Face time

Posted 16 April 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Face time

Of all the things I’ve missed over the past 12 months, visiting the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is pretty close to the top of my list. 2020 was weird. Really weird. And 2021 is only just starting to feel slightly less odd now. For many of us, whisky only being a mouse click away (in some instances dispatched within the hour) and virtual tastings occurring every night of the week has provided a vital escape from the monotony and isolation of a life spent indoors. But for all the barriers removed and solaces provided by a digital whisky life over the past twelve months, I’m starting to worry that we’ve all - drinkers, distilleries, bottlers and brands - become a bit too good at this.

Let’s be clear from the outset – virtual events have had some incredible benefits outside of simply being a response to the weirdness. Those less able to travel for whatever reason – physical or mental – have discovered a newfound ability to engage with the wider whisky community. Tastings and gathering have been far more multi-national, multicultural and to a slightly lesser degree, male dominated than I’ve witnessed before. All good things. Irrespective of any dashes out to UK pubs and much needed support for local hospitality, online whisky life isn’t going anywhere. Those who speak of ‘traditional’ whisky and ‘virtual’ whisky as two distinctive branches are barking up the wrong tree – in outreach and education terms they’re all part of the same brand toolbox. And going forward producers and organisers are simply going to pick the right tool for the right job.

Nearly all of us yearn for return to ‘real life’ events and gatherings – and yet I suspect the convenience of whisky being but a click away, will in some circumstances and for some people trump the perceived faff of having to use public transport, queuing at bars and festivals and shopping in bricks and mortar retail outlets. Can’t be bothered trekking into town for a tasting – no problems – Zoom will still be there for you.

That by itself is far from a problem – digital whisky is a far more democratised whisky in many ways. However, it’s important to remember that the industry was not built on video conferencing and PowerPoint. The most passionate and dedicated supporters of the spirit are to be found in the specialist retailers and whisky bars – and they have been for generations. These folks are a wonderful source of spirits knowledge that far exceeds that of many brand ambassadors whose role it is to tirelessly push just a small segment of what makes up whisky – sometimes a distillery range – sometimes just a single bottle.

Of course, most of you will be venturing out when you can – we all crave real human interaction and connection. However, I do believe that over the last 12 months we’ve grown just a little bit too comfortable with the convenience of it all. David Stirk (if you’re looking for someone sage and knowledgeable, look no further) highlighted on Facebook that bottles purchased though one-click ordering from anonymous retailers might well satisfy your needs for instant whisky gratification – but this act offers no support for the speciality retail sector. He correctly (of course) noted that these guys are going to need all the help they can get in order to thrive once more. Perhaps there’s more to whisky life than same day deliveries and the lowest possible price?

It takes time to get to know those working in retail and the on-trade. But to my mind, this is time very well spent – and something which simply cannot be replaced by a virtual tasting – often with dozens of other participants. One-to one interactions are still vitally important for whisky as a category, industry and pursuit. Otherwise everyone is purely working on a fun, but largely cursory basis. And as we slowly return to the shops and bars, I’d implore you to consider the benefits of leaving the comfort of your own homes – not just for the drinking, and not just for the knowledge – but because these guys really need you. It's time to pay back.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has had something of a torrid year for a number of reasons which I don’t need to regurgitate again on these pages. However, to my mind the biggest issue which has befallen the Society during COVID is the age-old question of what the SMWS actually is?

Is it a bottler or a whisky community? The two have never really sat evenly – at least not during the time I’ve been a member. The last 12 months have seen the Society largely forced into the former role alone – and when combined with an influx of eager new members - a number of whom are snaffling bottles up seemingly for little more than peacocking row upon rows of closed glassware on social media - the result has been a near removal of what I see as a key function of membership – camaraderie and friendship around whisky.

I really miss visiting the London rooms. Not as a venue to purchase bottles of whisky (I too can join Queue-It on a Friday morning as much as the next person), but for the conversations with their staff and ambassadors and for the time I get to spend with fellow members. And to offer my support to the industry that I love.

The SMWS’s virtual events are a substitute for this – both necessary and useful to those without a venue nearby – but they are not a replacement. The Society too is going to need you when it properly reopens – to rebuild and restore its function as a hub of whisky community – not just as a-another outlet for snaffling up as many bottles as possible. 

Despite not being able to visit the Society for proper outturn reviews for quite some months now, the good folks there have sent me this month’s virtual tasting ‘Discover Pack’ to tuck into. The live event will be held on Thursday 22nd April, hosted by Madeline Schmoll and with Olaf Meier and Kami Newton joining in the guest slot. So, if you're looking for some digital whisky escapism before returning to the wilds, this might be one to add to your schedule. 

But do remember going forward - Face time not FaceTime.

The Dramble reviews SMWS 48.118 Trekking in the jungle

Bottle Name: 48.118 Trekking in the jungle

ABV: 60.6%
Distillery: Balmenach
Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Flavour Profile: Young & spritely
Region: Speyside Age: 7

First up – Inverhouse’s least promoted distillery within their portfolio – Balmenach. Devoid of an official distillery bottling for over 20 years, but still a reasonably regular sight on the indy bottle scene. This Society release has been matured in a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel for 7 years before being bottled at 60.6%.

Nose: Tart lemon curd and fiery ginger jelly are softened by creamy vanilla parfait and freshly pressed laundry. Crumbled shortbread sits with an assortment of unanticipated aromas – burnt potatoes, boiled onions and plastic wrap. Yep - a bit odd. The addition of water reveals a gentler, more natural focus with honeysuckle and freshly sheared golden barely joined by angelica.

Taste: A big arrival that combined mint fondant icing with immediate pepper and chilli heat. A softer approach develops, encapsulating strawberry foam prawns, chocolate shavings and lemon oils, before the cask kicks back in with metholated oak and a grind of both salt and pepper. Reduction again offers an improvement in balance – gone is the hostile welcome, replaced by a creamy combination of lemon verbena tea, strawberry milkshake powder, malt loaf and Polo mints.

Finish: Medium in length with biting pepper and chilli alongside residual minerality.

This Balmenach is the perfect demonstration as to why cask strength is not the de-facto best manifestation for all whisky. At full strength this is quite aggressively composed – whereas diluted a balance between the distillate and cask is much easier to find. Refreshing reduced, pretty bracing straight up.

Score: 80/100

The Dramble reviews SMWS 82.31 Give free rein to the imagination

Bottle Name: 82.31 Give free rein to the imagination

ABV: 61.9%
Distillery: Glencadam
Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Flavour Profile: Spicy & sweet
Region: Highlands Age: 9

There was a surprising number of indy Glencadams released last year – including a handful from the Society. This latest SMWS release is a 9 year old that has spent its life maturing in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel before being bottled at 61.9%.

Nose: Crisp, clean and precise. Freshly washed cotton sheets and sparkling bone china sit with floral apples and white grape juice. Deeper, peach melba and a spoon of Chantilly cream provide richness, whilst rich tea biscuits provide a sweet, floury core. Dilution broadens things nicely – orange jelly, filo pastry with piped whipped cream and a drizzle of coffee and walnut syrup.

Taste: A medley of juicy fruits run throughout. First up – clove-studded oranges, then ginger spiced apples. Cocoa nibs and pastry cases add wider interest whilst cask spices develop in the mid-palate offering crushed almonds and a building pepperiness. Water favours orchard fruits – apples and pears – whilst also offering aromats from cardamon and allspice together with steeped fruit teas.

Finish: Medium, icing sugar dusted golden pastry alongside sustained pepperiness.

There are few surprises along the journey with this Glencadam, but what there is, is well composed and nicely balanced. Juicy fruits – perky spices. Don’t mind if I do.

Score: 84/100

The Dramble reviews SMWS G8.17 Candles, kumquats and polished oak

Bottle Name: G8.17 Candles, kumquats and polished oak

ABV: 59.7%%
Distillery: Cambus
Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Flavour Profile: Old & dignified
Region: Lowlands Age: 31

Well-aged grain time with a trip to Cambus. Production closed at the site in 1993 (so when its gone, its gone), but the buildings have been transformed by owners Diageo into a pretty massive coopering facility – adjacent to the even more massive Blackgrange warehouse complex – where the bulk of your ‘aged by the sea’ whiskies come from 😉

Nose: Beeswax and golden syrup give way to salted caramel popcorn whilst toasted biscuits, vanilla and café latte are joined by lacquered oak, cornflakes, cashew nuts and apple rice puddling. All highly pleasant. Reduction reveals crunchy toffee, vanilla wafers, desiccated coconut and stiff-peaked meringue.

Taste: More overtly grain forward now with polystyrene modelling cement alongside roasted cereals and freshly sawn planking. Golden barley and coffee are joined by milky chocolate whilst old orange liqueurs are peppered up with a sliver of ginger. Dilution is all cask-driven – massive vanilla extract alongside pencil shavings.

Finish: Reasonably long with oaky chocolate, spent espresso grounds and powdered ginger.

A nicely composed, well-aged grain with a lovely nose and a tasty, sweet cereal character throughout. This said, the profile here is very narrow and quite generically ‘grain whisky’. Old - yes, dignified – less so.

Score: 83/100

The Dramble reviews SMWS 26.160 Fruit market candy store

Bottle Name: 26.160 Fruit market candy store

ABV: 56.7%
Distillery: Clynelish
Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Flavour Profile: Juicy, oak & vanilla
Region: Highlands Age: 9

Up to Sutherland for a youngbut always popular Clynelish. This one has been matured in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel for 9 years and then has been bottled at 56.7%.

Nose: Fleshy orchard and stone fruits – green apple slices, a punnet of gooseberries and peeled lychee. Over time developing more tropically with pineapple alongside halved peaches. Running throughout – sweet shop aromas of sugar powder covered Turkish delight, jelly babies, nougat and meringue. Really does what it says on the tin this one. The addition of water reveals milkshake powder and orange jelly alongside freshly cut garden stems.

Taste: The arrival delivers rich honey alongside and opening thrust of pepper and carraway seed. Fruits develop – green apples, tangerines and blood orange – whilst toffee cups and cream teas build in the back palate alongside pineapple and mango fruit infusions. Reduction provides a more obvious demonstration of the underlying texture of the distillate with a silky weight which offers cooling mint and golden barley against a backdrop of a medley of tinned fruits.

Finish: Medium in length with sustained juicy fruits, a creamy cup of latte coffee and a sprinkle of pepper.

On the one hand, this Clynelish is fabulously bright, fresh, fruity and expressive. On the other, it comes from the type of cask where I’m genuinely sad this wasn’t allowed to mature longer – it could have quite easily taken it. Nevertheless, this spirit need not always be all about the waxes and greases – and 26.160 expresses that ably.

Score: 86/100

The Dramble reviews SMWS 42.52 Wood smoke through a porthole

Bottle Name: 42.52 Wood smoke through a porthole

ABV: 58.3%
Distillery: Tobermory
Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Flavour Profile: Peated
Region: Islands Age: 13

After a couple of years of limited releases from my favourite SMWS number, members have been treated to a swathe of new peated 42s (remember the number also covers unpeated Tobermory) over the past 12 months. This latest iteration is a 13 year old that’s been matured in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.

Nose: Wild and far-reaching. A seafood medley particularly heavy with fresh oysters. A plasticine and rubber eraser factory billowing coal smoke out of its chimney. A lunchtime roast served with aromatic herbs and strips of bacon and a weird but wonderful combination of miso paste, smoked cheese and antiseptic cream. Always down for this. Dilution shines a light on a more farmy/barny character with wet hay, blue cheese and hung lamb played off against crab and glue sticks.

Taste: Sharpley mineral on the arrival with chiselled granite, powdered chalk and rock salt. Then a creamier, stranger centre with prawn bisque, soy and balsamic glazed belly pork and puffing steam ship smoke. Pine needles and floor cleaners follow alongside a squeeze of lemon and both wire wool and real wool - from a sheep. Water offers a much sweeter aspect with smoked fruit salad, lemon gel and peaches with cream – all served with BBQ briquettes – as you do.

Finish: Quite long and offering a fading combination of coasts, cliffs, smoke, sweet and sour fruits and meats.

An archetypal Ledaig that delivers a wonderfully wide-ranging adventure through land, sea, orchard and farm. Fans of this profile (and I make zero apologies) will find a lot to like here.

Score: 87/100



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