Whilst an array of indy bottlers have slowed down their release cycles due to the struggle that is accessing suitable casks and acquiring increasingly hard to obtain (and progressively more expensive) dry goods such as bottles, foils and corks - the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is showing no signs of letting up. And in all honesty, I’m now starting to wonder if I need to find some shelter from their storm of bottles.
Nary a week goes by without an email from the SMWS. That’s great in essence, I appreciate good comms and continued engagement is a mantra that all whisky producers and bottlers should follow. But nevertheless, I’m losing track of what’s in the monthly outturns, what’s being released as a ‘mid-month’ outturn, what’s being released outside of any outturn and alongside other messages about Society ‘stuff’ and what has been previously released and is then being plugged for sale again. And that's saying nothing for the bottles which have been advertised, but then strangely fail to materialise.
Does this matter I have to ask myself? There’s always more whisky. And there's certainly always more Society whisky. But, whilst my FOMO has long been filled in to the deepest cabinet of my mind – for many others, this is still a very real and persistent concept. Whilst nowadays I pay attention to the main SMWS outturn and then largely skip over everything else – I’m likely an outlier in terms of the wider membership. Members are still scrabbling for all the bottles - no matter how many or when they're being released.
Whisky geeks used to be primarily concerned with the technical aspects of spirit production. But whisky geek 2.0 is far more concerned with bottle acquisition over and above every other aspect – and the huge volumes being pumping out by the SMWS are most certainly a target rich environment in that respect. You don’t have to look far to see some members’ monthly orders landing with the size of a bottle collection than some of us took several years to amass.
Back in the day, Society life was a far simpler affair. When there was a lot of new releases, some monthly outturns were simply much larger – particularly those toward the end of the year. Now I fully understand this increasing move toward a drip feed release programme - it persuades members to spend more money on average per month on SMWS whisky. “I bought X from the monthly outturn”…..”I also have to buy that mid-month bottle”……”Oh, and that random Tuesday morning drop – that’s in the basket as well.” I’m sure there’s a lovely data set sitting at SMWS HQ which clearly demonstrates that increasing the number of releases, but spreading them out over the course of a month results in a greater number of net sales. This doesn’t feel like rocket science.
This approach both deals with the Society’s dramatically increased membership (I.E. there’s more to go around everyone) – but it also specifically targets whisky geek 2.0. Why purchase just a couple when you can just keep hitting ‘buy’ several times a week over the course of a month. Keeping up with the Joneses is most certainly expensive work.
But for little old me, this is I’m afraid, all a bit too much nowadays. My addled brain just can’t keep up with what’s coming this week, what’s coming next and what might drop on any day of the week with only a hour or two’s notice. And in my opinion, it seems all a bit too much for the venues themselves. Earlier this week Phil and I tasted near 30 SMWS new releases between us – but only 12 of these actually feature on the main November outturn itself. Very generous Greville Street. Much obliged. But at the same time – there’s now so many releases, that even the Society staff don’t know what’s coming, when it’s coming and what has already been and somehow fallen through the cracks.
In some ways this confusion oddly makes for a better bar experience – with a continued arrival of bottles there’s a sustained supply of new things to sample that haven’t all been snaffled up in one gulp at the beginning of the month (likely another reason why SMWS have decided to take this bottle bombard approach). But at the same time, when a punter loves a particular dram and wants to know when they can purchase a whole bottle, they shouldn’t need to watch their email….sometimes for weeks.
I for one would be happier knowing everything that’s coming down the pipe over a particular month – even if some are coming this week and others coming later. I’m pretty certain that whisky geek 2.0 will still be looking to buy all of it nonetheless. But for me, a little more advance knowledge most certainly feels like it could be a good shelter from a storm.
Outurn 321 (no prizes for guessing the name) features just 12 new single malt Society bottlings. That's a notably small one. Which means given how many bottles we sampled, that there's lots more to come later in the month. And all-in-all it’s something of a strange affair.
Four releases coming from the Sweet & Spicy category, four releases cutting a swathe through Light & Delicate, Juicy Oak & Vanilla and Oily and Coastal and the final four bottles coming from the Peated (3) or Heavily Peated (1) flavour profiles. So your choices are deep purple, any of the blues or two of the greens. “I’ll take one from the top and then any others five numbers please Carol”.
I’ve jotted down some thoughts on the 5 new releases that I sampled. Time dependent I may drop my views on the other 10! bottles I sampled during my review session as they invariably appear over the coming weeks. As per normal, once you’re done here – head over to Phil’s website for his thoughts. He was making his usual “hmmm” noises. That’s often a good sign of something.
I found this month to be consistently solid, but with no massive standouts or particular low points. That doesn’t really help things, but in the end, your selection will very likely come down to your own personal predilections (when doesn’t it?!). Nevertheless, there has to be a nod and that nod goes to the Glen Scotia - 93.185 Grubby Sweetness and extreme funk – whilst I’d question both the overall grubbiness and the extremeness of the funk (when compared to a number of Society and non-Society bottlings), it nevertheless is a cracking dram which shows off an array of well-defined Scotia tropes that fans will invariable appreciate.
Our opening gambit heads over to Benrinnes for a 12 year old that has spend 9 of those years inside and ex-bourbon hogshead before being interestingly transferred into a 1st fill marsala barrique. Not a total uniqueness – Frequent Flyers bottled a 15 year old marsala finish last year – but nevertheless, not a common combination by any measure.
Nose: A fruit-forward medley of redcurrants and blackberries served with pancakes and waffles. Then a typically Benrinnes savoury note coming from old bread and aged cheese that sits together with dark cherry yoghurt. The addition of water reveals some brighter notes with ginger jelly sweets, lime zest and crackerbread. It also amplifies the umami – oregano and doughy loaf.
Taste: Rich and sweet, but still offering a solid equilibrium between the 1st fill marsala, original cask and distillate character. Rolled marzipan, red and dark berry compote, sour cherries and brandy snaps open before brown sugars, ginger spices and touches of roast meat develop. Reduction pushes the spices up – ginger in particular, alongside chopped almonds.
Finish: Medium in length with lighter red fruits and zesty lime.
There’s immediate tastiness here, but this is a Benrinnes which has been toyed with, and it’s pleasing that the manipulation has both been impactful and well-judged. Just enough cask to provide the influence required, not enough to smother the spirit. Likable.
Off to Auchroisk for a down the line refill ex-bourbon hogshead that has been left alone for 13 years.
Nose: Fresh, crisp and clean. Clean cotton and crème patisserie join sugared lime segments, balled melon and a hearty glug of ginger ale. A bunch of slapped mint gives way split vanilla pod, and baked tart cases. Dilution expresses Rich Tea biscuits, and light floral touches of camomile.
Taste: The arrival has some zing, but not unwanted bite. That zing comes primarily from stem ginger – piquant and mingled with saffron, green apple slices, honeydew melon and pressed cotton sheets. Water offers a real syrupy fruit salad, combining the aforementioned white fruits with tangerines and spoons of peach yoghurt.
Finish: Medium, with fading core fruits and residual sweet/sour zing and pressed flower floralness.
The purity of this Auchorisk is really rather pleasant indeed. Bright and fresh flavours throughout and a dram which really opens up on the palate when diluted. Me likey.
Phil made the bottle selection this month (first in divvies them all up) and instantly assigned me this Glen Scotia purely because of the name. Good man. Sounds like my sort of thing.
Nose: Ample greasiness here with butter and pan fats conjoined with buttered pastries, oven-baked rolls and crème patisserie that has picked up some sort of industrial dust whilst being factor processed. Leather and cloth open up to touches of orange peel, whilst shaved chocolate and fresh coffee beans sit with lemon posset. The addition of water offers creaminess from rice pudding, oiliness from engine oil and touches of industrially-baked apple.
Taste: Bolder now. Less weighty than the grease-packed nose implied, but still with plenty of cling. Machine oils and residual ashiness (not peat mind), sit with chocolate powder, olive brine and mentholated oak. The development heads back towards creaminess with custard tarts spinkled with iron filings and touches of distant haylofts. Reduction softens things up and reveals both fruitiness – lemon – together with dirty nuttiness and leather satchels.
Finish: Medium to long. Fattiness linger and is are joined by graphite powder and fading citric acid.
Not quite as grubby and extreme as I’d hoped for from the name – but nevertheless, there are plenty of mechanised motes here – from kitchen fats through to manufacturing lubricants. And in that regard this most certainly provides both a dip into some of the dirtier qualities of Scotia as well as a whisky that has plenty of nuance to untangle. Pick of the month.
Over to one of my favourite SMWS numbers – and to a cask that I’m increasingly seeing paired with Ardmore – rum. Whilst I’ve tried a couple of mad as two short planks Caroni maturations, I’m hoping that this SMWS is perhaps a little more…..’normal’. Seeing as it isn’t from Caroni (that always get a special mention to up the asking price), this’ll be from Angostura. Gone are the days when the island boasted more than 50 distilleries.
Nose: Sweet, vegetal and quite field-led. I’ll unpack. Honied smoke cuts across smouldering heather, dried leaves and mustard seeds whilst a scattering of brown sugar joins musty earthiness, Frazzles and a demi-glace sauce. Reduction reveals touches of coastal minerality and medicinal wipes alongside hessian.
Taste: Sweet again. Unrefined sugars are scattered over flame bananas and a side plate of barbequed meats. Smoked apples join hay, whilst field flowers sit alongside vegetal smoke – burnt vegetation and smouldering leaf mulch. Water adds even more sweetness to the equation with baked apples and BBQ’s lemon slices served alongside overt ash and honey-drizzled roast potatoes.
Nope, not really wild, but certainly on the saccharine side. There’s still plenty of discernible Ardmore character here – all encased in a well-integrated, rum blanket that adds both a sense of summer BBQs and of the sweetness of processes molasses. Does what it says on the tin. 66 fans won’t be disappointed. 66 fans with a sweet tooth will likely rejoice.
This month’s obligatory Caol Ila offers something a little different to many SMWS 53’s – a rerack into oloroso – and at three years, that’s a decent length for a 1st fill sherry hogshead to do some real transformative work.
Nose: Pickle. Big tick. Alongside overt vinegar there’s sweeter balsamic, mentholated oak, saline and salty minerality. Smoke is quite think and viscous throughout – near tarry and with touches of chilli pepper, smoked lime and limestone. Dilution expresses sweetness with lemon cured apple slices and nectarines alongside olive brine and smouldering log fires.
Taste: Not messing. Leading again with vinegar (not sure what I think about that in these volumes) before heading off into a wall of peat influence – tarry ropes, iodine, smoked ham, burnt toffee and charred nuts. Second sips will be required to assess deeper (such is the initial impact), but lurking beneath is saline, beach pebbles and lamp oil. Reduction is welcome here. Cured and smoked meats, dried earth and Sunday roast gravy….with far less added vinegar.
Finish: Long with more sherry influence now from hedgerow berries, coastal minerals….and lingering aceticness (from vinegar).
So, if you’re particularly vinegar adverse I’d suggest staying clear. Interestingly the secondary maturation here seems to have melded primarily with the natural acidity of the fortified wine, over and above its more expected fruit-driven notes. But at the same time, it has also amplified the sense of phenolic power throughout the whisky. I certainly like the slight oddity of it all….but I don’t know if I’d want a whole bottle to wade through. Probably would make a glorious onion or egg though 😊.