Long haul

Posted 19 April 2023 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Long haul

The trouble with writing about whisky is that it’s not easy to do well. Those that excel have both the technical knowledge and the innate ability to take their readers on a journey of discovery. They stimulate conversation and illuminate explanation through a seamless amalgamation of entertainment with education. However, not only are these individuals increasingly in short supply – in some quarters the need for them is being questioned. 240 characters or a well-framed photo is now apparently deep enough for many folks. But contrary to diminishing attention spans, I would strongly posit that whisky requires conversant observation and grounded analysis. When a drink takes as long as it does to create, it shouldn’t then fall purely into ephemerality. If you are proclaiming a spirit (and the industry that crafts it) as complex then surely its scrutiny can and should be equally multifaceted.

Writing about whisky offers near endless paths for exploration – reviews and armchair criticism are but one avenue. However, this route is to my mind by far the path of least resistance – regurgitating historical facts and production figures, penning a few tasting notes and then giving an (often vague) indication as to whether a particular whisky was enjoyed. This approach is far simpler than attempting to deep dive into the whisky industry’s rich fabric of history, culture, economics and camaraderie. And this is all somewhat the reason why I’ve been quiet these last 4 months. I’ve been considering whether I’ve wanted (through necessity of possessing less time – and less whisky brain as a result) to take the gentler garden path – keeping The Dramble ticking over each week and the reviews flowing with the odd insight dotted here and there. Doing it an easier way.

You know what? After much soul searching, I decided – nope. I really don’t. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the copious number of sites posting up quantities (some staggering) of quick fire reviews. Indeed, wider whisky appreciation needs the short and succinct just as much as the longer form. However, I’ve never written about whisky for my own social validation. Nor have I ever wanted to simply get the job done and to move onto the next sample sitting on my desk. Rinse and repeat. I’ve taken my time with posts on The Dramble because as a topic for investigation I’ve believed (and still do) that whisky has plenty of things that are worth saying. And that not all of these things can be boiled down to their lowest common denominator.

And so it’s time. My hiatus comes to an end. I’m back. Back to enquire and examine, not to vomit up already well-documented production figures. Back to scrutinise the contents of open bottles not to worship photos of closed ones. Back to pen some more rambling thoughts before ChatGTP entirely takes over the creative writing space. Back to attempt to wade through the embarrassingly large pile of samples that is sitting behind me.

The Dramble returns. I’ve missed you.

Traditionally drinks writers were specialists penning prose for dedicated periodicals, books or within the columns of newspapers. They were paid. And by return their content drew in readers and thus advertising could be sold off of the back of their endeavours. But the Internet has by-and-large seen to much of that. Technology and social media especially has had a seismic effect on writing – resulting in a global rethinking of journalism in general, but also in the proliferation of ‘experts’. Experts with little time for grammar and an all too often worrying aversion for facts – but plenty of time for nonchalant, easily sharable content.

The ground has shifted. The days when a writer would diligently research, question, question again, draft and redraft are largely behind us. You can ‘discover’ whisky and then 12 months later find yourself with 10K Instagram followers beholden to your closed bottle wedged artfully between the branches of a tree. However, this differential from a brand point of view can be just as stark – a long form article read by only a few thousand people, or a snazzy looking photo passively consumed by the tens of thousands? Irrespective of eyeballs, one is certainly far quicker to produce than the other.

The problem to my mind isn’t that all of the myriad forms of whisky content cannot coexist – or that the voice of an individual cannot (and likely should not) contend with the collective opinions of the masses. But rather – that in shifting the dial away from multi-layered discourse, the Internet has an implicit ability to dumb shit down. Lives are invariable more complicated and time pressured than they were when the likes of Michael Jackson were writing for The Independent and The Observer. There’s a wealth more content (about anything and everything all of the time) for consumers to consume. Nevertheless, whilst the level of discussion that can be found in some whisky communities is immeasurably much higher than it was ten years ago – the oversimplification of whisky that I see day-in, day-out is very much a doubled-edged sword.

On the one hand - making complicated, hard to explain things easier to digest has, without a doubt, aided the broadening of whisky’s appeal. Whisky still can be a pretty daunting thing for many to explore. But on the other – generalisation, sensationalisation and trivialisation all risk presenting whisky as a largely analogous blob. There is of course a balance to be struck when it comes to writing about anything, whisky most certainly included. There are still bastions of critical thought worth seeking out – some of the longer in the tooth writers are still active and some of the bods over at both Malt and Dramface are absolutely worth the investment of your time. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feeling that some quarters of whisky community are nevertheless losing their propensity to dig a little deeper. To question. To ask why. To ask how. To talk less. To listen more.

It’s hard to argue that whisky writing and whisky content creation when taken in isolation have a marked effect on either a large number of consumers propensity to buy or on producers’ propensities to produce in a particular manner. However, when taken in the round consequences can be notable. There’s certainly a direction of travel. Some writing outlets still contend that everything over £50 is over-priced. Ah those were indeed the days. Others that everything that folks are excited about is by necessity over-hyped. This in turn feeds into the mainstream media. You only have to look at countless ‘best ofs’ or whisky Christmas lists to see that the wider media (particularly the tabloids) take a very narrow view about what whisky drinkers should be drinking – and increasingly about what the non-cognisant should be investing their hard earned cash in. Mainstream drinks writing does to my mind have an impact – particularly on the next generation of potential whisky enthusiasts. But I for one would much rather those newer to whisky came into the hobby as I did – ever eager for more knowledge – as opposed to always believing that a picture is worth a thousand words.

I guess this all boils down to the difference between a small number of people knowing a lot and a larger number of people knowing small amount. Never the twain shall meet. However as a long form writer at heart, it will come as no surprise that I strongly believe that there’s always a need for elicitation, considered analysis and nuance - over and above 240 characters. Whilst it is certainly possible to inspire, excite and entertain with a mere modicum of words or images, at the same time, whisky’s tapestry – whether historic or currently – has many separate threads on which to pull on. And I’d contend that many of these require…and are indeed deserving of deeper examination.

I’ll leave it there for today. I best start pushing on through sample mountain… and no doubt some of you just want to get back to looking at the pretty pictures.

Today’s review selection comes from one my favourite writers within the industry – Angus MacRaild. He’s another person who most folks wish would write more – however like me, he’s also waist deep in new distillery stuff. Time is sadly ever limited. Nevertheless, Whisky Sponge releases are still flowing regularly, so here’s a particularly diverse (and notably high quality) pile of them for you to sink your teeth into. 

N.B. there’ll be another sizeable review tranche from Sponge coming to the pages of The Dramble soon.

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Springbank 1994 27 year old

Bottle Name: Springbank 1994 27 year old

ABV: 47%
Distillery: Springbank
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Campbeltown Age: 27
Glass Weight: 489g

There’s lots about Springbank that baffle me. Of late, I’ve been wondering why, when the hype for the distillery has reached an all-time high (mainly of its own accord), that J&A Mitchell have taken the decision to reinvest back into being active on both the tasting circuit and social media. Though I’m already starting to hear mutterings that this was perhaps short-lived and that Springbank may well soon revert back to its more natural tortoising posture - I’m still perplexed that they decided to come out to play in the first place.

It’s not as if the distillery’s products need any additional profile or consumer purchase poking. You’d think that these forms of brand engenderment are better suited for when the tides have turned in the other direction. But as is often the case with Springbank – not everything needs to make sense. Odd decisions in my view, but still Teflon nevertheless.

This Sponge Springbank has some maturity to it, having spent its 27 years within the confines of a refill sherry hogshead before being bottled last year at 47% on the nose. The release didn’t receive that much attention. And as outlined above – it didn’t really need to. Immediately snaffled up.

Nose: Animated, classical fruitiness – preserved lemon and tinned pineapple alongside jasmine petals, dried sage and a powdered sugar quality. Then metallurgy – wire wool, iron filings and copper pipes together with further industrial edges such as lamp oil. The addition of water isn’t required here at all – but we’ll try nevertheless in the name of science – Chamomile tea, slapped mint, Blu Tac and wet leaves.

Taste: Naturally textural with machine oils and lustrous waxes. Fruits are at the fore once more – pineapple, lemon, kiwi and tart cooking apples. Dusty leather seat coverings are followed by powdered chalk, steeped black tea, white pepper, anise and a developing sense of high sheen polish in the mid to back palate. Reduction introduces a big clove note together with menthol and touches of salinity.

Finish: Quite long with graphite and tangy fruits lingering.

The expressive fruitiness on show here reinforces the inherent distillate quality and the underlying level of maturation at play. That said, the metallic tones and edges, though not in anyway unpleasant, sometimes feel like they’re drawn from a different whisky – they’re not 100% aligned with the fruit-forward character 100% of the time. That’s being pernickety though - this is of course excellent – no one would expect anything less.

Score: 88/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Springbank 1995 26 year old

Bottle Name: Springbank 1995 26 year old

ABV: 51.1%%
Distillery: Springbank
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Campbeltown Age: 26
Glass Weight: 489g

Sponge Edition 60B is something of sister release (in that it came out at the same time to the refill sherry hogshead 27 year old Edition 60A). This one keeps things simple with refill ‘plain’ oak and a slightly higher ABV of 51.1%. On paper I should prefer it. Let’s see.

Nose: Candied pineapple and flambe orange sit atop a stack of pancakes with putty, paraffin and tin cans (there’s that metal edge once more). Limestone and earthy dunnage lie at the centre and are joined by dusty fabrics from an ancient wardrobe (sadly no Narnia). It’s less overtly fruity than Edition 60A – but it’s still highly lucid and articulate. Dilution reveals singed herbs, seawater and a real oily quality of lamp oils and machine polish.

Taste: An amalgam of industry and agriculture with neither dominating the other wholly. Pineapple rings, apple slices and lychee juice – then Brasso, graphite oil, hot house vine ‘greenness’ and saline solution. Water here does shift the balance more towards the mechanised – petroleum jelly somehow given a fruity tang and joined by crumbled chalk.

Finish: Long and saving the fruitiness for the last gasp – dusty pineapple with pangs of metal sheeting.

A somewhat esoteric combination that totally works and possesses very high harmony. This just edges Edition 60A for me. Not because it’s world’s apart, but because the coherency is simply a little higher and the few notches of ABV help with the delivery of that likewise. Cerebral stuff to take ones time with whilst mulling over.

Score: 89/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Islay Single Malt 1990 31 year old

Bottle Name: Islay Single Malt 1990 31 year old

ABV: 51%
Distillery: Laphroaig
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Islay Age: 31
Glass Weight: 489g

Not really a mystery, mystery Islay. But easily one of my favourite Sponge labels. Whilst I’m quite not as deeply fond of this distillery as many others are (my attentions are typically a few miles further East or over on the Sound of Islay), nevertheless the story told here, both of the distillery’s history and particularly of Angus’s father’s love for it are both wholly poignant and touchingly dedicatory.

Edition 61 has spent 31 years in a refill barrel before being bottled at 51% with an outturn of 239 bottles – all of which will cost you immeasurably more now.

Nose: Vivid and defined tinned fruit salad – all clearly well-matured with edges of bright polish – mango, pineapple, guava apricot and lime. A real melange. Sitting underneath – canvas sacking…that’s sometimes sodden and damp smelling - salted crisps, restrained iodine, old fabric plasters and lemon-tinged antiseptic cream. The addition of water offers a murkier composition with sand and loam joined by brackish pond water, oily rags and mentholated oak. I find there’s something to enjoy with both versions.

Taste: 31 years and no loss of vibrancy. Pickled onions livened with lime juice and a scattering of salt – then earth mushrooms, beach sand, granite sea groynes, sharp polish and charred cask ends. Smoke is reasonably restrained, but still certainly highly detectable – surface cleaner, brine and smoked sea herbs. Dilution expresses Key lime pie sharpness together with hospital floors and various tinctures and balms.

Finish: Very long indeed. Menthol, medicinalness and minerality. The three M’s of good stuff.

This is edging towards faultlessness when you’re a sucker for older styled, relaxed peat drawn from sympathetic refill wood. Pleasures abound - from the honed fruit ensemble to the not quite yet ethereal, still very distinct, medicinal peat influence that provides all of the flavour provenance you’re looking for when it comes to this distillery. Memorably excellent.

Score: 92/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Glen Keith 1993 28 year old

Bottle Name: Glen Keith 1993 28 year old

ABV: 51.9%
Distillery: Glen Keith
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Speyside Age: 28
Glass Weight: 489g

A refill barrel and a refill hogshead have been combined to create Whisky Sponge Edition 62. The product listing indicates a real differential between the profiles of these two casks, with the 1991 barrel being softer and more extractive and the 1993 hogshead being fresher and tarter – the amalgamation undertaken to achieve both balance – but hopefully still showcasing both original characters.

Only 314 bottles at 51.9% emerged from the union of two casks. You’ll still find 1 remaining with the fine folks at Tyndrum Whisky.

Nose: Apricot flan, orange barley water (very Lucozade-like) and pumpkin pie kick off a well-defined nose. Then it’s deeper into yet more fruits with orchards (primarily pear) and peach cobbler joined by pressed flowers and honey sweetened porridge. Reduction amps up the floral aspect with fallen blossoms together with puffy pastry and sunflower oil.

Taste: *Very* tropical. Pineapple chunks, mango slices, blood orange and white grapes offer a medley of pulsating fruitiness. Gummy bears (white and yellow ones) and golden syrup continue the sweetness, whilst being tempered by kitchen herbs, natural waxiness and touches of ripe, freshly harvested cereals.

Finish: Medium to long with sweet fruits gradually souring and an afternoon tea party of slices and cupcakes.

Certainly into fruit-bomb territory here with a packed ensemble of lively well-honed, distillate forward notes that have been very ably nurtured by a compassionate refill cask. After nearly three decades this has not lost a jot of vitality.

Score: 91/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Knockdhu 2006 16 year old

Bottle Name: Knockdhu 2006 16 year old

ABV: 55%
Distillery: Knockdhu
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Highlands Age: 16
Glass Weight: 489g

Knockdhu’s peated AnCnoc range has had something of an intermittent run. At one point there were a broad number of editions all possessing in-bottle PPMs (I likes that) and harking back to tools used to cut peat – several of which I’d never seen nor heard of. Nevertheless, despite my predilections for all things smoky, I still to date have preferred the unpeated AnCnoc bottlings that the distillery has released - several of which have scored well on the pages of The Dramble.

Whisky Sponge has nabbed a heavily peated refill hogshead of 2006 Knockdhu, which is worryingly described as “almost ideological”. I’m expecting a room-dividing effort here. Particularly so when the original ABV of 67% (that’s a *very* quiet 16 years in refill wood) has been reduced down to 55% -  the implication being that in its original form this whisky was perhaps somewhat unapproachable.

Nose: Pickling juice, raw agave pina, green olive brine, green peppers and pine needles open – all very green indeed. Needed lifts are provided by green (still) apples, preserved lemons, powdered sugar and Black Jack chews. Water reveals putty, clay, mud (near alluvial) together with menthol. It’s 'out there', but not a million miles away from other near naked peated distillates.

Taste: Bold certainly...but not unapproachable with the ABV rectified to a point where flavour, and not alcoholic burn is the order of the day. Tarry felt, ash and leaf mulch sit with aniseed ball heat whilst pickle juice and olive brine join lime zest, edges of slight meatiness (ham?) and tingling pepper. Dilution isn’t needed now in my opinion – indeed, it’s all rather more murky when taken below 50% - pond water, boiled potatoes and far less definition overall.

Finish: Long and ashy with burnt circuit boards and metholated oak.

If you’ve not yet sampled a peated whisky within the idiosyncratic range this will almost certainly prove eye-opening. However, those of you who have already delved into the likes of Ruadh Mor or perhaps some of the more brutalist naked Ledaigs will likely not flinch too much here. This is certainly ‘on the spectrum’, but it’s not quite yet ready to be consigned to the category of completely batshit. I enjoy it. But I stand by my prediction of this dividing rooms.

Score: 85/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Dailuaine 1997 25 year old

Bottle Name: Dailuaine 1997 25 year old

ABV: 48.8%
Distillery: Dailuaine
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Speyside Age: 25
Glass Weight: 489g

The underrated Dailuaine seems to be getting a little more traction by enthusiasts of late – and rightly so, this distillate is something of a go-to for me – for all seasons. Sponge has amalgamated two refill hogsheads of 1997 Dailuaine creating 365 bottles of 48.8% 25 year old goodness. I’m eager to get stuck into this one…

Nose: Warmed croissants and buttery pastry join acacia honey spread over toast and crème patisserie. Spring meadow flowers and Comice pears sit with peach slices, whilst warmed polish reinforces the length of maturation at play here. Dilution offers almond brittle, angelica and orange gel, but does sadly reduce the definition on offer here. Stick at 48.8%.

Taste: Initially I’m reminded of US-style fruit bomb IPA’s with bright floralness underpinned by a soft pillowy texture. Then we’re more obviously into the spirit category with tangy citrus and yellow fruits, perfumed florals, bourbon biscuits and steeped tea-like tannins. There’s weight throughout – a waxiness that’s akin to a combination of sunflower oil and Crayola and joined by some Café latte creaminess. Again adding water doesn’t seem recommendable – whilst the profile is similar, the precision is simply lost.

Finish: Medium to long with coffee cake, fading honey and steeped tea.

This Sponge Dailuaine has been bottled at a perfect ABV and whilst I will remove some marks for its hydrophobic nature, I can’t deny that ‘as is’, the combination of texture and fruit is something that I would happily drink all day long.

Score: 87/100

The Dramble reviews Orkney Sponge 1998 23 year old

Bottle Name: Orkney Sponge 1998 23 year old

ABV: 57%
Distillery: Highland Park
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Islands Age: 23
Glass Weight: 489g

This 1998 23 year old Highland Park was the first (there’s been three to date I believe) Orkney Sponge releases – a sub-category of a sub-category within the greater Sponge lexicon of spirits releases. I’m not going to add a new bottler into the Dramble’s CMS quite yet – but should the Orkney Sponge releases keep coming down the pipe, no doubt I’ll recategorise them all in due course.

This release is a single refill hogshead (lots of refill oak in this particular review session – that makes me happy) from a 1998 HP distillation. You can still find it over at The Whisky Exchange – though it’s far from cheap.

Nose: Salted butter is spread over bran crackers whilst freshly brewed tea is joined by lamp and flax oil and woolly jumpers. Heathery, floral peat is derived from burning hillsides (more than one might expect) whilst lemon gel and Danish pastries sit alongside touches of honey. The addition of water moved things into a more fruit-led form with guava and peach joining ripening bananas. Quite lovely.

Taste: This just makes me smile. Faultless now. Lemon balm and salted, buttered crackers sit with pan fats and sunflower oil whilst salinity, developing polish and dunnage qualities are offset against samphire, herbal honey and asides of chalk and granite. Water isn’t needed, but doesn’t make the whisky flinch either – olive brine and sweet peppers together with manuka, lemony polish and walnut oil.

Finish: Long with salinity and fading sweet and sour honied lemons.

Sadly this is too expensive as I really do want it in my life. Elegantly old-styled, distillate forward, no cask messing and served as is comes. What’s not to like (other than the price)?

Score: 91/100



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