The whisky industry has adapted surprisingly quickly to lockdown conditions. After playing a bit of technological catch up, distilleries and bottlers have been launching online tastings through various social media and video conferencing applications. Tasting packs are sent out in the mail, and we are then transported from our living rooms to the heart of the operation to hear from the people who are most knowledgeable and passionate about their product. It seems to me that this is a far more interesting, efficient and cost-effective way to spread brand awareness. I wonder if it will have any effect on the role of brand ambassadors and marketing departments going forward. Regardless, I think they will be kicking themselves for not having done something similar earlier, and I suspect we may see this continue even when the lockdown ends.
The London Whisky Club always has its finger on the pulse and has been quick to seize this new opportunity to arrange several different virtual tastings, and not just for its membership either. It is no secret that TLWC and Bimber have a close working relationship, which even resulted in a club bottling, a first for both sides, so it came as no surprise that a live virtual Bimber tasting was on the cards. Unfortunately, I am in the minority of those who have yet to fall under the spell of this hometown distillery. This has been for a few reasons; water, target market, and value.
It is clear that Bimber puts huge stock in their production process, undertaking some quite unique practices in fermentation alone, as has been outlined in articles here before. The ‘craft’ message is also integral to their brand image and marketing; ‘craft’ appears nine times on the homepage alone. I see this appealing to a very niche target market only, to those who know of and are interested in the nitty gritty details, things like fermentation times, yeast strains, and barley types, and seeing what effect these have on the final product in its purest form. I cannot understand, therefore, why the releases so far have all been watered down, as if intended for a different audience altogether. It makes no sense to go to all that trouble innovating to impart maximum flavour, giving us insight into that process, only to then water down the end product and wash away all the hard work. After all the buildup it is the ultimate tease, and the results have been reflected in the whisky. The recharred small batch release has so much promise on the nose, followed by a watery palate and a bitter aftertaste, literally and figuratively, where a finish should have been. If only it had been cask strength, or maybe even a single cask release, the category it somehow managed to win at the world whiskies awards. Ultimately, if these releases are designed with a niche market in mind, then let us have the natural product and we will enjoy playing with water addition ourselves. If instead they are intended for a wider mass market, then why bother telling us about the innovative craft processes, or even employing them at all. I have been left frustrated and confused as to who these whiskies are really for, especially when we consider the prices, which, being frank, have been outlandish. No three-year-old whisky should ever cost £120, regardless of whether it comes presented in half an oak tree. Even if we are to make allowances for that as an inaugural bottling filled with pomp and ceremony, I have failed to find value in any of the subsequent releases. I do not think myself alone in this either, as many people have told me in private, however most seem unwilling to speak their minds publicly and go against the steady stream of positive press.
You may think me harsh, and that I am coming into this tasting with a heavy negative bias, however this could not be further from the truth. I am rooting for Bimber. I desperately want to love their whisky, to feel a hometown pride and proclaim that a London distillery can rival the very best in Scotland. I admit, I am unafraid to speak my mind and give criticism where I think it due, however it stems from the frustration of what I feel is untapped potential. It should also speak volumes that, after over a month without a single whisky purchase, this was the first thing I have wanted to spend my new whisky budget on. This was an easy decision with the promise of four new drams for just £15, the first Bimber bargain in my mind; one of the selling points to the group was that even I would drink Bimber for that price. Upon delivery, it is also clear that Bimber have easily won the virtual tasting pack game. As you can see, there are two new makes, peated and unpeated, four drams, a tasting glass, and some samples of barley and yeast. In addition, but out of picture, we have a lump of peat and a chunk of cask. They have really gone out of their way to mimic the complete sensory experience of a distillery visit as closely as possible. A quick note also, that the ex-sherry and the ex-port labels were mixed up by mistake, which rather adds to the local ‘craft distillery’ charm.
Bimber New make spirit 63.5% – review
Colour: Clear coat.
On the nose: Intensely fruity. I get bags of blackcurrants first, almost like Ribena. Then mango, pear and papaya. Malt loaf. Date paste and a hint of caramel, a sticky toffee pudding vibe. Water brings some chalk and wet grass, but not much else.
In the mouth: A lovely mix of fruit and malt. Plump raisins, malt extract and barley. A gentle pepper and cinnamon spice builds. Then a never-ending finish of the most intense fresh apple and pear I have ever tasted in whisky. Water does not help, the flavours remain the same but become very muted.
Bimber Peated new make spirit. 50+ppm 63.5% – review
Colour: Clear coat.
On the nose: All the fruity aromas of the regular new make with added sooty coal dust. Old musty leather-bound books. The fruit and peat come in alternating waves. Water brings chalk, lemon oil and shoe polish.
In the mouth: Oily, sooty and a light funk. Bruised overripe orchard fruits, sweet blackcurrant jam and a thick layer of soot and shoe polish over the top. A very gentle pepper spice and a hint of sea salt. Shoe polish, lime zest and bitumen lead into the finish. Water brings nothing new.
Bimber Ex-bourbon vatting 46.2% – review
On the nose: Noses initially like a bourbon, strong notes of vanilla, caramel and cinnamon. Then some marzipan comes through, followed by ripe pear and a hint of mango. A whiff of menthol in the background. With time in the glass, malt, barley sugar and heather honey. Water gets you no further.
In the mouth: Very thin mouthfeel, vanilla and caramel emerge again first, but less intense than the nose would suggest. Apples, malt and barley sugar follow. Quite a spicy kick builds with pepper heat and cinnamon. A very short finish with faint toasted oak and a hint of apple. Water highlights the malt and barley, and brings out a light grassiness. Bitterness in the finish.
Bimber Oloroso sherry finish – review
Roughly three and a half years in bourbon before a three-month finish in oloroso. 51.5%.
Colour: Golden koi.
On the nose: Sharp and tannic. Hints of sultanas and sweet white wine. Clove oil, bitter walnut and a hint of prune juice. A little leather and milk chocolate. Not much going on. Water improves this surprisingly, even with a whiff of struck matches, with grassy and malty notes coming through.
In the mouth: Very thin and watery. Some hints of sultanas, cinnamon, pepper and clove. Very bitter walnut skins. A finish of wet cardboard. Again, surprisingly, adding water improves this. The notes of cardboard and bitterness are toned down while allowing some of those malty barley notes to come forward.
Bimber Ex-sherry (labelled ex-port) – review
Full term oloroso maturation 58.9%
Colour: Symphony red.
On the nose: Rich and decadent! Pan de higo (a Mediterranean compressed fig cake). Buttery chocolate fudge. A hint of oak. Sweet and sticky toffee sauce. Cinder toffee. Vanilla and cinnamon coming through in the background. With time, red apple skins. I prefer this without water, as you lose the wonderful cinder toffee and caramel, but it does bring some milk chocolate and orchard fruits.
In the mouth: Sweet and oily. Black cherry syrup, roasted prunes and a little salty meat broth. Blood orange juice. A building spice kick with pepper, clove and star anise. You think the finish is all crunchie chocolate bar, but then chocolate covered cranberries and toasted almond flakes come through. Again, I prefer this without water, as the cinder toffee in the crunchie turns bitter. You do get some nice underlying notes of malt extract and dark rye bread.
Bimber Ex-port (labelled ex-sherry) – review
Full maturation in ruby port 59.7%.
Colour: Bright delight.
On the nose: Dark chocolate, raisins and heaps of sandalwood. Strawberries in balsamic vinegar. Tangy cranberries. Cracked black pepper and clove. After time blackcurrant juice and malt extract come through. With water a little cardamom and clarified butter. Dried apricots.
In the mouth: Sandalwood, cinnamon and cayenne spice kick from the get go. Macerated raisins. Quite hot and spirity in the finish. With water ripe apples and pears. Malt comes through in the finish but it remains spirity.
I would like to thank The London Whisky Club and Bimber for organising such a fantastic virtual tasting for us. Special thanks also go to Matt, our excellent tasting host, who delivered a seamless virtual experience, giving us further insight into Bimber production and fielding a barrage of questions. Given my concerns around dilution, I was relieved to hear his thoughts about wanting to move more towards cask strength releases, so I am hopeful that we will finally get some Bimber in its natural state. After all, I think we are all capable of adding our own droplets of water should we want to, and I think Matt agrees. The question remains of what the price of entry will be, as none of these have been released, bar the unpeated new make. Only time will tell. We could argue about hypothetical prices until the cows come home, however as a rough guide I have scored these with prices in mind that I think would be more in keeping with the contents.
Starting with the new makes, a very pleasant surprise! Rough around the edges, as you would expect, however very good all the same. The unpeated spirit is an absolute fruit bomb with the most incredible notes of fresh apple and pear I have ever tasted in spirit, completely different to the more estery fruit notes one usually finds. Tropical fruit notes are also there as well as sweet and sticky malt to give it some extra layers. I have to give the edge to the peated, however, which is even more layered and complex with a lovely highland style of peat that I am enjoying more than Islay these days, sooty and dirty. While a dram of the unpeated would be sufficient for an evening, the peated is very drinkable and moreish, and I find myself wanting another. Adding water did not add a huge amount to either one, but neither did it detract much. In terms of price, the distillery recently sold bottles of unpeated new make for £38, and I assume the peated will be similarly priced. This feels a little high, even with the novelty aspect, though I may still be tempted by the peated. What I cannot get my head around is how or why the new make offers the best flavour to value ratio of any of the releases so far. As an afterthought, I blended together what I had left of each new make and added a drop of PX sherry. I think we are going to be in for a serious treat in three years when the peated releases start to emerge.
Moving onto the bourbon vatting, the curse of the water strikes again. I would not have guessed that this was 46%, the palate feels like a 40% whisky that you sloppily add too much water to during experimentation. Is it perhaps the way in which water is added? There are many examples of whiskies on the market that still retain incredible mouthfeel and flavour at 46%; the whole ranges of Springbank and Distell to name just two. It is a real shame, because the nose is quite lovely, and I feel the flavours would still be light and crisp even at a higher abv. The fruitiness of the Bimber spirit shines through, with plenty of fresh malt and barley. There is so much potential, however the mouthfeel and delivery are missing. If only this were cask strength! In terms of price, should it make it to retail, if I had paid £40, I would already be disappointed, and I have scored it as such.
The Oloroso finish has not come together at all; the nose and palate are both very disjointed, muted and wet. In this case I think the problems run deeper than just over dilution, however the lasting impression is of very bitter walnut skins and soggy cardboard. Though too wet already, adding substantial amounts of water helped to dial down the unpleasant notes, while bringing forward some malt and barley. Should it retail, I have scored it as if it were under £55, though regardless of price you would be far better off purchasing the new make.
The ex-sherry is the best of the bunch, a big, luxurious sherry bomb. For the first time I am seeing what is possible from this distillery at cask strength, and it is wonderful, full of mouth coating oils and lingering layered flavours. Granted, there is not a lot of the Bimber character left, but with a little patience and a drop of water some of the malt and fruit start to emerge. In any case, of this style of whisky it is a very good example, almost reminiscent of some Adelphi sherry cask picks. There is always a very fine line with these before they become high strength sherry, and my fear is that this is already very slightly past its peak at the time of tasting, so I just hope that this cask is bottled at once if not before. Regarding hypothetical price, I have scored this as if it were retailing under £65, which I think is more than reasonable for a 3yr cask strength whisky.
Finally, the ex-port. This one is not ready for bottling, so it is slightly meaningless to score this. Even so, the nose is fantastic, joint favourite for me alongside the ex-sherry, and gives us insight into where this is headed. Though spirity, the palate also shows promise, retaining definite notes of the fruity new make while also starting to assimilate some of the port cask flavours. In the meantime, it will continue accumulating age and flavour, and I look forward to finding out what this is evolves into. Once again, it showcases what cask strength Bimber is capable of, and this sample was actually one of the favourites for the whole tasting group.
My curiosity for Bimber has only increased with this tasting. The base spirits are wonderful, so what they are doing in production is clearly working. I still need convincing over cask management, as the end products have been more miss than hit so far. I remain certain that water addition, or the method used to do so, is detracting hugely from the final products, and these cask strength samples alongside the new makes prove that to me. Price remains the biggest sticking point. At the current price structure, I cannot justify the outlay. I am sure that London rents coupled with a long and loving production process result in higher than average distillery costs, however the liquid in the bottle ultimately has to live up to the price tag. I worry that as time goes on and the novelty wears off, people who have been emotionally invested and making allowances for teething issues will start to question the discrepancy between price and quality. I remain optimistic though, these cask strength samples, if bottled at full strength, will go some way to closing that divide.