Soaking it up
Posted 23 April 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Humans and sponges have a surprising amount in common. For the first six years of their lives, children’s brains work in fundamentally different way to that of adults – assimilating and processing new information like a sponge sucking up water. Staggeringly humans are also genetically related to the humble sea sponge. According to research from the University of Queensland there are elements of the human genome (the complete set of DNA of any organism) that function in the exact same way as the prehistoric porous animal. Absorbing stuff. As such, the irony of whisky enthusiasts rapidly soaking up any and all of the offerings from indy bottler Whisky Sponge is far from lost on me.
Eager whisky drinkers - like toddlers – seem able to process vast amounts of information - about upcoming releases. Information that I honestly often struggle to keep up with. What new bottles are on the horizon, where can they be obtained, when and how much. It’s not just a case of furiously hitting F5 come the moment – for some it’s a near obsession to be spending most of their waking hours absorbing all the Internet has to offer. And for the most part this time is sadly not spent on developing a broadened knowledge of production techniques, or of understanding the history of the spirit or even of gaining an appreciation of whisky’s wider relevance beyond that of ‘being a drink’ – it’s just spent shopping.
And invariably, this focussed but limited ingestion leads to certain bottlers being inundated by enthusiasts come release days. Opened that email 5 minutes to late? All gone. Not already got your address and credit card details pre-loaded into your account? You could be up against it.
So, the question is why?
As is regularly regurgitated across these pages - there’s always more whisky © – and indeed, if you’re looking for “an” indy bottle, you really don’t have to look far. But at the same time, releases from Whisky Sponge, the Thompson Bros, North Star etc often seem to fall into the blink and you’ve missed it category. These brands and their whiskies generate palpable buzz – over and above those from lesser known (though similarly sized) bottlers and long-established players. These bottlers may well have a special release or a single expression which generates significant word of mouth and thus a quick sell out – but by and large, enthusiasts aren’t cleaning them out in seconds. Is this a facet of modern whisky and simply something to be expected? Is it inevitable that some brands are seen to lead the FOMO stakes, whilst others play the longer, overall volume of sales game?
Bottler buzz, is actually nothing new. Twenty years ago+, releases from Italian independent bottlers such as Samaroli, Sestante and Moon Import were in high demand by the then enthusiast base. Samaroli in particular had and still has a reputation for exceptional cask selection. And you’ll certainly see this with the secondary market prices for some of these older, lauded releases – they will invariably command a higher price than those from other bottlers even when all other facets are equal. Drinkers, and particularly collectors have always honed in on what the wider market has identified as the peaks of quality and desirability. And this has not changed one jot. Whilst the independent bottler world has broadened immeasurably over the past two decades, the notion that some bottlers have better access to casks and are superior at selection has stuck and is significant.
But current day whisky is of course in a very different place when compared to the turn of the millennium. And despite there being many more bottlers around – their number and their outputs and are far exceeded by the influx of new enthusiasts that the market has witnessed. The volumetric truths of single casks and limited releases (which the modern market is all to happy to sell) have become even more unfavourable to the whisky consumer.
There are a number of factors at play when it comes to the allure of certain bottlers. Their reputation – in terms of their perceived whisky knowledge and the quality of their bottlings undoubtedly plays a highly significant part. But furthermore – the desirability of the releases which the bottler offers to the market – be that in terms of the provenance of the liquid, its limited availability or its relevance to current day drinking/collecting trends is equally important. For example, mid 90s Nevis is always in my opinion going to be a more attractive proposition than similarly aged Tamnavulin. Not all whisky is born equal.
Price of course is always a factor - for some more than others. But when it comes to the most desirous bottlers, there is a sense that releases can be reassuringly expensive. Whilst some bottlers have generated their reputations from reasonable pricing (there’s not all that many of these guys left), at the top end of the market, higher prices result in a Veblen effect – where the attractiveness of the product actually increases as its price rises. Abnormal market behaviour. No one ever suggested that people were sensible.
Collectability is inextricably linked to the rise of modern bottlers. Viewed similarly to the phenomenon of new distilleries – some folks have gotta catch em’ all. And newer bottlers such as Sponge present a far more realistic opportunity for achieving that obsession than longer-established players with thousands upon thousands of releases going back across many decades.
Finally, there is to my mind a sense of fun that is innate with many of the new independent bottlers. Irrespective of their reputations, liquid offerings, pricing and allocations – removing the stuffiness which can be still seen across many distilleries and bottlers alike (without necessarily diminishing the transparency of what’s inside the bottle) – has a charm to many. And in presenting whisky in a more contemporary fashion, these bottlers stand out within the market over and above the endless serif fonts and faux tea-stained labels which still litter shelves.
Today’s trio of reviews From Whisky Sponge were all soaked up in minutes. And I dare say that not nearly enough of them will be opened. Which is a real shame, as the quality of the liquid is exceptionally high – to a point where these are sponges that are just begging to be squeezed out straight into a glass.
Bottle Name: Caperdonich 1995
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Edition No.23 from Whisky Sponge takes us to the demolished distillery of Caperdonich – from where I believe I’ve seen just as many bottles released in the past decade as I have since the site was purchased by Pernod Ricard back in 2001. It seems the desire for the distillate is still growing whilst the remaining stocks last – a bunch of OB releases (including 18 + 25 year old peated expressions) hit the shelves last year. But barring these and occasional dips into the Pernod Distillery Reserve Collection – indy bottlers are and likely will be your main avenue for exploring what was once Glen Grant #2.
The spongified release was distilled back in 1995 a few years before the bulldozers moved in. It was matured in a refill sherry hogshead before a mere 124 bottles were released at 52%. Long sold out of course.
Nose: Beehive stuff with honey, wax and pollen prominently expressed. Sitting throughout – pears poached in white wine and peach schnapps. Candy sugar sweetness is set against delicate touches of café latte and chopped hazelnuts, whilst tingling baking spices are punctuated by brass polish. The addition of water reveals additional textural cues – sunflower oil and wood wax, together with almond paste and fresh golden barley
Taste: Great arrival – partly creamy, partly oily and full of vibrant, communicative character. Ginger spiced orange marmalade, flambe bananas and tang of limes to open – following into sweet red liquorice, polished oak tables, golden tobacco and pangs of cinnamon ball heat. Reduction retains the weight and body of the whisky. Impressive. Lychee, melon and assorted fleshy stone fruits make for a juicy medley alongside grassy aspects of straw and reeds.
Finish: Medium on ginger and anise spiced orange segments.
Whisky Sponge’s Caperdonich 1995 possesses a memorably excellent initial mouth attack – bursting with vitality and definition. Then again – the whole thing is pretty excellent frankly with coverage across juicy fruits, well-judged spicing and intricate textural asides. Open your bottles – this one doesn’t deserve to be kept under a stopper.
Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks
Bottle Name: Smogen 2012
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
A Sponge Smögen is an interesting thing to behold. Especially with a back label packed full of emojis for tasting notes. Edition No.19 was matured in a 1st fill ex-bourbon barrel for 8 years before 261 bottles were released at 59.3%.
OK, let’s do this🔨 ⏰
👃: Fascinatingly atypical. Calamine lotion, paint thinners, cooked meats and earthy peat are at the core – a real straddle across natural and manufactured aromas. Damp vegetalness runs throughout – leaf mulch, ferns, brackens and smouldering waterlogged trees struggling to kindle. In the background – minerality from electric fire stones and pumice – lifted by a sheet of slightly burnt toffee. Dilution sadly offers far less definition throughout – ozone, petrichor and dusty sheets of rolled pastry. All fine – but a considerably distance away from the bottled ABV in terms of overall fidelity.
👄: Less headstrong on the arrival but building in impact throughout. Ash and an unexpected punnet of dark berries and plums are joined by greengages and apricots. The mid to back-palate offers far more power with shingle and gravel alluvialness buried under a sack cloth full of fireplace soot. Water again seems unbeneficial - touches of chalkiness, lime margaritas and toasted cereals – but without the wild off the rails character that is offered at higher strength.
🏁: Quite long. Mineral, earthy, almost inky and certainly very sooty – with just enough fruity sweetness to balance.
The 2012 Whisky Sponge Smogen impresses with its ability to present as both dirty and clean concurrently. It somehow manages to be both precise and yet wild at the same time – contrasting aromas and flavours converging but miraculously never clashing. Neat. Alas, there’s a touch of hydrophobia here which limits the expression to the admittedly well-judged bottling strength - otherwise I could have easier score this even higher.
Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks
Bottle Name: Ledaig 2007
Bottler: Whisky Sponge
Whisky Sponge’s 24th Edition sees an enormous, prehistoric sea monster Spongezilla laying waste to Tobermory – which is a shame, as it’s really a rather lovely place and I was planning on heading over there in the not-too-distant future. It will come as little surprise to many of you that of all the Sponge’s released to date – this Ledaig had me over on the Decadent Drinks website promptly. This nuclear radiation powered release has been matured in a refill sherry butt and is bottled at 53% ABV - which it is suggested is because everyone is “...a big bunch of jessies who can't handle cask strength whisky...”, but in reality, is in fact because Angus knows the merits of canny alcoholic strength selection.
Nose: Spongezilla might come across as a hulking beast, but there’s a surprising amount of sophistication and tenderness here. Smoked clove-studded ham, squid ink and stepped apple tea is joined by cocoa powder and herbal smoke. Deeper, barnyard funk and cigarette ash sit with paraffin oil, porridge and chopped almonds. Undeniably Ledaig – but there’s admirable restraint here too. Reduction reveals concrete and wall plaster together with putties and clays, medicinal wraps, oyster, seaweed and saline. There’s quite a lot going on here that makes manipulating the ABV well worthwhile.
Taste: Lamp oils and pan fats join roast ham and burnt ends. Salted lemon slices lift the whisky up, whilst damp peat, sea spray and wet wool seek to pull it back down. Quite crystalline in places with shale, slate and rocky outcroppings – before heading into burnt nuts, industrially tinged medicinal smoke and mentholated oakiness. Dilution retains the shape and style overall, but considerably ups the brightness and sweetness levels with candy lemon drops, lime gel and a scattering of jelly babies.
Finish: Long with menthol, smoked eucalyptus and a handful of chopped herbs.
Whisky Sponge’s city destroying Mull monster is rather less scaly and much fluffier and cuddlier than I expected. Whilst all of the various cues you’d expect to find from Ledaig of this age are here – they’re neatly scattered throughout the nose and palate both neat and reduced. As such, I find this to be very fun whisky indeed - it possesses a wonderfully playful adaptability which can be modified entirely depending on one’s mood. Pretty excellent and right up my street whether dropped with some water or simply served neat. Don’t mind if I kaiju.
Review sample provided by Decadent Drinks