I’m really not sure what fresh panegyrics I can splurge over Bimber at this point. I’ve already gushed a couple of thousand words about their production swottery here, and have been joined by my editors in posting glowing reports of their early bottlings here and here.
In any case, it’s not as if the flames of their hype need any more fanning. They’ve won over the Whiskyfun crowd, which is probably a new distillery’s Holy Grail and they sold out the three distillery exclusives I’m reviewing today before most people had finished their morning coffee.
I think that’s probably the most significant demonstration of Bimber’s recognised position in the whisky firmament. Sure, Macallan stopped traffic with their Genesis release, but Macallan are the glitziest, auction-iest, headline-iest distillery in the world, and have spent decades assuming such a status. Whereas Bimber is a three-and-a-bit-year-old shed opposite an industrial launderette in grubby north-west London’s armpit. And were still turning people away before lunchtime.
Frankly I barely pay new release announcements any notice at all these days. As Taylor and Jason have commented several times, there’s always another whisky, and I’m long enough in the tooth and bottle that I can’t be bothered rushing for shiny new stuff much any more. But as soon as Bimber announced these a month or so back I sent a cheeky message asking whether I could fling my money at them straight away and collect at the weekend. To which they replied that I should save my train fare, because they’d already packed off a set as “media”, so yes – this is the point where we admit that Malt got free bottles and can therefore be written off by some of you as the soul of corruption. (Indeed Bimber’s chief of sending freebies is none other than Matt, senior scribe at the excellent The Dramble. So perhaps this was all an elaborate ruse to sneakily undermine a rival site. On the whole I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and hope you’ll do the same for me).
Anyhow: to the releases themselves. They’re a small tranche of single casks: an ex-sherry, a virgin oak and an ex-bourbon finished in ex-Laphroaig casks for a year. Which means, following on from the sherried First Release, the Recharred Oak second release and the ex-bourbon Founders Club bottling that we’ve now seen Bimber sporting quite the range of outfits. My niggle, and it’s not really a niggle, so much as a hope for the future, is that we’ve yet to see Bimber flex their vatting muscles much. As I hope I made fairly clear in my original article, and as has been borne out by their releases so far, these folk are spending serious time and thought making excellent spirit to put into cask. So I suppose what I’d like to see is some sort of “total Bimber”; a selection of casks brought together across a couple of types, perhaps, for an even more complex creation. But, given it’s only been a matter of months since they started coming of age, I guess that’s something we may see a little further down the line.
Whenever we review whiskies like these, by which I mean tiny-production, crafty bottlings of usually-very-low age, we’re quite rightly confronted by the issue of price. In this case, £75 a pop for the virgin oak and the peaty-cask finish and £80 for the ex-sherry. Which is normally the cue for a few of our commenters to bawl something along the lines of “for three year old whisky? Extortion! Immorality!” Since I’ve occasionally lent my voice to the bawlers and have written at length on the nature of whisky pricing in the past I’m inclined to tread carefully, but all I can say is that I was more than prepared to fork out for two of these bottles and, had funds permitted, would have given hard consideration to the third.
Now that new-era distilleries have become relatively commonplace, a significant division has become apparent, between those who are simply smaller versions of your standard biggish distillery and those who are ultra-slavish in looking for extra miles to go in production. I’d be hesitant to draw an exact line; all I can say is that confronted with one of these Bimbers and – say – Talisker 18-year-old or Ardmore 20-year-old, both of which I like a great deal, I’d pick the Bimber nine times out of ten for about the same price. Perhaps eight, in the Talisker’s case. And compared to the likes of Bowmore 18, Glenlivet 18, Laphroaig Lore … well, there isn’t a comparison. The Bimbers embarrass them.
So I suppose “value” comes down to what hoops you want your whisky to have jumped through. Whether you want the spirit to have been produced and looked after in an expensive, nerdy way, or whether you want it to have sat in a barrel until it’s old enough to drink itself. From my perspective, spending £80 on a whisky I’ve never tasted before feels like a gamble, and, stretching the analogy, prior experience with Bimber has suggested they’d be a horse worth backing.
Though that all seems a bit meta to stick on a back label, so you can see why people just bang on about wood and pure water and their great-grandfather’s daydreams and so forth instead.
Enough ramshackle musing. Let’s drink some nerdy whisky.
Bimber 28/2016 Virgin Cask 53.1% abv – review
Colour: Tiger’s eye
On the nose: I’ve drunk a lot of the best craft US stuff – Wilderness Trail, Peerless, New Riff, Quincy Street – and this sings from a very similar hymn sheet. Big, bold chopped nuts in caramel brittle next to roasty vanillins. But underpinning it is that estery tropical tone that surely by now we can say is the Bimber footprint.
In the mouth: More Americana, though here the esters take centre stage. Peachy and tropical, though along with the rawness of the alcohol there’s also a highlight of this whisky’s callow youth. More toasted nuts, caramel and milky chocolate. It’s pumping with flavour, this, even if it’s not crazy complex.
Bimber 34/2016 Sherry Cask 53.9% abv – review
On the nose: I mean … that is a lot of sherry. Outrageously rich – rum-soaked Christmas pudding, leather, walnuts and smoky dark chocolate. Almost cigar. But what’s impressive is that the spirit hasn’t lost the fight. There’s still that lusciousness of peach and orange zest and apricot there.
In the mouth: Right on the dry, almost charry end of sherry. Scorched wood, more leather and bitter dark chocolate. Walnuts and cedar. Then in comes the sweetness – the raisins and sultanas and dark cherry jam and molasses. A roasty coffee bean note keeps things balanced. This is just so, so nice to drink. The esters return in plump, fruity form on the finish. An absolute riot, if not quite as good as the Founder’s ex-bourbon cask.
Bimber 64PF/2019 Peated Finish 54.2% abv – review
Colour: New penny
On the nose: An intriguing nose – all herbs and minerals – something of a coastal walk. Smoke takes on an austere, ashy dimension, behind which sit dried tropical fruits of mango and apricot. I’m put in mind of some of the peaty bottlings from Loch Lomond in recent years.
In the mouth: Quite some upfront bite, though largely wrapped up by the ever-voluptuous Bimber texture. Oregano and tea leaves and salt-soaked rock ahead of plumper, peachier fruits. Spent campfires and toffee, fading to sheep’s wool. There’s just a slight, lingering bitter astringency which has squeezed down my score by a point. Still, tasty and very engaging stuff.
In short: one good, one very good and one outstanding. I suspect they’d be more complex if they used multiple casks, and none of them, to my taste, quite scale the heights of the Founders Club ex-bourbon, but that’s rarefied territory indeed. These will more than do. I’d say it’s astonishing the flavours you can produce when you ask yourself what more you can do rather than what corners you can cut, but it really shouldn’t be.
The ex-peated cask was my only uncertainty. (I say “uncertainty” – it was still a good whisky, and has been scored as such – just a step behind the others). I’ve yet to be wholly convinced by peated-cask matured whiskies. I suppose much of it must come down to their being nipped at by the original spirit itself which, in the case of Laphroaig, is not currently in Bimber’s league. Perhaps the Laphroaig cask was simply not of the same wood quality that Bimber usually seem to invest in. Or perhaps Bimber’s fat and fruity spirit is just not best suited to Laphroaig’s ashy, medicinal style of peat. I will be more interested when Bimber’s maturing peated spirit hits the three-year buzzer. But, as I say, this is still decent.
I don’t think there’s any doubt left that this distillery is currently the best in England. (Which, increasingly, is quite some statement). Buy whatever they release next. Even if you have to go to London for it*.
As mentioned above, free bottles were sent to Malt for review. Though the sender knows better than most that we’d still say critical things if they weren’t tasty. As, indeed, would he. Lead image also courtesy of Bimber.
*This article was written a few weeks ago. Obviously, for the time being, don’t go to London. Or anywhere else, if you can avoid doing so. Look after yourselves, Malt readers.