I have to admit that I do not have a particularly entrepreneurial spirit. Any venture I get involved in usually has to be about the enjoyment of the thing rather than any opportunity for profit or progression. Writing for Malt is probably the epitome of this because, beyond getting a few gripes off my chest or sharing some geekery there is no incentive, beyond some gentle peer to peer encouragement and a few warm words from readers. Let me be clear: I love it this way.
What my absolute lack of commercial instinct does leave space for is a fascination with those that have the savvy, the vision, and the determination to take an idea from a chat over a few drams through to a business plan, then grow that business. There is a lot more than reputation on the line, and anyone willing to take the risk deserves plenty of recognition. For example, I’ce previously written about Outlaw Rum and their finishing of angostura rum in Scotland in whisky casks. I’ve explored those flippers making money from whisky releases and lauded the spirit of those trying to do well by the local community from Raasay to Bruichladdich.
When Malt Mates began popping up in my Instagram feed, I spotted something a little different. I’m not sure the chronology of when I began following the account, but certainly I did not miss when they announced their first whisky release. The branding was in a sketchy non-corporate style; there did not seem to be a marketing department or whisky consultant driving things forward. It seemed tight, grass roots and fun. Once I spotted that Bill from “Bourne to Dram” had joined up as brand ambassador I started poking around, which has led to this current interview with Sion Swan of Malt Mates:
Malt: Can you tell me about Malt Mates?
Malt Mates: Malt Mates was born from a growing interest in rare and specialist whisky. Three of us “mates” who have a passion for collecting something a bit special for now and the future came together. Initially we looked at cask share options, but decided we wanted something real and “right here, right now;” something tangible and ready to go. Our first release had to be Welsh due to our roots; it was the right thing to do to start us on this journey. Three friends with a background in all things 90s, dance culture, hip hop and old skool vibes was the name of the game… something “different.”
We funded our business a variety of ways but mainly personal investment of “day job” money from the three of us. We all have full time jobs and this is a “hobby,” as such. With a strong connection to Wales, it seemed only right to start the journey with a Welsh whisky to be cherished for the future.
Malt: You seem to have decided quite an independent path here, from your initial source to self-funded approach. What was it about the first release that you particularly liked?
Malt Mates: We decided from an early stage that age doesn’t necessarily give you “bang.” By using fresher, newer whiskies but blending them to just the right combination, you can make something quite special with a distinctive profile. One of us collects Indian malt whisky, where the producers are the masters of creating young, special and stand out whisky which is different to the norm.
We were presented with a range of casks from In The Welsh Wind, which were then expertly blended to get just the right notes in the right places. The spirit is Welsh origin and is from very good stock. This is the most you are getting, [laughs]… can’t give away all our secrets, now can we?
Writers’ note: In the Welsh Wind offer custom branded spirits and a novel entry into the spirit business, along with producing their own single malt whisky. They sell single casks and do their own independent bottling. They have largely flown under my radar until now. In the case of this release I understand that the whisky is sourced from inside Wales by In The Welsh Wind. Sourcing whisky is not uncommon in the USA and Ireland.
Malt: Do you plan to continue to work with In The Welsh Wind, or springboard onto new things?
Malt Mates: Welsh Wind were very open and welcoming to put ideas and gave the platform to do something special for our first release. Our plan for the future is to move around various countries, sourcing the best each has to offer, and putting it in a neat package for people who want something different and exciting to stand out on their shelf. Malt Mates Vol.2 is of Scottish origin, so we are very much in the Celtic countries at the moment.
Malt: we need to broach the tricky question of price… £65 for 50cl (£90 for 70cl equivalent) is at the higher end of the market. Is that part of the challenge of getting started, reflecting the current market?
Malt Mates: £65 is a fair price for the quality and difference offered for something that you won’t find on a supermarket shelf. Technically when doing such small runs (under 300 bottles) it’s a very cost weighted game; margins are tight and to ensure we had a good number of bottles we were only in a position at the time to invest a fixed figure to bring to market. Some people have embraced the reality of what we have had to do to make this happen. Others are tentative and scared of taking the leap into something so unknown and perceived as expensive, so we truly understand this. However, we also know there is a following who openly embrace what we are doing and have supported us from the start. In the future, these individuals will be looked after as our business grows, and we form bonds with folks who are very much in the world of enjoying something special, different and away from the norm.
Malt: What can the philosophy behind batch one tell us about your upcoming release Vol. 2? What have you learned from your first release that you will incorporate into the second release?
Malt Mates: The main philosophy is “fun.” There are too many serious old school drams out that, whilst excellent, do all merge into each other a little. We wanted to stand out, to be bold and daring. The main thing we have learned is there is a market for our type of product and a demand from malt fans who are really looking to step away from what everyone else can get and step into a new era of whisky for all ages (over 18 of course), backgrounds, beliefs and genders.
Our whisky is all inclusive, all welcoming, and all for the right tapestry of people existing in the world today. Malt Mates Vol. 2 is born of a passion for a certain distillery we have a soft spot for: Badachro in the Scottish Highlands is run by the fabulous Gordon and Vanessa and Mike. These folks a are special, caring, responsive, and understanding; we feel they “get” the philosophy we are trying to embrace.
Malt: As a 1980s and 90s child, I enjoy the retro labels; it’s a vibe for sure. You make a link to music and that feel good nostalgia. Is that just personal indulgence, or something deliberate to kick back from the overly corporate?
Malt Mates: Our idea was to make the label handmade, childish, basic, and bold. Gone are the over-polished typecast feels of expense, elitist, tartan and stag branding. This imagery is perfect for a certain market, but we do feel for our marketing we want to offer an alternative, a friendliness, and all-inclusive vibe. During the 90s, when in our teenage years, we spent a considerable amount of time on the dancefloor; the music was everything, a way of live, a vibe. We never forget those roots and formative years that hopefully make us the people we are today: kind, friendly, approachable, and caring. That was the mood of the 90s, and we want to bring back that feeling.
Malt: How far does your whisky and music pairing go?
Malt Mates: 90s dance is the main feeling of what we are about. Not ideal for whisky drinking (you might spill some), so 90s hip hop is the name of the game when dramming and enjoying a little down time. Perhaps something from Ice cube or a little Tribe Called Quest or De La Soul would be just right?
Malt: You have been developing a network of brand ambassadors, selecting a really varied group?
Malt Mates: We chose people who we felt were true to the game, not “influencers,” whisky models, or people trying to get something for free. It’s not how we roll. Real people, real lives, real heart, and considerate-natured people. Bill, Torie, Carrie-Anne and Sara are these people, and we are blessed to have them on board.
Malt: When will the Malt Mates shell suit tops be released as merch?
Malt Mates: As soon as we can get our factory in India to look back through their warehousing and select only the cheapest and nastiest fabrics in the worst colours: the kind of material you would find at a good Northern UK market during the late 80s and early 90s. Something so dangerous and flammable, it needs to carry a health warning against wearing during warm weather or shouldn’t be left in a car during a heatwave, as may combust.
Malt: I certainly can imagine future Malt Mates product launches with banging body shaking beats, brand shell suits, sun visors, glowsticks and laser shows. Good luck to you all and we look forward to future releases.
What about how Malt Mates Vol. 1 tastes?
Malt Mates Vol. 1 – Review
Welsh Single Malt. 46% ABV. £65.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Bright and fruity, malty and blossom honey, the fruits are ripe orchard fruits, apples, pears, a touch of raspberry, there is light toffee, vanilla tablet then malty again, spirit-y bright and vibrant.
In the mouth: Medium weight, a little peppery, light refined honey and fresh juicy orchard fruits, the pepperiness continues with some fiery fresh ginger, more fruit and a bit of creamy toffee. Some boiled sweets, Soor Plooms, pear drops, and white pepper on the finish with some oak spices.
I had this down for generic young Scotch before doing my research and finding out it was Welsh Whisky. It’s solid, offering a nice freshness and – dare I say – it a very summery vibe. but lacks some depth and complexity, which is generally the case at this age. I’ve not taken off any marks for price, although it’s a lot of money to ask for young whisky. I also see that just 300 people need to back this fledgling enterprise by buying a bottle to get the company rolling, so I consider the price as fair. Hopefully as the business grows the economies of scale will kick in a little bit. Seeing these guys work with Welsh Wind to find an intriguing new route into the industry is also warming, in the face of the giant conglomerates that dominate the traditional whisky discourse. In total, I give this a solid score.
Photos provided by Malt Mates.