July 28th was a momentous day for me. Three months on from a roundup of samples featured in a virtual Bimber tasting, the effects of my humble, yet honest, opinion ripple on. Our very own apostle of apples has inaccurately, but rather deliciously, styled me as a ‘wilful controversialist’, for not toeing the party line and acquiescing to the opinions of the ‘most discerning and respected of critics’. I am truly flattered! You know you have made it to the big leagues when a fellow whisky-waffler calls you out for a difference of opinion. Who knows when we might cross paths, but I am looking forward to the occasion when we can meet and waffle in person to our hearts’ content over a dram of Bimber, and perhaps even a cider chaser.
It also led me to think about critics in general, and what makes them so discerning or worthy of our respect. We are at the stage now where brands, consumers and auction houses all wait on tenterhooks for the pronouncement of a score on a new release from their DDC (Designated Discerning Critic), a score that can dictate the success or failure of that release, a score that will influence drinkers’ enjoyment of a product, a score that is completely and utterly meaningless. Let us forget the marketing teams for a moment, and the profit margins for all those speculating and investing, and focus instead on the humble consumer. Tasting notes and scores can only ever be a reflection of one individual’s senses, at one very singular moment in time. They certainly shed light on the likes and dislikes of that individual, however, they provide next to no useful information for you the reader. How can they! It is impossible that you possess identical senses of taste and smell, or that you have eaten the exact same things in the preceding hours, or that you are in the same mood, or climate, or use the same glassware. When it comes to all the factors that affect subjective opinion, it is overwhelmingly likely that you, and the critic you have so closely aligned your tastes too, are infinitely more different than you are similar. It is what makes us all unique human beings after all, and not automatons.
Why, then, do we put so much stock in reviews? Naturally, this is not limited to whisky. For the majority of the decisions we make in life, most of us will first search for reviews and scores. It could be for a book, or a film, a new restaurant, or a new coffee maker. Think about it for a second, what is the last item or experience that you purchased without first reading someone else’s opinion on it? The society we live in today is so filled with variety that we are lost in a world of choices. As a result, it is understandable that we look for a guiding North Star to help us hone in on the final decision of where and how to spend our hard-earned cash. The problem is that we become lulled into a false sense of reality, directed by others’ experiences and opinions as if they were our own. It becomes easy to forget that we can only ever pass judgement on something by first experiencing it for ourselves.
Now, while it may sound as though I am preaching some sort of anti-tech agenda, harking back to simpler times pre-internet, I am certainly not saying that we should ignore the tools at our disposal. The world may be bursting at the seams with variety, but that also results in just as much variation in quality. Time and money are in limited supply, and we simply cannot afford to buy exploding Hotpoint machines and longboat loads of Viking whisky. I joke, of course, yet one of these is easily and objectively evaluated, while the other remains purely subjective. Reviews prove to be very useful guiding tools, especially when one can compare information grounded in fact; a machine, for example, either works as promised or not. But with something that hinges entirely on the senses, we can no longer rely on anyone’s opinion but our own, and I suggest that we would all do well to live a little more spontaneously from time to time. Choose something to watch on Netflix without checking IMDB, walk into a restaurant without a quick look on Google, or pick a whisky just because you fancy giving it a go, or maybe even go completely blind sometimes. Win or lose, it is an exciting and refreshing proposition to step into the unknown and tackle something purely on your own terms.
As I try and gently steer this back towards the whiskies below, you may think that this is all a bit rich coming from someone about to lay down various notes and scores, expecting you to read them. If I think the reviews serve you no useful purpose, why do I bother to write them at all? Without any stake in the industry, for me, the answer is a simple one, for the fun of it! It feels as though fun is distinctly lacking in whisky these days, especially in the realm of reviews. With so much at stake for both whiskies and those reviewing them, from awards, to financial gain, to simply reputation and prestige, it has all become much too serious, filled with biblical characters with large hats, and even larger egos. Even blogs whose very titles include ‘fun’ now feel a bit forced, and rather more like a preview of next month’s auction highs and lows.
There are some exceptions, of course, however, this is certainly what keeps me coming back to MALT, and I imagine many of you too; over 6M of you, in fact, as I write this. Yes, it has reviews and scores, a far more useful scoring system I might add, however, it is so much more than that. There is an ever-growing and varied group of contributors, and while whiskies are certainly being critiqued, any set of notes carries with it some sort of context, or preamble, an opinion, thought or story, which gives the reader a window into a particular writer’s journey. The pieces, as I read them in any case, are not written to provide you with a shopping list, or hot tips on the next big ticket on the auction circuit, they are something to mull over with a morning cuppa, ideally a fun read, serious on occasion mind you, and hopefully engaging enough to inspire a conversation, which is what whisky is really all about, or should be!
In that spirit, let us get on with today’s controversial topic that has spawned such fantastic discussion and varied opinion; Bimber. Everything that needs to be said about Bimber’s history and production methods have been extensively covered already. At this point, all you really need to know is that it is young, bold, experimental and divisive, unless, of course, you are the most discerning of critics. All of which makes for great conversation and tasting experiences. Enter the Southport Whisky Festival organised by Victor and the Southport Whisky Club. A huge variety of tasting packs and bottles were on offer, at excellent prices too. A bonus selling point was that bottle purchases came with the option of a corresponding tasting pack from the brand in question. News spread quickly that one of the special festival releases would be a cask strength ex-bourbon Bimber, their first-ever festival release. Yet to try a pure bourbon Bimber, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. Luckily, I also managed to snag one of the last remaining tasting packs, which is what I have for you here today. Included are four drams; a recent release, a preview of something to come, the festival release, and finally something that, in Matt’s words, ‘may or may not be’. A further mention must go to Victor and the SWC for ensuring as fair a procurement process as could be wished for, the aim being to get bottles into the hands of fans and drinkers, and not the auction houses. Should you want to watch the actual tasting with the SWC and Matt from Bimber, there is a recording of the session on YouTube.
Bimber Ex-Bourbon vatting, Batch #1 – review
Outturn of 1948 bottles, bottled at 51.8% strength. Retailed for £65.
Colour: Lemon haze.
On the nose: A lot of oak. Beneath that, apple and lemon juice. With sometime welcome tropical fruits dominate; pineapple and dried mango. Hints of marzipan, icing sugar and a grassy note. With water it’s all sweet dried tropical fruits, cinnamon, and just a touch of oak now. Inviting.
In the mouth: Neither thin nor rich. Bitter oak is the overarching impression. Faint hints of apples and almonds take a back seat. Lemon rind, sea salt and black pepper in the finish, before more bitterness sets in. Water is not beneficial. Nudged over the fence into a thin mouthfeel, the bitterness remains, although less prominent, however, the flavours become far less coherent.
Bimber Southport Whisky Festival release – review
Bourbon cask #127. Bimber’s first festival release and also their first release of a whisky that has come from their wooden washbacks, bottled at 59.3%. Retailed for £80.
Colour: Raw pine.
On the nose: A punchy nose! Baked vanilla cheesecake, chamomile tea and quince jelly. Off the back of that is a whole pick and mix sweet shop! We have strawberry laces, drumsticks, Haribo starmix and cherry cola bottles. Creamy, fruity notes waft back in with custard apples. Something earthy and herbal in the background, and just a soft touch of oak. With water it is creamier and sweeter. Those strawberry laces dominate in particular.
In the mouth: Oily and viscous, what a delight. Custard apples straight away, with cayenne pepper and cinnamon. A slight but not unpleasant bitterness from over-stewed chamomile tea, oak tannins and orange rind. Fizzy cherry tangfastics in the finish. With water it is creamier and sweeter. Vanilla cheesecake certainly, bags and bags of strawberry sweets, and less citrus bitterness, more lemon sherbet now. A crisper finish overall.
Bimber Ex-Peated Finish – review
Whisky from ex-bourbon casks finished for 4 months in quarter casks used first by Laphroaig and then by Ardmore, bottled at 54.1%.
Colour: Ripe wheat.
On the nose: An intriguing nose. It begins with a mixture of tropical notes and zesty fresh sharpness. Dried apricots, dried mango and tart gooseberry fool. White grapes and earthy tarragon. The subtle peat influence starts to come through with a saline minerality and wet woodsmoke. With time, lime cordial, vanilla and fresh-cut grass. With water more citrus and just a hint of soot.
In the mouth: A good mouthfeel. More peat influence than the nose would suggest. Damp earthy woodsmoke and ash from the off. It intermingles with sweet ripe apples, pears and mango. Lemon and lime sherbet. A gentle pepper spice and charred oak cut through the middle leading the finish. Gentle smoky notes linger in the aftertaste. Water adds a creamier texture and added soot to the peaty proceedings.
Bimber Ex-Port – review
From the same cask as I previously reviewed, bottled at 59.8%.
On the nose: Sandalwood. Forest fruit jam. Some chilli heat. A hint of burnt sugar. No different with water.
In the mouth: See nose.
I am going to start with the bizarre, the ex-port. What a bonkers dram! This is from the same cask that I reviewed as part of the London Whisky Club tasting back in April. I am a sucker for port casks and really enjoyed it then, thinking that I could taste exactly where it was headed. Apparently not. On this occasion, try as I might, I simply could not get beyond the cask. From the tasting, it seemed that even the distillery is intrigued by this one and how it is developing, or where it will end up. Matt mentioned that he would like to see the cask go through a couple of seasons to allow natural temperature fluctuations to work their magic. As it stands it is certainly not ready for bottling, however, it remains a great talking point for tastings, and it will be really interesting to taste it again in a few months time if we are given the chance. Whereas previously I gave this a middle of the road score, I have left this scoreless today, as it has me stumped.
On to the more fathomable, the ex-bourbon vatting. I was looking forward to trying this one having seen it come and go rather quickly. The nose is the star for me, inviting and moreish with those tropical notes. The palate, however, feels like a completely different dram to the promise of the nose, dominated by bitterness. Some nice touches remain, and the mouthfeel neat is certainly an improvement on the other vattings I have tried so far. I would happily sip on this if offered a dram, but I am not sure I would reach for a bottle on my shelf.
The main event, the festival bottle, is exactly what I have been waiting for. An added geeky element here is that previous Bimber releases have all come from a time when the distillery used steel washbacks, whereas this is the first release to have passed through the newer open-top wooden versions. The result is excellent, a herbal sweetshop, punchy and full-bodied with all the mouthfeel I could desire. It takes well to a drop of water also, shifting and revealing new layers. No frills, nothing to hide behind, accomplished beyond its years. As the first of its kind that I have managed to try, it is proof of that undeniable potential in the new make that I so enjoyed in April. I am looking forward to more of the same.
Lastly, the ex-peated finish. At the time of the tasting this was a preview of an impending release. It is excellent. The mouthfeel is very good, not quite as viscous as the cask strength festival bottle, which is to be expected with a reduced abv, however, it is also leagues ahead of any of the other vattings, including the ex-bourbon above. The nose and palate are wonderfully complex and balanced, including those lovely tropical notes once again that I think are such a Bimber trademark. The gentle peat influence has been managed perfectly, which I imagine is rather difficult to get just right. I could nurse this one all evening, which is exactly what I did, and as I did so I signed up to the Klub. From the nose alone I knew this was something I would like to explore further with a full bottle, a large portion of which were released first to Klub members with a 10% discount and limited to one per customer. A nice touch to ensure that as many drinkers and fans could get their hands on a bottle, especially given all the auction madness surrounding recent releases. There was also a further competition run on social media to encourage people to open their bottles by posting a picture for evidence and the hashtag #bimberuncorked, with the promise of access to some rarer Asian releases going to the first 21 to do so. The remainder of the ex-peated will be on sale through various retailers for £75, and have already been and gone on The Whisky Exchange.
A few parting words on pricing, which you will know by now is all-important here on MALT. In my previous tasting round-up I felt that there was a marked divide between the bottle contents, my main issue being the body and mouthfeel, and the asking prices. The new makes and cask strength samples, however, left me hopeful with these final words, ‘I remain optimistic though, these cask strength samples, if bottled at full strength, will go some way to closing that divide.’ It has perhaps come to pass sooner than I expected, but the Southport and ex-peated releases are by far my favourite Bimbers to date, even if only one of them is, in fact, cask strength, which deserves even more credit. Mouthfeel, balance and complexity are all there. While the price tags may still be high on paper, the quality is such that the divide is certainly narrowing. It must still be taken into consideration, however, and it is probably the only thing stopping me from ushering these two into the dizzying heights of the 8+ club. As Jason summarised, it is hard to justify the prices if you are an everyday drinker looking for a whisky to crack open. I agree completely, although I might just see if there is room for these two on the special occasion shelf. Would you believe it? There is!