False comparisons

Posted 18 October 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
False comparisons

To a large extent, how we react to comparisons depends on who or what we are comparing. There are times when a comparison can be insightful and motivating. But there are equally times when the results of a comparison will be destructive – offering little more than dissatisfaction and a poor analogy to the realities of life. If you compare what you’re drinking, or the entirety your whisky collection with the many digital versions of people supposedly “living their best selves” on social media, all you’re going to achieve is a) jealousy b) a smouldering chip on your shoulder c) an erroneous opinion that whilst all whisky shouldn’t be created equally, that it should still be priced ‘fairly’ – and fairly in this instance means according to your wallet.

Whilst I’m rarely one to draw quotes from the American Baptist Church (it’s not really where I choose to spend my downtime), here’s a pertinent one from evangelical pastor Steven Furtick: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Never a truer word was spoken when it comes to fruitless comparisons of one’s self-worth based purely on whisky consumption and purchasing. Your poorly framed photo of a heel of a tasty daily drammer vs. an artfully posed hi-res, revered (almost certainly closed) bottle tastefully (but inextricably) wedged between two tree branches. The first - a picture of ‘normal’ life. The other - a fake, forced fantasy.

Not every whisky is envisaged, created and marketed for you. In the same way that not every car will be within your means to purchase. Whilst you might feasibly be able to acquire a Mercedes C-Class, it is entirely unrealistic to expect to be able to afford a 2011 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 999 Red Gold Dream – at around $10 million. And that’s OK.

I’m perennially bemused when distilleries and bottlers produce expressions clearly targeting high net worth individuals (read: rich people) and everyday folk respond by grabbing their pitchforks. False comparisons abound in these circumstances – “why doesn’t the distillery focus on making whisky at lower prices for everyone else” (they already do that – in addition), “no whisky is worth that much” (quite probably so, but luxury-end pricing is far from a new phenomenon), “This type of thing shows that the distillery has lost touch with its fans” (no you’re comparing apples and oranges).

The Internet compounds issues like this. It presents us with anything and everything all of the time – and thus super-premium, luxury do-dahs are all over our social feeds continually. But at the same time, this presentation is through the glossiest of lenses – an attempt at persuasion that there’s a better whisky life out there. And in eagerly absorbing this make believe all we achieve is a false perception that producers want the best whiskies to be ones mere mortals cannot afford. It’s aspirational marketing – and you would do well to recognise it, if not to avoid it.

Of course, on every whisky journey there will come moments when there’s something that our inner hearts want to sample, but our budgets really cannot stretch to. That’s part and parcel of any hobby. Of life even. But in order to keep enjoying whisky, and not becoming wholly cynical about the world, it’s important that our comparison points are made on a reasonable basis. And core ranges vs. bottles costing thousands is not a reasonable basis. But whatever the comparison point, we should all try to enjoy the present as opposed to falling into the trap of social media posturing and peacocking and focussing on “what we could have won”.

A far better starting point for a comparison would be sitting down to delve into a horizontal or vertical tasting. Whilst sometimes these can be a tough time on the palate - lining up a tasting which focuses on a distillate or cask type will, over time, allow your olfactory system and your tasting memory the chance to start to identify the commonalities which bind whiskies together. These could be similar aged whiskies, similar regions, similar casks or even sister casks. The world is your oyster. Indeed, the smaller the variance in the ‘ingredients’ the greater the variances in the glass in terms of you being able to commit differences to memory. Over time you will develop a template – a template you can apply when looking at those same whiskies in isolation. It’s not easy, nor quick. But it’s worth putting in the time. Least of all it gives a purpose to all those hoarded Glencairns.

Today’s comparison tasting is a true horizonal – presented A to C and via bottler Whisky Sponge. Three peated Edradours – all full term, one au naturel in ex-bourbon, the others presented in two types of sherry. Together, they are the Spongetopia Trilogy.

The Dramble reviews Ballechin 2004 17 year old The Sands of Sponge

Bottle Name: Ballechin 2004 The Sands of Sponge

ABV: 53.7%
Distillery: Edradour
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Highlands Age: 17

The opening panel of Whisky Sponge’s ‘Spongetopia’ Ballechin triptych has been matured full term in a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel for 17 years and then offered up at its natural cask strength of 53.7% ABV. 188 bottles were produced of the now sold out expression – all adorned with the ‘Spongelith’ – part Kubrick, part closing shot of Planet of the Apes. All Sponge.

Nose: Smoked herbal tea sits alongside barnyard peat (sans any overt ‘dunginess’) – turned hay, leather saddles and a fully under control barn fire. Earthiness runs throughout – alluvial motifs of gravels and putties – alongside lamp oil and a selection of first aid box materials. Menthol imbued Chantilly cream wraps things up. Reduction presents golden grains, soot and touches of rubber whilst diminishing the rocky quality that presented neat.

Taste: More compact and intensive. The arrival delivers a pang of balsamic before bitumen, cold cream and swipe of floor cleaner sit alongside a drizzle of BBQ sauce. Chiselled minerality follows with limestone cliffs and loam sand. Chopped herbs joins a tub of Vicks Vapor Rub whilst again the oddly mentholated Chantilly lurks. Water is worth playing with – ash and a strawberry forward mixed salad together with wood lacquer and burnt electrical boards. Oddly wonderful.

Finish: Long, tarry and medicinal with a fading sharp minerality.

The distillate sings loudly throughout this not quite, but nearly naked Sponge Ballechin. There’s plenty going on here and whilst much of it might seem divergent, none of it is either a distraction or a misstep. Far from a daily drammer, but thoroughly enjoyable to sift through the sands of the Sponge nevertheless. Multifaceted stuff.

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 89/100

The Dramble reviews Ballechin 2004 17 year old The Triumph of Influencers

Bottle Name: Ballechin 2004 The Triumph of Influencers

ABV: 55.5%
Distillery: Edradour
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Highlands Age: 17

The middle chapter of ‘Spongetopia’ is the only edition that is still currently available for purchase. It's a 17 year old Ballechin that’s been fully matured in a refill fino butt that has delivered 623 bottles at 55.5% ABV. The dystopian artwork features an emaciated selection of cookie-cutter whisky ‘influencers’ – presumably reflective of the entirely unnourishing results of spending all of your life photographing closed bottles in places where they don’t belong. (I’ve got another suggestion of where ‘influencers’ could shove their bottles). Those interested will find Edition 36B still available (as of writing) on the Decadent Drinks shop for £137.50.

Nose: Sweet, nutty, slightly saline – so far so fino. Strawberry shrimps, bootlaces and Nesquik milkshake (pink naturally) sit with a subsumed smoke that derives from air-dried meats and tanned leather. Himalayan (pink – lets keen on theme here) rock salt adds seasoning. Entirely pleasant, but fairly narrow in focus. Dilution expresses nut loaf, salted peanuts, wire wool and ozone – not better, just different.

Taste: Here it is. An eruption of sweet, bituminous and voluminous smoke – that was largely masked by the fino on the nose. A punchy delivery of reduced red and black berry jams, leather sofas and roasted cashew nuts, alongside road surfacing, Serrano ham, a selection of medicinal wipes and a Salt Bae arm luge of sodium chloride. The addition of water reveals pickle juice alongside salted chips and a teaspoon of slightly metallic Andrews Liver Salts.

Finish: Long, meaty, washed with iodine and still rather salty.

Despite this being a refill cask, its influence on the spirit is tangible throughout. It’s a particularly active refill – that was likely not used all that long before this second fill. Indeed, in places its impact is somewhat stifling – particularly on the nose, which is 90% fino and not enough Ballechin for my liking. Nevertheless, the palate does deliver the goods – still sherry forward, but rambunctious and expressive from arrival to finish. If you like a thinky-whisky and a salty whisky, this ticks both those boxes – but if you’re looking for width and expansiveness, this might be touch too confined for you. At a lower price, I’d probably jump – it might not be intricate, but it’s still enigmatically tasty.

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Ballechin 2005 The Secondary Darkness

Bottle Name: Ballechin 2005 The Secondary Darkness

ABV: 57.3%
Distillery: Edradour
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Highlands Age: 15

The final edition (36C) of WhiskySponge’s anti-utopian threesome has been matured for its entire 15 years in a 2nd fill sherry hogshead. 266 bottles have been produced at an ABV of 57.3% - and its Kafkaesque, 1984-tinged label will be made all the more amusing / depressing (delete as appropriate) for every additional bottle that is eagerly dispatched to the secondary market.

Nose: Chilli-imbued hot chocolate and dark maple syrup sit alongside blackberry preserve. Shoe polish and dusty, damp cellars are deepened with game pie and cherry cavendish pipe tobacco, whilst plump raisins and smoked lapsang souchong tea join lump coal for a delicate, subsumed smoke influence. Reduction lightens the affairs with milk chocolate and workbenches played off against workhouses – lamp oil, axle grease and industrial lubricants.

Taste: Controlled boldness. Liquid smoke and BBQ extract together with intensely reduced berries and Black Jack anise chews. Tar, axle grease and chimney smoke again play into the industrial underpinnings of the distillate, whilst spent coffee grounds, burnt bacon and spent cigars reflect the spirit’s interaction with the sherry cask. Smoke ancho chilli and dark chocolate wrap things up. Water presents a broader fruity profile with mixed fruit salad drizzled in chilli chocolate together with ozone, engine oil and greasy rags. But be careful, despite the highest ABV of the triptych, this thins the easiest.

Finish: Long with persistent sweet, thick smoke – berries and heavy industry.

Edition 36C delivers the tried and tested combination of sweet with peat – and in doing so, won’t fail to please those who are fans of this style. The balance between the spirit and the cask is excellent - particularly on the palate which offers both in a powerful equilibrium. A little more hydrophobic then the other two editions in the sequence, but that’s really just nit-picking. Excellent.

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 88/100

Master of Malt



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