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SMWS June 2020 Outturn

Welcome to the midpoint of 2020, in our series of rolling outturn articles on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. A fair synopsis would be that so far this year hasn’t delivered or met expectations. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, cynical, negative or whatever else someone might want to say, just realistic. However, we’re on the precipice, preparing to launch through the summer, into the comfort of autumn and then Christmas, in what has been a historical year for all of us.

We’ve made an extra effort in the past few weeks to update our April and May outturn articles with further reviews from the team beyond myself. Generally, we seem to be within the realm of just below average, average, or good in terms of consistency of releases. And if you think the scores are low, then there is nothing wrong with an average whisky. As Phil pointed out recently on his YouTube debut, whiskies scoring a 3 or 4 have some redeeming qualities as per our scoring guide. There is in effect, nowhere to hide on a 10-point scale.

Inbetween this article and our the May summary, we’ve had the festival releases from the Society for 2020. In a way, it is good to be reminded that somethings continue during lockdown. Wolfburn distillery going so far as to release their Highland Festival bottle online with a bold cancelled on the front label. Other distilleries have utilised online tools to bring us their Feis Ile bottlings to a wider audience that traditionally might not be able to travel to Islay. That’s a positive. We’ll see how many turn up on the secondary market in the coming months versus those that are opened, experienced and hopefully enjoyed.

I often ask what makes a Festival release? Is it a special cask, something unique or even a failed experiment that is probably of interest only to the hardiest of whisky drinkers? I’ve had numerous festival releases over the years, from a variety of festivals. There have been few, if any showstoppers, or really memorable drams. Perhaps the setting and company make up for these shortcomings?

For Society members, we had the option to purchase their Festival releases, as and when they were announced. I passed on the Highland expression which was from Pulteney. I do like a Pulteney, but as you’d expect, I’d question why a cask has been deemed special for a festival release? Bourbon casks from this distillery appear on a regular basis from the Society and other independents, so I rightly passed. Beyond a nice label is there anything else of note?

The Campbeltown Festival release, 93.129 Food Sharing With Good Company, when it was announced less than 2 hours before release, only had 65 available to the UK membership at a reasonable £64. A criticism I’ve heard from some members is that prior to release, you can see the number of available bottles reduce. Potentially, this is like red to a bull, especially for a member that subsequently misses out. There are no easy answers here. A single cask format and a festival release spread out over an international membership: each wanting their own cut, is never going to stretch that far. Looking at the 93.135 release the previous month, the allocation for the UK was around the same level, so at least we have consistency. And I watched the bottle numbers for 93.129 and while they had reduced prior to going live, it was only by a mere handful.

Do we become swept away by emotion and the prospect of financial gain and make the purchase regardless? The official Kilchoman release sold out in a couple of minutes but was nothing more than just a vatting of bourbon casks. The Bunnahabhain is traditionally the slowest of the official Feis sellers, but even this managed to sell-out within 30 minutes. I looked at both of the Bunna’s and they were merely just finishes: from a distillery that we’re seeing more of finishing wise nowadays. Do these differ greatly from other finished limited expressions that Distell releases throughout the year? I expect there’s not much difference whatsoever.

I’m not going to dwell on the website issues that plagued the SMWS Feis Ile releases as it’s been well documented elsewhere. More damage to a bashed reputation and I’m not here to add to that. All I’ll say is, I was one of the fortunate ones who managed to get an Ardbeg after trying for around 45 minutes. I then, gave it away, at cost price to a fellow member and a good friend who adores Ardbeg, who had missed out.

At least the SMWS is trying to do something and get ahead of the curve. Asking for membership feedback on the whole aspect of these desirable releases. Floating ideas such as ballots, improved online experience and identifying bottles that have been sold onto the secondary market for immediate financial gain. Would they go so far as to track down a specific bottle and then ban a member? It could become messy, but I appreciate the effort here and hopefully all round, ensuring that bottles are opened by those eager to do so.

What I would say is, don’t stock up the Islay’s until festival time. Members are well used to seeing Caol Ila each month and the occasional Bunnahabhain, but everything else is sorely missed. And when they arrive in one release, it triggers bottle fever.

I do have some sympathy with the SMWS here. They cannot help the incredible demand when releasing such bottles. Fuelled by those wanting to experience an Islay, but equally those merely interested in collecting and investment. There is no easy way out of this. Even a ballot system has its flaws and the SMWS are on record as saying they cannot easily run a ballot, especially during the current COVID-19 situation. All we can hope for are fairness and consistency.

This month brought about 21 single casks with an average age of 13 years, including the
SMWS 41.127 Mind that big ginger fae’ Moffat! that we’ve reviewed previously. This improvement was helped by the inclusion of a 40 year old grain (great to see, but can we have more grain please?), a 29 year old Bladnoch and a 21 year old Laphroaig – a bottle that was pulled the day prior to release and given its own slot the following week. Which leads me onto the topic a few members reached out regarding, almost immediately after the list was published on 3rd June: the issue of pricing.

The 29yo Bladnoch is yours for £300: just last August a 27 year old for a mere £165. That Laphroaig retailing for £250, well, just last month we had the Feis Ile release for £25 less and a similar age, or June 2019 gave us a 20 year old for £165. There are numerous Laphroaig examples in-between and the trend is a remarkable increase. The price increases speak for themselves.

Preparing my shopping list, the evening prior, I settled on a handful that I hoped to acquire and encompass within this article. A total of 5 were selected and featured the rarely seen and wonderfully charismatic Blair Athol, a coastal Deveron and the classic aged Ardmore. It was hard to ignore the madness of another bourbon cask from Glenfarclas, or the brilliance of an Inchmoan. We’ll see how I fared in due course.

As seems to be a growing tradition to these articles, I was kindly given a sample from distillery 105 last year by Michael of WhiskyNews at the Whiskybase Gathering event. I’ve been saving it for the right moment ever since. After our guest article on SMWS 105.27 Italian Fake!, I feel it necessary to hopefully remind ourselves what the Tormore can produce. So, we’ll start here before jumping into a clutch of the recent releases.

SMWS 105.24 Such Stuff As Drams Are Made On – review

Distilled on 9th September 1992 before being bottled at 25 years of age. This resided in a refill ex-bourbon barrel resulting in 215 bottles at 49% strength. Originally this retailed for £121.20.

Colour: Gold.

On the nose: Fruit sweetness with aplomb and a nice level of vanilla and tangerine. A delicate layer of smoke, icing sugar, caramel and a sappy quality. For a Speyside whisky, this ticks pretty much all the boxes. Honeyed, plenty of approachabilities and delicate wood spice.

In the mouth: first thing that impresses is the texture. Then, the cavalcade of harmonious flavours that a Tormore can deliver. Pretty much everything on the nose comes through again. The alcohol pleasing sits in the background, creaminess steps up and there’s wine gums, green apples and a lovely balance overall.

Score: 8/10

SWMS 6.40 The Mist-Covered Sea Shore – review

Distilled on 29th August 2006 and bottled at 13 yeras of age. The ex-bourbon hogshead, produced 257 bottles at 56% strength. On paper it looked good value at £55.80 and it is still available.

Colour: white gold.

On the nose: dried crackers, new rope, mace and some peanut. Pears bring a needed freshness, a dull vanilla, almonds, fleeting creamy aspects and a lemon sponge cake that’s seen better days. Returning there’s rice pudding and toffee. Water unlocks pine cones and a fresher vibe with lemon oil and added nuttiness.

In the mouth: a gentle vanilla, hints of green olives, white chocolate, juicy grapes and it drops off a cliff and dies midway. No noticeable finish beyond white pepper. How many refills? Returning, a cotton freshness and cool breeze and spent apples. Adding water I felt wasn’t beneficial overall.

Score: 4/10

SWMS 135.21 Cheeky And Reeky – review

Distilled on 18th March 2005, then bottled at 14 years of age. The refill ex-bourbon hogshead produced 277 bottles at 53.3%. Well priced at £57.20, but has now sold out.

Colour: pebble.

On the nose: a clean and fresh coastal peat, classic notes of wet cardboard, a creamy vanilla and pancakes. Sappy in places. Paraffin, a long spent incense and farmed salmon. A twist of lemon. Adding water softens proceedings, in effect, taking us away from the shoreline. Stepping into the breach are apple and grapefruit.

In the mouth: washed seashells, a briny peat, salty and intense in places. A pleasing oily texture. Toasted pine nuts, green peppercorns and gunpowder on the finish. Water brings out damp wood, cardboard, petrichor, camp smoke, lemon oil and grapefruit.

Score: 6/10

Conclusions

Well, I missed out on the Glenfarclas and I didn’t pull the trigger on a couple of others thanks to some samples I tucked into that evening from independent bottler Chapter 7 – coming later this week. My budget was chopped for better value elsewhere and being able to try before you buy is always a great option. But we did manage to develop a coastal theme with the Inchmoan and Deveron.

Except the coastal theme was lacking in the Deveron – it’s about as coastal as a lumberjack in the Sahara Desert. I don’t mind the way-off tasting notes or the name as you come to ignore such things. However, the actual whisky is dull and there was no shaking it. The Society doesn’t bottle much from this distillery as you can tell from the numbering scheme, so there is an intent to showcase it more. And that’s great, because as a member, it means you can try these distilleries in a single cask format. It’s just flat. One dimensional. Destined to be the house mixer. Shame, as you can taste there is something promising, but it has been lost within the last 13 years.

Thankfully, Inchoman always delivers something. And here it brings its own style of peat and authority. Still, not the best Inchoman I’ve experienced by a long shot, yet it is well-crafted and offers enough enjoyment.

And on that semi-positive note, roll on July and a step towards the new normal.

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CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Jojo
    Jojo says:

    I absolutely love this series on the SMWS Outturns. These releases give you a sense of direction, hopelessness, joy, sadness, all at the same time. Mixed emotions during a pandemic. Ugh. But I love how it gives readers a peek into what once was, and still is for many, a great independent bottler. Hopefully they can sort out their true identity (I mean, how many livery changes do you need?) and remain relevant in the future. Then I can become a member again.

    Jo

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Jo

      Thanks, I was asked recently whether these will continue, as my renewal is up soon. I think of the membership as more Malt’s than my own now. I’ve given away some of the bottles we’ve acquired to members of the UK Malt team and this will continue.

      When compiled, I’d hope that these monthly articles give you a taste and an insight into what being a member truly means and the journey, as you rightly suggest. While I cannot taste every release, I can at least give some thoughts on events and details as they happen. This to me, as a prospective member, is more valuable than a bottle that has long since sold out, a bunch of tasting notes with scores in the 80’s and very little context or content.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Mark says:

    I know you did say which distillery each bottle was from, but having it in the main review text would be really useful as scrolling up and down seems to cause the page to bug out, as does clicking off and searching elsewhere! The scroll and freeze has been a consistent feature of malt for years, wish you could sort it out!

    M

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Mark

      We’ll include the distillery name in the July outturn format going forward. I’ve not had that scroll and freeze error, or heard of it before. So, it is a new one for us. I’ll ask that it’s added to the next maintenance list to investigate when we have a new developer on board.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Thanks for the review Jason

    My SMWS membership finished at the end of April and I didn’t renew. I’m glad I didn’t. Your review reminds me why I didn’t renew. I found membership a very frustrating experience. Sought after bottles selling out in seconds, (there’s no point in paying a membership fee to give you the chance to buy bottles to them still not be able to get the bottles you want. I can miss out on a bottle for free. Why would I pay to miss out?)

    Of the bottles I did get most of them were of average quality.

    The increasing prices.

    The society moving towards allocating sought after bottles into packages. So if you really want that bottle you have to pay more and get another bottle you probably weren’t that interested in.

    If anyone asks me about joining the SMWS? I tell them that unless they live near one of the bars and can try before they buy. Then don’t bother. As an online customer there’s much better value in just buying independent bottlings of single cases from the IBs out there like Cadenheads, Signatory, North star, Adelphi etc.

    That’s what I feel anyway. I’m sure some people may disagree.

    1. Avatar
      Andrew says:

      I’m very muc approaching this point in my first year of Membership. I’ve seen nothing that makes me glad I’m a member as yet and have bought a total of 4 bottles so far.

      It’s looking unlikely that I’ll get a chance to visit a member rooms due to Covid (and distance to travel) which is a shame as I’d have liked to punch that ticket but that’s by the by.

      I’ve enjoyed bottles from other indies already that were better than anything I’ve had from SMWS already and the process of buying them was much less painful.

      1. Jason
        Jason says:

        HI Andrew

        From what I hear, membership in the UK is falling. The SWMS focus a lot on advertising and bringing in new customers, but the retention is weak. If you have a boat with a slow leak, you can toss out water forever, or you can take the proactive decision to reach the shore and do a long-term repair.

        New customers won’t stay and will jump overboard within a year or two if something isn’t delivering. As a member and an observer, some new leadership and direction are required otherwise the SMWS will just be a short-term experience for many, who soon discover that other indies offer more.

        Cheers, Jason.

    2. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Dan

      Thanks for commenting and I do expect you’re in the realm of what many would say about their disappointing SMWS membership experience. It’s along similar lines to what I would say in general.

      Even with 3 venues nearby to me, I’d still suggest caution. Post-COVID, do I want to visit a bar in general (not just an SMWS venue?), which let’s be honest, have varying standards of cleanliness. Difficult times for us all.

      The SMWS has remained fairly stagnant. Selling a membership-experience, when the single market for whisky has grown up and changed around it. The indies you mention are delivering releases that are well priced, varied and don’t require a membership.

      The market is so competitive and the current SMWS model needs revamped and a new bottle design doesn’t do cut the mustard.

      Cheers, Jason.

    3. Avatar
      The Lowlander says:

      Dan, you’re not the only one who feels this way. I’ve certainly made the same points in the comments section on Jason’s SMWS reviews.

      If I didn’t live nearby to one the tasting venues, I would have ended my membership a long time ago. As an on-line member it simply isn’t worth it. Even with access to the tasting rooms, the cost of drams are pretty expensive, almost £5 the last time I was in there! It’s a shame they don’t run the old “Red dram Monday” type promotions between Tue-Thu as per the new Licensing laws. Also, just little things like withdrawing complimentary tea and coffee, the quality of the paper/material used for the Outturn magazine (yes, members notice this cost-cutting) while not major, just make it obvious there’s cost cutting going on behind the scenes and for what, paying more for less?

      I’ll repeat what I’ve stated in the past, the management need to get a grip on the following:

      1. Cask quality and reasonable bottle prices – As mentioned above, they are plenty of other indy bottlers offering much better value for money these days.

      2. Have more whiskies 12-18 age bracket – Nothing against young whisky, but most of the releases are single year these days.

      3. Better pricing at the bars – having more than a couple of drams is a very expensive luxury at The Vaults and Queen Street nowadays. Its always a bit pricey, but you always got a quality dram. Nowadays, you feel ripped off when you pay £6.50 for a very lacklustre dram. (Also, bring back the mustard mayo with chips! 😀 )

      If they could do just these three changes, I’m sure a lot of former members would return back to the SMWS.

      As a sidenote, they should get away from these deals they’ve done with Hotel Du Vin and other partners to keep a higher availability of the whisky for the membership. After all isn’t that the purpose of being a member of the SMWS?

      It’ll be interesting to see what changes are made after the survey they’ve conducted. So far, it just seems to be a concentration of how to purchase bottles on-line rather than focusing on the core products and the venues.

      If any SMWS management do read this message, please stop spending money on refurbishing the venues every few years, stop rebranding your corporate identity and bottle designs and useless lapels too. There’s no need, people are/were members to buy the whisky inside the bottle, not based on some fancy label. In some ways, this is what made the society refreshing as it didn’t make a big song and dance above fancy labelling. It was always about the content inside the bottle.

      Perhaps I’m becoming a minority with this view and the SMWS get a lot of new custom from new members to effectively let go of the “legacy” type of members who perhaps don’t make them as much money for them now as they did 10 years ago.

      I’m willing to give them a chance to see if they seriously take on the feedback on board (I personally know a few current members who e-mailed pretty much a carbon copy of what I’ve written) and turn things around.

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