Passion and PTSD

Posted 11 October 2022 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Passion and PTSD

It sounds oh so simple. Collect some samples. Taste them. Then pick the ‘best’ one and bottle it. If only. I’ll tell you straight off the bat - bottlers deserve a whole lot of patience and respect from whisky enthusiasts. More than they often receive. The life of an independent bottler in 2022 is both laboured and increasingly challenging. Whilst the bottled results might feel like newly welcomed members of an extended family, the conception, gestation and birthing process itself is to my mind closer to a drawn out pregnancy that culminates in a traumatic, PTSD-inducing delivery. If I had my time again, I’d have the gas and air on standby.

I’m now an independent whisky bottler – seemingly I wasn’t already busy enough. And that’s primarily what I’ve been focussed on for the past 9 months. Morning, noon and night. And that’s also why there’s been a diminished volume of Dramble output – particularly of late. Though now I’m recently discharged from new bottler hospital, I’m expecting an improved diagnosis in terms of being able to put pen to paper going forward.

To be clear from the outset - the creative freedom and ability to reflect my tastes and beliefs within a bottle is something that I find both astonishing and also extremely humbling. I’m having no difficulties in bonding with my babies – I’m very proud of them and what they represent - both in terms of the whiskies themselves and of my individual journey and undiminished passion for whisky. It’s nothing less than an honour and a privilege. But getting to this point has been a life-consuming and occasionally soul-sapping experience. And I’m probably now, outside of work, a slightly different type of whisky enthusiast because of it.

Collecting samples is both an arduous and frankly stressful process – particularly in the current market conditions – and likely even more so for a newly created bottler who needs to forge relationships. In terms of the cask lists that you can find online or request from brokers – in my opinion, 90% of that is not suitable for most bottlers. It’s either surplus to requirement ‘filler’ that is destined for whisky ‘investors’, or it's ridiculously expensive. Indeed, often it’s both.

Anyone can buy a cask of whisky – but what most people forget is that the vast majority of casks (even nowadays) were not envisaged as being released as-is. So, whilst plenty are ‘fine’ - they’re simply just fine. OK for you and some buddies to cask share and then wonder what you’re all actually going to do with your 50 bottles each. But not OK to foist onto the market as something which is exemplary of single cask, single malt whisky. At least not in my opinion. Tasting some outputs from some bottlers though, it does make you wonder sometimes.

The volume of good casks – the diamonds in the rough as it were – that *are* available is sadly steadily diminishing. A combination of the market being forcibly overheated by not just the producers themselves (I’ll be writing about this at length in the not too distant future) but both serious and have-a-go ‘investors’ has resulted in many distilleries diminishing or even closing off entirely their cask supplies to the open market. Producers need all the stocks they have to fulfil their expanded needs and market premiumisation desires – investors are increasingly buying up a large proportion of what remains. Honestly guys, don’t blame flippers for your higher bottle prices – it’s the cask investors you should be taking aim at. Nevertheless, when some of them are sitting on 40 casks of 2017 Tullibardine, I think we all know who’s going to be having the last laugh 😉

A lot of cask sources won’t let you actually sample before purchasing (that’s right out for me). As such, bottlers with greater financial resources to draw from can punt into these by purchasing larger parcels of similar casks – however, in doing so they know that the seller has more than likely buried some shite casks within that larger parcel (even to the point of being near enough dry in some cases). So a lot of those will get sold back to the wider cask market after. Far from tasty prospects for smaller/newer bottlers. Many brokers have absolutely no access to the casks they’re selling in terms of physically being able to get you samples. Some do, but you might be waiting weeks or even months to receive them. And the most duplicitous of the lot don’t even own what they’re trying to sell on to you.

So no. ‘Collect some samples’ is often far from straight-forward.

The cask market isn’t what it used to be. Hell, it’s not even what it was 3 years ago. Stock is highly limited and much of it is overpriced (indeed, priced directly for those who have deep pockets, but shallow knowledge). And so, as a bottler you’re looking at the double whammy of having to search further and wider for casks to sample *and* having to search further and wider for casks to sample that you can actually make some money on.

People are weird. They like weird things. I like weird things. However, I believe that one of my skills within whisky is my palate breadth. Whilst I have my foibles and my penchants, I also am acutely aware of the diverse preferences across the wider market. Of course, as a bottler, you have to bottle things that you enjoy and ‘feel’ yourself – but at the same time you have to do so in the context of the tastes of your market – not just your own. Think of this like Dalmore. Now many of you, like me, will know that an ex-bourbon Dalmore is a wonderful thing indeed – but you’re not going to see Whyte & MacKay going ballsdeep down this route – they know what their customers are clamouring for right now. A bottler must bottle from the heart. But they must also bottle from the mind.

I don’t need to tell you all about ‘best’ being an illusory concept. But suffice it say that sometimes even that ‘best’ might not be what’s correct to bottle. Over the last 9 months I’ve sampled plenty of lovely casks – but some of these were either simply too expensive, or the RLA’s were greatly diminished. Bottlers don’t always have the luxury of selecting the ‘best’ even if they can identify what this means to them. The art is in selecting something which typifies character, quality and elegance (in its own way) in a manner which makes sense to the consumer and business and at a price which also makes sense to the consumer and business. Some bottlers get this balance right. Some don’t.

And now we move onto physically bottling stuff. Honestly this is the area where I’ve learned the most. It turns out that at the start of the year I possessed a mere modicum of knowledge of this vital area. But now I’m a little more versed in warehouse arts, my initial conclusions are as follows: everything takes an inordinate amount of time; indy bottling bottlers are under resourced to cope with the current demands of the market; the investment in bottling operations has not followed in step with the overall investment into whisky as a category – not by a long way; Brexit and the global economic climate has exacerbated everything and what was tricky and time-consuming before is now frankly difficult and a total energy sink. And to cap it all off everything is going up in price. Glass, corks, foils, labels, transport. Not by as much as some of the RRPs you’re seeing – that’s premiumisation. But where you see an RRP that hasn’t gone up over the past 12 months - that producer/bottler is taking the cost hit and believe me, it’s not nothing.

An incredible amount happens to whisky and needs to (legally) happen to whisky in-between it sitting in cask and being selecting and it ending up bottled and ready to sell. But, if I told you that some bottling halls have 6-8 month lead times it should give you an idea about both the volumes in terms of the demand and the complexities that are happening ‘under the hood’ of bottling. I may well touch on this subject in the future – but my initial experience of indy bottling has provided me with some staggering insight into the serious amount of work that goes on between the warehouses and bottling halls and how virtually all of this is never written about or commented on by writers, bloggers, vBloggers or even the whisky media. It’s the gears which drive the engine – but most of the time we’d all rather talk about the car itself – or in some quarters the colour of the paintwork. These guys are unsung heroes.

Actually thinking about it….I’m not done with this topic. Not by a long-stretch. But I’ll leave it there for today and dive into a trio of indy expressions from Decadent Drinks that have been sat on my tasting table for far too long (sorry Angus).

The Dramble reviews Glen Garioch 2011 10 year old Equinox and Solstice Summer Edition 2022

Bottle Name: Glen Garioch 2011 Equinox and Solstice Summer Edition 2022

ABV: 48.5%
Distillery: Glen Garioch
Bottler: Decadent Drinks
Region: Highlands Age: 10
Glass Weight: 489g

The Solstice was on 21st June – it’s now the 11th October, so I’m way past my sell-by-date on this one. Nevertheless, the bottle is still available via the Decadent Drinks website for £85. Two 1st fill barrels of 2011 Glen Garioch have been combined to create this edition of Equinox and Solstice. Bottling – as always for this series – is at 48.5% ABV.

Nose: Lively, crisp and somewhat grappa-like with a sense of grape spirit, Mirabelle, cooking apple and lemon verbena. All rather pure and distillate lead. In support – pancake batter, pressed flowers and ripe golden barley. The addition of water offers underripe green bananas and cookie dough alongside clay and putty.

Taste: Notable weight – sunflower oil. Barley and grist lead into drops and again grappa, whilst cut reeds and hot house vines join angelica, blondie biscuits and a tangy chiselled background minerality. Reduction produces a syrupy texture with golden syrupy and white grape juice sitting with hay, barley sugar, choc and a touch of char.

Finish: Medium. Both citric and vegetal – think lemon cake together with sappy leafiness.

There’s no modern cask foolery going on with this highly spirit-forward Glen Garioch. And whilst in some cases that would leave a rather naked and exposed distillate – here, the underlying quality of Glen Garioch (which in my opinion is not seen nearly enough) shines through throughout. Ingredient-led and is very easy to like.

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 86/100

The Dramble reviews Whisky Sponge Ledaig 2001 20 year old Fourth Secret Edition

Bottle Name: Ledaig 2001 Fourth Secret Edition

ABV: 64.4%
Distillery: Tobermory
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Islands Age: 20
Glass Weight: 489g

Long sold out – but with only 62 bottles produced in total, there wasn’t really much to go around of this Ledaig in the first place. Distilled in 2001 and then matured in a refill sherry hogshead for 20 years – we’re looking at one of those ‘quiet’ maturations given the formidable disgorged strength of 64.4%.

Nose: Rather reductive – marmalade and jammy berries joining a stiff coastal breeze, salinity, touches of medicinalness and rubber. Ah, but there’s more. Both citrus and stone fruits mingled in a salad together with graphite oil and exhaust fumes. It’s all exceptionally well-integrated and relaxed. Dilution reduces everything except the fruity core – which presents as well-aged, expressive and juicy.

Taste: Behold! The arrival manages to compile citrus-tinged jasmine tea with vinegar, before a powerful island smoke delivers sharp, citric and sweet floor cleaner and antiseptic wipes. Polish stone fruits follow and lead into engine oil and a sense of mezcal agaveness (not a word). Bold, brassy and I’m left thinking whether this is animal, vegetable, mineral?! The addition of water transposes the texture towards oiliness and waxiness and whilst it 64.4% wasn’t unapproachable, now we’re really dancing. Detailed and defined fruit juices are by a real sense of refined elder-stateman Ledaig smoky funk. Truly excellent.

Finish: Long with metholated oak, lip-numbing ABV (at cask strength), powdered granite, bright polished fruits and a fading slightly perverse feinty smoke.

Tremendous stuff. In amongst the madness there’s both clear maturity and a wonderfully fruit-driven character. But it’s when the edge is taken off through a touch of reduction that this really sings – and you’re likely still not dropping below 58% in order to achieve that juicy equilibrium. I’m 100% on a hunt for a bottle of this. 

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 91/100

The Dramble reviews Ballechin 2005 16 year old Edradourian Knights Exclusive

Bottle Name: Ballechin 2005 Edradourian Knights Exclusive

ABV: 57%
Distillery: Edradour
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Region: Highlands Age: 16
Glass Weight: 489g

The Edradourian Knights Facebook Group managed to snaffle their very own exclusive Whisky Sponge release in the form of this 2005 16 year old Ballechin that has spent its life in an ex-Sauternes barrique. It's a test of faith.

Nose: Relatively crisp and somewhat tricky to define in words which capture what’s going on here. Burnt caramel, dry earthiness and a touch of balsamic. Serrano ham and lighter fluid join cardboard and orange bitters whilst clove and pepper add some spicy support. Reduction results in a thing paper like quality – parchment with plaster of Paris – alongside mixed herbs and red berry fruit tea.

Taste: Fat and oily. Good weight here. Coal dust and BBQ briquettes sit with natural gas, berries, burnt toffee and char. Cardboard and dry earthiness again. Then pepper heads towards ashiness whilst liquorice and leafiness present in the back palate. Water adds considerable dryness with an Underberg herbal-like quality. Hmm. Sticking at 57%.

Finish: Long with eucalyptus and fading bitumen, ash and cough syrup.

All the elements are in place for this to really tickle my particular whisky penchants – but sadly I’m not completely feeling it as a consolidated whole. The deep, burnt, sometimes meaty notes are certainly appealing – but the cardboard and general cask-driven dryness I find distracting. There’s still plenty to like here – particularly at 57% which is as low as I believe this whisky should be imbibed at (and as such a well-judged bottling strength) – but perhaps my expectations were just set too high here?! Then again – it’s a wine cask – and when it comes to those, only the penitent man will pass.

Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks

Score: 82/100



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