wells says:

      Ah, thank you very much for saying so Robin! And for the nice words on our scoring system. One of many, I know, and other systems have their points (no pun intended). Plenty to be said for the 100-point scale … and I admire folk with the experience/bravery to give scores with that sort of precision.

      Ours is certainly one that I find easy to use as a reviewer, and hopefully it makes sense to our readers, too.

      Enjoy your bottle – let me know what you think.

      Best wishes, and thanks for reading and commenting

      Adam

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