A week or so ago I flew to Edinburgh for a day and night of whisky appreciation in the Vaults and Queen Street (dinner in the latter, seriously excellent again). I visited 27.1 and the other priceless .1s and wondered at the buying decisions that our society ancestors made when they thought about whether or not to pick up 27.1, or 26.1 or 61.1 for that matter. This is why I can’t stop buying bottles of whisky – if you don’t take the opportunity now, it’s gone forever!
I had a good go at the #VaultsExtras set, a small outturn only available in the Vaults. One of the standout whiskies was an Ardmore, a distillery I’m wary of due to sulphur in the sherry casks. There have been some truly awful society Ardmores in my experience but some pretty good ones too. But 66.84, Rich and slightly naughty (white wine hogshead finished in a second fill sherry butt) is superb. Like a big, dark, juicy, oily sherried Laphroaig (not as harshly peated as that TWE one though). Have a go on it if you can get to the Vaults, and if it ever appears online, jump on it. Sadly I couldn’t take one home with me, but luckily the April outturn has a very similar, and just as good refill Gorda Ardmore (66.82, reviewed below) which I definitely recommend.
One of the other whiskies I tried in the #VaultsExtras is 7.127, Nectar of the Gods, a 30 year old refill bourbon Linkwood of enormous gravitas. Rich, intense, glazed and important, this is a massive whisky of huge quality, and a ferocious price. Even more ferocious than last month’s 41.70, C’est Magnifique! (reviewed here) and this month’s 30 year old Linkwood, 7.129 (reviewed below). All of these whiskies, expensive as they are, are superb.
Now these casks (rather than the more normally priced drams) are clearly mature cask buys by the society, and show the great difference in price when you have your own warehouse full of slowly maturing stock or you’re buying mature casks directly from the distillery (or someone else). The Irish and Japanese bottles from last year were similar deals. The question is whether the society should have bought and bottled these whiskies. I don’t know if they are making outlandish profits on these casks or a standard percentage. I do know that they are accompanied by more normally priced whisky which, as this month’s outturn shows, is also excellent. And should they have bought these expensive mature casks and bottled the whiskies, selling them for a profit?
Well, why wouldn’t you want them to?
As I’ve said a number of times before, whatever SMWS is about (and I have to admit, I am currently slightly confused) it never was, and never should be about being a way of getting cheap whisky. Membership isn’t a ticket that grants you the right to buy cheaply. The strapline remains “curious” and I think the whisky in this outturn certainly fits with that. I think “quality” is guaranteed by the tasting panel, although February was a bit duff and of course not all whiskies are to everyone’s taste (as some of those previous Ardmores prove). Membership brings me access to the SMWS bar in Greville street but not everyone can get to a venue. But what will SMWS be about in a climate where quality whisky, across the market, is slowly being priced above what some people can pay? I do think a slight resetting of positioning, a mission statement if you like, on the society’s plans for the future, what whiskies its laying down now to meet customer demand in 5-10 year time, what the releases are going to be like, where are we going with these finishes… would set minds at ease.
Finally I’d like to remind you of SMWS 7.55, Liquid Heaven, a 40 year old heavily sherried Longmorn releasd in 2010 that I understand was the first society bottle over £100 (£186). It caused upset and hung around for ages, required heavy marketing to shift. One of the most amazing whiskies I’ve ever tried and sells for 3x that price today.
I’m excited to see where SMWS goes over the next couple of years and against a backdrop of increasing whisky prices across the market, how it will position itself to the drinkers and obsessive collectors in the UK and beyond. But mainly if it can keep producing casks like the Cragganmore, Benrinnes, Glenlossie, Bladnoch, Glen Moray and Ardmore below, I’ll mainly be excited to buy, taste and drink the whisky.
By the way there are a lot of BUYs in here. I make no apologies. There are no bell curves in my blog, I really like whisky, and these are worth buying.
SMWS 10.91, A well-mannered dram, Bunnahabhain, 10 years old, 62.1% A+
25th May 2005, 210 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Very sweet for a refill youngster, with a robust (but lovely) herbal flintiness. A touch of modelling clay, and a slightly musky floral quality, a bit like lily. Chilled white wine and coastal - this is well timed for the season, it'll make a nice bracing but sunny dram at the end of a long week. Sweeter still with water, classy malt character and a touch of tobacco.
Body - Extremely hot and very strong! Sugar bonbons, flower stalks. Better with water - still incredibly sweet, but with a woody tannin behind that (lolly stick or fence panel, something like that).
Finish - Short and clean, there's something rum-like about this experience. With water liquorice torpedoes … astringent.
A lovely, clean and classy nose, and really robust in the delivery - well-mannered for such a bruiser I suppose! I like this…
SMWS 37.74, Fresh and fluffy, Cragganmore, 18 years old, 54.3% A⊕'
5th August 1997, 204 bottles, ex-bourbon cask, finished in 2nd fill Sauternes
Nose - Rich, warm, chocolate covered toffee, a really lovely cask character with overripe banana and something sharply muddy, like a wet hedge… perhaps fresh cut spinach? Roasted plums on puff pastry, so honeyed. Complex and interesting. Even better with water.
Body - Ripe and wooded, with more roasted plum and almond, but so, so rich, fruity and creamy. More ozone with water, a touch of caraway.
Finish - Long, warm and fruity. A lovely gentle balance right to the end. Lemon sherbets with water.
A cracking whisky with a lovely character, really warm, sweet and golden, a great cask finishing. And Cragganmore can do no wrong at the moment for me!
SMWS 36.98, Gaelic coffee, Benrinnes, 18 years old, 58.5% A⊕
15th August 1997, 210 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Another flinty springtime nose, vanilla sponge with window putty and fired clay - like eating a Victoria sponge in a Victorian greenhouse. Something masculine with the cake though, cologne and leather.. but light. Another very satisfying nose. More chocolate with water, a different character which brings out the swimming pool a little.
Body - Enormously sweet, then blonde oak and lots of cream, but then dries out rather quickly, through savoiardi biscuits and more tobacco. Much more rounded with water.
Finish - Tobacco and brazil nuts, quite a lot of bitterness and wood in the finish.
Another cracking whisky, a lot more structure than the Cragganmore (which is soft and gentle) this has bite right to the end, a proper job. I still prefer (just) the other one, but John likes this best.
SMWS 46.38, Fresh as a winter waterfall, Glenlossie, 23 years old, 53.5% A⊕
16th November 1992, 264 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Sweet and roasted (roast chestnuts?), I can't stop thinking of Christmas now. Roast turkey, a fresh log on the fire, rain and chocolates. Polished brass - brasso I suppose? What an evocative nose! Slightly funkier with water, I'd have guessed a chardonnay cask here? Lovely though.
Body - Fresh and herbal, and quite a nutty sherry character. Water unbalances it a touch, there's a chewed twig/parsley stalk thing in here.
Finish - Small shards of sour, sweet liquorice poke through the long, gentle exit. Calming and quite moreish, with bitterness passing in and out.
A fascinating, complex and evocative whisky, very challenging and really works. Highly recommended.
SMWS 7.129, Heavenly fragrance, Longmorn, 30 years old, 57.4% A⊕+
24th September 1985, 72 bottles, refill bourbon. This was distilled the day after 7.127, Nectar of the Gods, the whisky that caused significant concern due to its price (£423.40). This one is cheaper at £319. Both whiskies are extraordinarily good, both big, old, beautiful Longmorns with excellent cask character and lots of structure. Whether you think this is worth the money is up to you (you’d pay that for a 30 year old Hanyu wouldn’t you?), I’ve never spent that much on a bottle of whisky.
I didn’t make notes on 7.127. I was too busy enjoying myself and eating haggis.
Nose - Up there with its friend in the Vaults, this is another important old Longmorn. There's obvious big, old cask here - furniture wax and strawberry laces, royal icing and Crunchy bars. There's also a drier, more elegant note to this - it's not just an old whisky, it has structure. With some time (we left this in glass for a few to let it open up as we’d just opened the bottle), there's a real red wine cask element to this, beautiful woody spice. An intense, ripe and rewarding nose. Even better with water, an additional touch of buttered toast.
Body - Intense, deep toffee and golden biscuit, burnt parsnips, incredibly honeyed and gently sulphured. Like a tropical fruit cordial, neat, glazed over roast pork. Gloriously fruity. More balance with water, more sulphur, a little cherry lip salve.
Finish - Intensely tannic, bitter chocolate, mouth coating oils, very long - almost soapy, very nutty at the end too. Finally, charred wood.
An epic whisky. Meaty but golden casked, toffee and tropical notes, incredibly complex. Expensive but probably worth it… I wonder if in 5 years time I’ll look back at this and think “I’d bite your arm off for £300 for a 30 year old Longmorn!”.
SMWS 50.77, Good old days, Bladnoch, 25 years old, 57% A⊕
26th January 1990, 114 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - Fresh and lemony, a real laundry character with lots of hard linen and a touch of spearmint… but also a slightly dirty, earthy character to it too. Like a dusty painter's sheet (cheers John). Quite a lot like a diluted limoncello… stewed tea behind this and more stewed plums, warm underneath the summery top notes. Lovely stuff. White wine and privet hedge, very twiggy.
Body - Sweet and rocky (Edinburgh rock) and almost sherbet dib-dabs. Intense but summery. Acrylic paint tester pots with water.
Finish - Big with tobacco, splints and more icing sugar. Spicier with water with rawer tannins.
Grown-up, confident and challenging, yet classy, as is usually the case for society Bladnoch. This is an important whisky and if you don’t already have a society Bladnoch you should get this one. Personally, I'd go for the 37 or 46 before this (I have a few 50s on the shelf).
Quite pricey again, but BUY
SMWS 35.141, A Christmas wreath, Glen Moray, 53% A+
24th November 1994, 234 bottles, 1st fill toasted oak hogshead
Nose - Sharp and sour, but ripe - like gooseberry, poster paints and chutney. Colgate toothpaste, absolutely right John! Mulled wine… perhaps, more like Sangria. These oddly casked Glen Morays always flirt with the "posh" bourbon thing, which I quite like… scratches the bourbon itch without actually having to slum it by drinking real bourbon (joke!).
Body - Soft with big, burnt wood and loads of vanilla, perhaps even bakewell tart fingers. Sauternes cask here too, amongst the burnt wood. Very soft in its character, this'd be good poured over ice cream.
Finish - Medium, soft and very wooded. That burnt wood stays throughout, like an unsmoked Brimstone. Drying in that same way too.
A fascinating experiment, a cherry coke of a whisky, and really interesting. Damn I really like this too, is the whole outturn a BUY? This is dangerously drinkable too. Don't mind the "only an A+", buy the whisky.
SMWS 73.74, A nippy sweetie, Aultmore, 14 years old, 56.7% A⊕
24th September 2001, 414 bottles, 2nd fill sherry. Forgot to take the photo!
Nose - Fresh, fresh, fresh. Granite and fino, light plasticine and just the gentlest nutty sherry. Again there's a "wine cocktail" thing in here, a little sangria, a light fresh sherry wood behind it, a touch of red wine vinegar. With time, that plasticine is rather musky. Summer!
Body - Intensely sweet spirit, lots of milk chocolate, chocolate milkshake. A little more wood with water, never unbalanced.
Finish - BBQed chorizo (that bun with rocket and peppers at Borough market). Long and intensely sweet too.
John says this is more like a sherry that's been whiskied, rather than the other way around. For me this is a big, beautiful, young summer slammer and a real sorbet during this flight. Awesome.
SMWS 55.35, Warming and delightful, Royal Brackla, 18 years old, 55.3% A+
26th September 1997, 228 bottles, ex-bourbon finished in 2nd fill Sauternes
Nose - Gentle, herbal, woody and weirdly reminiscent of a Quiche Lorraine. More plasticine, more ozone, a little fresh tobacco smoke. Very good but doesn't stand up to the similar Bladnoch this month. I love the woody, tobacco thing so much though, and with water, there's a jewelled fruit juice balancing out the tobacco.
Body - Loads of tobacco (Marlborough light), astringent and toasted. Red apple. Lots of oak. Creamy though.
Finish - A citrus bitterness in the finish with orange pith and grapefruit zest, intensely tannic.
An astringent, leathery, citrussy whisky, confident and fun to drink. I've got to draw the line somewhere though.
SMWS 30.89, Deep, dark and pleasantly attractive, Glenrothes, 58.3% A⊕+
25th March 1991, 150 bottles, refill bourbon.
Nose - Deep and important. Red wine - reduced into a sauce but red wine cask too, musky and fruity. John says vinyl though. Stewed tea, pain au raisin, but what really works here is the deep, fruity, hard bourbon cask against the warm meaty spice and a touch of gunpowder. Most irregular… surprisingly funky with water.
Body - Ripe, lots of toffee pennies, very floral. A massive whisky. The effect of a very good cask for a long time in an excellent warehouse, I'd guess - that or luck.
Finish - Very astringent, bitter, hard, hard oak. And perfect for it. Like licking a stainless steel pole (John). Liquorice allsorts at the end.
This was the one I was most excited about, the old Glenrothes.
SMWS B4.2, Intense woody spice and perfumed sweetness, FEW Spirits, 3 years old, 61.3%, A⊕
24th July 2012, 114 bottles, New charred oak barrel
Nose - Musky, waxy, smoking apple wood and glace cherry. Sweet and cherried and significantly more interesting than B4.1. Ozone and oak. Definitely not “just a bourbon”… sweet and delicious yes but real character on the nose. Let's see…
Body - Like mother's milk…. Pancakes and maple syrup, but there's this beautiful top note of toffee and fruit… Just beautiful.
Finish - Medium to long, oak and vanilla but so oily and balanced. At the end, fresh malted barley - at the start of the mash.
Significantly better than B4.1, an excellent bourbon, an excellent whisky full stop. Highly recommended.
SMWS 66.82, Gritty-turned-pretty, Ardmore, 17 years old, 57.5% A⊕+
18th March 1998, 606 bottles, refill Gorda.
As I said at the start, I had the 66.84 at the Vaults recently, and it is just awesome, a real sherried Laphroaig of a dram. Beautifully balanced, lots of nutty sweetness. I'll be keeping a sharp eye out for that on the website. This is in the same vein as that one, an absolute smasher.
Nose - Beautiful sherry; nutty and winey and balanced peat. Lightly tropical, BBQ and bandages, and just delicious. Even better with water. This makes me feel like a teenager, you can't put a price on that.
Body - Typical Gorda cask, dry and nutty but this one is more brightly fruity, like skittles and kia ora. Carrot garnish in a Thai meal, dipped in honey and fish sauce. Very Asian… BBQ, funk, fruit and musky sugar.
Finish - Long, incredibly fruity, an immense whisky.
BUY BUY BUY
SMWS 42.21, Ploughman's on the beach, Ledaig, 9 years old, 59.4% A+
5th October 2006, 216 bottles, refill bourbon.
Nose - Ah, the hard orchard fruit of young peated whisky. Here's another distillery that can do no wrong. Musky and clean, and lemony tobacco, we're back where we were last month with Purple Relaxation. Clean, hard fruit, fresh with candles. Lovely. Swarthier with water.
Body - More wax, some swimming pool, more royal icing, intensely sweet with almonds and UHU glue with water.
Finish - Licked joss sticks. Orange zest. Incredibly sweet but balanced by the intense peat.
Another nine year old masterclass.
SMWS 3.261, Record shop at the races, Bowmore, 14 years old, 55.7% A+
8th May 2001, 234 bottles, refill bourbon.
Body - Very classy, gentle again. The previous two definitely had more peat in. Prawn cocktail (thanks John) and grapefruit segments, light petrol and more joss sticks. Lots of roast, charred beef and toast with water.
Finish - Astringent and very "white spirit" but quite gentle. Tannic to the end and lots of grapefruit.
I'm confused about this Bowmore… it's very good but it's not what I'm looking for in a 3 (that old conversation).
SMWS 53.234, Smoke without fire, Caol Ila, 16 years old, 64.15 A(+)
18th November 1999, 270 bottles, refill bourbon
Nose - The light, coastal, fish and chips, salt and vinegar joy of a late teens society Caol Ila. We're painting by numbers here. Fresh, classical, slightly dusty with white wine and window putty. Germolene. Devilled whitebait?
Body - A lot more medical than I'd expect, if this was a Laphroaig I'd be really excited. Sweet and toasty, quite spicy and obviously robust.
Finish - Intensely drying. The night is over though.
A classic Caol Ila, a little more medicinal than normal but you can't go wrong with these really.