Whisky doesn’t need any more blogs/vblogs featuring “my first ever Laphroaig” or copy and pasted wiki distillery histories or WSET level 2 “experts”. But it does need, perhaps more than ever, some sharp angles when it comes to whisky writing. In order to write a good critique, there is also a requirement to critically read and critically assess. These are skills which do not develop overnight…knowledge doesn’t grow on trees (unless you’re into cider reviews). Close inspection and a deep understanding of whatever it is you’re attempting to critique are fundamental requirements and are joined by the aptitude to apply an appropriate set of criteria in order to keenly evaluate the subject to hand fairly and consistently. And then most importantly, and sadly all too often forgotten - to be able to communicate all of this in an engaging and energising fashion.
There is an incredible diversity within whisky in terms of what it is possible to write about – and indeed this broadness is what keeps me coming back both to pen pieces for The Dramble, but also to continue my exploration of the liquid itself. It’s much more than what in my glass – it’s how it came to be in that glass (or not!) and what effect those processes, and perceptions have had on economics, communities, cultures and people. Whilst writer’s block is always a thing and affects even the best of us from time to time, there will never be a moment where there’s not something interesting to write about whisky. And with the demise of several leading physical and digital outlets over the past few years, I would argue that whisky really needs, and keenly feels any absence of, critical thought.
Whilst there are instances where a sharply worded tweet or two have dramatically altered the direction of businesses or countries, awareness and cultural change usually take rather longer to gestate and manifest. From a whisky perspective there are fibs and fabrications together with perceptions and practices which would all benefit from having a light shone upon them. And sadly, that’s going to require more than just tasting notes.
No matter the liquid in question, tasting notes are a main thrust of drinks writing – be that amateur or in some cases professional. Despite their individual and often pretentiously obscure construction, they are more or less a commonly understood language. But whilst their accompanying numerical scores often come in for disparagement (especially from those who don’t use them solely out of fear of displeasing a distillery or sample sending PR agency) for their inability to communicate about the liquid itself, really this criticism can easily be levelled at tasting notes in general. Some are arguably much better than others, but all too often they fall into the generic of “vanilla, toffee, I quite like it” or they employ difficult words such as “good” (how good is good?) or “best” (as judged against what?).
But scores or even notes alone were never really intended to tell you everything you need to know about a drink. It is their accompanying information that provides the context and the details. And it’s here where those wider perspectives and sharper angles can come into focus – when unfettered by the construct of nose, palate and finish. Whilst I would still argue that these markers still have their place within any form of drink analysis (especially when formed around a professional agreed methodology), drinks criticism must extend outside of the glass to look at practices, perceptions and behaviours. Otherwise, its form is purely one of a linear scale without any concept of time and place, let alone of art or craft.
That is not to say that all whisky sites and writers need to be putting in the hours to write long-winded (sometimes coherent) diatribes. As above, whisky as a topic offers great diversity. But there is already a selection of well-established sites who provide knowledgeable, daily short-form reviews. What’s not entirely missing from whisky, but presently feels somewhat diminished at a time when it should actually be in ascendant, are the sites who are prepared to dig a little deeper – those who are willing to critically explore not just practices of the producers and bottlers, but who are also prepared to question their own behaviours and motivations. Critical drinking does and must exist outside of the glass.
Today’s review slot comes courtesy of Whisky Sponge. Angus still undertakes his fair share of critical writing, but when he’s not either paying his bills, making us laugh or taking a scalpel to a whisky topic, he is becoming an increasingly prolific bottler (perhaps a great example of a poacher turned gamekeeper?!). Along with other recently released expressions (Equilibrium and a Highland Park Decadent Drinks single cask exclusive which I’ll be taking a look at shortly) he also sent me across a review sample of the blink and you’ve missed it Whisky Sponge Springbank 1994.
Originally billed as a 25 year old, but with some online discussion subsequently noting a re-calculated 26 year old age statement, this desirous release was matured in a refill sherry hogshead and then bottled at 45.4% (209 bottles) earlier this year. You’ll be paying in excess of £800 on the secondary market for one of these now – whether the Dr Who (best Doctor) label reference has added to the price, who’s to say – however all things Springbank are now in such high demand that the distillery’s own club bottlings are now subject to multi-day ballots and what was a fairly reliable core range is now increasingly hard to find very quickly after each new batch is released.
Partly this is undoubtedly down to the quality emanating from the distillery – increasing and highly consistent over the time I’ve been a drinker. Springbank is simply making really good whisky - regularly. But the FOMO is also undeniably also driven futher by a combination of greedy bastards and stupid people. When there's a willingness to pay any price there'll be a willingness to charge it. <Sigh> You do it to yourself.
Nose: Refined and enticing. Bubblegum, red foam sweets, frangipane and apple sauce provide a delicate almost effervescent sweetness. This gives way to lemon and pine polish, oily rags and a selection of chopped herbs before cotton sheets and coffee and walnut cake add depth. Dilution expresses earthiness with a combination of moist basements and resinous oak offset against leather seat coverings and tobacco tins.
Taste: Straddling sweet and savoury. A pouch of pipe tobacco and well-polished brass sits with strawberry sherbet and pink candyfloss whilst honey-lacquered ham and earthy, ethereal smoke is enveloped by a musty, aged quality derived from cellars and potting sheds and livened with affects of salinity. Water brings in herbal asides with tea and leaves together with a sense of grapefruit sharp and tartness.
Finish: Long with mint leaves, gingerbread spicing and residual minerality.
Sadly, the secondary price of this elegant Sponge Springbank has pushed it even further away from its original destiny – which was as a sophisticated, yet still archetypically well-aged Campbeltown drinker. Such is the current allure for all things Springbank. But in that regard, you can’t blame either the distillery or the Sponge. The juice is great, and this is a wonderful cask selection. Oh, for simpler, more innocent times when this was a whisky which all enthusiasts could freely enjoy.
Review sample provided by Whisky Sponge