Across all areas of life, there seems to be more and more polarisation and extremes in viewpoints. Everything seems to be black or white, right or wrong, awesome or awful. There is very little room for grey areas, and we seem unable to deal with the truth that people, political viewpoints, or even businesses are rarely entirely good, or entirely bad.
This in part is driven by our news outlets who, rather than offer balanced coverage, prefer to set up combative debates between those who hold opposite viewpoints. These often just end up with adversaries shouting over each other. Polarisation has been taken advantage of by our politicians, and exacerbated by social media, where everyone becomes an expert in a whole host of things, as divisive memes and articles spread like wildfire. It’s also a forum where people air the high and low points of life, rather than the mundane day to day reality of it. It means that we tend to find out what people love, and what they hate, but very little of what is in between.
The world of whisky fandom is no different, whether it be the incessant excitement or cynicism of Instagram, fiery debates in Facebook groups, or even the comments section on Malt. Many comments, shares, or retweets are either in full agreement, containing thanks and praise for the author or dram (of course, we all like these comments when we get them!), or they are in full disagreement, trashing the whisky or disparaging the reviewer (much less enjoyable to be on the receiving end of). By far the best and most interesting forms of engagement when there is disagreement are constructive and dialogical, where both reader and author are open-minded and willing to learn from each other, but such conversations are like gold dust, and few and far between online.
At Malt, we write as unpaid contributors out of enjoyment for the subject. It’s inevitable that a lot of our articles are inspired by an exciting whisky experience, or a desire to air our frustration at something that has annoyed us. So, if you scroll through the site, you’ll find a lot of musings on what our authors hate: misleading labelling and advertising, lazy barrel picks, over-priced whisk(e)y, chill-filtration, caramel colouring, flippers, and many more gripes besides. You’ll also find a lot of what we love – transparency and integrity, well implemented innovation, and most importantly, no-nonsense, enjoyable, good value, great tasting whisk(e)y.
However, if you cut through all of the preamble and skip to the end, you’ll find that most of the whisky we review falls into the 4-6 score brackets. It is neither entirely awful, nor entirely awesome. The majority is decent, without being overly exciting. Enjoyable, but held back to different extents by its flaws. The weight given to the plus and minus points of a whisky are entirely subjective, depending on an individual’s palate and preferences, but discussing these grey areas is a big part of the fun of sharing whisky with others.
The whisky I’m reviewing today comes from an independent bottler which Malt and the whisky community as a whole has a lot of love for, and rightly so. Thompson Bros. seem to have gotten so much right with their ethos and cask selection. Pricing is good, with a wide range of releases that give access to high quality whisky to those with smaller budgets, as well as premium longer aged bottlings for those who can afford it. The presentation is sublime, with each bottling getting its own piece of art, that in the case of an unnamed release often gives a clue as to the distillery of origin.
Over the past couple of years, in order to deter and inhibit flippers, Thompson Bros. have balloted their releases, taking a tiered approach that rewards repeat customers who can evidence opening and sharing their whisky, and bans those who would seek to game the system. It’s a relatively transparent system, that seems fair, especially as the two-day entry window removes the need to be in the right place at the right time in order to try and buy a highly desired bottling. I’m supportive of it, even though I was unsuccessful in all of my ballot entries through the summer. It is hard to move up the tiers and improve your chances if you can’t successfully purchase a bottle in the first place! Yet, I have got a mate who had a lot more joy and is very willing to share his spoils (thanks Gary!). I’ve also bought drams online from the Hopscotch Bar, Liverpool, so I’ve been fortunate enough to try a good number of releases, and to taste for myself why their whisky is in such high demand.
It was with some excitement that I finally managed to purchase a Thompson Bros. bottle, as I stumbled across one on the Nickolls and Perks website following the Midlands Whisky Festival. I knew little about it, besides the beautiful label telling me it was from Caol Ila. Caol ila produces an ever reliable distillate, here bottled at 11 years of age from a hogshead.
Thanks to the dark colour, I had assumed that wine, port or sherry maturation was involved, but upon tasting a lot of woody char and dark fruits when I opened it, I decided to email Thompson Bros. for more information. I guessed it might be from a STR cask, but Simon replied, explaining it was dechar/rechar cask. Apparently, this is a cask type that they will be using more of in the future, as he likes them, and he has recently managed to secure a local source for them.
The dechar/rechar process rejuvenates an old cask, by first removing the layer of char created before the first fill, and then starting afresh by charring the newly revealed wood. It can lead to a super-charged, and super-charred maturation, of the kind that splits opinion, seeing as it can quickly overwhelm a whisky. Their use can be seen as a tactic employed to cover blemishes in a spirit, or to cut corners in maturation time, facing much the same arguments against it as the similarly created Shaved, Toasted and Recharred cask.
Whatever you think of them, I think we are going to have to get used to the dechar/rechar cask type, as the revitalisation of tired casks seems increasingly necessary. There are high levels of competition in acquiring good ex-bourbon casks, and in the face of the ecological imperative to reduce our environmental impact (another subject that tends to polarise opinion!), it is important that we don’t log oak trees unnecessarily. If it’s possible to make good whisky in a way that re-uses and extends the life of knackered wood, then surely it should be done.
If anyone can play with fire and harness the dechar/rechar cask well, then given their track record, Thompson Bros. should be well placed to do it. A few weeks after opening this Caol Ila, I shared it in a group tasting to see what others think of it too.
Thompson Bros. 11 Year Old Caol Ila – Review
Bottled for Nickolls and Perks, celebrating 10 years of the Midlands Whisky Festival. 54.8% ABV. £65.
Colour: Dull copper
On the nose: Char grilled lemon, red berries, toffee sauce, bbq smoke, a sea-side breeze, TCP, but most surprisingly it brings up memories of a freshly creosoted fence!
In the mouth: Medicinal and briny peat, singed lemon peel, charcoal, bourbon biscuits, vanilla fudge, maple syrup, sappy wood, aniseed, summer fruits, and baked apple. It’s very oily and builds to a big and smokey finish that lingers for an age.
I really enjoyed this. The cask is powerful, but I found it to be well integrated, with the recognisable citrus and medicinal peat of Caol Ila coming through. The recharred cask doubles down on the smoke, giving it a lot of depth that isn’t always present in releases from this distillery. In a whisky market saturated with decent independent Caol Ila bottlings, this is one that brings something different, and stands out from the crowd. It’s fairly priced, too.
However, this is a whisky that proved divisive in my group of whisky mates. Some hated it, whilst others loved it, and like in many other areas of life right now, there was little in between. The two camps would have probably found more common ground discussing religion or Brexit! So, whilst I have scored it favourably, others would have scored it much lower. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I noted that those who liked it also like high proof bourbon, and will be used to the impact that a heavy char can bring. Those who disliked it like peated whisky on the whole; it was the intense woodiness that put them off.
It was a whisky that split the room, but we had great fun discussing it, and in a five dram tasting, there were plenty other opportunities for the naysayers to be satisfied!
Afterword: Upon opening this bottle of Caol Ila, I sent in evidence of it to Thompson Bros., moved tiers in the ballot as a result, and have been successful in my first ballot entry since!