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A Whole Lotta Whisky Sponge

We’re firmly into January, the month where some of us take a dry one for whatever reason and we contemplate another lockdown with all the pitfalls it brings. These ides and all the figures we’re being bombarded with from the government can leave us bamboozled and tired of the Butcher’s dog or whatever it’s called this week. So, thank goodness for a care package from the Whisky Sponge to brighten our meagre existence.

A package, it must be said, was fortunate to arrive on my doorstep. An incomplete address meant a neighbour had taken possession and seeing the universal packaging for alcohol, knew immediately that it must be for me. What do the neighbours think? Anything bottle related or with a whiff of single malt… that must be for Jason. If they only knew the extent of our whisky skulduggery and what they are missing out on.

Releases from the Whisky Sponge are popular commodities. So, if you are interested in being made aware of any future releases then head over to the website and sign up for alerts. I’ve been the victim myself of debating a release, only to see it vanish quicker than Rees-Mogg during an election campaign. Speaking of which, anyone that sends me not 1, but 2, samples of Jura almost deserves a Rees-Mogg sneer for the sheer audacity! I jest of course as some of the best single casks I experienced in 2020 were from the Isle of Jura. Either we’ve hit a wonderfully rich source, or someone has been relabelling Speyburn casks for the masses.

Maybe I should mention that the Sponge pricing is beyond what many of us would accept as being reasonable? Personally, it can be a touch too much for my finely tuned wallet. I note that all of the whiskies that I’m about to review have sold out, which just goes to show it doesn’t really matter. The market is booming and in Sponge’s defence the website is called Decadent Drinks and there are some serious age statements plus several unusual casks being presented. Ultimately, I can see it from both sides.

Take for instance some retailers variations in their prices. There’s a suggested retail price from the bottler, who has allowed enough room for everyone to make their cut. Some retailers know that a bottle will almost sell regardless of price and this was underlined recently by the Single Cask Nation 1996 Imperial release that appeared over the festive period. The suggested price from the Nation was £130 – great value for us all. The Whisky Exchange disappointingly, went just short of £200 making a tidy profit and possibly more than the bottler themselves. A few days later Master of Malt came in at £131.95 – credit to them for doing so. As an onlooker, I have to ask how much is too much and should we be questioning such tactics?

A downside is that I see very few of these bottles (Sponge and others) being opened on my forays into the murky world of social media. A visit to our friends at Whiskybase, reveals few votes being cast as well. It’s a sad reality of the market nowadays and I’m sure Angus picks these casks to be quaffed and enjoyed deliriously; not to be flipped online at ridiculous prices.

First up, is the Blend on the Run and we caught up with this ruffian in person down Fleshmarket Close in Edinburgh. A suitably mysterious and dank environment to liberate his satchel stuffed full of illicit photographs and marketing material…

‘Introducing the Whisky Sponge Christmas Lockdown special: ‘Blend On The Run’ a 29 year old blended malt Scotch whisky with a marketing-ready story…

Many years ago, in what you call the ‘good old days’, there was an independent bottler called Signatory and it had literally shit loads of cask samples just lying about the place. Dark ones, pale ones, mostly empty ones, full ones. All sorts of delicious and funny things from the bottlings they had been steadily releasing over the previous fifteen or so years. One day, the king of Signatory, a young lad called Andrew who disapproved of carpark BBQs and enjoyed fork lift trucks, decided to sort through all these cask samples and mix the good ones together. The minimum age for these samples had to be 16 years old and they had to be single malt Scottish whiskies.

Amongst their total was many, many older Signatory bottlings from the 1970s and 1960s – including some famous distilleries and vintages – they all went into the vat and that mixture was then laid to rest in a first fill sherry butt for another 13 years until it was legally 29 years of age.

This is that resultant whisky, bottled at a natural strength of 45.6% and limited to 314 bottles. It tastes like liquefied Christmas and has a silly label based on a pun I came up with one morning that has absolutely nothing to do with all that stuff you just read.’

Whisky Sponge Blend on the Run – review

Colour: honeycomb.

On the nose: a wholesome sherry influence which brings a nice richness but doesn’t dominate the debate. A dash of cherry liqueur, red apples and a flat Cola. Fresh tree bark, aniseed, honey, pear juice and I cannot shake the memories of Juicy Fruit chewing gum. Dried orange and some faint raspberry. A pretty interesting assortment.

In the mouth: there is plenty of oomph here it must be said at 45.6%. Woody as well but also there’s a reassuring gentleness in places. A touch of soap initially that thankfully soon subsides, school blackboard dust – yes that’s a thing if you were forced to write out hundreds of lines at school, but anyway I digress. It’s backed up by some sooty aspects, blackcurrant jam and more honey.

Score: 6/10

Whisky Sponge Islay 27 year old – review

Colour: a golden haze.

On the nose: oh yeah the peat, but more dignified than the young Scallyways we see nowadays. Restrained, balanced and dignified; a bit like myself. A rich toffee gives way to almonds and a bag of duileasg, or dulse aka seaweed that we used to have in Northern Ireland constantly as a kid – is that still a thing? Anyway, the coastal element is there with iodine and saltiness which is what I remember dulse being like. Mossy, dried reeds and some happiness along with a freshly baked pain aux raisins.

In the mouth: less peat influence now and all the better for it. Nutty and cinder toffee with crackers, gold leaf, pork scratchings (I need to have those again although they’re probably on the WHO banned list) and freshly cracked black peppercorns. It has a fulsome quality and is entirely satisfying. The smoke comes through more on the finish and prior to that I also pick up that delicate iodine note and some liquorice.

Score: 8/10

Damn good, although I do say that Guiseppe Linguini has the most evocative tasting notes for this Islay joy…

Whisky Sponge Jura 1990 – review

A 30 year old, from a refill hogshead resulting in 217 bottles at 49.7% strength.

Colour: freshly squeezed apple juice.

On the nose: a little less coastal, more refined with the fruits welcoming us. Scottish tablet, a splash of cider vinegar and a rich fudge. Spanish almond nougat, raisins, banana skin and candy floss. No complaints whatsoever about this Jura.

In the mouth: defo more gentle than some of these Jura’s I’ve had before but not boring. Toffee, popcorn and pecans – a rich nutty assortment. Hint’s of that coastal, mossy environment. Spicy in places as well. An oily residue, black peppercorn, aniseed and a pleasing chewy texture in places.

Score: 8/10

Whisky Sponge Jura 1991 – review

Colour: light gold.

On the nose: a lovely bouquet of toffee, fruits, soft pears and red apples. Grape juice, saltiness and mossy as well – something these Jura’s all seem to have in common. Autumnal in places, rock candy and a crisp vanilla. Rounding it off is honey and mint leaf.

In the mouth: more of that rugged coastal roughness that’s a core characteristic. More moss, sea spray, wet hemp and some tobacco and marijuana notes. Peanut brittle, golden syrup, Jacob’s crackers, spent tea leaves and compost.

Score: 8/10

Conclusions

I’m glad I didn’t read up on these releases until after the tasting. Blend on the Run does have an old school vibe about it with the touch of soap taking me back a few years. So, possibly we have some of that Dunglass or Littlemill soap in here maybe? Let’s file it under character. Thankfully, it doesn’t overpower or linger, but it does remind us that this is something different.

A fun what if from the dark depths of the Symington compound. A real talking piece despite not being the real deal. Can you imagine what’s possibly in this concoction? Where’s the DNA testing print out? What else do they have lurking in Edradour or Signatory? In all likelihood, a bottle I’d pick up just to explore further and contemplate some more.

The Islay is a classy thing. Rumour has it this might be from the modern disappointment that is Laphroaig if you want to romanticise about its origins. I prefer the here and now. It’s a good reminder for those fortunate to know that Islay just isn’t all peat-like we see in numerous bottlings today. There’s a subtle nature and orchestra to be had when the peat begins to dissipate. A dram you can linger with and contemplate all the wrongs in the world…

A classy Jura duo and given the choice I’d go for the ’91. These remind us that the distillate beings to deliver in its second decade and beyond. Whatever crypt these casks are appearing from has to be plundered for maturing stock and enshrined in preservation orders. These are charismatic and hugely buoyant whiskies. Underlining these wise words: sure this kind or rather reckless distillate does need at least 20 years¹. Who can argue given these casks that are now appearing via independents?

So, that’s us sorted. The Sponge has been rinsed and put aside until next time. What we’re left with is a classy residue that lingers in the bath tub, as a reminder to pick up a couple of bottles and brush up on our mouse-click game.

¹ Serge Valentin of Whiskyfun, May 20, 2020.

  1. Avatar
    Matthew J Ryan says:

    the islay 27 year sounds right up my ally ! but the prices I have seen for available bottles puts it even out of my reach…sad face.

  2. Avatar
    A Guy Who Helps Make Whiskey says:

    I think it’s clear that if you don’t put Jura distillate in too many casks it actually tastes… good.

  3. Avatar
    bifter says:

    “As an onlooker, I have to ask how much is too much and should we be questioning such tactics?”

    Can a producer decide not to work with a particular retailer again? Or is there a middle man, e.g. a distributor with whom they have to interface? I noticed this with one of the continental releases of Daftmill, some retailers were asking auction prices for it while there seemed to be insinuations that others had just pocketed their allocation? Is Francis in a position to deny them another crack given Kirsch were the appointed importer?

    Another aspect is that a lot of releases are becoming almost impossible to obtain, they sell out in seconds flat, too fast even to get in your cart and checkout, which occasionally raises suspicions. Are tech-savvy buyers using bots and macros or are certain retailers simply posting links saying ‘sold out’, while they dispose of their allocations in other ways? I wouldn’t like to assert this but I’ve seen bottles appear on sites and yet disappear instantaneously, seemingly too fast for any human interaction.

    Anyway, these releases are well beyond my wallet. I look forward to the resumption of whisky events where one can sometimes get a wee smackerel of something special!

    1. Avatar
      Jason says:

      Hi Bifter

      You’re correct in the assumption that a bottler could refuse to work with a specific retailer. I think I can recall Cadenhead’s expressing concern about one particular retailer in recent years. But in this example, TWE is an incredibly powerful and influential retailer. And I suppose for a bottler it’s whether they want to tap into that and benefit from the association and buying power or look elsewhere. That’s a decision only they can ultimately make.

      Francis (Daftmill) has previously said that he sets a price he expects for his whisky, but after it’s gone through the ‘middlemen’ and everyone has their cut, it is more expensive for those abroad and probably what he feels is reasonable. Berry Bros have exclusive rights so as far as I know, he cannot dictate who is on their list.

      Yes, I’m sure there are bots or those who sit on websites most of their day waiting for bottles to appear – I think this was highlighted in our RMW interview. When it becomes more of a commodity than a beverage, it’s an unfortunate consequence.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        bifter says:

        Hadn’t read that article so thanks for the pointer, quite interesting. As I write I’ve just had a Twitter notification that RMW have a new Thompson Bros. Islay release but I open the link to see it sold out already (I’m not in that league for purchases but the point remains). I only managed to acquire some of the recent Springbank stable releases through local retailers and a bit of luck. Normally there would have been a few day’s grace to make up your mind.

        1. Avatar
          Richard says:

          Re Blend on the Run
          Stealing a well known image and bastardising it for a label just comes across as crap in my opinion, and shows a lack of decent ideas from Whisky Sponge.
          An obvious case of plagiarism I would think, as permission to use such an image would be rejected and incredibly expensive, or maybe it’d be a thumbs up from Macca?
          Perhaps with it being a limited bottle means he’s gotten away with it unfortunately.

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