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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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