Of all the Scottish distilleries that people in the whisky industry are meant to like the one that I’ve paid least attention to in recent times is Springbank. I loved the ‘Rundlets & Kilderkins‘ bottling that appeared last year and used to ensure that I always had a bottle of Longrow 100 proof in the cupboard, but other than that I’ve not really tried anything from them in recent times. Being a reflective sort (self-examining rather than polished) I’m assuming this is because most of the contact I’ve had with the brand in the last couple of years is hearing about how expensive their older bottlings are, and seeing the Longrow 18 fly off the shelves for a scary amount of money, even though I thought it quite average.
So, when I was offered the choice of various ‘Grand Tastings’, the top end tasting sessions that happen the night before the big day of the Victoria Whisky Festival, I pounced on the Sprinbank one. We had no indication of what might be on the mat, but behind the times as I am any recent bottlings would be great. However, that wasn’t entirely what happened.
I’ve been a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a couple of years now (with my third year renewal sitting just on the other side of New Year) and have been rather a fan since the day I first walked through the doors of their London rooms. Since then I’ve visited both of their rooms in Edinburgh on a number of occasions (I like Edinburgh), stayed in their members’ flats and attended a tasting or two. However, it seems I have now graduated to the next level – I was invited along to a tasting of their upcoming mid-November new releases.
The society is a private members club who along with the three UK tasting rooms, flats in Leith, overseas branches and a website, bottle and sell single cask whiskies. Currently they do a couple of releases of new whiskies each month, ranging from a couple of bottlings up to larger numbers depending on what they have, with members having a chance to drink the whiskies by the dram in one of the tasting rooms as well as buying bottles in person or online. I was invited to taste six bottles from the new list (which is a big one – 41 new whiskies) with Jean-Luc and Pierre from Connosr, and Joel and Neil from Cask Strength. I think I was a late substitute for local boy Dave Broom, who is currently drinking tasty things abroad, but if so that’s a bit of a compliment. I’m taking it as such, whether true or not.
The slight strangeness to the invite was that instead of being at the London SMWS rooms, where tasting organiser Joe McGirr is manager and all five invitees are based, it was instead at the Hotel du Vin in Brighton. The SMWS is partnering with Hotel du Vin and Malmaison to add a ‘SMWS Snuggle‘ to many of their hotels, offering a selection of society whisky for members, and the Brighton branch is one of those that has one. It suited me, as it was a good excuse to take a half day from work and go to commune with the sea – a chunk of my family are from the Brighton area and I haven’t been down to the seafront for ages. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in either the vaguaries of British weather or the recent clock change and trudged along the beach in the darkness and rain, but some communing was done.
I arrived at the hotel a bit early, chased out of the street by the wet weather, only to find that due to the lack of resilience of British trains to rain (which, of course, we never have here in the gloriously sunny UK) everyone else was running late. Not a problem, as the hotel has a rather tasty beer menu and some Boon Gueuze made it’s way down my neck. Eventually SMS’d tales of Haywards Heath turned into materialised whisky drinkers and the tasting got started.
Firstly a word on the SMWS bottlings – they aren’t marked with distillery names. For a stated reason of ‘not wanting to dilute the distilleries’ brands by attaching their names to non-standard bottlings’, and an unstated one of adding mystery, they are instead marked with two numbers – a distillery code and barrel number. Each distillery keeps the same number over time, so it is easy to work out which is which with either a good memory or handy list, and the barrel numbers are incremented as the society puts out more bottlings. I’ve started to remember my favourite (121 – Arran, 27 – Springbank, 29 – Laphroaig…) but with 128 distilleries on the list from around the world (there’s some Japanese and Irish in the mix) I’m still working on it. Along with the numerical identification each whisky is also given a unique name, some of which are rather ‘creative’. ie. mad.
The first whisky of the night was 26.68 – Morph and Minty. This is an 18 year old Clynelish matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 52.9%. On the nose it had chalky Refreshers, polished wood, peppery spice, vanilla and roses. It had a woody taste around the sides of the, mouth with the fizziness and flavour of the Refreshers from the nose, floor wax and a refreshing sweetness. A few drops of water brought out more wax and coalesced the general sweetness into some rich pineapple. The call from around the room was that this was quite a typical Clynelish, at least for the single cask bottlings, and it was very much my favourite of the night. This may well be my Christmas dram.
We then moved on to 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood. This is from Glen Burgie, a distillery I only know as an entry in the SMWS list. It’s been around (officially) since 1829 (starting up in 1810 according to the internets) and was originally called Kinflat. It closed in 1870 and was reopened in 1878 with its current name. Things continued (with stills being added and replaced, and the distillery changing hands) until 2004, when the old distillery was demolished and a shiny new one built in its place. It’s owned these days by Pernod Ricard (who also own Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Strathisla and a few more) and its production is almost exclusively used in blends, including Ballantines. There have been occasional official bottlings but most single malt that comes out of the distillery is via independent bottlers, like the SMWS. This one was from a refill sherry butt aged for 20 years, bottled at 57.4%. On the nose it was strange, with an eventual consensus of old food tins coming up – at the time I reckoned it was a bit like a part washed sardine tin, but I’ve just had another sniff and I’m thinking stale baked bean tins instead. Anyways, it had a metallic note, with blood coming up in descriptions around the table, a big Bovril meatiness, resinous wood, creme brulee, granny smith apples and BBQ sauce. To taste it was hot and powerful without water, with Branston Pickle (the chutney flavour of the title), Worcester Sauce, pepper, green wood, cream and slightly fruity custard. Water helped things along with coconut, sweet wood, vanilla, raisins, and hints of liquorice, citrus and mint appearing in the mix. I got to take home the generous remains of this bottle, hence my chance at a second pre-release sniff, and it’s still a very strange whisky. I think I quite like it, but I can’t be sure.
Next up was 128.1 – A String Quartet of Flavours. Quite a special one this, as a .1 whisky is the first society release from a distillery, in this case Penderyn. Penderyn are quite protective of selling their casks so a single cask independent bottling is not something you often (maybe ever) see, making it surprising that the SMWS not only have this bottling but also a .2. They are famed for being the only Welsh distillery, and are based in the village of Penderyn in the Brecon Beacons, producing whisky from a mash made offsite at the Brains Brewery in Cardiff. I’ve tried a few of their whiskies over the years and as yet I’ve not been much of a fan, with everything from a recent taste of the Sherry Finish to a shot of their first malt (which I now forget the details of) in a pub at the end of a drunken night not quite tickling my tastebuds. This one was matured in a first fill port barrique and is bottled at 55.6% at a mere 6 years old. It poured very dark, looking a bit like a PX, and had a nose that matched up – christmas pudding, caramel sauce, rich fruit and, less expected, popcorn. In the mouth it had a buttery feel and a taste of burned sweetened butter, with bread and butter pudding, and port with the grapey astringency removed. Water killed the richness quite quickly, but a drop brought out some marzipan in the up front flavour and more wood in the finish. This is the nicest Penderyn I’ve tried as yet, but there was still something to it that didn’t quite appeal to me. I’m suspecting it must be a subconscious anti-welsh prejudice.
We then moved on to 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating. This one is from Springbank, one of my remembered numbers, and was 12 year old matured in refill bourbon casks and bottled at 58.8%. On the nose there were damp, musty leaves, lemon sherbert and malt syrup. To taste it was spicy and astringent, with dusty wood, meaty tannins, spicy sour fruit and a long sawdust finish. Water softened the woodiness, bringing out a buttery mouthfeel and more sour fruit. Despite my love of Springbank’s official bottlings this one joins my list of SMWS ones that I didn’t like – it was too woody for me and didn’t have enough of the Springbank saltiness to make up for it.
Next was 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps. 29 is another one of the numbers I remember – Laphroaig. This one was a 12 year old from a refill sherry butt, bottled at a scary 63.8%, making me suspect this was put in the cask a bit stronger than the 63-64ish% that the industry usually uses. On the nose it was sweet and smoky, like bbq sauce. This was discussed around the table until we decided exactly what it reminded us of – pulled pork from Bodean’s. Woody, smoky and sweet with a meaty undertone. As it sat in the glass the smoke thickened adding a whiff of tarred ropes. To taste there was stony coal dust with raisins and toffee, all covered over with a leathery dryness. Water calmed down the smoke and brought out more of the sherried wood, bringing in fruit and a more creamy mouthfeel. The taste on this one didn’t really match up enough with the intriguing nose for me, but it’s worth a try for the smell alone. If you can’t find any just go and eat some porky BBQ instead.
Our final whisky of the night was 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar. 33 is one of the numbers I should remember, especially as my taste is coming round towards smoky whisky again – Ardbeg. This one is a 10 year old from a refill sherry butt bottled at 56.9%. On the nose it had sweet orangey peat with stoney coal and a light woody smoke, To taste it had cream and coal ash, meaty peat, burnt sugar and a long TCP finish that kicked in a few seconds after swallowing and hung around for minutes. Water revealed some ginger, more fruit and some liquorice. As with many single cask Ardbegs this one was a bit of a punch to the face – big and smoky with some good citrus sweetness. Maybe not for me, as my tastes haven’t quite got back this far up the peat tree, but I suspect that won’t matter – Ardbegs sell out quickly at the SMWS.
Unfortunately I had to run off a bit early, as I was off to stay with some friends one town over and the last train that would get me in at a not entirely anti-social hour left earlier than the last London train. I left the others pouring their Chocolate Caviar over creme brulees and ran (well, walked slightly faster than usual) up the hill to the station. Despite its rather unappealing name, the Whisky Snuggle is a very nice room and Hotel du Vin’s Brighton branch lives up to the expectations I established on a visit to the one in Bournemouth last year – friendly, with an impressive drinks list even without the SMWS bottlings. We got to have a look at some of the rooms and despite the fact that the beach front telescopes that some of them had installed were pointed in unuseful directions, the fact they were a) installed and b) next to bathtubs that sat incongruously in the middle of the rooms added to the (good) madness of the design. I also saw my first triple bed, alongside a shower cubicle that it was agreed could fit at least a five-a-side football team, if not most of a rugby team.
Most of the new list is available, having come out a couple of Friday’s ago, but the Penderyn has already, predictably, sold out. As I got the last bottle of the 126.1 and tried the 127.1 I can’t really complain…
SMWS 26.68 – Morph and Minty Single cask highland single malt whisky. 52.9%. £58.30 from the SWMS site
SMWS 71.33 – Chutney on Hot Wood Single cask highland single malt whisky. 57.4%. £56.20 from the SMWS site
SMWS 128.1 – A string quartet of flavours Single cask Welsh single malt whisky. 55.6%. £49.50. Sold out online, there might be some in the tasting rooms.
SMWS 27.85 – Manly and Penetrating Single cask Campbeltown single malt whisky. 58.8% £53.30 from the SMWS site
SMWS 29.91 – Bovril and Neeps Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 63.8%. £48.70 from the SMWS site
SMWS 33.96 – Chocolate Caviar Single cask Islay single malt whisky. 56.9%. £33.96 from the SMWS site
Many thanks to Joe McGirr from SMWS London for inviting me along and to Dave Broom for being out of the country…
Joel and Neil have a post about the evening over on their site, written in their usual inimitable style.
If anyone is thinking of joining the SMWS then let me know – I’ll talk you into it. They also have a referral scheme and any aid in funding my whisky habit is gratefully received.
Balvenie 12 Years Doublewood – a whisky grabbed as a chaser round the corner from the Sci-Fi-London film festival after a day of packing bags and herding punters. It had a grassy, olive oily nose with hints of sugary spice and a touch of wood. To taste it had a woody sweetness with some cinnamony spiciness with a bitter fruity finish. As it developed in the glass the sweetness increased and turned towards candyfloss.
Thatchers Old Rascal – I popped into the branch of Byron Hamburger that’s now hiding in the building that used to house The Intrepid Fox (I may never have drunk anything but Newcastle Brown or bottled cider when visiting, but RIP anyway. The new location just isn’t the same) and grabbed a quick bottle of cider to accompany my tasty burger. Described on the label as ‘Full bodied medium dry Somerset cider’, I would have stuck it more towards the medium sweet end of things. Anyways, it was quite nice – more mulchy farmyard flavour than you usually get from a mainstream cider as well as a nice tartness contrasting with the underlying sweetness. One to remember.
The SMWS release a new tranche of whiskies every first Friday of the month, so I stopped by to try a couple. Well, more than a couple after I got talking to the bar staff…I am weak:
SMWS 35.38, Fire in the hole! (Glen Moray) – Chosen specifically because of my interest in strange wood maturations, this one was matured for 9 years in a 2nd fill chardonnay cask. Wine finishes are generally badly thought of by whisky connoisseurs, but a few interesting ones do get out into the wild – this one is a bit of a mixture. A strange nose, with a slab of wood as well as a strange chicken and ammonia combination (to be honest there was a hint of the pub bog to it). To taste it was almost meaty, with overripe fruit and a bitter woody finish. With a bit of water it softened out, becoming more wine-like with some vanilla from the wood and an oily sandalwood flavour coming through. One to try, but not one I want a whole bottle of.
SMWS 93.38, Stirs the atavistic soul (Glen Scotia) – The intended final dram of the evening, this was to sate my love of Campbelltown whiskies, although as there are only two remaining distilleries, Glen Scotia and Springbank, this is quite a limited love. Luckily Springbank have a couple of brands they distill giving a slightly wider field for me to taste my way through. Anyways, this reminded me, from my notes, of a damp wood fire in someone else’s garden – smoke at a distance with a touch of damp woodiness. There were sour grapes and cured meat on the nose as well. To taste there was a touch of sweet wine as well as tannic wood, almost like a fruity rioja. A drop of water softened the wood, bringing out more sweetness and hiding the tannins. Overall the main memory I have is of a tingling menthol like finish down the sides of the tongue. Quite definitely from Campbelltown and really quite nice.
SMWS 27.80 (Springbank) – no name for this one as I can’t find it on the website. Continuing the Campbelltown kick I went for a recommended dram of this new (I think) Springbank. It had salt and a light sweetness on the nose, as well as a plimsoll-like rubberiness. To taste it had more salt and rubber as well as a sweetness and a prickly, numbing sensation. Water brought on more sweetness and a slick, buttery mouthfeel, along with more rubber and fisherman’s friends. It reminds me very much of the bottle of single cask Springbank I got from Cadenhead’s while at the Edinburgh Festival last year, although this one is even better. I may have to pick up a bottle on my next visit.
SMWS 53.140, Swelling, crashing, waves of flavour (Caol Ila) – a deliberate evening ending choice, although I was offered an even more peaty Ardbeg by the ever helpful barman. I declined, but made a note for my next visit. On the nose it had a sweet peaty smoke with a hint of disinfectant, mulch and parma violets. To taste it was crisply smoky with candy floss and citrus fruit, but rather complex and overpowering and in need of dilution. Water saves your palate from certain destruction, with the flavours combining to give a sweet wet ash smokiness, a touch of orange and a tingly finish. It’s good I stopped after it as I was still tasting it when I got home an hour later.
And my favourite of the week:
Fuller’s Bengal Lancer – I’ve tried this IPA on tap, but not grabbed a bottle yet, however, I’m glad I did. It’s a bottle conditioned, very heavily hopped IPA which is light on the palate but still wonderfully bitter, with the great taste of citrusy hops dominating in a rather pleasant way. As the hops die back there’s a nice touch of fruity malt and it finishes with the same bitterness that most Fuller’s beers display. Very good and one that I’ll be stocking up on when I find someone to drive me to the shops.