A Christmas Barrel
Posted 20 December 2022 by Matt / In Blend
Bottle Name: A Good Old-Fashioned Christmas Whisky 2022 Edition
Bottler: The Whisky Exchange
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 Spirit of Christmas Past
On November 20th 1945 an article (including a glaring typo that demonstrates that copyediting has always been rather the spotty profession) in the European Edition of New York Herald Tribune recorded that an appeal had been made in The Daily Express’s “public opinion” column for a “victory, not austerity Christmas”. It noted that “a bottle of real port is a traditional Christmas treat”, going on to entreat Sir Ben Smith (then Minister of Food) to “make it easier to find and easier to pay for, and spare a little of that whisky, that goes to America so regularly, for the homes of Britain.”
Christmas. Drinking. Peas in a pod. As an association, one might possibly look to the advent (pun intended) of the modern booze-packed Christmas during the Victorian era, when entrepreneurs such a Dickens reinvented the holiday period as a celebration of children, the fantastical inversion of the fortunes of rich with the poor, and combining the two - of increasingly encouraged mass-consumption designed to engender economic prosperity. Oh Matt, you old cynic you.
However, Christmas's origins as a period of festivity (and of excessive alcohol consumption) likely lie way further back in time with the amalgamation of the far less domesticated Saturnalia (a notably bibulous Roman holiday running from December 17-23 in honour of the god of Saturn) with the marking of the birth of the Christ on the 25th December. Over time, the two steadily morphed into one – the merriment and drinking of the former being wrapped up wholesale into the Christian writings and beliefs of the latter. Depending on where you are in the world, one has certainly tended to favour the other in modern times.
By the early to mid-19th century the Temperance Movements in the US and England were in full swing – by which point, alcohol consumption was an integral part of Westernised culture – and not just over the festive period. Whilst the group’s actions didn’t entirely sever the link between Christmas and alcohol (save for the period of US Prohibition in the 1920s), a steady movement began to turn the holiday into a more family oriented affair. Christmas trees and Santa Claus (to name but a few traditions) were adopted from other cultures into Western societies – and the church continued to reinforce the ‘why’ of the celebrations in an attempt to change attitudes towards all forms of over-indulgence.
The meaning of Christmas may or may not, be better understood nowadays (I have my doubts) – but regardless, its relationship to alcohol remains resolutely steadfast across many cultures.
Even old Scrooge himself could not resist the allure of a Christmas toast following his miraculous last-minute conversation. However, whilst many a Dramble reader will doubtless be reaching for a choice dram this holiday, traditional festive drinks were far more ecclesiastical. From Scrooge's Smoking Bishop (a clove-spiked mulled port) to Smoking Archbishop (swapping the port for Claret), Smoking Pope (swapping in Burgundy) and perhaps the oddest of the lot - Smoking Beagle - which utilises ginger wine in concert with raisins. Because of course.
All far too involved for my liking, so I think it'll be for the best if I maintain the link between Christmas and drinking in my household by just sticking to a little of the whisky that apparently goes to America so regularly.
The Spirit of Christmas Present
Every December, without fail, my social feed will be awash with endless debates about what makes a whisky ‘Christmassy’. Now whilst I certainly ascribe to leveraging any and all occasions as an excuse to open and share a bottle – least of all to prevent the perennial problem that is whisky accumulation – I nevertheless often find the notion of Christmas whisky as rather the bewilderment.
In any month of any given year a whisky can be described as being “richly sherried”. Yet come December, that same whisky will be designated as being “the perfect Christmas whisky”. Tasting notes will doubtless follow – fruit cake, chocolate, winter spices, sherry with sherry. Yadda yadda. However, no changes have occured either inside or outside of that bottle which will have inately heightened it's Yuletide character. It's still the same bottle of whisky. And yet, the allure and application of that bottle seems to completely change for some people based purely on the Christian calendar.
Marketeers will always market. And there are occasions that due to their timing come with an in-built sense of seasonality. Within the drinks industry, seasonality sits alongside occasionality – both are useful tools within the promotional arsenal. The latter requires a date or time, the former – simply one of the four seasons with which to attempt to persuade the consumer that there’s a whisky out there that’s attuned to the time of year.
In many ways, whisky *is* a seasonal product - from the sowing and harvesting of barley, through to the timed ebb and flow of production vs. maintenance. From a style and character point of view, it’s relatively easy to start to pigeonhole expressions into one of the four seasons. Springtime – a bright and perky awakener. Summer – a lighter, daintier refresher. And as autumn moves into winter simply bringing on all the peat and all the sherry – and for many people, ideally both at the same time.
Whilst I do ascribe to the idea of seasonal whisky – there is no rational difference between a whisky on a cold December night when compared to an equally cold night a month later in January. At that point the variance is not of the whisky itself, it is of the occasion and in particular - the company. Whether you like a sherried dram, a heavily peated dram or like me the perennial reliability of refill ex-bourbon (!) – it honestly doesn’t matter. To my mind, a Christmas whisky will always be one that is defined by the bringing together of people to partake in the sharing of it.
The Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come
You only need to take a cursory glance at the hammer prices at the December Scotch Whisky Auctions to identify that the ceiling in secondary market prices may well have finally been reached. Whilst dependably desirable bottlings and expected unicorns continue the stratospheric increases that we’ve all come to either love, hate or simply ignore - the lower to mid sections of this auction told a rather different story.
I’ve written extensively over the last few years about the fallacy (and danger) of whisky being viewed and positioned as infinitely elastic. But looking over some hugely deflated hammer prices, I wonder if that in some parts of the market that the elastic has finally now snapped. And at the same time I’m starting to consider whether this was a rather necessary market correction, or perhaps more of a portent for an increasingly uncertain (and expensive) looking 2023. Always interesting times.
And yet irrespective of the times and tribulations – whisky has always endured. It is by its very nature a long-term endeavour - the life-cycle of any whisky from spirit to initial maturity being greater than that of any short-term economic shock. Whilst there is always continued talk of second (third?!) whisky loch, this is still not something which I’m expecting to come pass. And those wishing for it as a sop for lower pricing are very much barking up the wrong tree. Least of all because some producers are struggling to fill a bathtub of well-aged stock let alone anything approaching a sea inlet.
Whisky’s reach and its increasing interweaving into the fabrics of newer markets (particularly APAC) lead me to believe that despite inevitable economic bumps along the road or price corrections where parts of the market have unequivocally overheated too quickly – that the interest in the spirit has only just scratched the surface for what is possible when whisky is considered on a truly global scale.
Life cannot always be plain sailing. But nevertheless, producers - both established and newer – have already bet big (and in some quarters sustainably) on whisky’s future. And they have done so by recognising that whisky will always have an ongoing generational story to tell. Whilst CDs, Tamagotchi and hopefully soon fidget spinners will have all been consigned to the Christmas gift dustbin – the allure of whisky is far broader and far deeper than any commercial fad.
Whilst I daresay that 2023’s likely bumpy path may not be the last some of us will witness in our lifetime, you only need to look at both the huge monetary investment into whisky and particularly the huge investment emotionally into whisky (by enthusiasts sometimes just as much as by producers) to consider that the Christmas’s Yet to Come should be just as bright and exciting as those of the recent and distant past. God bless Us, Every one!
Whilst A Good Old-Fashioned Christmas Whisky has sold out online (I’m late to the party as per), I daresay you’ll still find some bottles knocking around The Whisky Exchange’s bricks and mortar stores. The 2022 Edition is a different beast to previous festive releases. Past TWE Christmas whiskies have leant into the link between booze and the time of year by disgorging and marrying up a cask or two (mainly sherry-led, but with exceptions) – this time around we’re looking at a fully-fledged blended Scotch formed from five distinctive components and three different cask sizes. Certainly not something you’d throw together in a morning.
Oloroso sherry butts (x2) from Blair Athol are noted as being at the core alongside older grain elements from both Cameronbridge (2x butts) and Strathclyde (2x barrels). Broadening the composition is a refill hogshead of Glen Elgin together with two new oak hogsheads of Linkwood. Whilst none of the respective ages are provided (and thus the release is NAS), the proportion of grain vs. malt is noted as lining up to the respective cask sizes. To save you the time – all other things being equal you’re looking at a total initial volume of 3,150 litres with 1,400 being grain whisky – ergo the grain is around 44% of the overall blend.
The release was bottled at 50.5% ABV and the RRP was set at £84.95.
Nose: Cinnamon and nutmeg spiced cider apples open and give way to mirabelles, cocktail cherries and orange zest. Sultanas and raisins sit alognside shaved chocolate, whilst touches of cloth sacking join baked tart cases sprinkled with brown sugar. The addition of water favours the non-sherried elements, drawing out vanilla and toffee and adding aniseed chews and steam ginger.
Taste: The arrival has a weighty syrupyness that delivers touches of fruit cake (though we're not nearing the borders of sherry bomb territory), royal icing and marzipan alongside grain-led notes of sugar-dusted vanilla pods and toffee cups. Rich Tea biscuits join rum and raisin icecream whilst chocolate-covered ginger is accompanied by a hearty pep of cask char. Reduction retains much of the texture, revealing sultanas and dark cherry paste together with vanilla creme patisserie.
Finish: Medium in length and favouring cherries and berries together with waffle cones and char.
Above all else, A Good Old-Fashioned Christmas Whisky is confidently and purposely blended. Whilst the composition's grain does sit at the heart throughout - its integration as part of a larger whole is both excellent and deliberate. If archetypal Christmas notes are your go-to for the time of the year, the 2022 Edition possesses an ample smattering (though not an abundance) of sugar and spice and all things nice from nose through to finish - though I would highlight that the piquant char in the back palate and the finish may reduce that sense of opulence for some.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange
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