Now that we got that elephant in the room escorted out, I’m back – and it wasn’t just the prospect of free whisky that lured me into the light. Well not completely.
Anyway, there’s been numerous reasons why I’ve eased into the shadows of Malt; loitering in the wings alongside Jason’s consignment of IrnBru and Adam’s discarded apple crates. Most of all, though, is factoring in my position in life as a representative of another company as discussed earlier. I had been very careful, as I eased ever more into a life of a High Priest of Terroir, to be seen to respect other companies. I think when you are a company representative, a bit of self-awareness goes a long way. It isn’t just not cool to slag off a distillery with another distillery name pinned above your moniker, no. You look like a clown for doing so.
There is a lot of soulless spirit out there, I think it’s fair to say; a lot of great too, but a lot of whiskies that are made in a similar way, to a similar specification, and placed in similar barrels. Fine. I do not gain extra cool points nor days at the end of my life for criticising what will simply float by, unremarked upon by many, and besides, I’m not much interested in writing about them.
See, one of the things is, working within new wave of distilleries, that I have slightly recalibrated my senses. A lot of new global distilleries – Smogen, Cotswold, Chichibu if it still counts, and Bimber to name a few – have very interesting, flavoursome spirits (pre-wood, an amusing innuendo-infused word to type) and I get more excited when I see their names on a bottle. I’m not the only Malt scribe to feel this way about Bimber, as the distillery has been served well of late. (For production wonkery, see Adam’s marvellous post. But suffice to say they are technically doing the right things to make delicious spirit, and we heartily approve.)
As an evil marketing guy, I do still have some slightly legitimate things to add above and beyond production facts. For example, I find it interesting that Bimber states “Single Malt London Whisky” and not English Whisky on the label. That instantly makes me wonder if there is any regulation in English whisky labelling? Imagine trying to get Single Malt Edinburgh Whisky past the SWA! Are they making a distinction deliberately? (The purist pedant – we can’t have this be a complete Bimber love fest – in me thinks: if your raw ingredients come from Hampshire, admirably more local than most, then “English” whisky would remain the fairer description, rather than “London”?)
There’s an awful lot of single cask releases coming out of Bimber, too. A glance at Whiskybase’s listings and there’s tons of test and small batches, minute runs, exclusives (all retailers want their own exclusive whisky). And that leads me to my next point, about brand – which, as Jeff Bezos famously states, is what people say about you when you’re not in the room. That feeling you’re left with; that hard-to-fathom relationship; it’s not much scrutinised in whisky industry circles, which I believe tends to mistake sales activity and events for brand and specifically branding, the special sauce way beyond sales and logos, only some of which can be under the company’s control. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that for the most part, “Scotch whisky” is the brand – based on industry marketing – and a good number of distilleries are sub-divisions of that overall brand, merely with different stop-off points on the tourist trail. There isn’t a great deal of individuality, distinct relationships with drinkers.
When I think of Bimber now, I can’t help but feel that there are an awful lot of unopened bottle photographs online, and there are many bottles appearing at auction. It’s a similar situation for Daftmill: they have become catnip for collectors and auction fauna. This is a shame. A shame as Bimber is one of those distilleries I would consider is certainly for drinking rather than collecting. Small runs get snaffled quite quickly – but does it build a legacy for a distillery when people can’t actually get their hands on the whiskies to any significant degree, to taste, to enjoy, to discuss? (We’ve seen it all before with Chichibu, which in Japanese is now translated as frustration.)
I worry about this, too, for the obvious personal reasons. I tend to believe this world of unopened bottles sitting in darkened auction warehouses could be detrimental to some smaller distilleries in the long run, because no one is able to talk about the spirit itself. The whiskies become merely bottles; and bottles are merely objects collected – trinkets, like trading cards or ceramic pots. Not the coolest brand projection. I can’t imagine any distillery would willingly want itself to perceived on par with those things – least of all Bimber – but what they do? Bigger bottlings are certainly something; not easy, especially given smaller outputs. For Bimber is it about a barrel a day?
Anyway, all things to ponder, and if I had a point it would be: c’mon, ladies, gents and those betwixt, let’s open those bottles, yes?
Speaking of which, let’s open some. On today’s line up of mostly single cask Bimber, plus a smaller vatting, Adam also joins us. Because if you mention English whisky thrice, he is automatically summoned. And because Jason lives in constant fear of English whisky encroaching on Scottish turf, he has ghoulishly spirited himself into the tasting too.
Bimber Sherry Cask #42 – 58.1% ABV – Mark’s Review
Colour: old oak. Very dark! Christ.
On the nose: oof, talk about an active barrel. Some very intense burnt toffee notes, cloves, vanilla (perhaps more like virgin oak – US oak). Nutmeg and cigar boxes. A hint of furniture polish. Then stacks of dried fruits (and I mean as if we’re playing supermarket sweet in the produce section): dried cranberries and raisins, with dates and morello cherries. Then at the very end, this wonderfully old rose note.
In the mouth: of course, you need a good, robust spirit to take a pounding from a cask like that and this is what we’ve got here. Oily, incredibly spicy. What this needs is a lot of time to rest, to breathe; and a dash of water to really kick into life. Cola, muscovado sugar, prunes, dates, damson chutney, a rich autumnal delight. If I had a criticism it would be that its identity has been lost a little by such a vibrant cask, but that’s the gamble you take with wood like this. A bone-warmer.
On the nose: Outrageous. Pure sherry bomb. In both the higher tones – balsamic vinegar, salty parma ham – as well as the heinously decadent – dark chocolate, plum jam, the burnt outside of a fruitcake. It’s great sherry – a wonderfully clean cask – but mining for distillate’s a stretch. Just a bit of stone fruit and that Bimber orange poking through.
In the mouth: So indulgent. Can feel my teeth rotting. Chocolate fudge, brown sugar, toffee sauce and fruitcake mix. All flabéed together for a light char. A touch more balsamic. Texturally the richest yet, and tremendously tasty, but fullness of body aside this is almost entirely about cask. Could be one of a number of bi-boned spirits underneath. So it’s a lovely drink, but it’s not what I’d call a classic Bimber. (Can you have “classic” anything when it’s only existed less than a year? Let’s say yes.)
On the nose: no doubt what type of cask this is whatsoever. Used black tea leaves, spent tobacco and cocoa. Wholemeal bread, ginger snaps, molasses and walnut wood. Dark and intense, this has been totally dominated by the cask.
In the mouth: the texture is the first thing that strikes you and then a big dollop of sherry, which erodes the Bimber distillate. Treacle, liquorice, chocolate, dates and walnuts. It’s clean and there’s no burn whatsoever, but I cannot help but feel I’m being force-fed leather. An acceptable drying aspect and spicy marzipan rounds off the least Bimber whisky of the ones I’ve tasted for this article.
Bimber Ex-Bourbon Batch 1 – 51.8% ABV – Mark’s Review
Colour: amber. A good healthy colour.
On the nose: there’s a curious, and pleasing, industrial, charcoal note beyond the very light vanilla. Golden syrup. Lemon sponge cake, a quite delightful lime marmalade note. Creamy fudge. Very clean aromas.
In the mouth: very pleasing texture, good spirit, silky delivery of some quite light flavours. Milk chocolate, custard creams. Green apples and some slight vegetative notes. Blackcurrants, and a quite short finish. One year more, and I think this would really be singing. (I didn’t say that about the sherry cask, which was a more lively affair.)
(Just Mark with this sample although Adam and Jason did try it for this article)
Bimber Virgin Oak #7 – 57.8% ABV – Mark’s Review
Colour: tawny. Active wood, as you’d expect.
On the nose: not the vanilla bomb one might expect. Yes, some mild caramel, blackcurrants, cherries. Indeed it feels a little closed off (the ABV – a dash of water then!). Hazelnuts, or sweeter: toasted almonds, with some slight medicinal streak.
In the mouth: sweet cherries tends to lead this for me, before it drifts to tarter redcurrants, even pineapple. Some maltiness under the layers of caramel. Spicy indeed, chili pepper and coriander, then cloves on the finish. Pleasing, but I don’t think the Bimber spirit is suited to virgin oak versus the other wood types here.
On the nose: A cousin to American rye, here. Vanilla, sawmill, caramel, nutmeg and black pepper. Dry rub spices. There’s a dunnage earthiness, too. Brown sugar and burnt orange peel. A little high-toned menthol. Just another big, clean, expressive nose. Oak’s taking the tiller hand, but it’s still Bimber underneath.
In the mouth: Delicious. Nutmeg and milk chocolate concentrate, spiced with loads of black pepper and toast. It’s a good job that spiciness is there because this could get very sweet otherwise. More of that branflakey malt and a lot of caramel. The alcohol is very pokey, but the spirit’s enormous, oily body goes some way to sitting on it. Would I peg this as definitively Bimber in a lineup? Not sure. But it’s very good.
Colour: Caledonian cider – that bottle Adam sent me.
On the nose: dazzlingly fruity. Like Tormore on steroids and it does remind me of Daftmill in parts. Lovely. Raisins, dates, figs and nutmeg. Haggis chocolate (yes there is such a thing), malted loaf, sweet cinnamon now and tobacco. Let’s not overlook the worn varnish either and I’m not talking about Tweed’s table.
In the mouth: sadly, not as dazzling as the nose otherwise ladies and gentlemen, we’d be in 8 or 9 territory. Pleasant. More cinnamon and dried and fruits. Figs, vanilla and a little drying in parts with some honeycomb. I could nose this all day, but sadly the palate isn’t quite there yet.
Ex-Bourbon Cask #8 – 58.3% ABV – Mark’s Review
Colour: deep copper – pretty impressive colour for the cask.
On the nose: a classic single malt in bourbon vibe, but so much more advanced for its years. Sweet, creamy vanilla custard. Sandalwood and nutmeg. Marzipan towards the end.
In the mouth: oh that’s just lovely. A typically silky delivery of sharp citrus and warm, gooey vanilla. Golden syrup spone cake. Dried hops, a little of that IPA vibe. Dried apricots and a little distant, metallic industrial note, the kind of Springbank note that lingers. Splendid stuff.
On the nose: Lovely stuff. Wood and fudge and orchard fruit – everything in big but well-defined harmony. So fulsome that the aromas seem to envelop the fire of the booze fumes. Werther’s originals, muscovado sugar and honey. A little eucalyptus. There’s a metallic tang and a good bit of well-fired crême brulée.
In the mouth: Big, ripe, mouth-slathering body. Remains the most texturally decadent distillate in the modern business. Fresh peaches and clementines in toffee sauce and vanilla custard. A little baked apple in cinnamon. There’s a touch of fire towards the back but this is a rich, pudding joy that shows cask and spirit deliciously.
Colour: more cider.
On the nose: fruity but lacks the complexity of the virgin cask. Honey, caramel and a light brown sugar remind us of the bourbon influence with flashes of blueberries and varnish.
In the mouth: nice, but that’s it. Just nice. I was expecting more, but you have to remember the age of this stuff, so it is impressive. There’s toffee, resin, orange, cider vinegar and blackcurrant. Some sweet cinnamon and a gentle vanilla creaminess.
It’s best when playing around with these single casks: mixing them up, seeing what works best. Over 50% of the ex-bourbon, a dash of virgin oak and a dash of sherry oak, is rather more pleasing. But these three different faces of Bimber are all very pleasing. Perhaps only the virgin oak lacks the nuance of the others, but it’s still fun.
Peering across at Adam’s homework below, I am very much in agreement – especially that note on the texture, which nudges Bimber into being the most interesting of the English whiskies out there. Or, should I say the most interesting of the London whiskies out there?
I see too many unopened bottles of Bimber online. Given the distillery consistently pleases this very jaded palate of mine, I really hope more drinkers manage to elbow the collectors out the way the next time these very small volume releases go online.
Or, as I highlight merely three paragraphs above, Bimber might one day look at putting more of these marvellous casks together, producing a whisky that oozes X% more sophistication, and at a more accessible scale? I am sure it’s in the plans somewhere, but it ain’t easy in this business.
Bimber are about absolutely stuffing their whiskies with flavour. Slow, deliberately made, enormous spirit aged in really good, active oak. All of these are wonderful, but where the ex-Bourbon ascended into the 8-plus club (the real measure of whether we love something on Malt) was in showing off a great cask, but one that really heroed the spirit.
Much as I loved the other two – and remember that 7 remains a “very good” here – they show off the risk with really active single casks. Both are, to differing extents, just starting to mask the distillate. (Though there’s no hiding the insane quality of that texture – it’s as good as any you’ll find in the UK). To my mind this is where vatting becomes important – allowing those big casks to be a part of a more complex whole that shows off the essence of a distillery’s character. But I’m being picky, because Bimber are so routinely impressive that I have come to expect greatness. There’s a reason these folk sell their whiskies out so fast.
As ever, I look forward to the day when Bimber has sufficient stock to make larger-scale vattings across differing cask types. But these will keep me more than happy in the meantime.
Whaaaaat? They want me to comment on the Bimber fan article?
Seriously, I really loved the nose on the virgin cask. It took me back a few decades with the fruitiness and interplay. The palate not so much, but still, better than the SMWS drams I had later that evening by a country mile.
The Ex-Bourbon Cask #8 is a lesser relation and I felt it needed longer. There’s a big demand for Bimber and bills to pay I’m sure, but they shouldn’t be selling off the crown jewels just yet. Maybe I’m just fussy? I’m sure there are some comments above about dour Scotsmen. With time and a more patient approach, we’d be looking at something far better. Oh, and I wouldn’t pay the asking price of nearly £80. That’s flipper and investor pricing – not for those looking to have a drink. Although, looking at the secondary market for this type of stuff, who can blame Bimber for putting up prices? I’m not sure there’s a solution to the madness we’re currently seeing. I’ll just drink Ben Nevis instead.
But distilleries have to do more to combat the problem and by this, I mean not fanning the flames and embedding the belief that unopened bottles, or a parade of, are acceptable. Take a stand. Don’t repost pictures on social media of others showing off an unopened Bimber, Waterford, Daftmill or whatever. After all, you’ve worked hard to create that liquid, but for many of the bottles out there going unopened, you might as well have poured some cold tea from the staff canteen into the bottles instead. Onlookers will take note, including many who have been unsuccessful in trying to purchase a bottle to actually open it. Ironically, I know the lead images here look unopened, but in Mark’s defence, he sent me a full sample of the Bimber, meaning he had to open his bottle to do the review.
As for the sherry cask, this is the outcome if Adelphi bottles Bimber. Really, there’s no need for it. All the qualities of the fruity distillate have been blasted into sherry-lala-land. And while the whisky has become a nice enough sherried exponent, in reality, it could have come from a number of distilleries. Less is more. Active casks need to be managed or avoided. It’ll keep the sherry fiends happy enough, but on the basis of these whiskies, Bimber works best with ex-bourbon or virgin wood and best of all with… an opened bottle.
Note: transparency, as ever, obliges us to reveal that all of this delightful whisky was dropped on our doormat free of charge.
P.S. Open your bottles.