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Thompson Bros. Ben Nevis Juice

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.

Score: 6/10

Thompson Bros. Ben Nevis Amber Light 1996- review

Color: Gold.

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.

Score: 8/10

Conclusions

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

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Nice article Jason.

    I’ve only had the one bottle of Ben Nevis the standard 10 but I really enjoyed it. Think I’ll get another or maybe that Thompson Bros 7 year old?

    I agree with what you said about the SMWS. I’ve been a member for a year and I won’t be renewing. It’s not the lackluster selection of bottles on offer, that’s done it for me. Although, I’ve come to realise they don’t sell anything you can’t pick up a similar bottle of elsewhere from Cadenheads or wherever, without the need for a membership fee. The irony of the SMWS is that with their flavour profiles. Bottle numbers and quirky bottle names, they try to give the impression that their philosophy is that the name of the distillery on the label doesn’t matter. Branding doesn’t matter. It’s the experience of flavour and smell, what’s in the bottle that matters. Yet what’s in the bottle at the moment is what let’s them down. What they emphasise and what draws customers in is the chance to join an exclusive club. Understand what all these weird numbers mean on the bottle and buy bottles because of the Star Wars reference, or line from a Jam song on the label. Branding. Just of a different sort.

    But what made me decide to not renew is that when they do have an interesting bottle they’re really hard to get hold of. I had my eye on a 17 year old Pulteney. It was out of stock within 45 minutes of going on sale. Then in the run up to christmas they announced an outturn. I had a look and their was an 8 year old Laphroaig. It went on sale in 12 hours time with a countdown timer ticking down and their were 8 bottles available from a possible 350. Their were 150 people interested in the bottle. Fat chance of getting that. They also had a Glen Moray going on sale in 12 hours with 0 bottles available from 600+. I wasn’t interested in the Glen Moray but I would have liked the Laphroaig.

    I complained to the SMWS saying where has all the rest of the Laphroaig bottles gone? And how can there be no Glen Moray left when it wasn’t even on sale yet?

    They responded that the rest of the bottles had been allocated to packs. So you could only buy it if you brought it in conjunction with another bottle or two you probably weren’t interested in.

    So that was it for me. I’ll just go back to grabbing indie bottles the usual way.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Dan

      A very fair comment overall. I know many share your frustration purchasing and then having to deal with the fragile SMWS website, which seems to struggle with demand. They need to invest in their infrastructure, like we do here all the time.

      The international success of the Society means less bottles here. And with each out-turn you know what bottles will spark interest and the remainders that will gather dust.

      A theme I’ve noticed from leavers is they don’t feel valued or appreciated. The SMWS have their money and that’s enough. Personally, this is all about profit and greed. If you don’t value your customers and don’t try to keep them engaged them eventually the majority will move on.

      I’m often asked by individuals whether they should become members and my answer is always no. Other independents over better value and choice. A shame really, but that’s the harsh reality of where the SMWS is.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Scotty says:

        I think that is spot on Dan and Jason

        I’ve toyed with the idea of joining the SMWS on and off over the past couple of years, but you don’t seem to get anything for your money, unless you are able to use the facilities. I think it is more something for those who want some sort of affiliation, mostly from abroad where they may not have the same access to Indy bottles. Being a member of something Scottish already carries a certain kudos.

        Personally I think this is why I’ll save my money and will just keep an eye on the secondary market for SMWS bottles I want to try

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Scotty

          Yes, access to the venues does bring some value to those fortunate to do so. I have 2 in Edinburgh and the incoming Glasgow venue isn’t too far away. Neither is a regular haunt and I’d rather just go to the Pot Still on the same street in Glasgow.

          The access membership provides to bottles abroad in terms of distilleries, single barrel and cask strength is very attractive. The issues facing the UK branch are separate although I have talked to some current SMWS America members who aren’t positive about their experiences.

          Cheers, Jason.

          1. Avatar
            Matt Bishop says:

            I joined the SMWS this year and saw it as an additional education tool in my whisky journey. Having just launched a Whisky Society in my local East Lothian area I wanted to further my experience in tasting whisky without the expectation of a distillery effect on what I was drinking. The first time I went to the SMWS in Queen Street I opted for my favourite distilleries as I was a little unsure of random drams but since taking to the bar staff I have really enjoyed and been surprised by experiencing new tastes, smells, and finishes. It is a frantic marketplace for whisky at the moment and I am sure the SMWS are not snoozing on their comfy sofas counting their profits as their 5000 casks-in-waiting may start losing their value if they don’t pro-actively seek to inspire their members.
            I have a struggle finding 6 interesting drams for my own Society let alone having to satisfy 26,000 members around the world…
            Cheers.

          2. Jason
            Jason says:

            Hi Matt

            You seem to be in the honeymoon period, so glad it’s going well. Give it a couple of years and hopefully things can be maintained.

            Good luck with your own society in deepest darkest East Lothian.

            Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Thanks Jason.

    Sorry to keep replying and taking up your time. But in regard to the SMWS not valuing their customers. I am a member of a whisky forum. When I reported that I was disappointed with a bottle I’d brought from the SMWS another new member revealed they were a brand ambassador for the SMWS and asked why I was disappointed with the bottle. When I told them why that it had had a very underactive maturation and was 22 years going on 12. Instead of saying ‘thanks for the feedback, we’ll take it on board’ they started asking me if I actually had any experience with drinking cask strength whisky? and implied that the bottle was fine I just didn’t know a good whisky when I came across one!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      That’s ok Dan, we enjoy having comments. Although from your SMWS experience an ambassador would be telling you to shut up!

      Poor service, but again, not hugely surprised. SMWS ambassadors are sales people. They tow the company line, are focused on sales and arguably to some, things like post-joining maintenance, helping and responding to queries such as your own, come further down the list.

      We all know everyone’s palates are different and we all have expectations. The ambassador should have taken it into account. They should also be wary that many members will be more versed and experienced in whisky than themselves. So, show a little respect.

      There are plenty of tired casks across the industry. Just a fact. Not every release is a hit, many are misses and the SMWS aren’t immune to this.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    David says:

    I’m not disputing that Ben Nevis do produce a fine drop of whisky, but I didn’t realise it was held in such high regard to command such a high price for a 23yo.
    Going by what prices the likes of Cadenhead’s would charge I would say it’s £30 too steep.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi David

      It’s increasingly held in high regard. Cadenhead’s didn’t bottle any Ben Nevis in 2019, I do recall in 2018 they bottled a 1996 and it cost me £140. Factor in 2 years later and sherry casks have a slight premium, the price seems reasonable.

      Thanks, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        David says:

        I was basing my pricing upon what I recall the Cadenhead’s 176th Anniversary 21yo being circa £100, and then added £35 for the couple of extra years for the Thompson Bros.
        It’s above my price limit of £150 anyway which might have made feel it was steep for something under 30yo

        Cheers David

  4. Avatar
    Joe Jackson says:

    Brilliant article, I think your bang on with the SMWS. While I do love alot of their bottlings, it’s easy to forget with the amount of marketing which draws people into such company’s, that there are plenty of excellent indy bottlers out there, which while possibly less well known, still produce brilliant bottlings at reasonable rates

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Joe

      Thanks for that. We can talk XYZ about a distillery or a whisky, but sometimes you have to talk about the topics and issues.

      We interviewed several indies throughout 2019 to spotlight the good that they’re doing. Funnily enough, we did ask the SMWS, but they never came through. Such is life.

      Cheers, Jason.

  5. Avatar
    Welsh Toro says:

    Good article Jason. It’s not just SMWS but the direction of indi bottlers in general. As for SMWS, it never makes much sense to join if you live 300 miles from Scotland anyway. More of their bottles have become available but they are always expensive and you’re taking a punt. I realise that I’m coming across as negative in many of my comments and that really disappoints me. However, I stick by what I say. I’ve been drinking single malt for thirty years and I never thought start up independents and distilleries might be our saving grace. The old dinosaurs are becoming meaningless to me.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi WT

      Yes, I agree. I didn’t mention, for instance, Gordon & MacPhail here, because I’ve done so previously. They are arguably the worst culprits currently.

      The small scale indies that we interviewed throughout 2019 are doing good work and at an affordable price. Funnily enough, I never got around to interviewing the Thompson Bros. I think that would be a great read.

      You have to vote with your wallet and custom. And I’d encourage more of us to do so!

      Thanks, Jason.

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