The people have spoken.
Well, some of the people, in any case. As in other areas, I harbor the suspicion that the most stentorian voices in the crowd don’t always represent the majority. There’s often a handful of individuals with axes to grind and too much time on their hands, whose persistent drum-banging results in the impression that they are more numerous than is actually the case.
Still: I’m willing to hear anyone out, to a point. Thus, I took note of some feedback that has been given a few times (though irregularly, and usually in the context of airing other grievances) since I took the helm here at Malt (defined, for the purposes of our discussion, as April 1, 2021). These comments take several forms, but their essence is: Malt either isn’t publishing Scotch reviews anymore (factually incorrect) or has shifted the focus away from Scotch towards American whiskey, or other types of potables.
While Malt’s critics are entitled to their own opinions, they’re not entitled to their own facts. Some statistics: of the 276 pieces that have appeared on this site between April Fool’s Day and the time of writing (January 10, 2022), we have published 120 that contain a review of at least one Scotch whisky, 45% of the total. In that same time, we have published 73 reviews focused on American whiskey, 26% of all the content on the site. Australian whisky, Irish whiskey, Cognac, Mezcal, and other various distilled spirits have occupied the remaining third of our time. Scotch remains – by a wide margin – the largest category and is still our main preoccupation here at Malt.
In case it wasn’t already apparent: this is going to be one of those meta-Malt reviews, in which I talk about what we talk about, how we talk about it, and why we talk about it. For what it’s worth, we haven’t indulged in much self-reflection – at least, in this space – of late. Thus, I feel like some time spent on critical evaluation of our own philosophy and process is warranted. Some may call it navel-gazing; I’d invite those disinterested in these types of digressions to scroll down to the review portion.
For those still with me: I’d like to start from our first principles, which are those that guide the writers here to do what we do, and which are Malt’s raison d’être. We provide honest and transparent reviews, utilizing the full breadth of a 10-point scale, and accept neither paid content nor advertising from the industry.
Why is this important or noteworthy? This approach allows us to avoid the conflicts of interest which may compromise other reviewers’ objectivity. Whereas writers in other fora might be inclined to soften a negative review in order to keep the ad dollars, complimentary bottles, or free samples flowing, those incentives are significantly reduced (if not eliminated completely) here at Malt.
The vast majority of what is reviewed here is from bottles bought and paid for out of a reviewer’s own pocket. The next biggest category of subjects for review are likely samples provided by friends or fans of the site… and a hearty “thank you!” to everyone who has been so generous in sharing their whisky.
Occasionally, a distillery will reach out and offer us samples or a bottle, free of charge. We ask that our writers evaluate these in a cost-sensitive way, as though they personally suffered the financial outlay associated with procuring a bottle at retail price.
Humans are imperfect, though, and subject to all manner of subconscious influence of the type we’ve written about frequently here. Thus, we always disclose when we’re reviewing a free whiskey, so that readers may judge for themselves whether bias has resulted in any punches pulled or scores inflated. I’m happy to report that, in editing all the pieces on this site (and engaging in a fair deal of back-and-forth about scoring), I have not once had cause to suspect that a reviewer was overly clement due to compromised integrity.
You might wonder: with no ad revenue to support compensating our writers (above our web hosting and development costs, our Patreon program generates a very modest surplus of about £34 a month), and very little in the way of free samples to dangle as carrots, how do we get a sufficient number of people to spend their money and time to produce enough content that we’re able to publish a long-form review every day?
The answer is that we’re passionate hobbyists, not professionals. We’ve all got day jobs; nobody relies on this site to feed themselves or their family. If they’re anything like me, the other writers on this site steal moments in the early morning or late evening, or on weekends, to hammer away at their keyboards. What you read here is motivated by passion, rather than any pecuniary concerns.
Passion can be an unpredictable muse; it waxes and wanes, and it leads us to unexpected places. Sometimes I won’t hear from a writer for a month, before receiving three or more finished pieces in my inbox within a day or two. Similarly, the subjects of reviews are typically chosen based on availability, interest, curiosity, or mere serendipity.
If I were planning this site by doling out assignments, I might ask Kat to lead off on Monday with one of her scorching Scotch whisky reviews. Tuesday could see Mark treat us to a novel malt whisky from Down Under, accompanied by a probing interview of a craft distiller. Wednesday may be a bourbon review from Frank or Matt or Ryan or myself, while Thursday would perhaps see one of Alyssa’s deep forays into the finer points of whisky production or maturation. Friday would return to Scotch whisky again, with Andrew, Evrim, Dora, Jon, or Sam offering their studied consideration of whatever was tickling their fancy at the moment. Or would we travel to the Emerald Isle, with an Irish whiskey reviewed by David? Regardless, Saturday would almost certainly feature an epic piece from Graham about mischief or malfeasance in some corner of the whiskyverse; Sunday, as always, would freshen things up with a Cognac, Mezcal, Rum, or other Malternative, courtesy of John.
That’s not how it works in practice, however. I sit and wait patiently until Gmail notifies me that I have a new message. Sometimes, I wake up to an empty inbox, and am forced to fret about whether we’ll have enough content for the week’s full seven days (in the end, we almost always do). Other times I have a smorgasbord of diverse reviews; in some instances, it’s many reviews of a similar type. Rarely (but not never), the same distillery is reviewed by more than one writer in close cadence. I do my best to adjust the queue to vary the content, but it’s not always possible. So, we’ll occasionally have weeks where the majority of the reviews are Scotch, and yet others where it’s nearly all bourbon.
I tell you all this to assuage concerns that there’s some Malt agenda, pushed by myself or others, to emphasize certain types of whisky at the expense of others. While my ideal (as laid out above) would be a site with content as wide-ranging as the world of whiskey more broadly, reality puts me at the whims of whatever our writers want to write about. I get what I get, and I don’t get upset.
I hope you, dear reader, won’t get upset either. Regardless of whether the topic of the day’s review is from your favorite region or not, you can rest assured that what you’re reading has been produced by someone driven only by their enthusiasm for the subject matter. I’m confident that this produces better and more enjoyable content than would result from workmanlike adherence to a schedule planned without regard for the proclivities of those doing the writing.
At the risk of encouraging some of our least fair and respectful correspondents, I’ll now provide a review of a Scotch whisky… you know, just to prove that I’m not an incorrigible American with a desire to erase Scotland from the whisky map (as if). After all, Scotland (while I resided there) was the birthplace of my appreciation for neat whisky, and I still look back on those formative drams with a great deal of fondness.
This Scotch whisky comes to us from one of my favorite distilleries: Islay’s Caol Ila. This one is brought to us by Chapter 7, an independent Swiss bottler. From their “Monologue” series, this is from a bourbon barrel, #160. Aged nine years in total (5/2011 to 9/2020), 284 bottles were produced at a strength of 52.2% ABV. It is no longer available from K&L for $85 and is also sold out at Top Whiskies; nonetheless, the bottle photo is courtesy of them. This sample is a generous gift from Graham.
Chapter 7 Caol Ila Cask #160 – Review
Color: Medium maize.
On the nose: A perfect, briny and smoky blast of classic Caol Ila aromas makes way for a tart lime note that has an effervescent feel to it, in the manner of Sprite soda pop. Time in the glass allows for layers to gradually unfold, with a toffee accent and some buttery oak providing rich and creamy counterpoints to the more austere peat and maritime scents. A pure sniff of malt shows through here for a moment, a reminder of the relative youth of the whisky, and of the quality of the underlying distillate. There is some herbal spiciness here in the manner of cardamom pods, before the nose ascends to the sweet and citrus-accented airy heights of lemon meringue.
In the mouth: The first kiss is a delightfully brisk marriage of saline and lemon zest. As this moves toward the center of the tongue a very purely ashy note emerges as the dominant flavor, however this has a remarkable freshness to it that prevents it from ever tipping over into stale or unpleasantly acrid territory. A momentary resurgence of that citric bite is once again evinced at the top of the tongue, where the whisky bursts with tart fruit and again becomes effervescent in texture. The more classically smoky flavors emerge on the finish, though the peat is balanced and well-integrated with a solid note of chocolate. Considered together, these present as “roasty” rather than as either smoky or sweet.
This has everything I look for from modestly aged, independently bottled Caol Ila. It is unmistakably an Islay whisky, with good, pure expressions of the hallmark seaside and peat notes. However, this achieves remarkable balance across many flavor spectrums; there’s dark and light, sour and sweet, delicate and rich flavors in equal measure. More importantly, this poise is maintained from the first whiff to the final drop in the glass; the consistency of the experience throughout is a marvelous thing.
If I knew that every IB Caol Ila I picked up for $80 to $90 was going to be this good, I might not ever drink anything else from Islay. While not quite life-changing, this is certainly life-affirming, in the sense of reminding us that there is wonderful Scotch whisky available without extraordinary financial outlay.
I hope this review and its preamble are at least some reassurance that Malt has not strayed from its Scotch roots either by accident, deliberately, or as part of some nefarious scheme. I cannot foresee the future of the site, however I can promise that it will continue to include Scotch whisky in ample proportions.