From a bountiful month of whisky festivals, releases and whatnot, May has become a virtual, desolate tumbleweed environment. Thanks to that virus, everything and everyone has shut up shop and festivals have quite rightly been deferred until 2021, others hang in the balance. Quite a spanner in the works for everyone. For all the distilleries and independent bottlers, it is an unexpected issue that has effectively wiped clean the whisky calendar for the near future.
Festival releases are selected and bottled months in advance. Meaning that in theory, such releases will have to be repacked, put on ice, or deployed via a new novel scheme. For the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we’ve reached their May outturn, which is normally a bountiful assortment of festival releases with fancy labels that sell like hotcakes. Peat is often on the agenda with Islay and Campbeltown receiving special treatment and 2020 will see a Highland festival bottling.
What’s been interesting is how each and every company has approached the virus issue. How they’ve responded to the demands of their customers and the welfare of their employees. Some have been very open and honest, others have closed and reopened with a new approach that caters for online trade and social distancing. Others don’t seem to have a direction. Some firms have been very quick and agile such as Dornoch distillery, who quickly started making hand sanitiser and released a guide as to where you nearest producer might be located. Then, the big companies, like giant oil tankers, have proved to be less nimble and accommodating.
Generally, I’ve felt that most businesses have been thankful of any business you put their way and many of us have made an effort to keep things local. I’ve had butchers, spirit merchants, farmers, restaurants and all sorts, at my door in recent weeks. They’ve rallied and there’s been a mutual appreciation on both sides, but regardless of what type of business, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society were the only ones to send out a message like this:
This was part of an email sent out on the 5th April, entitled A Message to all Members with Managing Director and Chief Member Champion, David Ridley providing the above outline. These times are full of difficult messages I’m sure, staff being furloughed, businesses going into administration and what awaits us all tomorrow. However, I just felt this was badly timed, insensitive and unnecessary. Perhaps it was just me? So, I reached out to several friends and others I know as existing members, who felt the very same, with one (a business owner himself) commenting it was an appalling fopar, everyone is struggling in one way or another FFS, and buying whisky membership ain’t a priority!
At least I wasn’t alone in my reaction and it just felt like another missed opportunity from the SMWS. One where commerciality took over, where a more considered approach would have been beneficial. As a forthcoming renewal myself, I felt a more common sense and respectful approach would have been to announce deferring all pending renewals for 3 months, or so. We’re helping you to get through this and we’d appreciate your support on the other end, when we all get through this. That would have been a far better message to communicate and extremely fair.
At least the email was tempered with the announcement that the SMWS had given £2500 to the Edinburgh Beer Factory, who were producing hand sanitiser for the Marie Curie Hospice and their workforce. An admirable gesture. Possibly not ideally placed beneath the above-quoted message, yet a sense of some balance. Even during these difficult times, the Society was doing the right thing.
The right thing? I felt that way, until a fellow member pointed out that one of the owners of the Edinburgh Beer Factory is John Dunsmore. A former Scottish & Newcastle boss, who also set up the HotHouse Club with his partner in 2013. The same investment house that acquired the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in April 2015.
My colleague felt there is arguably a conflict of interest here, or at least an issue of transparency in the email message, noting the 35th Anniversary event last year involved the Beer Factory and also another interest in Chapel Down wines. Personally, such news did take the gloss of such a gesture. That’s the reality of today’s ownership (and not the romantic Pip-era that ambassadors love to talk about), and possibly why the beers at the Edinburgh venues fail to take advantage of the varied local brewing scene.
On that disappointing note, I’m looking ahead to our May selection to showcase that 2020 is finally delivering as a member. Before we jump into May, I was kindly given a recent release by a neighbour. I always have time for Blair Athol, so lets start there before moving into the latest outturn.
SMWS 68.32 A Belgian Half and a Half – review
Distilled on 24th August 2007 and bottled at 12 years of age. Bottled at a robust 57.2% strength, this was fully matured in a Refill Ex-Bourbon Hogshead. The outturn of 283 bottles was available for £54.20.
Colour: a light haze.
On the nose: very spirity, vanilla, icing sugar, meringues, some cereal notes and lemon. Oily, caramel, toasted pine nuts and bashed mint leaf. Water unlocks a pine freshness and green apples.
In the mouth: more of that spirit hinting at a less than stellar active cask. A touch of smoke, more pine nuts, pineapple, sugary and used tea leaves. Some caramel, orange and sappy nature. Water here wasn’t beneficial, unlocking a bitterness and more wood-driven notes.
Continuing our COVID-19 approach to bringing you a monthly slice of independent SMWS option, we plucked a release from the May preview bottles. Ironically, the pick of the bunch, on paper at least, was from the distillery where it all started. This didn’t hang around for long, so we were fortunate to grab a bottle – underlining what we said last month in that sherry sells. Thankfully, the Glenfarclas is all sherry without any additional cask foreplay.
Unfortunately, this release was delayed due to some issues with the label for this particular bottling which needs attention from our production team. Thiss just one of those things during the COVID-19 era and reduced staffing levels. Credit where it is due, the SMWS gave those who ordered the bottle the option to wait, or receive a full refund. Regardless of your choice, those affected also received a £10 off your next order voucher – a thumbs up for this approach.
So, we’ll have to jump over 1.223 for now, but I’ve saved it a space for when it does turn up.
SMWS 1.223 Dessert Triptych: Mushroom Sorbet – review
Distilled on XXX and bottled at 10 years of age. Bottled at a robust 63.4% strength, this was fully matured in a Refill Oloroso butt. The outturn of 618 bottles was available for £65, with the preview allocation of circa 60 bottles selling out in under 10 minutes.
On the nose:
In the mouth:
The May outturn is pretty scant on paper with just 12 releases – because the festival releases were pulled for mid-month outturn. The average age of this outturn was a lowly 10.6 years, which is slightly up on the 10.2 of the previous outturn, but still, nothing to suggest this is the premium experience that the SMWS like to pitch.
Even so, age isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to whisky. Occasionally, you can strike gold after considerable effort and tenacity. A youthful 105 caught my attention, being Speyside’s greatest enigma. Given my appreciation of this distillery, the perfect opportunity to gauge whether a 2nd fill 7-year-old is up to the job. Then, Mark made our Patreon supporters pick and plumped for a dirty Glen Scotia.
SMWS 93.135 Olive Oil Whirlpools – Jason’s review
Distilled on 19th June 2007 and bottled at 12 years of age. Bottled at a palatable 56.9% strength, this was fully matured in a First Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel. The outturn of 203 bottles was available for £68, with the UK allocation of circa 68 bottles selling out within 30 minutes.
Colour: light gold.
On the nose: buttery salted popcorn, caramel and vanilla. Fresh pinewood, resinous, pretzels, milk chocolate and a nice oily nature. Cooking apples, coconut and fir trees. Water reveals wood spice, toffee, a touch of salt, honey, creamy and some smoke.
In the mouth: salty, vanilla, nougat, a chewy texture somewhat. Toffee, creamy white chocolate and water brings out cask char.
SMWS 93.135 Olive Oil Whirlpools – Mark’s review
Colour: yellow gold.
On the nose: absolutely reminds me of a Nikka Coffey Grain single cask I had years ago. What a weird flashback. Smells and memory, eh? Really nice sweet perfume to this, sandalwood, an intense vanilla ever-so-slightly enveloped in an industrial note. Strawberry jam, sponge cake. Heather honey. With time any sort of intense grain-inspired (yes, it’s malt, but you know that intense vanilla hit you get with grain) notes fade and it becomes rather dreamy.
In the mouth: hefty sweetness, and there’s more of the industrial note coming through than before: a slightly charred, sun-dried tomato note under the layer of heather honey. Vanilla, lots of that sure. Dark Chocolate Bounty bars. If I had a bone to pick, it would be that it’s a little less exciting than the nose. There’s a tightness of flavours that water doesn’t especially open up. Toffee apple, that fades quickly to reveal some underlying sage.
SMWS 105.27 Italian Fake! – review
Distilled on 1st May 2012 and bottled at 7 years of age. Bottled at a robust 63.7% strength, this was fully matured in a Second Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel. The outturn of 205 bottles was available for £44.80.
Colour: a very light tan.
On the nose: lime zest, pencil shavings, sappy and green apples. Clean and well made but lacking definition. Dried reeds, pears, a little green pineapple, icing sugar and mint leaf. Water unlocks more mint freshness, fresh shortbread and vanilla cheesecake.
In the mouth: sugary sweet and very hot in places. More lime and green apples, pineapple and a touch of smoke. Adding water unlocks lemon, vanilla and white grapes. Very spirit-driven.
Another mixed bag from our Society selection and as always we refer anyone new to our scoring guide.
The Glen Scotia is solid enough and if the palate matched the nose then we’d be looking at something very enjoyable. As it stands, the full potential has not been harnessed and I’ve had better 93’s from the Society in recent times. If you’re fan of this distillery and what an ex-bourbon cask can do, then you’ll be satisfied.
The Tormore began to lose its appeal fairly rapidly. The cask is somewhat to blame as is the decision to bottle this at a youthful age. Such are the flaws with the monthly outturn format: some gaps have to be filled and often with less than sterling whisky. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with an independent bottler, who lamented the decision from Chivas to change the filling strength at the distillery. This in their opinion changed the sweet spot of the whisky to a much later age. This cask being bottled at 63.7%, higher than what most distilleries bottle nowadays at (63.5%), as it is believed this is the most efficient strength to prompt that immediate interaction with the wood.
As our guest piece the other day highlighted, what does this have to do with Italy and fake? I’ve just learned to ignore such thespian flourishes from the Society and their art of selling. Scotland’s most mediocre bottler in the eyes of some, or just the variety of Scotch? Let’s see what June produces, and I still have high hopes for the Glenfarclas gap above.
93.135 is a most peculiar specimen, and in a good way; though a bit of a sugary bomb. Some of you deviants might like that.
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