I

Interview with Angus MacRaild

I don’t think Angus needs an introduction to the Malt readership, now does he?

Instead we’ll dispense with any fanfare and let you jump straight into a refreshingly insightful, informative and candid interview. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time now. Angus is hugely passionate and knowledgeable about whisky and spirits. He’s always been gracious with his time when we’ve met in person and picks an exceedingly good cask as we’ve seen in previous Whisky Sponge articles. So, let’s jump in…

Malt: You can rack up the airmiles attending whisky festivals across the world, so how has this whole lockdown experience been for you and being confined to barracks in Scotland?

Angus: It’s been a hard time personally, which has meant work has taken a bit of a back seat in some respects. Overall though, professionally speaking, things have been ok. Where work to do with festivals and tastings has all but dried up, other things have come along in its place, so I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. In a more general sense though it has been quite an arduous time, but I think that experience is pretty universal for most people. I love seeing friends and being at festivals, but I don’t miss flying or being away from home a lot.

Malt: Has this enforced containment allowed you more time to work on Decadent Drinks and seek out casks? The extra time has probably proved useful with the disaster that is Brexit?

Angus: The whole independent bottling aspect of my work is something I never planned. In the beginning it was very much a side project and an experiment. It’s really quite serendipitous that the growth and success of the Whiskysponge bottlings happened in line with the upheavals of Covid. I’m not sure how different it would have been if the pandemic hadn’t happened, but it’s absolutely true that with lockdown I’ve had more time to focus on the bottlings, although I wouldn’t necessarily say that was time specifically spent on cask sourcing.

Our new company, Decadent Drinks, came about because we wanted to take a more committed, long term and structured approach to the business of indy bottling. In terms of Brexit, so far the main issues with that have been around shipping and sourcing of dry goods. Longer term its hard to say, some things will get ironed out as new processes are established, but there will no doubt be other, more systemic issues that arise. I’m no fan of Brexit but all we can do is get on with things at the moment.

Malt: Can you talk us through your cask selection process? Do you manage to taste every cask prior to purchase or are you left to rely on your instincts?

Angus: We never bottle anything without tasting it first. However, we certainly purchase casks without sampling, which is just an unfortunate reality of today’s whisky market and where instinct certainly plays an essential role. It means we may buy something that should be ‘theoretically’ good but ultimately ends up being disappointing. In such cases we’ll just try and sell the cask on.

The main ways we source casks are looking at spreadsheets of casks offered by brokers, finding private clients willing to sell a cask, buying a cask at auction or dealing with a third party supplier like Signatory – or Grosperrin in the case of Cognac. Our view is that the more options you have on the table the more diversity will eventually feed through into our range of bottlings. It’s also just the reality of today’s market that you can’t rely on any single source for casks.

Malt: I’ve always enjoyed the artwork on your releases; eye-catching and tongue-in-cheek, who creates these for you? Is it just a case of throwing out some random thoughts on a release and seeing what comes back? Is there any demand for a series of prints?

Angus: The artwork is all effectively my ideas and concepts which are pitched in great detail to our artist, a very talented graphic artist called Rob Anderson. Rob then sketches them out based on my pitch, I feedback and we refine them, then he does the final colouring. The artwork is then placed into the brand template by our design agency. Despite the general silliness of the labels it’s probably the aspect of the bottlings that I put the most thought and time into. It can be an intricate process that requires quite a bit of communication and creativity between the different people at the three stages. We’re all getting better at it as we go along and refine how we work together. I’m really happy with the label artwork we’ve achieved so far, it feels to me like something greater than the sum of its parts which is creatively very gratifying. It certainly seems to be working as we do get asked about turning them into posters and prints fairly regularly. This is something we’ll look into once we’ve got our new website sorted in a couple of months time. Mostly it’s making me regret not paying more attention in art class at school.

Malt: I read your candid end of year thoughts on Whiskyfun with interest. Memorably speaking out on the whole ‘Murraygate’ and touching upon wider behaviours online and by companies themselves. How were those comments received?

Angus: Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t get much feedback. I remember the article I wrote about it at the time on Whiskysponge got picked up and shared or commented on quite widely (well, for a whisky piece anyway) but beyond that I’m not sure how much attention these things really got. I suspect there’s a lot of noise being generated by a not so big crowd if I’m honest.

Malt: You also touched upon Scottish whiskies being consistent yet that this consistency breeds a sense of boredom. Also, technically brilliant whiskies that lack a soul, x-factor etc. I do agree with this and is it a case of many distilleries having polished their wares to within an inch of their lives? In doing so something more natural and unplanned is lost?

Angus: In my view this is an issue which is at the very core of modern Scottish malt whisky. I do believe that most Scottish malt whisky is better now than it was around 20-30 years ago. I think the reasons for this are that from the 90s to early 00s distillers noticed a few things: an uptick in single malt enthusiasm, proliferation of independent bottling, and some very high quality whisky emerging from Japan. There was awareness amongst those that were making whisky that their spirits weren’t comparing favourably to indy bottlings or to newer Japanese bottlings. I believe this jolted some decision makers to take stock of certain aspects of production methodology and implement practices which brought about a higher average consistent quality of product. However, a large amount of what has been achieved has been through smart use of wood. Wood only takes you so far though and tends to be rather more about cosmetic beauty. There’s lots of whisky out there which for me is around the 90% quality mark, but to go beyond these levels is rare and very hard. To surpass these quality levels, in my view, you really have to have distillate character and depth, but within the restrictive parameters of a regimented production model build around yield, consistency and efficiency your distillate potential is highly limited. There’s many whiskies now which are terrific, technically excellent modern drams, but that lack soulfulness, charisma or identity based, qualitative profiles. So we’ve arrived at a kind of natural quality ceiling in that respect for a lot of mainstream producers.

In the big picture though, I think this is ultimately all part of a positive process. It’s the end point of a system where the people that made whisky were quite different from the people that enthusiastically enjoyed single malts. It’s also true that the overall engine of whisky production was (and remains) tuned for mass blended Scotch and achieved via widespread automation, a narrowing of base ingredients and centralisation; single malts in such a system have tended to be homogenised curiosities and byproducts. It’s not to say that all whisky should be made by nerds, but this combination of an accumulation of lessons learned from historical examples of quality, with better, more single malt specific business models is enabling a new, more dynamic, smaller-scale, secondary tier industry to emerge in whisky. Not just in Scotland but all over the world. Most of these newer producers are single malt focussed, far less interested in yield and more about building their value around ideas of quality and individuality. A lot of that understanding is coming from the fact these people were whisky drinkers first and foremost and understand the desire for quality. It’s still early days on all that stuff but I think the coming decade will be an exciting one for whisky.

Malt: Demand for your releases seems to be on the rise with many almost instantly selling out. Some of these make their way onto secondary retailers for a considerable mark-up. As a bottler and a consumer of whisky, how do you view the efforts of others (Dornoch, Royal Mile Whiskies etc.) in trying deliver bottles to those that will open and consume them?

Angus: I think it’s certainly understandable given the issues these days around flipping and profiteering. And with regards the practices of those specific companies I understand and respect the measures they’ve taken. I agree these things can leave a bad taste in the mouth and if I see a Sponge bottling immediately for sale on a webshop at double the retail price it pisses me off.

But, ultimately, there’s only so much you can do. Once someone has bought something it is their personal property and we would go mad trying to police that world and what people do with their bottles once they’ve bought them. I also understand that some people want to enjoy having a bottle for a number of years and may not get around to opening it. We only enjoy old bottles now because they weren’t opened by previous owners. So I’m quite accepting of that aspect.

We don’t have plans to be too militant about things. Nowadays we tend to limit purchases where necessary. When our new website is live it’ll offer more functionality and options around sales as well, including the chance to do ballots more easily in future, or special releases targeted at invited customers if we want. But ultimately, good quality, single cask malt whisky suffers quite extremely from over demand and under supply, so this element of the secondary market is here to stay for the time being, and I would rather prioritise my efforts towards the quality of what release, rather than how we release it.

Malt: How does it feel after putting in all the hard work to conceive and deliver a bottling, that others are making more from selling it on?

Angus: As I mentioned above, it’s annoying. But these are small time, bit players or occasional flippers doing this. My day to day focus is on making our products as good as they can be and of thinking long term about the bigger picture of what we are doing. Not what anyone else is doing. A single post from someone who has opened and enjoyed one of our bottles means a lot more than seeing one for sale in a shop somewhere. And I know there’s far more of the former than the latter going on, the actual number of our bottles being flipped versus what we sell is minimal, so I don’t let these things distract me from what is important. We can only work with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be.

Malt: You’re uniquely placed having a background in the industry and an auctioneer. With the plethora of auction websites and articles on investment returns – where and when do you see this ending, or not at all?

Angus: The whole investment thing is rather blown out of proportion. Of course you can make some money buying and selling bottles, if you really understand whisky and know what you are doing. But it won’t make you a millionaire. And the whole cask investment thing is riddled with snake oil salesmen and charlatans as far as I’m concerned. It’s a bit of a racket that the mainstream industry is getting fed up with and I suspect will be starting to clamp down on soon enough. Something I would hope might be good for indy bottlers, but we’ll have to see how it pans out.

I don’t think auctions will disappear anytime soon, they are part of the whisky world and culture now. I also think all this stuff about the ‘bubble bursting’ is painfully simplifying an increasingly complex system. Ultimately, the internet made whisky a bigger world and a bigger subject, auctions are just a part of that new reality. It’s also true that whisky was significantly underpriced for a long time and that correction happened rather swiftly in the space of almost a decade between about 2002-2015. Now of course many prices have gone too far the other way. But this idea that it is a valuable or expensive product is embedded and widespread, and crucially also freely accepted by relative newcomer countries in Asia in particular. So it’s a natural breeding ground for this central issue of demand for quality always outstripping supply. Which in my view is what is at the root of the secondary market for whisky.

I understand there’s a quite a bit of animosity to auctions in general, but I think a lot of this is misguided. Most of the auction companies I know are run by good people who are making an effort to run serious businesses and do a good job, often in tricky circumstances. They also tend to be whisky drinkers themselves too. Most of the more outlandish conspiracy minded nonsense you see on social media about them is complete bullshit rooted in the basic reality that people are pissed off they can’t afford the bottles they actually want. There’s an ugly streak of entitlement in whisky these days which is pretty unpleasant. People have to accept they cannot get every bottle they want and that there will always be another good bottle somewhere round the corner. This is as true of retail as of the secondary market.

Malt: Do you field increasing questions about investing in whisky and what can offer the best returns?

Angus: There was a time where I got these kinds of questions, but I think people have cottoned on from my long and deliberately philosophical answers that I fucking hate these questions. So I don’t get asked this sort of stuff so much anymore, thankfully.

Malt: I have a stash of whisky books that have aided me on my journey, are there any whisky books that you find invaluable? Have you considered actually writing a book?

Angus: I remember being really influenced early on by Appreciating Whisky by Pip Hills, Michael Jackson’s guides and also Peat, Smoke & Spirit by Andrew Jefford. In terms of day to day work, I’m rarely without The Schweppes Guide to Scotch [Ed. watch this space for more on that book] and in recent years there’s been a fair number of really solid and useful books which go into more specific distillery histories.

I have a very specific idea for a book about whisky which I really want to write. However, I don’t think I know enough yet to properly do the subject justice and I also don’t have time to write it. To really properly write a book you need to put aside significant time to research, write and edit it, time which is in short supply when you’re technically self-employed and you just started an indy bottling company with several business partners. For now my efforts need to be focused there. But in time I’m hopeful I can do something about this book idea.

Malt: The Old & Rare Show has been in London these past couple of years, do you hope that the show can return to Scotland if local authorities are more welcoming and a suitable venue can be found?

Angus: I’d love to see the show come back to Scotland but I’m not hopeful about it. Suitable / price compatible venues in Glasgow are tough to find. And the Edinburgh licensing board is closed for business sadly.

Malt: What were your thoughts on the recent boom in online tastings? Do you find such a format challenging to interact with attendees and convey a passion for the dram that they are trying?

Angus: I think the virtual tasting thing is fine and of course in times like these you have to make do with wee compromises. I think it’s obviously not the same as being in the same physical space together to enjoy and talk about whisky, but it’s ok until that can come back. Now, having said that, it’s true that I haven’t really done that many of them this passed year. We’ve got some coming up this week with Old & Rare so we’ll see how they go, I’m sure they’ll be fun.

Malt: You’re fortunate to reside in the realm of ‘unicorns’ is there a particular bottle that continues to escape you?

Angus: I’ve been very lucky to have tried quite a lot of the older bottles which are now really almost impossible to get. In terms of things which I’ve never tried, there’s a 25 year old official Ardbeg with the black and white label which was bottled in the 1970s, I suspect the whisky that went into it was from two 1948 sherry hogsheads based on a story one of the warehousemen told me when I worked there. I know some people who own this bottle so perhaps one will get cracked one day. I also missed the chance to try a dark sherry 1974 Laphroaig Signatory bottling at the Old & Rare show a couple of years back, that one had always been on my hit list and I kicked myself for missing it.

In terms of really, utter ‘pipe dream’ stuff that I know actually exists? An 8 yo official Clynelish from the 1940s, 19th century Lagavulin in the Diageo archives, the 40yo Dalintober on display in the Cadenhead tasting room. The 1895 Talisker bottled by Berry Bros. There’s still shit loads of amazing old stuff I dream of tasting, but then that’s one of the things that still makes whisky exciting is trying things you don’t know.

Overall what I’ve tasted is still dwarfed by what I haven’t tasted, so there’s no shortage of things to taste, learn and experience.

My thanks to Angus for his time and candid replies, which has given us plenty food for thought. But we’re not done, as he kindly provided 5 samples for me to review and we continue our conversation around these…

Malt: Is the general approach to Decadent Drinks bottling casks in their natural form without influence of finishing? I know that you prefer to add water prior to bottling – what benefits does this bring in your opinion?

Angus: I don’t think we’ll bottle anything that’s been finished. Never say never, but to do that I’d want a lot more control over the process and for the length of time to be more in the region of double maturation than finishing. I don’t have anything in particular against, it’s just not really my preferred style, and it’s true that our approach and preference is always more for natural malt whisky that expresses a sense of individuality, distinctiveness or distillery character.

We don’t reduce everything we bottle. I would say about 60-70% of our releases have a degree of dilution though, often to very specific ABVS like 57.1%, 53% or 48.5%. The reason I do this is that I think many whiskies benefit from this kind of slight reduction. I think they show better in the glass and travel better over the years in bottle.

Also, in my view, part of being an indy bottler is to find an element of creative intervention. When you are dealing with what is pretty much the finished product, careful and strategic reduction gives you a means to influence and present the whiskies in a certain way which says something to your customers about how you want them to experience the whisky. It’s a means by which to have a bit more control, be more involved and make more of a statement with what you bottle. If I was making whisky from scratch it would probably be a different story, I’d have a more non-interventionist approach over many years instead.

This is also a practice where I’ve taken a fair bit of inspiration from the French, particularly with regards Cognac producers. The way the use careful, very slow reduction to ‘sculpt’ a distillate is fascinating and something I think whisky should embrace.

Malt: Benriach is full of character for a Speyside whisky, yet you don’t see too much of it being bottled independently. Are you driven by flavour and affordability rather than by names when selecting a cask?

Angus: I’m not really driven by names in what I select, although obviously if I see a make I really love then I’ll try to get it. And of course there’s always a part of you that considers the commercial merit to releasing popular makes and names. But if we find a great cask of something that wasn’t traditionally a great seller, Allt-A-Bhainne for example, we would never be deterred by the name. The longer term plan is to build a brand supported by clear decision making that people can invest a degree of trust in. So if you do offer something a bit more left field, people know we’ve chosen it because we really believe in it.

The one thing I try not to be too worried about is price. We want to work with and release great quality products. We accepted from the start that this would likely mean we’d offer on average more expensive whiskies, this is because these kinds of price levels tends to be where you most readily find great quality. We do look deliberately for more affordable / cheaper options, but to find really excellent single malts that you can do below £100 per bottle is tough these days in my view. It’s not impossible but it’s why we don’t have a particular structure or price-based order to our releases. We tend to do things as we find them almost solely based on quality. There have been a few instances though where we have rejected or decided against a certain cask or bottling based on the fact it was too expensive. So we do consider price from that perspective as well. But the primary decision making, about everything we release, is centred around quality first and foremost.

Whisky Sponge Benriach 1999 – review

Bottled in 2021 at 21 years of age, this 1st fill bourbon barrel produced 164 bottles at 56.5%. Is it Benriach or BenRiach nowadays?

Colour: light gold.

On the nose: stewed fruits, mace and some beeswax in the mix. Beautifully poised with coconut of all things, chocolate (but not Bounty-esque) with a beef note in places. Honey brings us back to Speyside with raisins and a tea-like influence. Adding water really unlocks the fruits and brings out some pine sap.

In the mouth: woody is my first note followed by black pepper, apples, a touch of orange, tea leaves and chocolate. Nutty in places and then we go a bit Sunday Roast Dinner with some mushrooms (ok, not everyone might have those on the plate), roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – so a fatty aspect. A splash of water reveals some vanilla and a minty characteristic.

Score: 7/10

Malt: We’re all probably too guilty of labelling things nowadays like future classic etc. However, the charms of the post-millennium Bowmore distillate are hard to ignore. This one sings in the glass. Are you finding the opportunity to bottle more Bowmore increasingly expensive?

Angus: Anything Islay is painfully expensive now. Especially named Bowmore and especially Laphroaig. Prices for Laphroaig casks are now just almost insulting. This is one of the options we decided against doing, much as I would dearly love to do a Laphroaig.

Malt: What distilleries would you suggest are producing the goods now after a ‘dodgy’ period?

Angus: Specifically, in terms of distilleries that improved from notable low periods, I would say Bowmore, Edradour, Tobermory/Ledaig, Glenturret, Glen Scotia, Loch Lomond (most makes especially Inchmurrin) and Ben Nevis to an extent.

Whisky Sponge Bowmore 2000 – review

Bottled in 2020 at 20 years of age, this 1st fill bourbon barrel produced 172 bottles at 51.7%.

Colour: a creamy caramel.

On the nose: Bowmore! It’s all here folks with the fruits, perfectly pitched peat and some tablet. Although I picked up a fleeting touch of lavender there… let’s not look for any regression to the bad days. Floral heather, toffee, seaweed and those tropical fruits with Kiwi, mango, papaya, pomegranates and shards of copper. Jeez, why did I miss out on this? The coastal influence and minerality of crushed seashells and a sprinkling of sea salt. Water reveals smoky chalk dust (just invented, by me) and a twist of lime.

In the mouth: the peat takes the edge now with a coastal influence prominent; a mouthful of sea spray with rock sea salt. Oh, here comes the aforementioned tropical fruits (see the list above) and they’ve been joined by grapefruit. Adding water brings out more zest, vanilla popcorn, toffee and coconut ice.

Score: 9/10

Malt: The big name in rum and certainly a big and robust experience. Are you looking to bottle more rums in the future and are there any distilleries that are on your radar?

Angus: We’ll do our second release in April which will be a 1993 Uitvlugt and from then onwards around one Rum release per month. I’ll be pretty much aiming just for the nerdy styles which will be profiles like higher ester, tropical aged or pot distilled. I’m specifically looking forward to doing some Jamaican stuff like Hampden, which we should be able to offer some really lovely examples of later this year.

Malt: Is cask sourcing for rum and cognac any different from whisky?

Angus: Very different. With rum it’s really one big company that holds the majority of stocks, which makes things easier in many ways as they give you lists, hold things for you and are able to provide samples for you to try before you buy. Kind of like how I suspect whisky was in the late 1990s in practice. However, the really charming one is Cognac, where you get offered a multitude of samples to try and you have a lot of time to discuss, to think and to spend time getting the product right. You have a lot of flexibility with volume and bottling strength and style, so there’s room for creativity in ways there isn’t always with other spirits. Part of that is just the fact that the French mentality is more thoughtful and deeply philosophical about things like quality when it comes to spirits and alcohol in general. But part of it is also our supplier, Guilhem Grosperrin, is something of a genius and a genuine inspiration.

Malt: Are you looking to release other worthwhile spirits given the opportunity?

Angus: Yes, we’re planning an Armagnac and possibly some other interesting brandies. But not sure about release dates for those yet, they’re still in process. Pretty much the only thing we’ll (probably) never do is gin. I’m interested in growing the Sponge Expanded Drinks Universe, which is my own very wanky way of saying I like the idea of a broad portfolio of independent bottlings.

Whisky Sponge Caroni 1998 – review

Bottled in 2020 at 22 years of age, this 1st fill bourbon barrel produced 258 bottles at 57.1%.

Colour: copper.

On the nose: quite a beast with brown sugar, rock candy and aniseed. A menthol note, wholemeal and raisins. Liquorice, driftwood and toffee. I’ve also put lettuce here which seems odd and apologies for not telling you what variety; problem gem come to think of it. Marzipan, warm gunmetal and brass rubbings bring depth and dirtiness to the experience.

In the mouth: now picking up esters and that funkiness that delights. Chewy in places as well with an off-fruitiness, overly ripe and past their sell-by date. Polish, oddly tapenade and there’s a local company in Fife that does a particularly great version. Stone fruits, chocolate and sootiness.

Score: 8/10

Malt: Can you give us the background to this vatting of 5 casks and what stood out for you?

Angus: This is from a parcel of casks of eau de vie from grapes grown on the limestone slopes of the village of Vars in the Fins Bois sub-region of Cognac. These slopes are around 100 meters high which makes them quite a unique wee terroir and have produced some remarkable Cognacs over the years. I had the option to select one of the five casks but in the end I wanted to create something unique to us so we married equal parts from each of the five casks and did that assemblage as the bottling at natural strength. I’m really happy with this one, I love it a lot. It had a character which to me felt very suited to a whisky palate, if you’ve ever tried very elegant, fruity older Speyside single malts this kind of profile would appeal I think.

Malt: I did appreciate this cognac and yet there seems to still be a reluctance for many to take the plunge and purchase a bottle. How can you overcome this? Would you expect to see a trend where some migrate from whisky towards alternatives given the relative value and availability right now?

Angus: It’s very much about education and about people being willing to try new things. Whisky is also a much more ‘obvious’ spirit. The flavour categories are extremely obvious, even to an uninitiated palate, peat vs sherry is self-evident for example. Cognac is a far more subtle spirit by comparison, so much more about finesse and nuance. This is not to say it is superior, but rather that it takes time and patience and quite a bit of education and determination in some respects. To see the difference between Grand Champagne and Petite Champagne is something which really takes time, unlike the whisky example I just mentioned. So it can take a while for people to ‘get’ Cognac, it certainly took me a long time.

In terms of the fact it’s a slower seller than whisky, this isn’t something we’re too worried about. We will adapt the model of our Cognac Sponge releases as we go and continue to try and promote them and to build more wee inroads into the whisky world for Cognac. We’re not the only bottler doing this and in time I think more people will discover there’s a great deal of pleasure in these more naturally bottled, mature Cognacs when they aren’t ruined by added sugar or killed by over reduction. It’s certainly true that in terms of value for money Cognac is crazy. Our first Cognac bottling was around 75 years old, close to the oldest whisky ever bottled, and we sold it for under £500 per bottle. Not cheap but, considering the liquid history factor, and the basic quality, it kills whisky stone dead in terms of value for money.

Whisky Sponge Grosperrin Fins Bois Cognac – review

Edition 3 – Heritage 68, batting of 5 casks, produced 350 bottles at 54.4% and this is available from The Whisky Exchange for £255.
Colour: mahoganny.

On the nose: polished wood, heavily polished and with decades of use. Some waxiness as well and stone fruits poke through all that wood to capture your interest. Cinnamon, blackcurrants, blueberries and cinnamon. More dried fruits sit alongside walnuts, fudge and juicy fruit chewing gum. Adding water brings out more grapes, flint, orange and almonds.

In the mouth: punchy and boozy even at this age – like your old uncle that likes a dram. Chocolate limes, ashy and some tannins present. Tobacco, figs and rummy in places. Now, mint chocolate. Water is beneficial in delivering more grapes, airing the experience and revealing a sweeter cinnamon, apricot, walnuts, Kendal Mint Cake and prunes.

Score: 7/10

Malt: We’ve seen very few Smogen being bottled independently, how did this release come about and was it difficult to pick a cask and also persuade Pär to let one go?

Angus: I have a good relationship with Pär and he was kind enough to allow us to do a cask for Whisky Sponge, so I didn’t have to twist his arm fortunately. Selection is pretty easy because he obviously has quite limited stock options anyway and so he sent me a few pre-approved samples and I just picked my favourite.

Malt: You wrote an excellent piece on Smogen a couple of years ago for Distilled magazine, what stood out for you on that visit?

Angus: It was the first time I’d been to Sweden so in some ways that trip was information overload. But going to Smogen and seeing the local town and the set up Pär has was quite a revelation. It felt similar in many respects to Scottish Island distilleries with this feeling of being coastal and of the whisky matching the feel of the environment. Yet it was very clearly ‘Swedish’ and really its own thing. The size of the distillery and the kit that Pär uses also made a big impression, you could really see that this is pretty much an ‘auteur’ way of making whisky. Really one man’s vision. I don’t agree with everything Pär does or all aspects of his approach, we probably disagree about wood and issues around reduction for example, but it’s extremely useful to have your own ideas about whisky, and how it can be made, challenged by someone like that and to understand how great small scale, one man band production can be. I came away very jealous that I don’t have my own wee distillery in a shed to play around with. But it was a great trip, it’s high on my list of places to go back to when I can travel again.

Whisky Sponge Smögen 2012 – review

Bottled in 2020 at 8 years of age, this 1st fill bourbon barrel produced 261 bottles at 59.3%.

Colour: a faint haze.

On the nose: wet ceramic tiles, seashells and a minty aspect. Some wet rope, eucalyptus, sea salt and pine cones. Quite a mix of coastal and that Smögen pursuit of power. The earth peat comes through with time but the whole experience remains in harmony. Some sweetness as well with a rich toffee, apples and dried seaweed. Orange zest, zinc, white pepper, grapefruit and honeysuckle.

In the mouth: oh yes, it’s Smögen now, full of vigour and bravado. Balanced peat with white grapes, figs, yer usual apples and a smokiness with time. Great balance with the sooty aspect kept in check. A spent matchstick (in a good way), blackcurrants and peaches of all things!

Score: 8/10

Conclusions

Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed this article as much as I have putting it together. Thanks again to Angus for his time. Hopefully, we’ll all meet in person again when the festivals return. Releases from Decadent Drinks don’t hang around for too long, so check out the site and sign up to the mailing list if you’re interested.

Kicking off in the order they were reviewed in, we have the Benriach. I’m a fan of this distillery. Plenty of character and a good age. Plus a solid cask as well, although the pursuits will be wanting a sherried Benriach, this has plenty going for it.

The new breed of Bowmore can be an absolute joy. The fortunate few who have tasted the tropical fruit bombs of the 1960s are privileged and yes that includes me, but we’re seeing a new version here. The roots are in the past but its a modern rebirth. A 1.2 that sets the benchmark for Islay.

A great Caroni, full of those definitive characteristics that win over so many whisky fans. Untamed in places, it reminds me of what rum can achieve with few distilleries flying the flag for this non-commercial style. And last but by no means least is the cognac which is so alive, fresh and vibrant after all these years. Plenty to say for itself and I’d gladly listen to another, all night, even on Zoom.

For some reason, just summing up my thoughts of the Smögen and Rammstein came on in the background shuffle. Perfect timing. I do think my co-editor colleague can go a little overboard with all things Smögen, especially with the sherry or wine variety. That’s cool and we can all get a little swept away at times. Yet for me, Smögen sings in an ex-bourbon cask. It’s full of character; an orchestra of flavour with plenty of amplification. That’s exactly what we have here and a fitting end to this article.

Most of the photographs come via The Whisky Exchange and Decadent Drinks. Plus, there might be the odd commission link above as well.

CategoriesCognac Features Rum
  1. Anders says:

    Thanks for the piece, and thanks to Angus for his insights! Always have appreciated his perspective on the whisky (and spirits) world. I am dying to be able to try Smögen some day, being from a Swedish family in the very Swedish state of Minnesota. I’ve really liked the Box (mine’s from back when it was still called Box) and Mackmyra that I’ve had. Hoping that the new bottle size options now permitted in the US will offer a little more ease for smaller producers/bottlers to expand stateside. Now if only these rubbish tariffs can be sorted out…. Skål!

    1. Jason says:

      Thanks, Anders, an easy interview to deliver when a conversation flows such as this. Smogen is such a small concern with a huge reputation. Hopefully, it’ll make it Stateside soon.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Richard says:

    Sponge Caroni is a total light style with pretty much LTR in it.

    We have tried it out several times here and I suspect it come from some very light stocks of Main Rum or Scheer. I do not know where this 8/10 come from since the liquid in the bottle is more like a neutral spirit.

    It is not about personal flavor, it’s about the new make that distillery firstly decide to sell to agencies like two mentioned, the Caroni wasn’t good, because it is not designed so.

    Makes people very confused on what the bloggers are doing toward this Sponge series.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Richard

      I enjoyed it for what it is, regardless of the stocks you suggest, as I go on what’s in my glass. So, I’m not confused at all and would have purchased a bottle if it was available, which is probably the greatest endorsement we can give any bottle as a consumer.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Richard says:

        Hi Jason,

        I have no control on people liking neutral spirits, the only fact I know is Serge gives this Caroni 92, while giving another TDL neutral spirit bottled by SS, with completely the same profile 70. So you know what I’m saying.

        I anticipated the fact whisky bloggers keep saying they rate the bottle only by the liquid and personal liking, part of which is true, so maybe we’ll see how you like every TDL bottling after rating this Caroni 8/10 🙂

    2. John says:

      Richard,

      From what I know, Scheer bought into Main a while back. The Scheer facilities mostly have the blending facilities while Main has the warehouses for aging rum.

      Caroni was not designed to be good but it just ended up benefiting from the long aging.

      1. Richard says:

        Hi John,

        Caroni does benefit from the long aging when it’s TROPICALLY AGED back in Trinidad or Guyana, not in Liverpool, let’s just face the fact.

        The only really long-aged continental Caroni we know is 1974 from Bristol Spirits, every other continental stock just come from 1996-1998, and is very LTR dominated.

        This be like saying, that Bacardi benefits from long aging or something. Will Malt ever rate an aged Bacardi 8/10? I really question it. The long aging theory makes me question very much about how well Malt knows about Rum production in Trinidad.

        1. John says:

          Hi Richard,

          I haven’t tried many of the IB Caronis but I agree that most of them are of the light style. I wonder if Luca bought most stocks of the heavy styles and left the rest for Bristol and Main Rum.

          I certainly wouldn’t give the entry level Bacardis an 8/10 but I am curious to try their more premium releases. Will Bacardi ever get a 8/10 on Malt? Maybe if I get a chance to some Cuban Bacardi. I heard those are really good stuff.

          As for what Malt knows about rum production in Trinidad, we are mainly a whisky reviewing site. Majority of the rum content here is by me and I haven’t really paid attention to Trini rum. The only working distillery left there is TDL which, frankly, bottles rather anemic rum. I know there are good Ango rum bottled by IBs but I haven’t tried a lot. The distiller isn’t very transparent as well. During the early stages of last year’s lock downs, the distiller was asked if OB Angostura are sweetened. The distiller denied it but numerous tests on their rum say otherwise.

          As for Caroni production? Even Luca doesn’t know everything about Caroni. I guess we’ll have to wait for that Caroni book due for release.

          1. Richard says:

            Hi John,

            I agree with you on the part we don’t know about Caroni at all, but what we do know is there’s a giant gap between HTR and LTR when harvesting new make.

            Angus told in an interview that he believes in absolute QUALITY merits of 60-70s whisky over modern whisky, so at least we know that some guys are trying to set an absolute standards.

            Too sad this Caroni failed to meet the good side of that absolute standard because it’s an LTR. And it’s sad too while I’m arguing this, Jason defended himself saying he only rates according to his subjective opinion, though this might be his own standard, but that’s no way to defend why Angus chose this low quality LTR dominated rum.

            We really need to choose a side don’t we? We cannot go both.

            Cheers,

            Richard

  3. Rich says:

    The Sponge Caroni is close to neutral spirit (LTR) than heavy, and there’s really some problem if Malt-review’s rating it 8/10. Please make honest notes, it is not about personal flavor, it’s about the product distilleries choose to give Scheer or Main Rum

      1. Rich says:

        Hi Jason,

        Apologies if I’m anything disrespectful.

        It is not one’s fault to feel pressed under Angus’ watch, I’ll probably do the same. But while there’s an absolute standard for what’s good in Caroni, and Angus somehow defends himself with the saying that he backs the similar standard, it’s just an lame excuse to say you PERSONALLY like it or not.

        cheers,

        Rich

  4. Song says:

    Sadly the Caroni Angus did is neither high ester nor tropically aged, let alone pot stilled. His first rum bottling violates all three demand he made in the interview.

Leave a Reply to Jason Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *