I’m back on Thompson Brother duty, after Dora kindly took up the reins with their recent releases. Part of the reason for doing this was another view on this indie bottler, which is doing remarkably well in finding casks to bottle. We’re not biased here at MALT and we’ll certainly mix things up again throughout 2020.
What is refreshing about the whole Thompson Brothers outturns, are that these are whisky enthusiasts like you and I. Yes, they’ve gone off the spectrum in terms of whisky-geek and even started their own distillery, but using their own senses and experiences they select casks to bottle. There’s no industry experience, qualifications, or referring to a definitive manual. Rather, a reliance on instincts and doing things the right way.
I find that refreshing and for the most part, as their cask selections have showcased a range of distilleries including the obscure and unfashionable. Some have been hit and miss, others have really delivered and each one has been wrapped up in the distinctive artwork of Katie. And in 2020 we have the potential debut of their own Dornoch whisky, which becomes 3 years of age during the summer. How times have flown and this means my own cask will become whisky around the same time.
However, I wanted to talk about something else that the above highlights. Recently, friends have been departing the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in their droves. Even the promise of a Glasgow branch hasn’t been enough to keep them hanging on – I’d rather take my chances in the Pot Still with regular whisky drinkers in all honesty.
A variety of reasons have been cited – not that the society asks for any exit interviews – to me with the main themes being rising prices, the same distilleries and monthly outturns with little variety and some very dubious cask selections. Now, you’ll be asking where does Dornoch come into this? Well, it just isn’t Dornoch to be honest and this underlines my point: you can throw in Chorlton Whisky for instance and these are small indie bottlers without having to bring in the big guns like Cadenhead’s who have decades of contacts and can drop serious cash on a cask.
The success of these indies proves that there are good casks out there from a variety of sources and distilleries. A wide range of ages and cask types are also available. These can be purchased for realistic prices, bottled and sold at retail for an affordable price. It is happening again and again with the indies and proves what is possible with good instincts for selecting casks.
Now, the SMWS can quote whatever awards they’ve received in recent years, but we know that industry awards actually count for very little. After all, do they take into account the wide range and variety of bottlers currently operating? Do they require a fee to enter and be nominated? Potentially prohibitive to a small indie bottler, who might not even need the hassle of going through the award process. Industry awards are flawed and that’s not because we don’t receive nominations or even think about nominating ourselves. They are a relic from a bygone age and after years of experience, you drift away from such medals and awards.
My point being, the underlying flaw with the SMWS is their cask acquisition. I don’t know how they do it in reality. Whether they only deal with certain sources or distilleries and buy in bulk. The previous owners may have ramraided the best stock and I’ve heard ambassador speak about the millions they’ve invested in their new inventory. All sounds good. But if you’ve spent £100k on buying let’s say Caol Ila, Mannochmore and the lesser Diageo distilleries, then you’re stuck churning these out. And it shows every month, which then prompts the disappointment outlined above.
So, I’m trying to be more proactive here and ask the SMWS to think again. Source some casks each month – I’m not looking for 10-15 – from other sources. A couple each month would bring some variety, whether in terms of distilleries, cask types and age. Please don’t put them in fancy boxes and then ask £450 for a 29-year-old Littlemill, which was a ridiculous price given current market values. Show a little more care and restraint in bottling. Treat your existing members with respect. Tell your ambassadors to stop quoting membership numbers that ultimately matter little if your retention is as good as a cheese grater trying to hold whisky.
To underline the point, we have more Ben Nevis from the Thompson Bros. I’ve lost count, but it has become a regular distillery and one that the SMWS rarely bottle. We have a youngster that is due for release soon and is bottled 7 years of age and 48% strength from an ex-bourbon refill hogshead. Phil confirmed this will be out early January with a price of £40 – pretty good on paper.
Then we have an elder statesman in the form of a 23-year-old bottled at 52.2% after residing in a refill sherry butt. The outturn of 497 bottles was exclusive to Royal Mile Whiskies and selected by former ScotchWhisky.com and general whisky writer, Dave Broom, to celebrate the Amber Light film, which he was part of. Now, I’d talk about the film, but I haven’t seen it as of yet. I do know the movie has been well received and this bottle has sold out online since Serge gave a score in the upper echelons. Ben Nevis at this age and in a good sherry cask is hard to beat, especially when 1996 is quoted on the label.
If you did manage to purchase a bottle it would have set you back £164.95 and if you’re kicking yourself for missing out or pausing for a moment. I’m sure we’ll have more Ben Nevis in 2020.
Thompson Bros. Ben Nevis 2012 – review
Color: Very pale.
On the nose: A lovely fruit juiciness backed up with potato peelings, icing sugar and cream soda. A sappy quality mirroring the fruit aspect along with grapefruit and old school sugar cubes. More pine cones, pineapple cubes, apples, white chocolate and honeysuckle. Water reveals a zesty and clean nature.
In the mouth: Not hugely detailed but there is enough here with a lot of the spirit character and a pedestrian cask influence. More of the fruits with apples, pears, melon and grapefruit once again. Wine gums, a touch of smoke and some jelly sourness as well. Those old mushroom penny sweeties with a tangy burst of sweetness, a touch of earthiness from a white cap and lemon zest towards the end. Water I felt wasn’t hugely beneficial.
Thompson Bros. Ben Nevis Amber Light 1996- review
On the nose: Harmony and elegant. Worn leather, walnuts, a well used shammy, varnish and nutmeg. Toffee and black pepper with ginger and a touch of smoke. Dried firewood, apple puree, a polished banister and Tiramisu.
In the mouth: The cask comes through strong with chocolate, walnuts, Danish oil and dried bark on the finish with citrus elements. There’s figs, liquorice, charcaol, nutmeg, lemon oil, orange bitters and beeswax.
We have 2 very different releases united by the same distillery by miles apart in terms of experience and pricing. I have to say for £40, the youngster represents good value and will do very well I’m sure. The Amber Light edition is a very strong selection and underlines that there are quality casks out there if you engage with the market. As good as this 1996 is, I do feel the cask has had more of a robust hand in proceedings, as such, the edge goes to the previous ’96 bottling that carried more fruit.
If you’re new to Ben Nevis in general, then I’d always recommend starting with the official 10-year-old before letting your imagination run riot. If you see either of these Thompson Bros. releases at retail then they do warrant serious consideration.
Lead image kindly provided by Royal Mile Whiskies