Here’s a question: how many whisky punters go into a shop looking for complexity? Actual complexity, which is to say a nuanced, tastebud-delighting experience. A primitive, primaeval sensory trigger to light up your nervous system and all those intricate, ancient parts of your brain (that haven’t been rendered inactive by watching too much Netflix whilst in self-isolation). Is that the reason you head into a store or browse online – to seek that very experience, which can only be derived from supreme complexity?
I don’t honestly believe many do – and there’s no judgement here. Well, no more than usual. Way up on your list is probably value for money (understandable), or perhaps something a bit different to what you’ve tried before. A bit further way down there, if you are flavour-minded first, is what can give me the most intense experience perhaps.
Intensity comes above complexity, no, for most? That’s the only possible reason there are Octomore fans, because it isn’t a subtle, nuanced beast of a whisky, that one. Indeed, most heavily peated stuff has had the nuance and complexity smoked-the-hell out of it, instead of to be replaced by the intensity of the experience. Giz all the smoke within WHO limits. Sherry bomb enthusiasts, we’re no better… Nor all of you who elbow one another out the way to get some mighty cask strength stuff at an eye-wateringly intense ABV. And again, no judgement: merely pointing out that complexity is somewhat down the to-do list of most whisky seekers.
And a second question, which I speculate may eventually connect with my first musing: what is the point of a blended malt? So your single malts – malted whisky cranked out from one place – are permitted the name of the manufacturer. Blended whisky – that mass-market grain-malt-hybrid phenomenon that from, the 1860s onwards, catapulted Scotch ahead of the Irish in the sales game – tend to be looked down upon; and for the most part with great reason, for they have a large proportion of what your posh grandparents might have called “silent spirit” – grain whisky, which was applied to stretch out the flavour of malt whisky as far as possible.
But your blended malt? It has the dreaded b-word in there, the thing that those reasonably new on their whisky journey may tend to pooh-pooh, to showcase their newfound snobbery (which never really leaves us), but it also has malt. It’s confusing to some, but I’m not really worried about the definitions today. My point is really, well: what is the point when someone releases a blended malt?
Because blended malts can be very good indeed. In fact, I think making blended malts is perhaps the whisky maker’s answer to my first point on addressing complexity. The idea being – purely speculative – that you can achieve more interesting combinations when you start with different core distillates than you can with a single malt. (That is if you believe that after maturation not all distilleries’ output taste the same…) Dropping the grain components means the bland spirit component has been dropped and it’s all using malted ingredients, so we’re talking more full flavour variables. More sensory triggers. More potential complexity.
The question then becomes about experimenting with what works best. Are some distillery combinations naturally more effective than others? Do you go for the old school formula of a dash of robust, Islay peat to bring the bass to the treble of highland spirit? Then you can consider the cask options too – ex-bourbon, or dial up the sherry?
And this is something you can do in your own home, of course. Give it a go: open up several single malts and start playing around. You might find some superb combinations – ones that hit those ancient parts of your brain better than they did as individual single malts. It doesn’t always work as you think it might: I’ve experimented with Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn spirits, which in theory coming from the same distillery should have harmony, but instead, I made a right mess of it. Therefore the blended malt comes with more risk, as you can create many more bum notes.
Anyway, today we have a blended malt from the folks at Wemyss. For those of you with long memories, it’s actually a veteran edition – a 25-year-old version – of Velvet Fig, which I rather enjoyed back in the day. (Was that really 6 years ago?) It’s bottled at 42.3% and will set you back around £125. The idea with this is a blended malt to a theme: that of nothing but sherry casks. In fact, it uses some 20 casks – 5 sherry hogshead casks filled with 1994 Speyside and Highland spirit; then 15 sherry hogsheads using unpeated Bunnahabhain distilled in 1988. Then it was left in 14 refill hogsheads for a further 16 months, all of which is a lot of numerals.
(The keen-eyed would probably flag that the Bunnahabhain is 32 years old, so why not bang it out as a single malt? Good question, don’t know the answer, other than they weren’t allowed to sell it as Bunna – but I would hope that it is because the folks at Wemyss were interested in creating something more flavoursome when marrying the Bunna with the Speyside and Highland whiskies…)
A bottle of this will cost just £120 from The Whisky Exchange and our thanks go out to our Patreons for supporting us and making this purchase possible.
Velvet Fig 25 Year Old Wemyss Blended Malt – Dora’s Review
On the nose: initially sweet and slightly floral, with sour fruit such as prunes and cherries. Then sugar from toffees and caramels come out to play. A little bit dusty with dried spices and dunnage warehouse soil soaked with spilled whisky. Waxy honeycomb and oats eventually come through. As the liquid oxidises, the fruitiness reminds me of blackberries, raspberries, red currants and those similar berries with their sweet tartness. The notes reminds me of a cherry bakewell. Deep inhalation gives you white pepper and vanilla notes. After much longer oxidisation deeper rooty hints come out, such as liquorice and angelica. Easiest to pick out from my empty glass!
In the mouth: sweet with icing sugar and watery vanilla toffee. White pepper heat tickles the tongue. Weak brininess mixed with cloves. It has a somewhat thin mouthfeel but with a nice oiliness. There is a mushroomy and earthy flavour which goes slightly bitter and drying, reminiscent of ginsing. A hint of dried goji berries appears. Once I get past the sugariness there are porridge oats. It is very light and fresh.
The finish is quite short on flavour as it disappears leaving the sensation of eating dusty red grapes. The feeling in the mouth becomes dry and it ends with a slow burn on the back of the throat.
The nose is where it is at; it gives the impression of a densely flavoured whisky. However, the Velvet Fig is most tricksy and, for me, it underdelivers a bit from what was promised with the smell. Don’t get me wrong, it is a nice dram and I enjoyed it. I would probably have it as a starting whisky before getting onto something with a little bit more bite.
Velvet Fig 25 Year Old Wemyss Blended Malt – Jason’s Review
Colour: dull gold.
On the nose: pine cones, a little salt, rhubarb, blackcurrant jelly and orange sherbet. Red grapes, wine gums, apples, now orange peel. Red liquorice, raspberries, plums, tobacco and a leathery note. Time reveals new dimensions and the addition of water lets the fruits come through and currants.
In the mouth: oh, a really long fig-like finish, but backing up to the beginning. It feels stronger than 43% and has a presence and elegance. Stone fruit, juicy red grapes, cask char, blackcurrants, tarragon, salt on the finish as well, orange peel and dark chocolate. Patience is the key to this dram. Take your time and new avenues will appear. A pleasant nuttiness, dried fruits and for instance rhubarb, and adding water reveals a dryness and fig-like nature, but most of the details have been removed.
You know, this took me back a few years. The decades when blending wasn’t about packaging or proclamations (see Compass Box) and was just enjoyable. Even Wemyss have been on shaky form recently. However, the recent Nectar Grove Batch Strength highlighted there was still some hope from this Fife independent. Now that promise has been delivered in this Velvet Fig release.
There’s an elegance to this as I’ve already mentioned. A subtle level of confidence. The sherry influence here isn’t in your face, or limited, like many sherry matured whiskies we endure today. Here you can effortlessly peel away the layers and let this relaxed dram take you on a memorable trip. And the added bonus is the admission fee.
Velvet Fig 25 Year Old Wemyss Blended Malt – Mark’s Review
On the nose: beyond all the fruity stuff, the actual first note I am getting is of some old spirit. Or rather, a spirit made way back when – slightly industrial, coal dust note (coal-fired stills?). It’s not sulphurous, or at least I don’t feel that. Heather honey, mead, drifting into baked pears drizzled in syrup. Dried apricots, certainly not a dark old thing as you’d expect: less fig-like here, more sultana. The longer you leave it the more syrupy it gets – and in a delightful manner.
In the mouth: such cloying density, what a delight. Velvety. But fig? Yes, the slightly dirty note comes through, a sour note to balance the hefty sweet dried fruits; again, more sultanas here, raisins at a push, but it’s quite spritely for an old thing. Treacle sponge in custard, with golden syrup really becoming dominant. Mixed peel. Praline and almonds. Slightly salty with, in the very end, that industrial note with black olives and sundried tomatoes on a medium-length finish.
That’s a pretty fine whisky indeed. Sort of like they used to make in the good old days, except for this is 2020 and it’s on sale for about £125 or thereabouts. I’d have personally called this “The Dirty Sultana” and I think the crowd would have gone wild. I should work in whisky marketing.
Anyway, does it tickle my armpits of complexity, to slaughter the metaphor? Quite possibly it does. There is something immensely pleasing about it – and I’m not just talking about the price.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement. Our thanks to The Whisky Exchange for the lead image and our Patreons for making this possible.