Posted 03 September 2020 by Matt / In Group Tastings
September’s SMWS outturn sees the unveiling of the 2020 Gathering bottlings and, out of necessity, a move to digitally based events to celebrate the Society’s home in the Vaults at Leith. Whilst only into its second year, I’m wondering whether this iteration of the SMWS festival might provide a few useful learnings. As a global members society SMWS has often felt a little too tied to its ‘spiritual home’ – and whilst it’s quite the task (particularly in places where no venue exists) to arrange physical events, this year’s “Global Gathering” might well provide the international focus which this commemoration surely necessitates.
As I’ve written far too many times on these pages before – online tastings and assemblies in no way replace the conviviality and camaraderie of live events. But they do however allow for a dramatically broadened, and arguably more accessible reach. Society members live in many far-flung places. Even in the UK, there are members who are unlikely to ever visit one of the members rooms. Tying the vast majority of events to a venue which the vast majority of the membership cannot visit feels more geographically elitist than a gathering should. Whilst I would posit that all members, if they’re able, should endeavour to visit the spiritual home of the Society – I’m somewhat pleased that 2020 sees The Gathering opening its doors to an enlarged array of virtual events. Tradition is always important – but not at the expense of modernity and augmented appeal. I’d like to see a Global Gathering each and every year – not just when the circumstances compel it.
September’s outturn offers up 23 new single cask whiskies and a solitary single cask rum. Unfortunately, whilst I managed to hold a social-distanced double-header with Phil (who it’s always lovely to see), at the time many of the bottles had not yet reached the London rooms. As such, I’ll be presenting reviews of just 7 of this month’s new releases. For another 8 reviews head over to Phil's site.
Looking at the outturn as a whole – Spicy & Dry, Light & Delicate and Heavily Peated are sent to the locker room this month – the remaining selection of 9 colour-coded profiles offers a diverse selection with a good balance of 1st fill, refill casks together with a smattering of additional maturation jobbies.
My pick of the month goes to the gloriously elegant Tomatin (11.40 Old school virtuosity) – expensive indeed, but extremely high quality. My next selection comes from outside of the list presented below. Dramming with Phil is a joy for many reasons and this month it includes a whisky on his side of the list. The peated Glenturret (16.47 - The Steeplejack’s delight) offers outstanding balance and adaptability whilst clocking in as the second cheapest bottle on the outturn. Worthy of noting despite not being on my side of the outturn review. As I noted earlier this week, pay close attention to peated Glenturret
Also receiving nods this month are the wildly aromatic and charismatic Glen Moray (35.259 Rumtopf, birnenbrot and stollen) and the blink and you’ll miss it Clynelish (26.145 Mood-lifting sanctuary) which presents as a high quality spirit matured in a high quality cask always does – admirably.
Bottle Name: 35.259 Rumtopf, birnenbrot and stollen
Nose: Fresh, lively and all quite floral – orange marmalade and lychee sit with palpable Turkish delight (rose water, petals and hips) whilst potpourri is scattered into a polished oak bowl. Desiccated coconut and freshly rolled pastry are joined by sweet and tangy cherries and berries. The addition of water offers up quiche jelly together with freshly baked buns and maple-glazed waffles.
Taste: More reclined on the arrival – mango and guava juice alongside orange and tangerine zest. Lime juice provides a lift, whilst a kick of swirling pepperiness and coconut shavings speak to the ex-bourbon cask. Charred cask heads and orange preserves are joined by dark chocolate torte and a well-polished vintage table. Reduction expresses even more orange-led flavours – mandarin, clementine and jaffa together with candied lime peels and pineapple upside down cake.
Finish: Medium to long with sweet fruitiness lingering tempered by persisting char.
This Glen Moray is rather the epitome of single cask philosophy – it feels bottled not only because it’s deliciously composed, but also because in some ways it’s quite divergent from the distillate’s ‘norms’. There’s all too many single casks which nose and taste almost indistinguishably from each other. This is not one of those. Bright and floral on the nose, relaxed, fruity and elegant on the palate. That this whisky also takes dilution well marks it out further. Recommended.
Sticking to the Speyside region and moving to Rothes we’re presenting with a 12 year old from Glen Spey distillery. Not all that commonly bottled outside of its Flora & Fauna release – but we’ve seen a smattering of casks from the Society over the last couple of years.
Nose: Crisp and clean. Fresh cotton sheets, pressed laundry, daisies and sunflowers – sweetened by white gummy bears, sliced apples and homemade lemonade. Bakery notes push through with custard cream biscuits, crumbled digestives and a laden spoon of crème patisserie. In the background, preserved lemons, mint leaf and tingling pepper. Garden-fresh and inviting. Sadly, reduction immediately diminished the definition making everything feel moist and earthy as opposed to bright and distinct.
Taste: An initially soft arrival is misleading – Sunflower oil, peach melba and green apples give way to hostile pepperiness, char (almost into cask ash) and burning ginger root. Once the palate has adjusted to this assault – steeped fruit teas and vanilla cream. Conversely to the nose, dilution here is a godsend, offering a well-balanced combination of orchard fruitiness, spice and char. All of the notes above – all at the same time – only with much less jaggedness.
Finish: Long and surprisingly mineral – wood ash, pepper and dry oakiness.
This Glen Spey is begging to be liked but doesn’t make it easy to do so. The undiluted nose together with the diluted palate are both rather joyful. On the flip side, the diluted nose is washed out and drab and the undiluted palate is far from friendly and amenable. Perhaps you’ll have more joy finding a balancing point? There’s something notable here – so it’s rather the shame that it’s all too tortuous to properly locate.
Bottle Name: 11.40 Old school virtuosity
ABV: 50.2% Distillery: Tomatin Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Old & dignified Region: HighlandsAge: 31
The oldest Society bottling of Tomatin to date. Laid down in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead in June of 1988 and bottled 31 years later.
Nose: Intensive and expressively elegant. We’re off to a good start. Roasted pineapple and papaya chunks are served with a rich chocolate ganache, sugar-dusted bon bons and asides of cloves and flambé orange peels. The dunnage influence is palpable here – wet, whisky soaked casks sitting on earthen floors together with old bookcases packed full ancient leather-bound tombs. Water expresses nutty qualities – almost as if this was sherry matured (it wasn’t) – maple with raisins, part-baked oven rolls and golden syrup spread over toast.
Taste: Still rather glorious. Boozy, polished fruits – mango, papaya, dark berries and cherries sit with tinderboxes, cigar leaves and leather-bound mahogany sofas. The back-palate is sweeter with a kick of soft brown sugar whilst Liquorice Allsorts are dusted in powered ginger and served with chopped walnuts and torn lemon balm leaves. Old, austere oak runs throughout – parquet flooring and wood panelled walls. Reduction brings the oak forward in the mouth, whilst adding tartness to the fruit complement – lime drizzled pineapple and mangos – sharp, but still juicy.
Finish: Medium to long with chocolate shavings and crystalline ginger tempered by a touch of sour cherry.
An elegant and expansive Tomatin that has been well served by refill ex-bourbon. Fruit-forward and offering just the right level of vivacity to play off neatly against the profound, sophisticated old oak. All rather indulgent and opulent. As well it should be – at £295 this is just as expensive as the OB Tomatin 30 year old. I’m not sure the offer of a “free gift carton” will tip anyone over the edge – but on liquid quality alone this is quite excellent and therefore pick of the month.
Bottle Name: 26.145 Mood-lifting sanctuary
ABV: 58% Distillery: Clynelish Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Juicy, oak & vanilla Region: HighlandsAge: 8
Phil has been snaffling up most of the recent young Clynelish bottlings for reviewing – but I arrived at the Society rooms first this month…so…
Nose: Highly floral, but still with enough textural cues to identify it. An array of meadow flowers – daisies, poppies, cornflower – joined by church tapers, pan grease, wallpaper paste and a hint of Airfix glue. Golden cereals run throughout, together with sliced pears and orange peels. In the background, a developing demi-minerality that’s hard to define – I’m going with tile grout. Reduction presents a crisp and clean composition with cotton sheets, rose petals and hemp canvas.
Taste: Pear and apricot jams and preserves sit with fizzing lemon and lime cordials. Jelly sweets and liquorice are joined by creamy fudge, whilst gentle cask char sits with stem ginger and pepperiness. Water retains the fresh and vivid profile whilst offering up an array of tart citrus peels – Haribio Tangfastics together with lemonade and an array of gummy bears.
Finish: Medium with preserved lemons and a persistent bright effervescence.
Quality distillate in a quality 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel is always going to result in good things. And this Clynelish is no different in that regard. Characterful, lively and acquiescent in every way - young whisky done proper. #26 always sells out quickly regardless of the attributes. This one is worth getting in line for (literally as it turns out). Recommended.
Bottle Name: 113.38 Welcomed with open arms
ABV: 57% Distillery: Braeval Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Juicy, oak & vanilla Region: SpeysideAge: 22
Heading over to Braes of Glenlivet for this surprisingly mature and surprisingly reasonably priced 22 year old drawn from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.
Nose: Quite subdued and softly spoken. An initial creamed horseradish dissipates quickly, but the overall creamy impression is retained throughout. Kitchen flowerboxes, blooming sunflowers, linen sheets and cornflakes sit with Dairy Lee triangles, creamed rice and pink wafer biscuits. Despite the high 50s ABV, dilution seems ill advised here – it quickly washes out the subtle nose, offering little more than a vague sense of floral porridge.
Taste: Much more expressive and expansive on the palate. Nutmeg spiced buns and apple and pear compote is joined by white grapes and gooseberries. Polished oak sits with an array of baked goods – coconut macaroons, puff pastry and pancake batter. The addition of water is much more beneficial here – the palate retains its shape and structure whilst expressing sliced apples, pepperiness and metholated oak.
Finish: Quite long with polished wood and fizzing white pepper.
A tale of two halves for this older Braeval. A cowed and vague (when reduced) nose can’t keep pace with the much more communicative and entertaining palate. Simply better in the mouth than on the nose.
Bottle Name: 4.256 A dark palette palate
ABV: 56% Distillery: Highland Park Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society Flavour Profile: Lightly peated Region: IslandsAge: 15
A Highland Park that is sure to fly off the shelves – 13 years in ex-bourbon with the remainder of the maturation in a 1st fill ex-PX hogshead.
Nose: Burnt honeycomb, rum-soaked raisins and golden syrup give way to pan fats and oily rags. Orange zest develops together with soft toffee, nut bread and creosote. Smoke is highly background – a suggestion of coal dust, peat-imbued bung cloth, sea breeze and kelp. The addition of water offers brown malty bread together with roast beef meatiness and sides of gravy and dripping.
Taste: Rich, fatty and highly PX forward. Cinnamon toast and balsamic sit with dark cherries and orange marmalade, whilst cashews and walnuts are joined by axle lubricant, engine oil and fence paint. Gingerbread men develop together with spent coffee grounds, shaved chocolate and briquettes. Dilution offers a nice balance with some of the underlying HP character coming to the fore – rich honey, sweet molasses and candied peels together with ashtray and charry smoke.
Finish: Medium and still all the PX – brown sugars and overdone hob caramel with metholated oakiness and highly mechanised smoke.
On the one hand this Highland Park is unsubtle, brutish and blunt. On the other it is arguably delicious. The Pedro Ximenez has been allowed to run a riot here, subsuming much of the spirit character and offering in return a sweet, but industrialised richness that’s individualistic, but quite tangential from the underlying profile of the distillate. Nevertheless, I’ll repeat again – I still find this quite delightful. Perhaps more in step for sherry lovers than it is for diehard fans of #4?!
Our final offering comes from the ever-reliable Ardmore. This month’s example a 12 year old drawn from a refill ex-bourbon hogshead.
Nose: Freshly caught fish together with bouillabaisse and hearty seafood stock. Mossiness and pickled onion quickly develop into a profound farmyard aroma – waterlogged hay, pig sties and outright manure (this is a big much – even for me). Barns and sea bird guano persist, together with ozone, goldfish tanks, felt roofing and BBQ briquettes. Water offers a less farmy, but still ‘moist’ composition with wet dog fur, ferns, bracken and stagnant pond water. Hmmm – this will divide the crowd.
Taste: Big, fat, sharp and somewhat less perverse than the nose. Lime margaritas are joined by tarred roofing and roasted meat juices. In the background a sharp and chiselled minerality from limestone and preserved lemons is joined by overt wood smoke and fireplace embers. Dilution offers air-dried Serrano ham together with lemon peels and cask-led pepperiness.
Finish: Short to medium with candied lime peels and smouldering log fire.
This Ardmore is not going to appeal to everyone. The nose in particular is exceedingly farm-based with notes of either silage or water-spoilage running through. The palate is more expected of this spirit and offers a pleasing combination of meatiness, oiliness and sharp and tart fruit. Some folks are going to enjoy this more than I do - others less so. It's extreme in parts, anticipated in others. Eitherway - you have been forewarned.