It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to admit you were wrong. When I first deliberated on the launch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Vaults Collection, I was concerned that it would mark the beginning of a two-tiered membership system – a new super-premium category to the Society - a category which marked out the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots’. But, to date that has not come to pass. Whilst prices have risen (don’t they always?!), and new ‘older’ or seemingly more ‘special’ black-labelled SMWS bottles have also be released – looking exceedingly similar to Vaults bottlings – the actual Vaults Collection itself has remained rather compact in the two years since its launch.
Three new expressions were announced last week – all well aged, all firmly priced. A 30 year old Macallan, 30 year old Dailuaine and 31 year old Mortlach. The Macallan evaporated on impact. The Mortlach lasted a bit longer – a few hours, and the Dailauine managed a near respectable day and a half. One thing is quite apparent – SMWS know their target audience.
But, it’s fair to say that I now view Vaults Collection almost entirely differently to when it was first announced. And, I’ve come to realise that as an SMWS member it largely doesn’t affect me. I’m a member first and foremost because I want to have access to a wide selection of bottles I can try and potentially buy – nothing about that proposition has changed. There still is a wealth of releases each outturn (if anything too many!) and no one is every going to drink their way through every dram in any of the members rooms. My sense of exploration and my depth of choices are in no way impacted by the occasional email telling me about an expensive SMWS release that likely sold out before I even opened said email.
Criticising the Vaults Collection’s pricing in isolation is a mistake. You only have to look at the recently announced Glenmorangie Distillery Exclusive (£650 for a 16 year old – sneakily branded to look like a single cask when in fact its but – that’s largely irrelevant, it’s insanely priced) to realise both, that the world has gone truly mental, and that the Society largely offers comparable value within the current marketplace conditions.
Of course, it’s more expensive than it used to be, but then so is everyone else – some a little, some a whole lot. The Vaults bottles are far from being outliers in terms of their pricing – I just think some folks are upset that they’re no longer able to nab a bargain. “It was 1/3 that price 10 years ago” – of course it was…..and so were many other similar IBs. It’s just not realistic to expect SMWS to keep churning out current top end bottles at yesteryear prices.
The three new Vaults bottlings come with slightly redesigned packaging – gone are the heavy bird boxes with loose-leaf tasting notes – in are more chunky coffins with panelled notes affixed inside the box lid. They’re solid, smart and to my mind more grandiose that their predecessors. In terms of the bottle design as I mentioned in the introduction, at a glance they’re almost identical to the current black labelled expressions which are used to demote anything that’s more expensive than the ‘standard’ outturn releases. Only an additional gold ribbon and gold leaf printing of the Society logo mark these bottles out as being in any way different. So whilst there’s plenty of coherence on a shelf full of SMWS bottles, there’s not that much that’s exceptional or extraordinary about the Vaults glassware when considered on its own.
Whilst not all members will either have the budget to afford the ‘premium’ thrills, or the fastest fingers in the west to be able to complete a purchase, notionally all members have access to the liquid in the form of trying a dram. Expensive drams – but on a level playing field – the same price for all. If you want it, it’s there to try – and some of these bottles are indeed worth trying.
But, overall, I’m not seeing that two-tier Society I was initially worried about. Partly, that’s down to the Vault’s bottlings being as infrequent as promised – the occasional dip into liquid history for those who move in those circles and nothing more than a distraction for everyone else. But, it’s mainly down to the core proposition of the Society remaining unchanged - as a member I continue to have access to a wealth of affordable, interesting whiskies month in, month out. I’m not missing out – I can try these 'high end' bottles if I want, and regardless, there’s more than I could ever possibly taste/review/buy from the core monthly outturns already. It’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to admit you were wrong.
30 year old Macallan that’s was laid down in October 1988 and matured in a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel. Interestingly categorised as Spicy & Sweet rather than Old & Dignified. It was priced at £995 at launch, which on the one hand might seem steep for a non-sherry cask Macallan. But, if you take a look around at the price of other IB Macallans of a similar age, you’ll find that most are clocking in at 50% - 100% more expensive.
Nose: Tropical fruits and polished wood. Spit-roasted pineapple, banana, guava and mango (all incredibly bright and vibrant) are supported by an antique warehouse packed full of exquisite furniture. Lacquered tables, mirror-sheen polished mahogany and bees waxed parquet flooring. Wild honey, soft baked pastries and Dulce de Leche all add rich sweetness, whilst cinnamon and nutmeg spicing are joined by steeped fruit teas and biscuit crumb. Dilution adds tinned fruits into the mix – peaches and apricots – with a side of Chantilly cream.
Taste: The arrival is silky smooth and not at all underpowered considering the low ABV. Again, the order of the day is fruits and woods. Raspberry and elderflower cordial, juicy pineapple, mango, passionfruit and guava and plenty of hard glossy wood surfaces – libraries packed full of old books and comfy armchairs. The mid palate is more creamy with high quality toffee, wild honey and crème bruee, whilst the back-palate offers steeped teas and soft, supple wood tannins. The addition of water results in a drier experience – dried fruits (apricots, plums) and dried wood – oak oils, lemony polish and charred cask ends.
Finish: Medium to long with fading tropical fruits, buttery biscuits and singed old dry oak.
Despite being delivered without the house-style sherry, I find this Macallan to be pretty remarkable. The brightness and vibrancy of fruit is matched and equalled by the intensity and maturity of the wood – polished, supple and exceedingly opulent. It’s a shame that so many of these will end up unopened - the liquid itself is utterly dreamy.
Bottle Name: 41.118 Memory lane
ABV: 49.2% Distillery: Dailuaine Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Old & dignified Region: Speyside
This Dailuaine spent 27 years in an ex-bourbon hogshead and then was reracked into a 1st fill American oak Pedro Ximenez hogshead for a 3 year finishing period. Initially priced at £305 and delivered at 49.2% ABV.
Nose: Jammy raspberries and plum preserves are served with chocolate sponge cake and bourbon biscuits. After a period of resting, spit-roasted pineapple and guava push through – ripe and bright – but tempered by boot polish and the aroma of old, dank cellars – wood must and wet floors. Chocolate sponge and brown sugars lighten things up whilst a touch of greasiness hints at the weight of the underlying distillate. Reduction expresses leather sofas and cocoa nibs whilst also adding perceptible candle and bees waxes.
Taste: Viscous, textural and quite punchy – freshly baked waffles are served with chocolate sauce and plenty of polished wood notes – deeply shined mahogany, teak panels and a Chesterfield. There’s plenty of spirit weight here – waxes and oils all clinging to the mouth throughout the arrival and development. The mid-palate delivers leather covered chairs, and dry sherry nuttiness in the form of hazel, cashews and brazils, whilst pineapple chunks and heavily reduced orchard fruits are joined by tart, old resinous oak. Reduction adds apricots in syrupy and pear cider whilst expressing a wider array of sugars – molasses, brown sugar and a near rum-like quality.
Finish: Long with dark sugars sitting with tropical fruits. Dank cellars are still in play – musty and moist, alongside fading chocolate and Turkish delight.
Delicious, deep, intense and complex. Or as Phil Storry described it – honest whisky. There’s so much to like about this well-aged Dailuaine – from the textural and weighty mouthfeel (a calling card for the distillery) through to the well-judged PX finish which has added layers of tropical fruits alongside a truly interesting subterranean sweetness.
Bottle Name: 76.143 Wherefore art thou rancio
ABV: 56.2% Distillery: Mortlach Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Old & dignified Region: Speyside
31 year old Mortlach that spent 28 year in an ex-bourbon hogshead before being transferred into a 2nd fill Moscatel barrique for a decent length of finishing period. Bottled at 56.2% ABV and with an initial RRP of £315.
Nose: Well-named – there’s certainly sherry rancio here – it’s part sweet and sticky (red berries, plums, raisins, and peanut butter) and part drawn from a by-gone era – musty cellars, wet soils and clays – ancient and unearthed. Woodiness is as polished as you’d expect from three decades of maturation – ebony and mahogany. In the background, almonds (marzipan), black pepper and rye bread. Water brings out sweetness – raspberry coulis, pan fried figs and crystalline brown sugars.
Taste: Rich, sweet and spicy – chocolate sauce and orange peels are joined by boot polish, anise and cinnamon. Dank cellars and wet soils sit with reduced red and black berries, whilst toffee sauce and sponge cake are deepened by smouldering tobacco. Reduction brightens things up greatly – redcurrant jelly and white pepper alongside charred cask ends.
Finish: Long, but sharp and bitter with balsamic and jagged oak tannins. Burnt toffee and charred wood fading slowly.
Well-aged Mortlach is always a pleasure to taste and this is no exception – there’s a ton of depth and character here, backed up by a strong vein of dank sherry. Sadly though, it’s not all a match made in heaven – the finish has taken on far too much of both casks and presents as fairly acerbic and spikey – in stark contrast to the rest of the experience which is silky and well-judged. Very tasty stuff without a doubt, but at £315 I’m not just expecting age, I’m expecting poise and balance throughout.