February is a wonderful month to behold. The variable and relentless nature of the weather system batters Scotland from the Atlantic storms to cold arctic snaps. This is a month of dreich days, bone-freezing gusts and seeking the warmth and safety of indoors armed with a comforting dram. Personally, I love it and the revitalising aspect it delivers. It sets you up for March and wait awaits.
For many out there, February and March also represent a return to whisky. Whether you gave up alcohol for January, or as many more of you are doing, stopped buying bottles during the month itself. March is when 2020 begins in earnest for enthusiasts and bottlers alike. The fact that February is a short month also helps. Here at Malt, I’m guilty of thinking in terms of size when it comes to each month. We are fixed on our daily ability to publish something new: going so far as to do a couple of extra posts during the month.
Thankfully, with the influx of releases, before too long you’re back in the game for many onlookers. Chasing bottles, including unicorns and new experiences. Cadenhead’s has already marked the month with a lovely outturn consisting of a 26-year-old Ardbeg, a heavily sherried BenRiach, a 23-year-old pre-fire Heaven Hill, a Kilkerran single cask, a closed distillery and more besides. The only thing you need to know if you were successful with any of these, is that the starting gun has been sounded and the game has begun. Your wallet, hopefully, enjoyed the time out as well.
What about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society? They cannot hope to compete with Cadenhead’s in terms of range or value. Nor can they stand alongside Gordon & MacPhail who are releasing a 40-year-old Port Ellen for £2500. Given the state of the current market that’s a good price and I know others would charge more including the SMWS if they had such a cask. The fact that the UK is only receiving 60 or so bottles is a reflection of the international scope of many bottlers nowadays and the SMWS is increasingly focused on the global market.
But it leaves the question what is the membership granting you access to?
For the SMWS our February outturn summary, the comments provided an opportunity for many members to highlight their concerns with the current state of play. At the time of writing, we’re still waiting on the SMWS to interact with these comments. On the whole, they are related to the UK branch, which has been going through some turbulent changes. Such issues might be replicated in other branches such as America and Australia, but it is easier to focus on matters closer to home. On paper, I thought the February outturn was solid, but in reality, trying some of the releases revealed the same old issues. I’m optimistic that the March outturn can step up a much-needed gear.
Earlier this week, I had the welcome opportunity to catch up with Anatoliy of Scyfion whisky in Edinburgh – where better to hang out, but at a Malt Society branch? In fact, the new plush and corporate members floor within the Queen Street location. The new décor left me slightly cold and alienated, but what about the whiskies themselves?
We took a tour of 4 preview bottlings, excluding the new Paul John, which I had the fear of asking the bartender how much? Unsurprisingly at £145 a bottle, this hasn’t flown off the shelves yet. As I was driving, my drams were consumed at home for notes consistency. I’m always fascinated to see the reactions of others to a whisky you can only nose.
SMWS 1.226 Salad Undressing – review
A Glenfarclas distilled on 6th April 2011, 8 years in age from a 1st fill bourbon barrel, bottled at 58.4% with an outturn of 251 bottles and priced at £56.
Colour: white gold.
On the nose: toasted pine nuts, green apples, black peppercorns, melon, faded vanilla and a real wood spicy nature with a hint of washing up liquid.
In the mouth: more spicy wood, tobacco leaves and a spirty nature. Chocolate, green peppercorns, white pepper, Fenugreek leaves and a dirty vanilla.
SMWS 7.237 Nutty by Nature – review
This Longmorn distilled on 30th April 2007 and was bottled at 12 years of age from a 1st fill ex-sherry butt, resulting in 619 bottles at a buoyant 58.4% strength. The asking price here is £64.90.
On the nose: tobacco, worn wood, leathery with a rubber eraser quality and a chocolate walnut. The warmth of honey, ginger snap with orange pips and wood glue. Throw in some hazelnuts and fudge as well. Water reveals more spice including cloves, liquorice and black peppercorns.
In the mouth: a luxurious texture with plenty of alcohol bite. A drying finish. Cranberries, chocolate, leather, tobacco, toffee and uncouth in places. Plenty of cask. We’ll need water, this produces more alcohol, a chocolate brownie and shoe polish.
SMWS 53.324 Cheshire Cat – review
Yes, your monthly bottling of Caol Ila. This was distilled on 1st September 2008, bottled at 11 years from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead. This resulted in 293 bottles at a robust 58.8% strength and it’ll set you back Tony’s favourite price of £69.
Colour: lime juice.
On the nose: sea salt, coastal peat, a sweet sugary element mixed in with chopped green apples. Rubbed mint leaf, more lime, a wet anorak and a dirty vanilla.
In the mouth: charred oak, salty brine and smoked haddock. A handful of pink pepper corns, more apples with lemon peel and the satisfying presence of bacon fat.
SMWS 128.9 Electrochemystery – review
A rare sighting from Wales aka Penderyn. Distilled on 8th September 2010, bottled at 9 years of age from a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel, this produced 211 bottles at a thudding 59.8% strength. Expect to pay a slightly excessive £77 here.
Colour: apple peel.
On the nose: light and floral with daisies and Chamomile tea. Freshly made tablet, apple strudel, orange sherbet and a gentle oiliness. Talcum powder, cotton sheet and vanilla vibes. Some candy floss, almonds, kumquat, resinous with a vanilla caramel and coconut ice. Water revealed pear drops and white chocolate.
In the mouth: a little hot and youthful around the edges. Time showcases apples, orange segments, grapefruit and a really juicy oak characteristic. More melon on the finish and water unlocked a spicy marzipan and more hot alcohol.
The Glenfarclas promised much on the nose but faded on the palate. A little too unbalanced with a touch of hotness from a youthful, vigorous spirit that’s still needing the reassuring stroke of time. I’ve had a few bourbon casks from this distillery over the years, including from the Society. They often have a wacky sensibility and this expression hadn’t developed that yet. I’d still happily drink it and the price is good, but the flaws of a monthly outturn and bottling too soon…
Pretty much each month, you can predict the presence of a Caol Ila. It has become the staple for many members and offers that blast of Islay for those seeking peat. The reality being, peat is extremely popular. A discussion at the bar revealed no bottles whatsoever from Islay for sale other than the young Caol Ila’s, so there’s a demand to satisfy.
Fortunately, Caol Ila can deliver almost at any age. We talked about this over a dram and I couldn’t actually recall having a substandard or disappointing whisky from this distillery. For the ugly behemoth, it is, with the new make shipped off to the mainland, prompting questions what is an Islay whisky? Caol Ila is extremely reliable and well-priced from the Society.
This 53 is another solid whisky. The problem is that it is bottled on such a regular basis that you know what you’re getting and there is very little room for variation. If you’re a regular drinker of this distillery from the Society, then there’s little to grumble about. For those looking for a Caol Ila to show something different or knock your socks off, then this isn’t it.
The warning signs were apparent for the Longmorn, which is one of my favourite Speyside distilleries. A real class act, with a tremendous distillate that sings a harmonious array of honey, apples and pears all wrapped up in a blanket of orange peel and vanilla.
All those subtlety Longmorn characteristics have been dragged out onto the street and stomped into the gutter with the deafening thud of a 1st fill sherry cask. A 2nd or 3rd fill might have been better suited, or even a quality sherry cask, but nowadays, sherry casks have changed and not for the best – although the latest issue of the SMWS magazine tries to make a weak defence for them.
It’s a really flat sherry experience say unlike the Ardmore, or Glentauchers, from the previous month that were essentially double dipped in sherry casks to give a little more life. Here, the Longmorn struggles to breathe and is a whisky for those that want more sherry than whisky and don’t care about which distillery it came from.
What about that Penderyn? A visit to any major online retailer will confirm an expensive range of whiskies, finishes and spirits from this distillery. In a sense, I feel, they’ve been searching for an identity and have gone through more wardrobe changes than Kim Kardashian. The whisky has been just as shallow and misjudged, so much so that many shun this distillery despite it receiving a widespread distribution.
My forays with Penderyn have not been pleasant, often prompting the Jura of Wales as a retort. However, I’m pleased to report this single cask has a presence and therefore potential. It is still a little youthful and bubbly around the edges, plus I feel it is slightly overpriced: not that you see many single casks on the open market for Penderyn. Again, a little longer would have provided beneficial here noting it is a rather gentle 2nd fill cask, but hopefully, the SMWS has some sister casks within their inventory.
So, yet again, a real mixed bag without any real highs or lows. And if you’re paying a membership fee and don’t have access to the plush venues then it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify that fee. For the record, both Anatoliy and I agreed that the Penderyn was the pick of the bunch. He went as so far as to purchase a bottle to take home. It is a surprising whisky and all the more so coming from Wales and the variable Penderyn.
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