A geek tragedy
Posted 11 August 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Attending a recent beer festival, I was struck by three realisations. Firstly, boy - it sure felt good to be back to some semblance of normality (COVID passes granting entrance aside). Secondly that beer has undergone something of a remarkable revolution over the course of my lifetime - both in terms of its inspiration and creation but also in terms of its appreciation. Of course, the popularity of real ale and craft beer (I won’t be debating the contrasts here today!) is far from a modern occurrence – indeed, the craft movement can trace its roots to the 1990s. The point here being - that the enjoyment of beer now cuts across a much wider demographic – male and female, young and old. Exciting and interesting brews are in. Beards, bulging bellies, and a noticeable lack of personal hygiene are very much out. And so, we come to the third realisation – that the level of endemic geekiness that exists when any drink is explored at great depth can put up as many barriers as openness and diversity seek to rip down.
Hop creep, over-attenuation, diacetyl rest periods and appropriate glassware – as a booze nerd I have time for all of these topics and many more. But when you boil down the most average of beer drinkers (not literally please) – wet, interesting and tasty are likely their primary concerns. In exactly the same way that whisky enthusiasts will readily dissect caramel colouring, chill-filtration, the intricacies of cask maturation (and also appropriate glassware) – resulting in the glazing over of eyes and the staring into vacant space of anyone else unversed and largely uninterested in complexities of what’s in their glass.
This tendency towards the geekier side of beer was 100% on display at the festival that I attended. Appealing to some – most certainly tedious and off-putting to others. And let’s be clear – this divide is the same for every interest and hobby – there are those who want to scrutinise every aspect and angle, to learn all there is to know. And then there are those who honestly don’t give a stuff. Enjoyment and understanding are not one and the same thing – even if they can sometimes be related.
Over the years I’ve developed an impregnable allure to almost every aspect of whisky’s enjoyment and impact. Indeed, it is precisely that whisky has a complex and broad influence on society, economics, technology and culture that I still, to this day, feel an innate passion for the spirit. And that attitude invariably leads down various rabbit holes of whisky geekery. And honestly, exploring those warrens of information suitably takes a huge amount of obsessive effort. "I drink and I know things."
I’m far from the only one – there are countless enthusiasts both within and outside of the industry with encyclopaedia-like knowledge of distilling techniques, histories and a thousand other finer details, which when taken as a whole form a wide-ranging picture of what whisky was, is and may yet become. And this knowledge and enthusiasm begets yet more knowledgeable enthusiasts. It is only though the passions and expertise of those who came before us that we can take up the mantle and likewise champion the spirit that we all share a love for.
But despite sitting firmly in the whisky geek camp, I’m always mindful that in order for the drink to continue broadening its appeal and expanding its enthusiast base, its individualities, passions and virtues need to be communicated differently to different audiences. Whisky, and in particularly Scotch still has plenty of reputational baggage. And the barriers to entry that this baggage creates are not as easy to overcome as simply employing an information bombard. Distilleries have, in many cases rightfully championed transparency and knowledge as a gateway into a better understanding of whisky’s culture, creation and contentment – but too much information (particularly at the wrong time in a whisky journey) will often lead to little more than dullness and disregard or merely an exploration of the fringes of the topic before the heart of the matter has been truly appreciated.
All too often, I see enthusiasts railing at “whisky education” for its seeming shallowness and for not offering enough profundity of the minutiae of the spirit. But to the outside, unconverted world, to offer up such complexities will often strike as little more than an exclusion. You all have long-suffering friends and families who “put up with” our shared passion for whisky. But how many of them have you convinced into enjoying the water of life through a spirited debate on the optimum number of plates in a rectifying column? Yeah, you all know what I’m talking about.
None of this is to say that whisky geekery is a bad thing. Far, from it – it’s the beating heart at the centre of the enthusiast base. But rather to be mindful that geekery, if unchecked, can easily transmute into pomposity, alpha nerdism or gatekeeping – and that these in turn create artificial fences around whisky. Fences which all detract away from what whisky really should be - enjoyment, friendship and inclusion.
Bottle Name: Candlekitty 2010 Equinox & Solstice 2021 Summer Edition
Bottler: Decadent Drinks
Decadent Drinks presumably twice-yearly edition stops off at Clynelish for a 10 year old vatting of three 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels. The resulting quagmire of “Candlekitty” (a name which seems to now be catching on wider than just Sponge bottlings) has been bottled at 48.5% ABV and with an outturn of 762 bottles.
Nose: Peach milkshake, lemon posset and melon smoothie provide a fruity backbone, but are all kept quite ‘green’ and underripe. A selection of waxes, balms and lotions are joined by a gristy aspect – dried, flaky cereals – whilst pizza dough and shaved chocolate sit alongside gentle coastalness with sand and slate. The addition of water presents a far more mineral quality – hewn granite – alongside putties, clays and a dash of sunflower oil.
Taste: A highly textural arrival – church tapers, castor oil and faint lemon balm. Again, with the underripe fruit elements – apple slices and balled melon. Cereals run throughout – toasted grains alongside touches of chocolate-covered digestive biscuits – whilst in the background, limestone and cliff faces lurk. Reduction retains the weight of the spirit and presents a more fruit-led complexion – kiwi and lychee together with oatcakes
Finish: Relatively long with fading ‘greeness’ and residue texture notes (oils, balms and waxes).
This Sponge Clynelish makes up for its youthful incomplete fruitiness with an array of wonderful weights and densities that can be enjoyed from start to finish. I’m usually not a fan of gristy whiskies (there’s often an associated cereal sourness that just doesn’t sit well with me), but here those floury-grain notes really complement the low-key fruits and high-vis lubricants, oils and waxes which run throughout.
Bottle Name: Second least amusing distillery in Rothes 1990
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
There’s a number of amusing distilleries in Rothes – at one point in time I was in the area with a group of whisky nerds intending to visit four of the town’s booze factories within the space of a single afternoon. But that fell through, and so we all ended up drinking in a park whilst throwing giant plastic hoops at Angus’s face whilst he sat wearing a giant rubber salmon head. True story.
This Sponge second least amusing Glenrothes is rather the venerable drop. Distilled back in 1990 and matured in two refill hogsheads before being amalgamated for Sponge’s nefarious plans. This one is bottled at 48.5% and resulted in 519 sold out bottles.
Nose: Bright, syrupy, polished fruits – pear liqueurs, watermelon slices and gooseberries. Marzipan and chopped almonds sit with a leafiness from cut stems and press leaves, whilst golden syrup is conjoined with lacquered oak flooring. A fairly narrow, but highly appealing profile. Dilution presents orange and lemon squashes together with sunflower oil and touches of mown grass and baked bread.
Taste: Honied orchard fruits lead off – apples and pears soured with orange and gooseberries. There’s a poised balance between sweetness and tartness. Oatcakes and malt loaf join touches of camphor and mentholated oak before a tingle of white pepper adds some peppiness. Water is held rather well – tinned fruit salad with a citric, grapefruit, sherbet zinginess alongside steeped fruit teas.
Finish: Quite long, bready, malty, minty and still all rather fruity.
A highly likeable Sponge Glenrothes that whilst rather restricted in focus still presents a high volume of perfectly expressed fruitiness alongside a keenly balanced palate that never falls off the tightrope of sweetness. Dilution is also beneficial, offering a welcomed broadening of the profile.
Bottle Name: Benrinnes 1997
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Benrinnes is one of Zander’s favourite distilleries. I must find out where he’s up to – we’ve been missing his content on The Dramble for some time now. This Sponge rinnes has been matured in a 1st fill sherry hogshead and taken on substantive colour to a point where I suspect this edition sold out based on its hue alone.
Nose: Dusty, dark, fathomless sherry. Rum-soaked raisins, unrefined brown sugars and a selection of leather armchairs, parquet flooring and pirate’s long lost treasure chests. Orange preserves and cinnamon-spiced plums provide a welcome lift, whilst metholated oak is joined by near sooty, charred cask innards. Reduction presents dark honey and demerara sugar alongside crystalline orange peels and dusty library furniture.
Taste: Bombs away chaps. Cherries and plums sits with dark chocolate, menthol-imbued tobacco and a slab of well-soaked fruit cake. Balsamic drizzled berries and tanned leather are joined by burnt toast and charred oakiness. The addition of water is exceptionally transformative – there’s a lot less punch and overt, intense sherried sugariness – and rather more of a prettier, spirit-forward profile favouring glace cherries, orange gel and a touch of residual ham meatiness. Ah, there’s the Benrinnes.
Finish: Long with balsamic sharpness, minty mentholated oak and some pretty drying tannins.
One for the sherry freaks. Whilst there’s arguably plenty of harmony and deliciousness throughout this Whiskysponge Benrinnes, the 1st fill sherry has taken a very firm grip throughout. Indeed, it is likely only because of the distillate’s inherent weight and profile, that this is able to present quite such a melodious tune. I found the addition of water quite beneficial here – sherryheads will no doubt prefer this stronger, darker and more brooding. And as such, if you fall into that category, add a couple of points to my score.
Bottle Name: Caol Ila
Distillery: Caol Ila
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Another Sponge “assemblage” – this time over to Islay where there’s seemingly enough Caol Ila for every single person on the planet to be gifted a cask by the government at birth. Ah well, no bad thing – of all the distilleries to possess an overabundance, there are many I’d peg lower than Caol Ila. This Sponge edition (#32) is the bottler’s latest (yay! I’m finally up to date) and has been composed of a refill hogshead combined with a rejuvenated hogshead. Bottled at 53.6% and with 481 bottles produced – having now tasted it, I’m more than a bit sad that I didn’t jump on it – as it didn’t sell out on impact as most Sponge released tend to.
Nose: Presenting a rather pure profile and rounded profile of fresh lemon peels, brine and treated bandages, before considerably expanding in scope in the glass. Honey bread and Honey Nut Loops together with citronella candles, crab sticks and langoustines cooked in butter. Considerably less medicinal than one might expect (which is most certainly a trap). Dilution expresses a sweeter character – citric gels – alongside pangs of coastalness – chalk and ground pumice.
Taste: Boom. There’s the medicinal peat. Coal ash, floor cleaner and antiseptic rush into the palate, before being joined by TCP and a selection of smoked lemons and smoked fish. Cliff faces, brine and butter follow together with sweeter notes of apple slices and lemon bonbons. A real progressive development. Water condenses the journey – adding citrus jellies, bandages, ointments and Vicks Vaporub – all at the same time.
Finish: Long with ash, lemon, brine and persistent medicinalness.
An initially atypical Caol Ila that lures one in with a softer, smoothed and pleasantly dialled down nose, before beating them around the face with a (now unexpected) torrent of high intensity medicinalness, coastalness and honed citrus fruits. There’s a real progressive journey on the palate – something of a whistle-stop tour of Caol Ila’s greatest hits. And everything works a treat.