ABV: 46.6% Distillery: Lakes Distillery Region: Europe
Whisky pricing vs. liquid quality is becoming increasingly detached – whilst more bottles are being produced, more are being commodified – stored, flipped and gazed at lovingly unopened. Whilst my views on those facets are already well documented across The Dramble, it’s important to note that this detachment is far from absolute. Whisky is made to be drunk, and at that point, the price of liquid becomes a personal, but measurable concept. As our case in point we’ll be looking at The Lakes Distillery Steel Bonnets.
Steel Bonnets is described as a ‘cross-border’ blended malt, in that is contains malt whisky from both north and south of the border. The precise contents are a mystery to everyone except Dhavall Ghandi and the Lakes Distillery team, but there’s enough information to ascertain that what we’re talking about here is a blend of Lakes single malt with at two or more single malts from Scotland.
There’s been a fair few cross-country blends over the last few years – those interested should check out the various releases of The Glover (and blend of Scottish and Japanese whiskies). But, Steel Bonnets is a first in terms of marrying English and Scottish malts together. I won’t go into the story behind the bottling – others have been rather unfair on this point to my mind. Suffice to say, whilst interesting, it’s not relevant to the liquid, but, is at least based around historic fact and tied to the location of the Lakes Distillery itself. There’s not a Viking to be spotted here, so that’s a marketing brownie point.
The bottle is delivered at 46.6% ABV, non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. It doesn’t come cheaply, clocking in at £65.
Nose: Pears drops, marzipan and maltiness are joined by the unmissable aroma of young spirit – metallic, coppery and raw – a period of resting allow much (but not all) of this to dissipate. Once settled, the nose has more depth – orchard fruits (Granny Smith apples), licks of toffee and mushroom earthiness are supported by stem ginger and smoke which is part wood fire, part charred cask ends. A few drops of dilution introduces fudge, coconut and some gentle perfumed grassiness. It’s straight-forward and inoffensive, but I’m not convinced the smoke elements marry into the young Lakes Spirit.
Taste: A proper ABV provides some immediate delivery – this is arguably better in the mouth than on the nose. Soft peppered toffee and apple turnovers, livened with malty cereals, coconut shavings, vanilla pods and ginger. In the mid-palate, a shot of espresso and liquorice add some depth and sit alongside mineral peat smoke – slightly ashy like coal dust. The addition of water softens the fruits, adding a syrupy tinned texture. It does however allow the pepper and ginger to become slightly acrid in the back-palate.
Finish: Medium with cacao nibs, white pepper and hint of raw underdeveloped distillate – less of a burn, more of the copper.
Steel Bonnets is a perfectly serviceable blend. The palate is far more successful than the nose – mainly because of the decent ABV and the better integration of smoke. That said, there’s rawness (presumably from the Lakes 3 year old element) throughout, which, whilst diminished with a touch of dilution, then manifests itself in overtly casky flavours.
It’s the type of whisky that you should be happy throwing a big pile of ice over – or indeed making into a cocktail. But, there’s the rub, it’s all very well telling everyone that the Lakes is a luxury global whisky brand, it’s another thing having the breadth and depth of liquid to back up that claim. Steel Bonnets fails to back this up. It tastes like a reasonable supermarket blend, but it is pitched at the same price point as Johnny Walker 18 year old, or indeed many high quality mid-teens single malts.
Were this pitched around the £35-£40 mark it would feel realistically in line with most of the market. As it stands, it seems that either the Lakes wants to convince everyone that the future of whisky is £65 3 year old blended whisky (god help us), or, more likely their pricing strategy is simply out of kilter with the current expectations of the market. For a new distillery with a reputation far from being established (particularly outside of die-hard enthusiasts eager for initial releases), there’s surely a huge risk that exorbitant pricing could run the risk of diminishing interest levels once the shine of the first expressions has faded. This would be a tragedy.
A few fellow commentators (those who are prepared to show a more critical slant) have called on new distilleries to seriously think about their market propositions and pricing. I will gladly join their clarion call. The Lakes are far from the only distillery trying to take a bite out of the high end right from the get-go. As passionate whisky lovers well all want the industry to thrive – but running before you can walk with unjustifiably high prices and promises of luxury that cannot be met with a portfolio of 3 year old whisky will not engender long-term interest and sustainability.