Whenever I think about Smögen, beyond the mere liquid, I always think of one man driven by a vision to create a whisky that he wanted to enjoy and share with others. The fact that many told this former lawyer and whisky fan that XYZ wasn’t possible, or he was mad, underlines his determination and drive to achieve his ambition.
Pär Caldenby’s vision came to fruition in 2010 when the first spirit flowed off the stills. This was eventually bottled in 2013 as the Smögen Primör and was generally well-received. Sensing an opportunity with the quarter casks, Pär refilled these shortly afterwards before bottling a sequel in 2019 as the Primör Revisited. Mark actually reviewed the original Primör release way back in 2014, before we utilised scores as such, but I’d expect a 6 or 7 from his comments would be realistic. Alongside, a sense of promise and watch this space: for once he’s been proven right.
What of the Primör Revisited? This liquid is what we have in front of us today to review, thanks to the vital support of our Patreons. Smögen isn’t cheap and always comes in a 50cl bottle with this particular release costing £107.95 from Master of Malt, or £110 from the Whisky Exchange. Scaling up this comes to, for some, an eyewatering £151.13, which for a 6-year-old whisky isn’t cheap by any means. However, we always should put this into context before judging a price and that’s something we always consider when reviewing here.
Smögen is handcrafted with a sense of determination. Reflecting for a moment, what does handcrafted actually mean today? In whisky terms, it is one of the most abused words we see in marketing and on labelling. Everyone wants to latch onto that wonderful image of – to use a Japanese term Rōshi – using their experience and skill to create something truly remarkable. Such knowledge that only comes through years of dedication to their craft. The awareness of what to do in each situation and the unwritten rules and techniques that only come with time and patience.
Ultimately the emphasis and meaning of handcrafted is individual to each and everyone of us. Balvenie and others like them, will try to influence that outlook and translation. Do I think handcrafted when I buy a bottle or dram of Balvenie? The answer is frankly no and the same in some regards applies to Benromach. A distillery that lacks computers and relies on the skill and knowledge of the distilling team.
Personally, handcrafted is very much more at its base ingredient: almost a one-man operation from start to finish with only a small team. Frankly, these distilleries, such as Abhainn Dearg Distillery, Daftmill, Smögen and their ilk don’t need to boast or market themselves as such, because that’d be money wasted on stating the obvious.
Money that could be put to better use elsewhere.
And that brings us back to the determination to create a whisky of their choosing. Perfectly embodied in this Revisited edition. Reusing quarter casks isn’t a preferred choice of wood nowadays, never mind for a period as long as 6 years! Neither is heavily peated optic barley, or a bottling strength of 68.5%.
It is that bottling strength which captures the interest and disbelief in some quarters initially. Rivalling some of the higher strength limited bourbons we’ve seen in recent years garnishing high scores from Bible Jim. A sense of disbelief that a whisky at such a strength could be palatable and not way too hot. A whisky that hasn’t been made by a corporation or rushed through the distillation process. Something that has been given time and the essence of handcrafted, to showcase what is possible and that the boundaries you once believed in are being challenged, or have indeed been broken.
The saying the proof is in the pudding applies wonderfully here, so let us begin. I’ve asked Mark to join me for the tasting notes, given his exposure to Smögen since their humble beginnings.
Smögen 6 Year Old 2013 Primör Revisited – Jason’s review
Colour: cinder toffee.
On the nose: bacon fat, smoky BBQ ribs and toffee. A gentle orange undertone, mace, Frankincense and an autumnal compost heap. Dark mint chocolate, copper, peanut butter and an oily dense residue. There’s caramel and fresh honeycomb as well. Adding water reveals a more decadent honey, syrup, walnuts, rose water and a fleeting Parma violet.
In the mouth: a mellow but assured powder keg of a whisky. Molten caramels running free, chunky peanut butter, honeycomb and a thick smoke wrap around the palate. An experience that takes some adjusting to. A chewy texture and bacon crisps. It is full-on but there’s no alcohol burn or sense of wilful extremism. As expected, this can take water if you deem it so. I enjoyed playing with the additive. Cloves stepped forth from an array of black spices, dying embers, beef dripping and peat wonderfully layered and integrated.
The hardest thing about this whisky is trying to convey the actual experience. It forces you to question the essence of cask strength. What is possible and what you’ve been exposed to previously.
This is a no prisoners taken rollercoaster that won’t be to everyone’s liking. Smögen makes no apologies for this and neither do I. After that first ride, you’re somewhat dishevelled and stunned, but eager to jump back on. The price remains an issue for many that we acknowledge, but beyond the mere handcrafted aspect and costs of importing from the costly state of Sweden, there is also the realisation that you are receiving a whole lotta whisky for your outlay: whether you chose to introduce water or not.
It makes me question where the Scotch industry has gone AWOL in recent times. Where an enthusiast with a passion and drive can write his own rules and produce something like this. A whisky that at times terrorises and enthrals in equal measure. A whisky that forces you to think again. A whisky that makes most of Islay look like a cheap counterfeit.
Smögen 6 Year Old 2013 Primör Revisited – Mark’s review
Colour: russet (same as last time; well, I use the same colour charts as always).
On the nose: Revisiting (without looking at the old notes), it’s almost like a peated, toasted rye on the nose, a smokey wholemeal bread. And indeed, it’s actually very sweet in general; under the smoke, there’s light citrus vanilla notes, custard creams. Tobacco and sage, the herbal notes need a drop of water to manifest.
In the mouth: Oh sweet lord that’s lovely. Quite an aggressive, ashy peat, a contrast to the sweetness on the notes. (I wonder what the peat source is?) Indeed, it’s something off the scale of normal peated whisky and I dare say the ABV does some of this. (As an aside, I am well-used to samples above 70% ABV.) Time in the glass is what this needs to allow the sweetness to manifest properly: maple syrup, baked pears and vanilla custard. The spiciness is mostly alcohol; a touch of water and that dissipates, leaving oodles of redcurrants, blackcurrants and sultanas, European Oakiness (not sure if it has been in those casks, but those notes and what come forward). Tobacco, with herbal notes again; a very earthy, mossy peat now, coriander heat; which lingers on the finish.
A little rogue, this one; it doesn’t quite have the special Smögen touch on reflection, which is entirely obvious in the later releases. Today I would say – as you would expect – a touch of water to bring this into a sensible territory, and to allow yourself access to more flavours. And yes, looking back on what I had previously, though my tastes have shifted ever-so-slightly in a few years – I’m only human after all – I’d say Octomore fans once again would find much to enjoy. It’s good to see that Smögen has only improved with time.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Lead image kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.