Malt contributors have an astonishingly privileged existence when you think about it. We write about a subject we love (we do, honestly, we do, even Phil) under no pressure whatsoever, beyond that which our own fragile egos put upon us. Whatever we submit goes up word-for-word as we write it, perhaps with a little editorial typo-fluffing here and there. (The bosses once normalised a particularly purple phrase of mine and I went straight into the document and changed it back. That’ll learn ‘em.)
Whatever we want to write is accepted without demur. Our fact-checking is moderated solely by our own paranoia of being rightly lambasted on twitter. Occasionally companies will send free stuff of some description through the post; no one tells us that we need to provide more balanced sources; we can be as vituperatively subjective as we want, and if we don’t feel like writing about whisky for a while we can just sack it all off, knowing that Mark and JJ will let us back again whenever we want. Oh – and we have a captive audience that now numbers in the millions.
My reason for this seeming tirade of arrogance is that it is often far too easy for us to forget just how lucky we are, and I’m more than a little guilty of taking it all for granted. Compare it, for a moment, to the blazing hoops through which the professional whisky writer is required to jump simply to make a living. Firstly, the constant hustle for jobs – very few sites and magazines (if any) will offer either a salary or sufficient freelance pay to be a whisky writer’s sole source of income, leading to a remorseless, competitive battle for whatever jobs are going, wherever they are to be found.
Once the gig is secured the writer, more often than not, is subject to the stylistic requirements of the publisher, the website, the magazine. Preciousness over your own tone of voice won’t generally cut the mustard. And that’s before an editor gets their hands on your copy, tears it to shreds, sends you back to sources who may not really want to talk, and may not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth even if they do. Your own opinions, personal preferences and best judgement will likely be laid out on the altar of having to actually earn a living and you will almost certainly be left beholden, to some degree or another, to brands and companies about whom you may have well-founded reservations.
Not to mention that to even get the gig you’ll have to prove you can actually write, put up a portfolio of your own work and beat off a host of other desperate souls after the same gig … all the while watching your vocation become ever-more rarefied because in this day and age there are hundreds of people – like me, like the other folk here on Malt, like the billions of other whisky bloggers – taking to the internet and stealing the attention of prospective readers for free. Not all of whom will be rigorous in their researching, most of whom won’t have your depth or breadth of knowledge and many of whom will be putting about opinions and stated ‘facts’ that are, quite simply, wrong.
The point of all this is that we don’t always show due respect to professional whisky writing in the blogging community. In fact we’re often out-and-out questioning of much it; you will find criticism running through Malt articles in general, including, I’m afraid, my own. Part of this stems from chips on shoulders; professionals aren’t always very nice about bloggers, and these things (yes, childishly) cut both ways. And part of it comes from a suspicion, on our part, of where the money comes from that funds professional magazines.
But whatever our opinions on some professional writing, and on the backers of professional publications, the truth is that we, as bloggers; as members of the whisky community; owe the writers themselves our sincerest respect. Not only is the better part of their output outstanding quality; not only do most of them work tirelessly and thanklessly to uncover and share stories that we would otherwise not have access to, but they’re doing something that many of us would be tempted to have a go at ourselves, if we weren’t too financially chicken.
Anyhow. To my mind, perhaps our Mark aside, there’s no one currently writing about whisky who does so better than Angus MacRaild. The overwhelming majority of you will need no introduction whatsoever to WhiskySponge, but for the 0.05% of whisky lovers who haven’t come upon it yet, I highly recommend you follow this link and spend a few hours savouring Grand Cru satire. But what’s particularly interesting about the MacRaildian corpus is that, on the other end of the spectrum, he writes long-form pieces that alternately range from weightily academic to thunderously excoriating to almost-searingly earnest. All of them burnished with his sheen of authority which, on the subject of old-style whisky, I think is safe to describe as all-but unmatched. Oh, and he knocks out tasting notes for Serge over on whiskyfun.
In the last year Angus has also bottled three whiskies under the Sponge label, and it is these that this article is primarily concerned with. Given the popularity of Sponge and the fact that each bottling comes either with significant age or from a cult distillery, I really didn’t expect samples to be flying out to bloggers, and certainly not to me. But much to my surprise a message popped up on facebook and three small bottles arrived shortly thereafter.
The whiskies in question are a newly-released 2008 11-year-old Clynelish alongside his original two: a 1981 38-year-old Glen Moray and a 1997 21 year old ‘triple distilled Campbeltown’ which obviously could have so many different provenances that it’s not worth even trying to guess what it could be. All were aged in ex-bourbon casks, and all had sold out before the samples even had time to arrive, so Angus was understandably relaxed about the speed with which I got my review up. (Meaning of course that I was tardy and lazy, for which I apologise).
“I don’t even care if you give them a rubbish score”, he said. “Just put in a paragraph saying how good I am at writing. How about this: ‘there’s no one currently writing about whisky who does a better job than …’”*
Clynelish 2008 Whisky Sponge 11-year-old
On the nose: Very much about the distillate, though wood manifests itself in sawn pine guise. Primroses and cut grass. Wax crayons – geophysicist said so without prompt, so that’s not just Clynelish suggestion rearing its head! Ripe pear fruit (with a little peardrop) and hawthorn. Its not immature by any means, but the relative youth is rather prominent.
In the mouth: Given the almost ethereal character of the aromas, the unctuous, muscular mouthfeel and stab of alcohol heat are almost a shock. The flavours again are waxy, fatty, pear-fruited. Discovery apples. Combining with the oiliness there’s almost the effect of a white Rhône (the Marsanne/Roussanne variety, not Viognier.) A little stony petrichor to finish. Austere, intellectual fare. Thinking whisky, if you like.
Triple distilled Campbeltown 1997 Whisky Sponge 21-year-old
Colour: Dilute Caramel
On the nose: Instantly fruitier than the Clynelish, heading down a tropical boulevard of mango, papaya and light apricot, all overlaid with vanilla. Sponge cake and shortbread. There is a smatter of fresh, lightly smoky sawn wood and a pinch of brown sugar. Sensuous, come-hither fare. Hugely approachable in the best way possible.
In the mouth: Lighter of texture; not as viscous as its younger stablemate, though the flavours retain that pleasing, complex tropicality which grows towards the finish. Lychee, nectarine and face cream with juicy apricot in the crescendo. Sweet pastry sprinkled with brown sugar. It all feels a bit of a treat to guzzle greedily. The first empty glass of the three samples, which often tells its own story.
Glen Moray 1981 Whisky Sponge 38-year-old
Colour: Rubbed brass
On the nose: We can argue forever about what constitutes complexity, but we can’t argue that this doesn’t have it. Cask, distillate and maturity in gorgeous, shifting harmony. Dried apricots mingling with dusty tome, cedar and a teasing salinity. Barleysugar, honeys and dark syrup.
In the mouth: The palate goes even further in a syrup and muscovado direction. That sounds over-sweet, but it really, really isn’t; the sugars twist around balancing tropical fruits, spice and smoky tea. Beguiling and constantly moving. Nicely structured by the alcohol, which keeps an edge to the whisky thoughout, adding definition without distraction, preventing the delivery from being too soft. Finishes to a drying waxiness. Really excellent – and not in the least bit over-aged/over-woody. Best Glen Moray I’ve ever had by miles.
Being sent samples by someone whose expertise so far exceeds my own has been a rather weirdly unnerving experience. Writing about them has been even more so, given how long I have admired Angus’s own work. (I know I admire his work because, just as I would with Mark’s many years ago, I used to pick through it with a fine-toothed comb, looking for shortcomings and bits to disagree with.) Scribbling these up I felt a slight additional weight of expectation – as I dare say Angus may have as a known reviewer selecting his own casks.
For the sake of full disclosure, I have met Angus all of once, at the 2018 Dramboree, and insofar as you can tell from meeting somebody once, he seems to be A Good Egg And Alright By Me. If anyone wants to take that as proof of unredeemable bias … well there’s not terribly much I can do to stop you. All I can say is, given these are now long-since sold out, what on earth would be the point of my mucking about with the scores?
So yes. Tasty whiskies, the older two particularly. Thanks muchly, Sponge.
*He obviously didn’t say any of that. He was very professional.
Images nicked from the Whisky Sponge – lovely labels by the way.