‘When you work hard all day with your head and know you must work again the next day what else can change your ideas and make them run on a different plane like whisky?’*
Our independent bottlers are facing various challenges right now. There’s demand, but it must be said, only for certain types of releases i.e. peated, heavily sherried or the secondary market fodder. I’ve spoken to a couple of indies recently and they’ve all had various thoughts and opinions. Their voices highlighted several similarities such as the increased cost of casks. Particularly those from the more prized distilleries, which isn’t a surprise but it gets to the point where some have to walk away as a ridiculous price is agreed elsewhere.
The knock-on effect of official ranges is making things more turbulent in the marketplace. Cadenhead’s recently released a 31 year old Fettercairn, which was knocking on £300. I can remember about 18 months ago they released a slightly younger expression for just £126. Now, maybe, they overpaid for this new cask. But everyone is aware of the attempts to reposition the distillery as a more of a luxury item with the 28yo coming in a laughable £450. How often do these older expressions sell-out instantly via Cadenhead’s, only for some bottles to reappear elsewhere?
There are also growing rumours that Diageo is clamping down on the use of their casks. Only approving certain potential buyers and shunning others. Perhaps nothing too new there, but also limiting who these companies actually sell the casks onto. Some brokers may have been blacklisted, including the use of their warehouse and bottling facilities. Apart from being an issue of control, it is also tackling the growing fever around private casks and the traceability of casks that head to an auction, or leave the UK. If true, then it will have an impact on the growing independent sector and is probably worth an article in its own right.
For many years, indies were seen as a vital source of a more natural representation of a distillery. The reliable option to purchase that significantly aged – for instance – Fettercairn without having to live on baked beans and toast for the remainder of the month. They still are to a certain extent, but some releases from various companies lately have matched official pricing, if not surpassed it. Douglas Laing for instance recently released a Ledaig that went over £100 for a teenage whisky, whereas Cadenhead’s a couple of months ago released a comparable single cask for as well for £30 less. My growing concern is that the opportunities that were granted to me several years ago to explore and build up experiences, won’t exist for those coming into whisky without a sizeable disposable income. Those whiskies with prolonged maturation are already lost too many enthusiasts; should we fear that teenage single casks are next?
Some indies have been around for generations, and these will have laid down their maturing stock. They might not need to enter the broker market on a regular basis for inventory. Thereby avoiding competing on the basis of buying to sell in a short period. They’ve been fortunate to have bought youthful casks before prices skyrocketed and waited for the moment to bottle. Even so, they are faced with that decision of bottling (when ready) the cask either a) based on their pricing model, or b) taking advantage of the current market forces and higher premium which some are willing to pay. Resulting in a difficult choice and one made tougher when the said bottles appear on the secondary market.
I’m just mentioning this generally, as it’s not specific to the Thompson Brothers, who price comparatively well compared to others in the marketplace. But the 31 year old Dailuaine pictured above (and reviewed below), was coming in at £265 and seemed fair for a distillery you rarely see at this age. Problem being, there are too many tempting releases out there right now. So, I went down another route and one that is becoming increasingly prevalent amongst enthusiasts i.e. splitting the bottle.
So, enough of me. We’re jumping into the reviews and thanks to Dornoch for providing these samples. These came in waves with an initial batch of 4 being followed by another cluster. And 2 of which are under press embargo, so we might have 6 or 8 reviews depending on when we publish this, so please read on…
Thompson Bros. Auchroisk 1989 – review
This Refill Sherry Puncheon (potentially a Manzanilla cask), was bottled at 31 years of age at 44.9% strength. An outturn of 122 bottles was produced retailing for £265.
On the nose: in a word, age. Spent tobacco, hazelnuts and plastic leather with figs and a rich toffee. Golden syrup, a delicate layer of red berries, dried reeds, nougat and fudge. Time in the glass reveals more of the fruit element and cereals that we Auchroisk is associated with. So, apples, orange peel and a touch of salt.
In the mouth: a waft of cigar smoke, more Highland toffee and a stewed black tea. Small button mushroom with the earthy debris still attached, a nutty nougat, it’s gentle and refined, a leather shammy with shortbread and chocolate. A lovely balance between the distillate and the sherry cask.
Thompson Bros. Early Landed, Late Bottled ‘Brandy’ 1993 – review
This French distillate was bottled at 27 years of age at 52.3% strength. An outturn of 409 bottles was produced retailing for £75.
On the nose: an elegant assortment of plums, soaked raisins, chocolate hazelnuts and a touch of Turkish Delight. Burnt cinnamon, sticky fruit loaf, rum fudge and candied orange.
In the mouth: peppery, brown sugar, more raisins, chocolate, stewed apple, aniseed, chocolate and 5-spice. Not overlooking the red grapes, liquorice and blackcurrants.
Thompson Bros. Dailuaine 1989 – review
This was bottled at 31 years of age with 117 bottles being produced at 48% strength. It’s sold out directly but might be available at other retailers.
Colour: a rich toffee.
On the nose: a waxy maple syrup, there’s a real marriage of the cask and the Dailuaine waxiness, a touch of ginger, Weetabix giving us the cereal aspect, tarragon and honey. Malty it must be said with orange zest, milk chocolate and precision balance coated with that tin layer of wax.
In the mouth: a dark sweet delight with fudge, nougat, chocolate hazelnuts, honey and a layer of cream. An earthy twist midway through with a touch of smoke lingering throughout.
Thompson Bros. Highland Single Malt 1993 – review
This mystery Highland malt was bottled at 27 years of age and 54.1% strength. A wee cat told me it was reracked into a peated cask as well, interesting…
Colour: golden syrup.
On the nose: clammy initially, then fudge and brown sugar. There’s an earthy peat aspect but subtle. Salted caramel, peaches and apple pulp. Floral, croissant dough and pineapples with some lettuce and green peppercorn.
In the mouth: surprisingly chewy, more earthy peat with kindling and some nuttiness. Wholemeal toast, peppercorns, blackcurrant, cardamon and Lapsang Suchong.
Thompson Bros. Jura 1990 – review
This refill American oak hogshead, was bottled at 30 years of age at 46.3% strength. An outturn of 186 bottles was produced retailing for £270.
On the nose: what I can only summarise as fruity murkiness, or what’s becoming Jura funk. Maybe a coastal farmyard vibe? Mahogany, cookie dough and cinnamon bark. A rugged beef jerky, resinous, sandalwood, a rich marzipan, cactus water? It’s another of these twisting and uniquely Jura casks. Pine needles, raw cauliflower and tinned peach juice. Wow, deep breath…
In the mouth: very crisp and clean. Initially, that coastal farmyard again before this disappears and moves into a more woody and chewy realm. Stewed tea, almonds, cinders and blackcurrant. Camphor, clay-ish with smoke and memories of petrichor. Excellent, quite a ride, not as wacky as the Chapter 7 but an elegant statesman and begs the question – why don’t Jura harness these qualities?
Thompson Bros. Sutherland 1996 – review
This whisky comes from a Sutherland distillery, bottled at 24 years of age and 47.2% strength, it has sold out directly and may appear at other retailers.
On the nose: lemon peel, yellow raisins, grapefruit and blood orange. A dulled vanilla, green mango, cooking apples and custard. Chalky in parts. Olive stones, ginger beer of all things a gentle smokey quality.
In the mouth: very pleasant and refined. Tablet, more cooking apples and moments of green mangoes. A vanilla cream, a peppery smoke, crackers and yellow raisins with some wood bitterness midway. A gentle ginger quality, green tea and some waxy fruits but not of the tropical variety, finished off with some orange zest.
Thompson Bros. Bimber 2017 #171 – review
This is bottled at 57.9% strength and is 3 years old. This is the export version. Cask #171 was a 1st fill barrel.
On the nose: all those fruity again, best summarised as a fruity loaf with plenty of spices including cinnamon thrown in. I’m reminded of a Bakewell tart in places as well. There’s caramel, vanilla icing, wafter and mint leaf. Bone China, fudge, varnished wood and beeswax.
In the mouth: less fruit initially, more a chewy toffee dynamic with plenty of wood spice on the menu. Then, the fruits revive and come through nicely. Pine nuts, cinnamon, dried fruits and more mint notes alongside an addictive texture.
Thompson Bros. Bimber 2017 #167 – review
Bottled at 59.2% strength, cask #167 is a 1st fill barrel and this is the UK release.
Colour: worn gold.
On the nose: pinewood, honey, vanilla caramel and plenty of nuttiness. Buttery, banana, beeswax and a biscuit base. Some delicate touches of nutmeg and orange zest. A Crunchie bar? Also Brazil nuts.
In the mouth: more cohesive than the export release. A wholesome texture takes us into an assortment of toffee, mint leaf, vanilla, honey, milk chocolate and figs on the finish. Black peppercorns, fruit scones underlining that dried fruit aspect once again. Damn good, wish I had more to explore.
A strong selection of releases that underlines the growing popularity of this independent bottler. Each ranks well on our scoring system, with a pleasing variety of styles. So, my experience shows, when the Thompson Brothers announce a new release, it pays to take a look at least. Even if some of the older age statements might not be within your price range – noting they are fairly priced generally compared to others – younger releases are also bottled.
I really enjoyed the Auchroisk, it took me back to some of the early 1970s distillates from this distillery. It is more of a workhorse now but releases such as this remind me of that initial promise and the joy of a fine sherry cask. One that is left to work its magic without an emphasis on the brute force that we see in so many sherried whiskies nowadays. A classy dram folks and this is what a sherry cask can achieve.
Jura, Jura, bloody Jura. We’re seeing a couple of these casks hitting the market now. They all have a rich, chewy stream of character with the aforementioned Chapter 7 release still having the edge. I’d put this 30 year old just ahead of the recent Lady of the Glen bottling, but we’re splitting hairs. All in all, we should celebrate their existence and hope there are more of these casks waiting to be bottled.
We do have a bit of fun here around Bimber. Adam does like to prod me with the odd comment and vice versa. We should have more fun in whisky and shake off the suffocating seriousness that some seem to dwell in. So, the Bimber boys are laying down promising stuff. At 3 years of age, both of these releases have more substance than many of the youthful scotches and Irish blue bottles I’ve endured this year. No need for sherry, French wood or whatever the heck premium oak is? Just let that distillate armed with the wooden washbacks shine through. And it does in some considerable style. Cask #167 just feels more complete, but really, at this age, seriously impressive – ok with that Adam?
You may have to resort to a share, or split, to have the whisky experience that you seek above. In the case of the Dailuaine, I’m glad I did. The brandy might not immediately be attractive to whisky enthusiasts for obvious reasons. Yet for the price and the actual liquid, I’d recommend you give it a whirl. The Sutherland/Highland bottlings are good quality, as you’d expect from the distillery. The Bimber I believe, will be a ballot, so I’ll join you in the hope of lady fortune smiling upon us and opening if successful. The dark horse of the bunch is the Auchroisk with an excellent sherry cask. Whatever your preference, we all hope that you open and enjoy your purchase.
Thanks to the Thompson Brothers for samples and some of the bottle photographs.
*quote from Ernest Hemmingway on his love of alcohol in a letter PPS.