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A trio from The Whisky Sponge

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. (Abby 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, half of whom don’t know which end of a pen the ink comes out of 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 rude about it; you will find criticism running through Malt articles in general and my own, I’m afraid, in particular. 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

Colour: Straw

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.

Score: 6/10

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.

Score: 8/10

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. 

Score: 9/10

Conclusions

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.

 

CategoriesSingle Malt
Adam Wells
Adam Wells

In addition to my weekly-ish articles on Malt I write about whisky for Distilled and cider for Graftwood and Full Juice Magazines. Somewhere amidst all that I've also done the WSET Diploma in Wine and Spirits. I share my home with several hundred bottles and one geophysicist. For miscellaneous drinks banality, find me on twitter at Twitter.com/DrinkScribbler

    1. Avatar
      Adam W says:

      Hi Mark

      I wouldn’t like to speculate! But I thought it was fantastic.

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Best wishes

      Adam W.

  1. Avatar
    Matthew j Ryan says:

    I really enjoy Angus’s reviews over at whiskyfun.com and I now look forward to following him at whiskysponge. these were nice sounding whiskys with great reviews I am sure angus picked them out personally. It rings too true that there were Great whiskys back in the day but all the same as quoted there were crap whiskys as well…the same is true today. cheers !

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Matthew

      Absolutely – everything of Angus’s is worth reading. (Even on the odd occasions that I don’t wholly agree with him.)

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment.

      Best wishes

      Adam W

  2. John
    John says:

    Hi Adam,

    I think one needs to be prepared to be lucky. As a fellow Malt contributor, I think the one thing we have in common, aside from liking spirits, is are more open minded than most. This allows us to be more curious and just absorb more things we come across.

    Professional writers as in writers who get paid are owned by brands? Or professional writers who stay neutral and keep their integrity? hehe

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi John

      Interesting take. But again, I think you’re being somewhat narrow-visioned. I think a conversation with almost any professional writers quickly refutes the idea that they are a. Lazy, b. self-interested brand slaves, c. Less interested in good spirits than you and I are.

      For one, nobody gets into whisky/spirits writing to make money – frankly there’s very little about and you’re competing with so many people for it. Without exception, the professional writers I know got into it because they were either spirits nerds like us or trained journalists (or both).

      Being a Malt writer is incredibly easy. Ever since Taylor became the first reader to reach out and offer his contributions (and thank goodness he did) all anyone has to do is ping an article over to Mark and JJ that’s more or less coherent, has some interesting points to make and isn’t beholden to any particular brand. That inclusivity has fostered a brilliant group of different and diverse writers which has made this site ever more interesting to me as a reader.

      However. Whilst we’re all here because we love spirits, because we’re frustrated about some of what’s happening to many of the drinks we love and because we want to explore whatever avenue most interests us as an individual, I think it’s a mistake to pretend that what we do is anything but a luxury. We’re all lucky no to be relying on these articles to pay the bills. We’re all lucky to have jobs that cover our day to day costs, allowing us to write for Malt (and wherever else) about what we like, when we like and how we like, without so much as an editorial suggestion that we adapt our prose style.

      I think from time to time several of us on this site (myself included) have given off a rather self-aggrandising and smug air of “holier than thou” on the basis of our independence. Independence is a vital quality without which this site couldn’t possibly function, but whilst it offers readers a take, an opinion and a wealth of information that might not be so readily available elsewhere, it doesn’t make us de facto “better people”. In fact, pretending that it does makes us worse. We’re incredibly lucky to see a lot of people say a lot of nice things about Malt online. I’m not sure we need to add to the plaudits ourselves.

      Sorry – that reply rather got away from me. Much like many of my articles. Anyhow: just my tuppenceworth.

      Thanks, as ever, for taking the time to leave a comment … and keep up the writing!

      Best

      Adam

      1. John
        John says:

        Oh indeed. To regularly drink good booze is a very good luxury to have. At times I have to prevent myself from being trapped in an ivory tower or naval gazing.

        A lot of people say there’s little money in writing about whisky but I’ve always been curious about specific numbers.

        1. Adam Wells
          Adam Wells says:

          The most I’ve come across (my experience is very limited) is somewhere around fifty cents a word. And that’s for a magazine that only publishes twice a year. Really, honestly, writing about whisky doesn’t pay much. Whether being an instagram “influencer” is any more lucrative I’ve no idea, but I really don’t think being suspicious of writers suits us.

          When I was talking about luxury I was more talking about the privilege of contributing to a huge site like this without having to do the editorial legwork and without having to make any concessions to our articles. I really recommend you speak to a few professional writers to get some idea of how lucky that is.

  3. Avatar
    Smiffy says:

    Bugger, they’re all sold out but they were rather pricey. I was one of that 5% who didn’t know about Whisky Sponge so thank you for pointing me in this site’s direction too. Having read some of the articles on Whisky Sponge are you guys sure Angus MacRaild is not just a nom de plume of Malt’s own Jason where he can vent his cynicism, anger and frustration at the world of whisky and the bullshit which dribbles forth from it?

    1. Avatar
      Adam H Wells says:

      Haha. If it is Jason he’s also hired a very convincing actor to play the part of ‘Angus MacRaild’. Not saying we should rule it out …

      Thanks as ever for reading and feeding back!

      Adam W

  4. Avatar
    Greg B. says:

    I had never heard of Whiskysponge before this article so I followed the link and visited for the first time, expecting that I would quickly add it to my bookmarks. After reading most of the recent entries there, I’m back here without bookmarking it. It was about as disappointing as a new Edrington release, in all honesty. A little too cynical, a little too frenetic, a lot of chaff for not much wheat. Sorry to offer such a dissenting view.

    It does sound like a couple of those releases he’s done are quite good though. The Glen Moray would be particularly interesting if only because I have never had a Glen Moray that I actually could say I liked.

    1. Adam Wells
      Adam Wells says:

      Hi Greg

      Ah well, can’t win ’em all! I’ve always loved Angus’s writing at both ends of the spectrum personally … but with writing, as with whisky, there’s always that personal preference thing!

      Thanks for taking a look, anyway, and for reading and commenting on this article. (I hope Malt’s earned one of your bookmarks?)

      Cheers

      Adam W.

  5. Avatar
    Darren says:

    I managed to get a bottle of the Clynelish and look forward to cracking it open and comparing against your notes. I thought it was a no brainer when I got the email alert as there has been some cracking Clynelish bottles coming out of Signatory over the last year or so and I was also a sucker for the fancy label.

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