Barley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Barley was as dead as a doornail.
The core motivation behind independent bottlers has never been to sell whiskies at prices considerably discounted over distillery’s own outputs. That fondly remembered scenario of inexpensive IB releases is now steadily moving out of focus of current day drinkers – but at the same time perceptions that this pricing disparity was *always* the case are actually something of a distortion. And indeed, down the line I suspect we may well all look back on the period of time when IB bottlings were relatively ‘cheap’ as something of an oddity – a gilded age unlikely to be repeated.
Whisky’s intrinsic relationship with the concept of the passage of time is a deeply-rooted yet oft-times rolled-out trope. Outside of the obvious physical requirements of making something and then for all intents and purposes leaving it alone – the industry has perennially gathered around the notion that ‘good whisky is worth waiting for’ – at least for three years. Whilst nowadays time is all too often wrapped up into the idea of the age statement – its application and its historic utilisation cuts far deeper. If you look back to the earliest whisky advertisements of the late 19th Century (all for blends and many that you’d nowadays mark as NAS), you’ll see the regular employment of words such as “old”, “slowly”, “patiently” and “unhurriedly” – all to some degree of truisms of the whisky making process itself - and none having left the modern-day lexicon. But nevertheless, throughout the spirit’s long history the idea of time has been repeatedly deployed to plant the acorn of an idea that it is synonymous with whisky.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that throughout the course of today you’re going to hear one thing repeatedly said about this year’s TWE Black Friday release - “It’s just a Caol Ila.” I’m also going to go out on a limb and tell you why I believe that this all too regularly intoned, throwaway dismissal does a disservice to one of the world’s most versatile distillates.
Whilst the longer established whisky producers continue their relentless drive toward ‘making more from less’, AKA premiumisation – newer distilleries are waiting in the wings ready to garner a noteworthy market share from the gulf that is increasingly developing between preliminary/introductory bottles and the upper strata of ‘aspirational whisky’. The big players seem hell bent on racing to the top – of positioning as much of their whisky as possible as somehow more than just a drink. I.E. as a luxury lifestyle statement. But once this has all inevitably been played out, it could well be those racing up from the bottom who reap the rewards longer term.
Whilst an array of indy bottlers have slowed down their release cycles due to the struggle that is accessing suitable casks and acquiring increasingly hard to obtain (and progressively more expensive) dry goods such as bottles, foils and corks - the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is showing no signs of letting up. And in all honesty, I’m now starting to wonder if I need to find some shelter from their storm of bottles.
It sounds oh so simple. Collect some samples. Taste them. Then pick the ‘best’ one and bottle it. If only. I’ll tell you straight off the bat - bottlers deserve a whole lot of patience and respect from whisky enthusiasts. More than they often receive. The life of an independent bottler in 2022 is both laboured and increasingly challenging. Whilst the bottled results might feel like newly welcomed members of an extended family, the conception, gestation and birthing process itself is to my mind closer to a drawn out pregnancy that culminates in a traumatic, PTSD-inducing delivery. If I had my time again, I’d have the gas and air on standby.
Back in March I opened my SMWS outturn review with “Goodness - has it really been a whole 6 months since our last SMWS outturn review?” And here we are….another 6 months on <sigh>. A few of you have messaged asking where The Dramble’s outturn review have got to (two over 12 months is super slim pickings) – but despite some amusingly left-field suggestions, our inability to bring you Society reviews has been purely down to the continued buggeration that is logistics. Simply put - Greville Street in London has not been getting outturn bottles until right up until the wire of the release itself. Not nearly enough time to taste, note, collate and write up.
Despite the staggeringly broad compositions that are possible when combining multiple, sometimes disparate casks into a single, unified expressions – the attraction of whisky geeks to single casks is as predictable as moths to a flame. It matters not a jot how many pieces are penning championing either the necessity or the art of blending – the perceived ‘purity’ of single cask whisky is just as, if not more, revered than it has ever been. And there are times when I find it a particularly odd state of affairs to see enthusiasts venerating whisky makers, but at the same time clamouring for bottlings with the least amount of intervention from them.
The ‘rule of three’ is an age-old writing technique that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying and more effective than any other number. Veni, vici, vidi. The Three Wise Men. Of the people, by the people, for the people. Once you start to notice it – you’ll see threes absolutely everywhere. Beginnings, middles and ends. Past, present and future. Mind, body and soul. This prevalence isn’t anything mystical – it’s simply the smallest number that allows the human mind to recognise a pattern. And as such, it is also a perfect threshold for the packaging and marketing of products – whisky included.
Even the most superficial of look-backs into the history of whisky will reveal a remarkable, constantly alterable spirit diversity - and this should serve as a reminder that there is no end point for whisky style and no ultimate manifestation of whisky evolution. Whisky changes. Whisky *needs* to change.
Despite waiting years, decades or even generations for a whisky to mature, it seems that patience is far from a virtue when it comes to getting that whisky to people’s doorsteps. I still remember as a much younger man feeling somewhat privileged to receive a package within a couple of weeks of ordering it. Waiting for things was simply a prerequisite back then. But, oh how times have changed. Immediate access to anything and everything all of the time and same-day deliveries might be steadily championing the democratisation of our right to laziness – but at the same time, should whisky ever be viewed as an ultra-convenience?
I would never dare to presume too much about The Dramble’s readers. We all imbibe, enjoy and consider our whiskies in myriad different ways. But as my PC’s taskbar-based weather forecast finally ticks up to today’s promised 40 degrees Celsius – I do wonder about some of you occasionally. Try as I might, when it’s genuinely silly hot, I struggle to get myself into the mood for most whiskies outside of highballs and the occasional smoky cokey. There’s a temperature range that I believe that whisky works best at (more on this shortly) – and once I’ve seen someone fry an egg on their patio – my mind and my palate are steadily moving toward the whisky exit sign. But a little record-breaking hot weather clearly isn’t enough to scupper some of you lot. And I doth my cap to those of you still tackling cataclysmically cask strength drams whilst I’m sat here wondering if I’ve got enough Robinson’s in.
There’s a host of reasons why individual whiskies, collections of whiskies and series of whiskies come to an end. At times this change can present drinkers with entirely new perspectives and directions. A revitalisation of a product or brand. A reaffirmation or repositioning of a distillery’s house style. A recognition that standing still is a sure-fire method for achieving irrelevance. And there are other times when, regardless of the reasons for the conclusion, the response from the community will simply be a sense of sadness that something beloved will no longer be available. Whilst certain quarters of enthusiasts will have you believe that never-changing, monolithic, perceived high quality (and 90’s perma-low pricing) is possible. It is not. Nothing lasts forever.
As a reviewer you need to be quick off the mark to pen your thoughts on a new bottle of Springbank before the thing has all but vanished from the shelves. And when that situation extends to what was once (but arguably aren’t now) the distillery’s core range products, you invariably find yourself either writing about the just past or penning words about the fairly depressing future where things are notionally still available – only now at twice the price they were last week. Rather like filling up the car or obtaining the weekly shop - just far less actually consumed as intended.
Like buses, you wait decades for another Spot whiskey and then three come along in the space of three years. The whisky world is packed to the rafters with series, selections and collections. These often follow the Fast & Furious model of leveraging a pre-existing audience with ‘more of the same, but different’ – retain the lead actors, add some new faces, change the location and then slap a new number on the front. Job done. But irrespective of whether entertainment or booze the idea of replication and repetition holds just as may pitfalls as it does potential blessings.
Craigellachie can be a stubbornly awkward whisky. Whilst well-regarded and sought after for blending because of its naturally fruity profile and weighty spirit character, I’ve repeatedly seen Craigellachie in single malt form quickly divide a room – particularly when the offering involves younger liquid. Despite writing earlier this week about the ebbs and flows of maturation which often produce not one, but several or many ‘peaks’ within whiskies – Craigellachie doesn’t always fall quite so easily into this rubric for some drinkers. And the reason for that is oft-times sulphur.
“We only bottle at the peak of perfection”. How many distilleries and bottlers have you heard using a phrase similar to this one? The suggestion being that whisky has a right and a wrong time. That it’s a difference between being immature and mature. Of being 3rd class or 1st class. But there are countless problems with making sweeping statements about levels of maturity. For starters a *lot* of whisky is sold at a younger age than it could be. But more broadly, maturation is far from linear and a wealth of whiskies showcase entirely different characteristics at different ages – none being necessarily better or more ‘peak’ than the others.
No messing around with long-winded, convoluted introductions - we've got rather a lot to get through today.
16 Whisky Sponge reviews. One after another. Strap yourselves in.
Reams of paper and gigabytes of the Internet have been dedicated to dissecting and understanding the properties of tannins. From learning why fish tanks turn brown and identifying why wines tends to either possess a pleasant, unobtrusive silky texture or an astringent, grippy, dryness - all the way to understanding the transformational processes involved in preserving animal hides by turning them into leather (tanning!). And yet, despite possessing a similarly central bearing on the character of whisky - its relatively quality and quantity vis-a-vis texture, bitterness and notably, the formation of colour – tannins rarely get referenced by name throughout the multitude of whisky commentary.