Subscription services are two a penny these days. I am just about old enough to remember the only two subscriptions we had when I was young, which were to the local milkman and newsagent. The milk was the first to go in favour of the volume and value offered by supermarkets. The paper was next, in an effort to reduce clutter and waste, and replaced by a ‘wireless’ as my Dad would insist on calling it, even though it was already digital at that point, I think. These days, I am not sure many of us would be able to recall all the subscriptions we are signed up for, our lives are so entangled in and supported by them, whether for entertainment, food or information.
Booze is just one more option out there, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. It is literally just a question of choosing your poison, and then deciding how often you want it delivered. Perhaps you are one of those masochists who lives to uncover the most bitter and hoppy IPA known to man, most likely brewed in a Shoreditch bathtub, or perhaps discovering new pink gins is what tickles your fancy. Whatever your peccadillo, you can bet that there is a monthly box just a click away, and that includes whisky of course.
Whisky subscriptions are not new, but I have never really paid them much attention, that is until Covid times. I am fortunate to live a short jaunt away from a great variety of whisky shops and bars where I can pick and choose as the mood takes me, and so I have never felt the need to have a mystery box arrive every month. It was not until everywhere shut up shop that I realised just how spoilt I am here, and how different it must be for whisky fans who do not have the luxury of living within close proximity of a whisky watering hole. I was amazed at the huge variety of different whisky delivery services that appeared to pop up, seemingly from nowhere, including some of the aforementioned bars that were being forced to adapt, though I grant not strictly as subscription services. I am sure that many of these existed beforehand, however, they were now in their elements, no longer just a background white noise, they were the only way to bring the bar home. Looking ahead, with the shift in urban and rural living that we are seeing, and less emphasis or need placed on office spaces, I think that we will only see a growing need for these online delivery services.
What of the options? Just as with your quadruple hopped bombastic imperial IPA packs, there seems to be a whisky option out there for everyone, from monthly mystery 70cl bottles, to pouches that resemble baby food and should really come with a warning because that is an accident definitely waiting to happen, to your classic 3cl dram selection. I perused many of these options during my enforced Covid downtime, and came to the steadfast conclusion that the classic dram selection would only ever be my preferred choice, should I take the plunge. Despite getting into blind tastings this year, and really enjoying them, I am not a gambling man; I do not think that I can handle a full bottle of something that I do not end up liking. I also enjoy the thought and research that goes into buying a bottle, it is very much part of the enjoyment process; I like to stalk my prey beforehand. For the same reason, I have never been able to pick up a crappy crime novel in an airport WHSmith’s. The baby food pouches are also a big no-no for me. No matter how sturdy a shipping option they might provide, or what dazzling liquid treasure might lurk within, they are a crime against design and the human retina. I would sooner be seen rocking a Scrote’N’Tote (google it) than be seen pouring a dram from a pouch. No, I think simple is best, and a sensible little assortment of drams in their glass cocoons is just the ticket.
As it so happens, Master of Malt has recently launched just such a subscription service come club, Pour & Sip, and I have very kindly been sent a preview box. The expected price of entry was a few social media pictures, some hashtags, and a few empty words of encouragement. This is not really my style, and given these subscriptions have been on my mind, and their importance during these strange times, I thought I might be able to muster something a little more comprehensive, and so here we are with a review for MALT. I can only assure you that my judgements will remain as unbiased as possible. So, what is the premise? Well, for a monthly cost of £29.95 you will receive five 3cl drams delivered to your door, along with some tasting notes and some extra information about what it is you are drinking.
In your first box, you will also receive two Glencairn’s. You can then taste away at your leisure or, where the club aspect starts to come in, you can tune in and taste along with some Pour and Sip representatives online. Membership will also give you access to discounts on full-sized bottles, which is a welcome bonus if you enjoyed a particular sample and have a thirst for more. There are also some blog posts for entertainment, and no doubt there will be all sorts of other exclusive perks and engaging material to vie for your attention. I did have one final all-important question, which is at whom is this service aimed, as there is quite a spectrum of drinkers from the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newcomer, looking to expand beyond the supermarket shelf, to ye olde time seasoned whisky geek, who was older drinking Port Ellen as a daily sipper back when it was £50 a bottle, and still has a few cases of Brora stashed under the stairs. Unsurprisingly, the diplomatic official line is that this is a subscription for everyone, ‘whether you are new to whisky’ ‘or a seasoned connoisseur’. I guess we shall find out soon enough. All in all, though, it sounds an attractive proposition on paper, which is why I opted for a chance to take it for a test drive, so let us see what has turned up by way of drams.
Mackmyra Grönt Te – review
Bottled at 46.1%, this has been finished in casks seasoned with Oloroso sherry and green tea leaves. Available from Master of Malt for £52.95.
Colour: Apple juice.
On the nose: An unusual nose. Strong pine sap, rubber and a whiff of sherry. I do not dislike it, but it is strange. Ginger snap biscuits, clove and cinnamon. Icing sugar, melon sweets and cheap air freshener. Totally and utterly bizarre. Better with water. Orange blossom honey, juicy red grapes and sponge cake.
In the mouth: A nice mouthfeel, sticky and resinous. Clove studded orange, crystallised ginger and cinnamon. A very light touch of dried fruits macerated in sherry. More pine sap and oak in the finish. Water brings a longer finish with sherry and orange notes lingering.
I am lost, this is bizarre. I do not dislike it, but I do not like it either. I certainly do not want a bottle, but there is something of interest there too, more so on the palate. Perhaps it is the rubber and air freshener combo that I am not too keen on, but that pine sap is a bit over the top too. It is not balanced that is for sure. This is one for those seeking the unusual, otherwise, it is about middling on a good day.
Bunnahabhain 12 year old – review
Bottled at 46.3%, this features ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. Available almost everywhere, but also from Master of Malt for £39.95.
On the nose: Sea breeze, liquorice and muscovado sugar. Boozy raisins and candied peel. There is an indescribable funk in the background that I can never put my finger on, but I think is classic Bunna. It is musty, dusty and oaky. It is probably what others refer to as dunnage. With water ripe apples and freshly laundered linen.
In the mouth: Full-bodied and oily. Heavier sherried fruits now, with some dates and figs alongside the raisins. 60% chocolate, allspice and ginger prickle. Orange peel, apple skins and sea salt coming through for a long finish. I have added water, just for you, but I do not really want to. It takes water well, smoothing the transitions between flavours, and finishing with more citrus, but I think I still prefer it without.
THAT is how you do ‘entry level’ whisky. My word is it good, and one of those where you forget just how good it is until you revisit it. Prices in the Distell stable have recently skyrocketed, and I am completely priced out, which is sad and frustrating. This whisky is a small consolation prize, however, and I can only hope that it stays just as good, and just as good value. Shop around and you will sometimes even find it on offer for under £30! One that should always be on a home bar.
Legent Bourbon – review
Bottled at 47%, this is matured in charred virgin casks. Portions are then finished in California red wine casks and ex-sherry casks, before blending them all together. Available via Master of Malt for £47.95.
On the nose: Toffee and vanilla as you would expect. Sandalwood and eucalyptus oil. Potpourri. With water some perfume perhaps.
In the mouth: Reasonable mouthfeel. Quite a lot of bitter oak and char. Chilli spice, nutmeg and cinnamon. Burnt sugar, eucalyptus, more mouth-numbing spice, and more bitter oak. With water, the mouth-numbing spice is tamed, but the harsh bitterness remains, as well as an artificial caramel sweetness.
I detect absolutely no hints whatsoever that this has seen anything but very heavily charred wood. The bitterness and spice are completely overpowering, with the little sweetness behind it feeling artificial, perfumey and, dare I say it, verging on the soapy. It was going to be a 3, but then I realised that I would go a long way to avoid ever drinking this again. The price is irrelevant here because you could not pay me to drink this again.
Teeling Brabazon #3 – review
Bottled at 49.5%, this 14 year old whisky is finished in PX for over 3 years. Master of Malt has this for £89.95.
On the nose: Black treacle, fluffy sponge cake, buttercream. All manner of chocolate-covered fruits and nuts; I am reminded of chocolate florentines. With water thick, almost not runny, honey. Apple slices dipped in that honey.
In the mouth: Creamy and rich. Chocolate covered raisins, figs, toffee sauce, spiced apple pie. Cinnamon, honey and sticky PX sherry; no surprise there! Apple cores in the finish. With water, it is sweeter and spicier in the finish, but no new flavours develop.
I had a sample of this previously that I did not enjoy, so I am glad to be able to taste this again. On this occasion, I find it quite different and much improved. It is a dessert dram, I will say that, and though I have a sweet tooth I tend to find PX whiskies a little too sweet and unbalanced. This manages to just about provide a little more of interest beyond that PX sweetness. In terms of price, it is on the high side, but all discussion of price is a little upside down these days. I cannot say that I will be rushing to buy one, but if you choose to, I do not think that you will be disappointed.
Balvenie 14 year old The Week of Peat – review
Bottled at 48.3% – pretty self-explanatory, for a week a year the distillery produces peated spirit using Speyside peat. This is available almost everywhere but Master of Malt will demand £64.95.
Colour: Hazy gold.
On the nose: Peach cobbler, ripe apricots, dried apples. Coal dust, wood smoke and boot polish. Oatcakes and honey. With water bitter lemon.
In the mouth: Apples, ripe peaches and a heavy dose of oak. Cracked black pepper, lemon and honey. Dry smoky peat. A good long finish of wood smoke and black pepper. Plenty of bitter oak in the aftertaste. With water, it becomes thinner, but it does smooth out some of the spice and bitterness. Bitter lemon pith in the finish.
Disjointed, sadly, as I was very much looking forward to trying it. It feels as though there are two whiskies trying to fight it out here, one light, floral and fruity, the other spicy and smoky, and for some reason, they are not gelling together. A very heavy oaky undertone does not help matters either. The more I taste it the less it speaks to me. One to drink without thinking about it too much, and there is certainly better out there for the price.
I have given my thoughts on the individual drams, but where does that leave us in terms of the subscription service? I have to say, I cannot think of a single criticism! It was a great feeling of suspense not knowing what would show up, and a pleasant surprise on opening the box to find whiskies in a wide range of styles and from a variety of regions. I enjoyed tasting and critiquing several drams that I absolutely would not pick from a bar shelf, which appeals to the lucky dip blind tasting side of me, without the risk or commitment of a full bottle of something that ends up gathering dust or being sacrificed in failed cocktails. Should you fall in love with a dram, there is a discount on a bottle ready to push you over the edge.
The presentation is unpretentious, and the little tasting cards with information and notes, should you want to compare, are a nice touch. In terms of audience, I think that they have done as well as they possibly could. Despite the corporate line, there is simply no way that you can cater to the whole spectrum of whisky drinkers out there, not unless you went completely blind to really challenge perceptions and palates. Now there is a thought! I am not sure how impressed the Brora and Port Ellen drinking aficionado would feel about drinking that Legent Bourbon. You never know though, perhaps the bizarre Mackmyra would have them questioning their ideals (but pretty unlikely). I am sure that this service is aimed more at the younger crowd, both demographically and in terms of experience, tomorrow’s whisky drinkers if you will. I cannot tell you how this stacks up against other similar services, but if you are looking to broaden your horizons a little each month then I do not think that you would go wrong here, especially when factoring in the outlay which, at £6 a dram, to bring the bar home to the sofa, leaves very little to complain about indeed.
There are some commission links above if you wish to buy a bottle. There are plenty of subscription services out there, so it pays to look around.