‘Compose yourself, Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?’¹
A perfect quote to kick off our coverage of the Artful Dodger and his whiskies. This plucky and inventive backstreet career criminal is an iconic character lifted from a novel full of memorable individuals. Now he’s slightly older and observant of drinking regulations. But still mischievous enough to liberate casks from warehouses and bring some joy to the wider public at large. Artful even has a credo, or guiding belief nowadays:
‘We are a ‘collective’ of professional whisky thieves, dedicated to liberating the world’s rarest casks, freeing them from the lips of the few and releasing to the appreciative. The rarest, most special whiskies do not belong in a dusty distiller’s secret vault, locked away from the deserving. We are sworn to save them, one bottle at a time, and deliver to a select group of like-minded, ethically-challenged individuals.’
This is of course all brand-speak and imagery. The sense that there are gems out there waiting to be unearthed and brought to a wider public is something all whisky enthusiasts dream of. This was the shtick that drink writers Joel Harrison and Neil Ridley adopted into with their Exile Casks² brand in 2015. Things have gone quiet on that front with the Twitter account not posting since late 2017, which might indicate either such gems are increasingly hard to find, or they’re too busy writing about a more deserving spirit…
But the point is still relevant, as many industry professionals will tell you that casks aren’t lost – they exist somewhere and always will. Whether barcoded or on an inventory, casks don’t just vanish. And while I agree, there’s also the mountainous task of trying to follow the progression and development of every cask in the warehouse. They might not be out of sight, but they could become out of mind. It’s just impossible to keep tabs on everything, as more and more casks are wheeled into warehouses. Sure, I’d volunteer to try and give it a shot, but such determination wouldn’t last indefinitely.
Instead, this is where brokers and independents come into their own. Able to take more of risk upon purchasing a cask and having an eager following, willing to try their wares. I spoke recently to Findlay Ross, Director of Production at Springbank, and he underlined the importance of their relationship with Cadenhead’s. An outlet for casks that didn’t fit the distillery profile, whether exceptional or displaying unusual qualities. Such casks would be lost, or not in keeping with the single casks that the distillery releases and instead, Cadenhead’s offered that ability to showcase a deserving whisky.
Back to the Dodger; I know that some of you out there might suggest he’s back to his old tricks, by adopting the 50cl bottle size. I always have mixed thoughts on smaller cl sizes and we always highlight a reduced size on Malt and leave that decision down to you. The key driver in my opinion is always value, so when I’m considering these whiskies, I’ll have to do it on the basis of what the full-sized release is. If we can keep prices accessible and release more bottles to a wider audience, then this is a good thing. Hopefully, more out there will actually open such releases as they are more plentiful and any secondary market value is pushed downwards.
For Malt, we’ve cornered this ruffian and extracted 5 samples from his latest releases to bring you our thoughts…
Artful Dodger Ben Nevis 1998 – review
Bottled at 21 years of age. This resided in a Refill Bourbon Hogshead #674 at 53% abv. Expect to pay around £120 direct for a 50cl bottle. This is available from a wide ranger of retailers including Master of Malt for £119.95.
Colour: light gold.
On the nose: just what you’d hope for given the vintage and distillery – tropical fruits, green mangos and Kiwi fruit. Also some lime, icing sugar and a balanced profile. Coconut and apple pulp also come through nicely.
In the mouth: a lovely balance and sweetness on the palate. More of that coconut and lime on the finish. Polo mints, some ginger beer and vanilla. Also wine gums, white chocolate, white pepper and more fresh and sweet apples.
Artful Dodger Bruichladdich 2010 – review
Distilled on 8th September 2010, and bottled on 2nd March 2020 at 9 years of age. This was resided in a Rivesaltes cask #319291 at 64.2% abv. Expect to pay around £75 direct for a 50cl bottle. This is available from a wide ranger of retailers including Master of Malt for £74.95 and also Tyndrum Whisky for £75.
Colour: bashed copper.
On the nose: rhubarb, chocolate and figs with an ashy woody vibe. Blackcurrant jam, aniseed, vanilla, coffee & walnut cake with a cola cube feel. There’s also fudge with plenty of brown sugar. Adding after brings out the oak, pecans, caramel and some cherry notes.
In the mouth: a good texture and more jam notes from Mark who is an aficionado of all things jam related. Chewy in places. Apricot jam now, prunes, treacle and a resinous nature with some bitterness thrown in for good measure. Water prompts a loss of that texture and it shows its youthful edge more so now. A black forest gateau, pencil shavings and time brings it back from the brink with rusty nails and an earthy ginger root.
Artful Dodger Bunnahabhain 1980 – review
Bottled at 38 years of age from a Refill Bourbon Hogshead #3474 at 44.7% abv. Expect to pay around £350 direct for a 50cl bottle. This is available from a wide ranger of retailers including Master of Malt for £349.95 and also Tyndrum Whisky for £325.
Colour: dulled gold.
On the nose: a very light, distant peat, ripe pears and a hint of soap. Golden syrup, almonds and heather alongside pine needles, apples and a touch of salt. I didn’t experiment with water here given the strength.
In the mouth: very old school arrival, everything is leisurely and relaxed particularly with the fruits. You have to listen and focus with this whisky. Ok, then a touch of peat, salted peanuts, a minerality to it followed by chocolate, pine nuts and again that soapy aspect. Not hugely soapy like some I’ve had recently, but it is within the mix and a twist on the usual modern-day flavours.
Artful Dodger Caol Ila 2009 – review
Distilled on 20th October 2009 and bottled on 24th April 2019 at 9 years of age. This resided in a ex-bourbon Hogshead #319291 at 59.7% abv with 470 bottles produced. Expect to pay around £65 direct for a 50cl bottle. This is available from a wide ranger of retailers including Master of Malt for £64.95 and also Tyndrum Whisky for £62.
Colour: a faint hazy brown.
On the nose: despite the strength, the peat blast here wasn’t as dynamic or windswept as I envisaged. Instead, the apples, smoked haddock and lemon peel can hold their own against the coastal peat rush. A dirty, grubby vanilla and a refreshing peppermint tea. A solid Caol Ila with a citrus edge.
In the mouth: more coastal vibes now as we’re transported to Islay. Some driftwood, sea spray and old fishing baskets and hemp. There’s a minty aspect and white pepper alongside cask char with the peat underpinning it all. A good example of this distillery.
Artful Dodger Heaven Hill 2010 – review
Bottled at 10 years of age, this resided in a ex-bourbon Hogshead #152726 at 59.3%. Expect to pay around £65 direct for a 50cl bottle. This is available from a wide ranger of retailers including Master of Malt for £64.95.
On the nose: rubbed bronze, glazed cherries and wholemeal flour – don’t ask, it’s that peppery grainy note. Cranberries, caramel, rye-like in places with more black pepper and maple syrup. Adding water delivers raspberries and orange peel.
In the mouth: a lovely viscosity with some uncouth elements underlining its playful, youthful, nature. Cherries, plums, cranberries and a chewy nature with some memories of port casks. Water unlocks Tabasco sauce, chilli flakes, drying in places and rubber with some shammy leather memories as well.
The Ben Nevis gets us off to a great start. A strong example from this distillery and will find favour with it’s core audience. These 90’s expressions are becoming more desirable and increasingly expensive. So, here, the 50cl pushes down the price to nearer the immortal £100 barrier and results in a bigger outturn. Overall, good news and verging on an 8, but not quite there.
The Bruichladdich is a sterling example of the wood policy from the distillery at the time. What started out as a scurry to fill anything that didn’t fall foul of SWA rules, then manifested itself into a more sustainable and quality-driven wood programme. This is a good example of a Rivesaltes cask matured whisky. Rivesaltes is a sweet red wine, but not overly so in my experience. So, carefully managed it produces good results. And this is a ‘Laddie that will please the type of distillery fans that I know, who are all into those wood flavours and an exploration of terroir that is lost through the driving force of the wood. Oops, that sounds like Waterford doesn’t it? Anyways, I think this is a strong contender and I’d recommend it to Rose.
The Bunna’ has the attraction of that age statement and given what the distillery is charging nowadays ( namely £1800 for a 40 year old expression), this release brings a sense of value. We reviewed the Bunnahabhain 46 Year Old – Eich Bhana Lìr in 2017, which retailed for £5K! I’d definitely spend more time with this whisky, but I’m on the fence as to whether I’d actually buy a bottle. I’m still undecided to this day!
Yeah, the soap. It’s not like some old Glen Garioch’s or Dunglass (peated Littlemill) that I’ve had over the years. Oh, I almost forgot the legendary – why did they pick this – Blair Athol Manager’s Dram, when the soap dominates all. They really piled it on! When such a note isn’t dominant then it can be a refreshing twist like this Bunnahabhain. We’ve all had enough of soap in 2020, so moving on…
The Caol Ila is solid and a good example of how this dependable distillery continues to be, er dependable, in all circumstances. The flaw being and this isn’t a criticism whatsoever, that there’s just so much good Caol Ila on the market right now, that I’m wanting the deviants and or botched experiments to bring some variety.
Lastly, the Heaven Hill. A chunky and bold whiskey. This translates into a fun experience, despite its limitations and youthful exuberance. Probably not showcasing the strengths of the distillery, but there’s plenty of that in the marketplace isn’t there? This is the deviant that I mentioned within the Caol Ila summary, so pleased to have tried it at least.
Overall, a pretty solid offering from the Artful Dodger. By hook or by crook, he’s found a selection worth exploring further.
¹ Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, published 1837.
² This URL has now been claimed by Edrington, so watch this space cybersquatters.
Photographs from Tyndrum Whisky who also stock this range. Samples kindly provided by Artful Dodger. We’ve also included some links to make a purchase if you’re interested. Some are commission-based, some aren’t. We hope you enjoy your whisky.