Drinkers are perennially obsessed with bottlings which sell out. How many were there? (few) How quickly did they all sell out? (very) And how many will appear at auction next week? (lots). When it comes to whisky in 2021, I’m honestly surprised that folks are still astounded by any of this. Flip the switch to the opposite direction – and you’ll find that seeing which releases *didn’t* sell out on impact can offer far more insight into the modern market than glancing into the rear-view mirror of blink and you’ve missed it whisky.
As much as the Internet has democratised whisky it has also democratised moaning about whisky. Posts, conversations and threads around limitations and allocations are ten-a-penny. And to my mind these only further the perception that whisky (as a *thing*) is all some form of limited commodity. The truth of the matter is far simpler – it really isn’t - most whisky doesn’t shift in seconds. Because most whisky is not released in single casks nor stickered as “limited”, “special”, “ultra-premium-hand-selected-doo-dahs”. But the idea sticks easily – particularly so with newer enthusiasts who are increasingly viewing whisky as less of a hobby and more of a competition.
But when bottles are vacuumed up, the reasons for this happening are pretty easy to comprehend: marque distilleries; desirous bottler brands; sought-after cask and spirit types; the prospect of secondary market returns; social media peer pressure; pretty labels and packaging; outright stupidity and skin-crawlingly potent FOMO. You’ll witness these drivers day-in, day-out and indeed I’ve covered them all at some length across the pages of The Dramble many times before (and likely will many times hence). And so, assuming the effectiveness of these traits to shift bottles repeatedly, what are the factors that seem to counter them?
Alongside the day-to-day of the whisky release cycle which sees intense competition for attentions and wallets, a primary dis-motivator will always be a lack of consumer knowledge about the value of any particular product. And when it comes to whisky, ‘value’ has a gamut of definitions that extend far beyond the sticker price.
Whilst Whisky Sponge has indisputably already developed a reputation for shifting bottlings at breakneck speeds, not everything produced by the bottler is jumped upon quite so quickly. Sponge Cognacs, despite clearly being drawn from incredibly old and desirable inventory just don’t seem to currently get customers foaming at the mouth in quite such the same manner as the whisky releases. Similarly, two recent Rum Sponge releases saw the heavy style Caroni snaffled up in its high strength form, but still available at the diluted “Big Jessie Strength”.
In both instances, I’d argue the customer lacks the knowledge, or the appropriate level of persuasion to recognise the propositions that are on offer here. In the case of the Cognac – well it’s not whisky. And there’s few (myself included) who really have the depth of familiarity with the category to be able to fully understand or appreciate the offering. In the case of the Caroni – why would someone gun for the reduced version at the same price as the full fat edition? Perhaps it’ll offer a better-rounded experience (I dare say it possibly will), but on paper you’re paying the same amount for a percentage of potable water. And everyone loves to believe that their natural preference (or the resale value) will be at the highest possible ABV.
And that bring us to the first edition of Equilibrium – and Sponge’s vatting of Edradour and Ballechin. The composition of the release is fairly transparent – a 1st fill sherry butt Edradour from 2010 combined with a refill hogshead of Ballechin laid down in 2003. The Edradour is the younger constituent of the two, so you’re left with a 10 year old blended malt. And one assumes that the proportions of the vatting are likely as simple as what was leftover after 10 years in a butt and 16/17 years in a hogshead. Both were, in no surprise, sourced from Signatory Vintage.
As is often the case with Sponge releases, the ABV has been rectified – and whilst I will happily stand on my soap box until I’m blue in the face pontificating about the value of consciously selecting an ABV - there are many others who see anything less than full strength as some kind of no-go zone. The argument that dilution in the glass *is* different to dilution pre-bottling is entirely lost on cask strength zealots. As such, the notion of saponification (the development of soapy flavours) from adding water too hastily is simply not even realised. Water is just water right?
Irrespective, this Sponge release is not Cognac, nor rum and yet it is still available several weeks after release via the Decadent Drinks website for £110.
Maybe the price is just too steep? (you certainly can buy both of these distillates separately at a lower price) Perhaps drinkers would rather a single cask Edradour or single cask Ballechin as opposed to an amalgamation of the two. Perhaps blended malts have their place, but only shift in bigger numbers with dates from the long past and high age statements alongside? Or perhaps the outturn of bottles when a hogshead and butt are combined represent too many for Sponge customers to consider the release ‘rare’ enough? One does wonder how many Sponge bottling are being enjoyed for what’s inside the bottle.
Whatever the reason, I’d posit that A) it’s likely a combination of several of the factors above. And B) it will indeed sell out – just not as quickly as some Sponge editions. But it does stand in stark contrast to the oft-times stated belief that distilleries and bottlers can sell anything and everything - and that the current market conditions necessitate drastic behavioural change from customers who want to buy a bottle from a particular distillery or indy. Neither of these things are really true in reality.
But let's be clear here - whisky not selling out on impact is in fact a good thing - it means there's still consumer choice within the market. I dare say that many of you have spent far too long looking at, chasing and discussing bottles which (for various reasons) have sold out quickly. And for some that concept becomes a tonic of itself. Fast moving whisky is desirous *because* it’s fast moving whisky – not necessarily because its better whisky. Perhaps you need to spend less time thinking about the ones that got away?
Nose: Dark, brooding and tarry with sweet lifts from cherry lozenges, currants and prunes. Puffs of Cavendish pipe tobacco run throughout alongside tinderbox, metholated oak and bitumen slight melting on a sweltering day. In the background, the unexpected combination of minerality from ceramic tiles and putty alongside serrano ham. The addition of water reveals ozone and petrichor together with burnt toffee, maple syrup and a glug of roasting jus.
Taste: A controlled arrival that favours peat. Tarry felt roofing and road surfacings with spent espresso grounds and dark bitter chocolate. These lead into eucalyptus balm, metholated oak and a selection of charred meats and peppery crusts. Sweetness is held back but offers just the right amount of influence – heavily reduced pan sugar alongside, raisins, currants and prunes. Reduction retains much of the shape of the whisky – impressively so – it delivers touches of underlying salinity alongside a scattering of roasted nuts.
Finish: Long and favouring the fruitier aspects now. Air-dried berries and stone fruits with liquorice sticks and a handful of burning sage.
I can only assume that the un-Edradour-ed Ballechin was pretty massive to begin with - as vatted together it still preserves a heavy peaty thwack. However, whilst on paper this might suggest that the Ballechin is the driving force behind this amalgamation, rest assured the sherried influence of the unpeated Edradour sings loudly throughout. It’s a double act where both parties are distinctive, share centre stage and yet still work together harmoniously.
But at the same time, it feels like a professional association rather than a true friendship. The decision to reduce this down to 52% seems eminently sensible - it’s hulking - and that results in a whisky which feels eminently drinkable from an ABV point of view – but much less so from its resulting character. Balanced but still big.
Review sample provided by Whisky Sponge