Posted 12 November 2020 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Now boarding the direct service to Hype Town. Stopping at Fanfare, Ballyhoo and Brouhaha and with a driver changeover due at Puffery. Please keep your hands inside the train at all times and have your wallets and purses at the ready – you may have to dig deeper than you expect. Our journey time should be around ten minutes, but please set your expectations to ‘rational’ and understand that this very special service may require a larger investment of your time than you initially envisaged. Last call for Hype Town. All aboard. Choo choo.
New releases that are gone seemingly before they’ve even arrived, near stampedes for show exclusives, mind-boggling bidding wars and enough sour grapes to open a pisco distillery – the whisky hype train is an increasingly regular sight. It has arguably brought new entrants to the market – either eager for whisky, or for the returns that are possible from ‘investing’ in whisky. It has led to puffy headlines across the mainstream media – some more accurate and properly researched than others. It results in as much social media boasting and peacocking as it does in genuine passion for the liquid itself – and above all else it continues to generate endless circular arguments over what the ‘value’ and ‘worth’ of whisky really is.
Please take your seats, we’re now departing…
At the front of the hype train is the locomotive - the engine which propels us forward and keeps us on the rails. And for momentum to be maintained, fuel is required. Sometimes lots of it - engines are often quite greedy. Hype rarely happens overnight – particularly in an industry where the products are required to gestate over a period of many years. It takes a range of influences to perfectly collide to create the sort of buzz that can be seen for particular bottles and distilleries. And there’s no guarantees that doing X or saying Y will lead to everyone losing their minds over your whisky. For every in-demand bottle, there are countless others languishing on shelves, gathering dust. South Africa’s world-famous Blue Train vs. the car crash that is HS2.
The raw energy at the heart of hype is usually always quality. Or at least a consumer perception of quality. Whilst some can, and invariably do, suggest that certain bottles, distillates and distilleries are overhyped (and they might well be correct) – without a general observation of a high-quality product I’d argue that generating a buzz is quite the difficult task. With an increasing number of distilleries – and in my opinion an overall increasing quality of spirit being produced around the world – there’s just too much choice for consumers to circle like vultures around something which is widely regarded as sub-standard. It doesn’t happen. Indeed, if you look at the newer distilleries who are all aboard the hype train – the likes of Chichibu and Daftmill – there’s a common thread of the perception of quality that runs throughout the minds of those who associate themselves as fans. People, quite reasonably, want to align themselves with what is seen as the best. In fuel terms: high octane vs. a hamster wheel.
Behind the engine is the first-class carriage. And there’s only so many seats available here. Hype can be generated for all sorts of reasons – many of them nothing to do with distilleries themselves and purely deriving from the minds of consumers themselves. A Pokemon “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality, a punt at future investment, arch-fandom or indeed simply obsessiveness or compulsive purchasing problems. Some of you guys seem doggedly determined to buy all the whisky. And then of course there’s the secondary market – and the hype that’s possible to generate for liquids because of their subsequent value. This is often related to many of the traits above – quality, availability etc – but at the same time it adds a whole separate halo effect onto bottles and distilleries. Hype built upon hype. Consumers eager for the product to drink – and another (likely largely) cohort eager for the product to generate a future return. A bullet hype train. First class passengers only – or at least those who aspire to be sitting further up the train. Either way, in this section of the train you need to act quickly and be prepared to dig deeply.
Standard class passengers often take a different view of the train – whilst they might still be aboard, they’re often there for the journey as opposed to the destination itself. Hype can stem from all sorts of places and for all sorts of reasons – sometimes quite personal ones. A memory of a first distillery visit, a family history in an area or country, or just jumping on a distillery or distillate that not been widely jumped on it. There’s quite a few people who love finding something that they believe that the wider market has not yet discovered. I felt that way about Ledaig until all of you buggers started to recognise the same things I’ve been seeing for years. Ah well, it was to be entirely expected.
But whilst not everyone boards the train for the same reasons, during the trip you’re likely going to find likeminded passengers. The fandom and community that exists across the whisky world is well documented and one of the reasons why the sector is in such fine fettle. In a sense it’s an entirely alternative type of fuel – a largely clean and renewable one. Facebook is awash with clubs and appreciation societies. Devoted, helpful passionate people….it’s lovely to see. It certainly continues to power my interest. At the same time, with fandom comes bad actors. Consider them a by-product of the hype train – or sometimes even a resulting pollutant. The larger the hype, the stranger the people who come out of the woodwork. And trust me on this one – some of them can be exceedingly disruptive and impossible to reason with. When you’re trying to manage tricky, often diverse expectations, the last thing you need is someone determined to take a dump in the buffet car.
Closing in on the back of the train are the sleepers. A place where the oldest and most established distilleries lie. Always along for the journey, but not necessarily the life and soul of the party. That’s not to say these established producers cannot engender hype. Far from it - they can, and they do. They have the history and the long-standing fan base. It’s just often somewhat of a different kind of hype. And the particular difference is often down to their scale.
There are reasons that bottles like Laphroaig 10 year old are well regarded as ‘classic’ – but at the same time are always available in your local supermarket. Quality and reputation are not the same thing as hype. Scale, output and buzz are inherently related – and limited availability is often what is required to generate a bubbling sense of desirability.
With smaller distilleries this is usually a factor of their physical size – they produce what they produce. It’s limited, when it’s gone, it’s gone. But with larger distilleries, particularly those with an established history and broad inventory there’s usually more work to be done in terms of convincing consumers that products are limited – and ergo hype worthy. Interesting combinations of casks, larger age statements, heavier marketing spend – or sometimes just an array of puffery PR that tries to make 80,000 bottles seem much fewer than it actually is. Nevertheless, just being either big or small does not result in a foregone conclusion as to whether hype will be possible to engender. Brand, design, ethos and market relevance all have their places to play. Hype usually derives from a perfect combination of these combined with a quality spirit pitched at a market-acceptable price (which is not neccessarily the same thing as a 'fair' price - Veblen goods are a *thing*).
At the very rear of the hype train is the caboose. And it’s the jumping on point for many new passengers eager to join the hype train. Buzz is hard to manage. From a producer point of view maintaining momentum is essential, but equally you don’t want to either burn out all your reserves, or to be moving at such a clip that the wheels start to leave the rails. There’s always going to be a need to transport more passengers - and the faster you’re hurtling down the track, the harder it becomes for new people to jump on board. Once the train leaves the station, there are going to be some passengers who feel the need to use a different line as an alternative to reach their destination.
Hype trains can only hold so many and can only move at a certain, sustainable speed to maintain their level of hype – and both consumers and producers have to decide whether to ride or deride them.
Today’s double review comes from Smögen. A distillery that is steadily building in popularity but is perhaps not quite within the white heat of hype. Yet. Nevertheless, both Mark over at Malt, and Serge of Whiskyfun among others have been regularly singing the praises of this small (35,000 LPA) capacity distillery. And in different ways they’ve both highlighted the same aspect of what is progressively raising the profile of this west coast Swedish distillery – the heady combination of quality distillate and quality wood combined with a raw excitement that derides from the fact that the whisky produced at Smögen actually tastes ‘different’.
Despite notions of limited supply and ever insatiable consumer demand, there’s a lot of whisky out there. You’re never going to be left out in the cold unable to buy ‘a’ bottle (though it might not be ‘that’ bottle). And across the swathe of whisky that’s out there, whilst I believe that quality is high (and increasing throughout the world), there’s a lot of it which is just rather dull and generic. Well-made whisky doesn’t equate to interesting whisky….and there’s only some much honey and vanilla that any person can take without their taste buds giving up the ghost.
Smögen are arguably different – both in their processes and in their mentality towards making whisky and relevantly, as you’ll see from my notes below, in profile and character. And that, whilst not necessarily instantly appealing to everyone, does hold the prospect for becoming something greater and wider known in the future.
Problem is they don’t really tell anyone about it – not in any great depth or fanfare. It’s all rather humble. Limited editions (particularly sherry-based ones) come and go – with those in the know eagerly snaffling them up with haste. But at the same time, the distillery seems happier just doing what they’re doing rather than embracing a hype train that, frankly it would be entirely possible for them to jump on if they wanted to. High scores from Malt or Whiskyfun are not nothing.
Perhaps this is a deliberate decision – or perhaps it's just a focus on the things which matters – I.E. making high quality whisky. Either way, this is distillery that to my mind holds a certain type of appeal for those on their whisky journey who are eager to explore the uncommon and the unusual – but who at the same time care about quality ingredients and quality processes. Not quite hype-rventilation yet…..but all things in good time.
Bottle Name: Smogen 100 Proof
Smögen’s first on-going release comes ten years after the distillery produced its first spirit in the form of Smögen 100 Proof. The whisky is produced from heavily peated malt (optic) and is a vatting of 11 oloroso sherry quarter casks. Bottled bearing a 6 year old age statement, this first batch release consists of 2436 bottles. You can purchase one from Master of Malt for £94.95 – though be aware, the site currently lists the bottle size as 70cl – and I’m only aware of Smögen releases at 50cl, so this may or may not be an error.
Nose: Savoury sweetness. Burnt toffee and freshly baked pastry cases join maple wood chips and morello cherries. Smoke is part burning logs, part pine needles and part iodine disinfectant. A backbone of malty distillery aromas (toasted and fermenting cereals) is supported by some outlying oddness from white board makers and marmite spread across toast. Dilution presents overt strips of bacon and amps up the prominence of the peat influence - kiln dried logs smouldering in a fire pit set against earthy leaf fires and moist bracken.
Taste: Rather interesting and unexpected – a textural delivery of uncooked lardons alongside plenty of red berries and a pronounced steely and salty minerality. Resinous tree sap and leafy greens are joined by impactful smoke that’s much more prominent than the nose alluded to, and significantly dirtier - coal dust and burnt electrical circuit boards. In the back palate a powered sweetness akin to smoked sherbet. The addition of water once again promotes earthiness – forest floors, damp soils, ferns and a trip to the stationer for some Pritt Stick.
Finish: Quite long with dry oakiness offset against leafy freshness whilst wood smoke persistent till the very end.
Smögen 100 Proof is not for beginners – nor those that don’t like a bit of eccentricity with their whisky. The flavour combinations are intricate (particularly for the relative age of the spirit) but at the same time, they’re a little densely bound before they are diluted – and even then present what might be viewed by some as complexity, but by others as a challenge. Nevertheless, everything is well balanced an in-step, and as someone who enjoys as trial as much as I enjoy left-field aromas and flavours (particularly of the peaty kind), I find this latest offering from Smögen rather compelling.
Review sample provided by Highfern Ltd on behalf of Smögen Distillery
Bottle Name: Smogen 2011 Single Cask Edition 12
Smögen’s single casks – particularly the sherried ones – don’t tend to hang around too long here in the UK. This 11 year old single cask (48/2011) seems to have fared a little longer thus far. It’s produced from heavily peated barley that’s been fully matured in a first fill ex-bourbon barrel. A 50cl bottle will set you back the sum of £153.60 from Master of Malt.
Nose: Immediate chiselled minerality and salinity. These are set against prominent underlying maltiness – flap jacks and toasted cereals. Pear and gooseberry drive a fruity core forward whilst coastal-tinged smoke and shale gas are joined by hay lofts, dried grasses, clay and putty. Reduction offers a broader selection of aromas – apple juices, and underripe pineapple alongside jelly baby sweetness and angelica.
Taste: A fatty and buttery arrival that drinks exceptionally well for 61%. Exceptionally salty and with potent smoke influence – scorched pumice stone, crumbled granite, brine and rock pools set against smoked rock salt and beach fires. White grapes and very tart underripe green apples are joined by a savoury character of beef dripping spread across toast and a handful of surprisingly salty pretzels. Water once again expands the playing field – granulated coffee and dusty vanilla sit with lemon balm whilst still persistent saltiness is joined by an aside of pepper.
Finish: Long and determinedly mineral. Slate and rock pools offset against oatmeal and barley flakes.
If you’re not into salty whiskies, this Smögen single cask is likely going to prove something of a struggle - it possesses biting salinity from start to finish. This said (and long-time readers will know that I do indeed very much enjoy salty whiskies), the underlying malty character of the distillate can be felt throughout and to my palate it marries exceedingly well with the more rugged notes of minerality and a smoke character that’s potent, but far from overbearing. Enjoyable stuff – but the price point won’t be tempting too many newcomers I fancy.
Review sample provided by Highfern Ltd on behalf of Smögen Distillery