The month of April kicks off with a famous All Fools’ day, which you’ll hopefully be aware of. I’m on record as stating a fool and his or her money are easily parted in these heady whisky days. You won’t need me to highlight any examples, as quite often I’m asked did you see that or what do you think of that on a regular basis. Not that I’m of importance or a beacon of insight, but I suppose I do have a platform and want to maintain a grip on reality.
One of those realities is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. This is our 3rd preview of an outturn in 2020 and as usual, I’ve acquired samples out of my own pocket, to bring you an independent and honest verdict on a clutch of offerings. The purpose is hopefully to find something like a hidden gem, but also to try to shed some light on the secretive world of the SMWS: by that I’m meaning, for the majority of members; you have to buy to try. Given whisky is an expensive commodity – with the SMWS brand of inflation on several releases – speculation isn’t an avenue open to many of us.
Many out there try to be non-foolish when it comes to money and whisky. Let the sheep chase down the latest overpriced Ardbeg Committee release and a larger percentage of the flock try to flip it for £300. These are those heady whisky days with anything limited, single cask or exclusive seemingly being snapped up. Mostly acquired it seems for other purposes than drinking.
The SMWS are as guilty as any other bottler for tapping into this boom. Bottles are selling with some examples requiring a website crash or technical difficulties to highlight the feverish demand from some potential customers. You cannot blame bottlers to a certain extent, or the strain it puts on their existing inventory. Last month’s outturn was one of the youngest on paper. Something that you won’t read in their magazine or on their website, but to the observant it was noted. One individual contacted me to lament how insulting the outturn was with only one thing over 18 years of age and nothing beyond 21. Then, providing more food for thought highlighting some of their favourite bottlings of 2019 were Society releases, but that to find such things you have to wade through the shit.
Update. April consisted of 19 single cask releases (including 1 exclusive to the packs), the oldest being 17 years of age and an average age of 10 across the whole outturn.
Age doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality, but with all the SMWS advertising and imagery suggesting a premium club and in their own words: the world’s widest selection of rare and exceptional cask whiskies. You have to deliver upon those expectations, especially if you associate premium with age, which is a fair assumption in whisky nowadays. Albeit Gordon & MacPhail might want to dispute the whole message. When such bottles do arrive, they are often priced prohibitively, we’ve recently seen Cadenhead’s offer more of a mix when it comes to ages and pricing and Càrn Mòr are doing a great job of quality and value right now.
With all things in life and whisky, is it about moderation, balance and meeting expectations. Based on a straw poll of those that reach out to me; the SMWS membership experience isn’t delivering what it is perceived to offer. The compromise is to offer a better mix of distilleries, ages and cask types. Easier said than done and it might be a waiting game for those prepared to wait it out.
For now, we have the April outturn and the possibility of something new. So far this year, I’ve only purchased 2 releases from the Society with a 3rd in mind in the coming weeks. More than ever, I’ll have to consider the renewal when it presents itself later this year.
And we’ll insert a line right here.
Because the above introduction was written prior to the vice-like grip that the virus has put on our respective countries and economies. For the SMWS, the venues have rightly closed, although this took a little longer than it should have. Other avenues are being explored with tasting packs and online events. The traditional avenues of promotion are shut off and now producers and bottlers across the world are embracing technology with a new relish. For some, this is long overdue.
As for our monthly previews? There’s a siege mentality amongst some. Closing off the outside and not trying to retain a sense of normality. We’re still publishing daily here at Malt and why should we let these articles slip just because a venue is no longer open?
There’s much to be said for human endeavour and inventiveness.
This commenced with a review of the mid-month releases which traditionally are a handful of bottles to keep the cash flow ticking over. The email was entitled A friendly face. Five uplifting casks and given the current situation we picked out the one of most interest.
This so happened to be a Dailuaine. Now, I’m a big fan of what this distillery can produce and the SMWS are solid bottler of this distillery, but we’re seeing more cask foreplay and at times Dailuaine isn’t suited to such an ethic. In 41.127, we have a 12-year-old oloroso sherry butt that has been finished in a heavily charred new oak puncheon. In my mind, you only do this because something has gone wrong with the sherry maturation. Why else would you effectively seek to ruin a solid sherry release? Sherry maturation sells. So, I’ll be interested in this, as I’ve criticised the Society for using heavily toasted casks with Dailuaine, as recently as 41.117 Bananas Brazils and Spicy Thrills. Unfortunately, we’re going to see more heavily toasted casks generally, as consumers, going forward from bottlers and new distilleries.
SMWS 41.127 Mind that big ginger fae’ Moffat! – review
Distilled on 14th July 2006 and bottled at 13 years of age. Bottled at 58.9% strength, this originally spent 12 years in an oloroso sherry butt before being finished for a year (less than their self-proclaimed preferred 2-year duration of finish) in a heavily charred new oak puncheon. The outturn of 557 bottles is available for £55.80 each.
Colour: golden syrup.
On the nose: a seasonal vibe with a hot cross bun, cranberries, almond, ginger of course, toffee and coconut. Actually coconut snowballs or toasted marshmallows. A fleeting whiff of lavender, candy, vanilla, tangerine and a jammy quality as well. Water reveals orange juice, hickory wood chips and more water unlocks lemon and grapefruit.
In the mouth: quite fiery and water is on the agenda. Woody, a vanilla toffee, redberries, hazelnuts, syrup and brown toast. It can take a chunk of water to remove the hotness with caramel coming through, adding more water brings out a woody drying quality.
Then, the youthful outturn landed, and thanks to the support of our Patreon army, we purchased a further 2 bottles at the lower end of the price spectrum. We managed to grab the Bunnahabhain that was an appealing prospect it seemed for many and the overlooked Auchroisk from Speyside.
Both have been finished to the 2-year SMWS mantra with Madeira and red wine utilised. Neither would have been top of my own personal hit list, but we felt that these might be of interest and showcase the finishing side of the Society that is here to stay. Plus, Mark always loves a red wine cask or otherwise. Anyway, we hope you enjoy our selections and fingers crossed!
SMWS 10.187 Elemental My Dear Flotsam – Jason’s review
Distilled on 27th September 2010 and bottled at 9 years of age. Bottled at 61.3% strength, this originally spent 7 years in a bourbon hogshead before being finished for 2 years in a Madeira drum (500-650 litres) that previously held Laphroaig. The outturn was 271 bottles (note UK allocations are rarely 100% of the outturn, with foreign branches also recipients) that was available for £65 before selling out promptly upon launch.
Colour: apple juice.
On the nose: a brief salty brine, subtle ham hock and then it goes all medium sweetness. Lemon, peaches, barley sugar, caramel, vanilla, coffee, a light honey and butter. Adding water reveals sunflower oil, kumquat, pineapple and a perfume note.
In the mouth: different and not what you’d expect: more of that medium sweetness. Apricots, tangerines, candied lemon peel, cottage cheese and some salt towards the finsh. Water unlocks more sweetness with icing sugar, a drying aspect with salt again.
SMWS 10.187 Elemental My Dear Flotsam – Mark’s review
Colour: deep copper.
On the nose: very alluring. It’s the sweetness that strikes you at first: burnt toffee, golden syrup sponge cake, that brightness of citrus vanilla, and then more coastal notes of seaweed come to mind. Hemp, vegetal – with moss, an underlying earthiness. The citrus notes linger – it is a deeply pleasing thing to whiff. Lavander.
In the mouth: a very interesting bready, doughy, yeast note, slightly sour, possibly off a little. Hints of sulphur, slightly sharp and astringent. Underlying that are some classic notes of citrus and vanilla, with hazelnut praline, nougat. After time, and more towards the finish, come the dirtier notes: charred meats, or perhaps more like burnt toast. And pleasingly with some strawberry jam to spread on top.
SMWS 95.37 Adventurous African Safari – Jason’s review
Distilled on 18th October 2012 and bottled at 7 years of age. Bottled at a robust 62% strength, this originally spent 5 years in a ex-bourbon hogshead before being finished for 2 years in a 2nd fill charred red wine barrique. The outturn of 273 bottles is available for £44.80.
On the nose: toffee, buttery almonds, red berries, heather and chocolate. Barley, rum fudge, sawdust, pecans, pepper and persimmon. Cauliflower on the end, spent fireworks and honey. Water reveals lemon oil, syrup, raspberries and orange zest.
In the mouth: not as hot as expected, cranberries, clammy clay, cloves, black pepper and tobacco. Black tea, rubber, and water reduces the whisky to liquorice and rubber.
SMWS 95.37 Adventurous African Safari – Mark’s review
Colour: russet, with a pink hue.
On the nose: plenty of cranberry sauce, raspberry jam – in fact, Jammy Dodger biscuits. Drifts into brandy, curiously, with a slight hint of soap that could be disguised as Turkish Delight. Milk chocolate, a little straw and hints of old roses.
In the mouth: jammy or what! Rather a thin texture. Hot and spicy, too. Not an immense about of complexity, I must say, but it’s pleasing still. The jamminess drifts into a little chutney, slightly sour and vinegary, with brown sugar, coriander and lime.
I feared the worst with the Daliuaine and it initially was better than anticipated. Perhaps my expectations were low? The more I returned to the bottle, the less my enjoyment and appreciation became. I’ve often found that releases from the SMWS from this distillery take time to showcase their potential. I tried this bottle over the course of a week: adding water on various levels and leaving drams to stand. The outcomes were a dwindling level of satisfaction. The interesting aspect is how much that final cask has taken over the whole experience in a year, or less. The actually sherry-vibes are muted and the Dailuaine character has been kicked out the door onto the street.
The Auchroisk is a disappointment. A well-made distillate that deserves more of the spotlight has been hampered by the 2nd fill wine cask. Being 2nd fill, the cask has lost its vibrancy and instead just left a legacy of rubber and muddled what went before. I doubt it was a great wine cask to begin with. I’d love to have tried the cask prior to the finish, but such a shame after high hopes. The Bunnahabhain has transformed and become very much a sweet dram. If it had more peat then, we’d have more balance between the cask and spirit. It is a good whisky, hence the score, but it promised more on paper.
A mixed bag and that’s very much the membership experience. The gems are difficult to unearth and while April hasn’t delivered, we’ll try again next month.
Finishing, more often than not deployed to give a kick to spirit that’s lived in tired-wood (as an aside I had heard of one distillery that used barrels up to 9 – NINE – times, with re-charring and whatnot) can be deployed clumsily. Done well, it’s very good. Done poorly, it’s awful. Yet here is a rare specimen (10.187) that walks the line between the two, though leans towards lacking finesse. And yet it has a bit of life in there, a bit of character, which is much more appealing.
The Auchroisk has lots going on for a single cask, plenty of, uh, adventure I suppose. It’s a bit hot mind you.
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