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Sunday, 19 March 2017

An evening with the SMWS!

St. Patrick's Day was a little different for me this year, partly because it actually didn't fall on a mid-week 'school night', but mainly because I was lucky enough to be invited to attend a full-on whisky tasting with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society!

The SMWS, as they're more commonly known, is in basic terms a combination of a 'members-only' style whisky club, and a single cask independent bottler. Officially established in 1983 in Edinburgh, after the founder convinced a few friends to split the cost of buying and bottling their own cask of Glenfarclas, the Society now boasts over 26,000 members in around 20 different countries, and bottles whisky and now a few other spirits from over 130 different distilleries, all approved by their internal tasting panel. I've covered more of the details on the Society here if you'd like a refresher, and there's also my review of one truly amazing SMWS bottling of Ardbeg in there, just in case you aren't feeling thirsty!

While the Australian branch of the SMWS holds regular tastings in all of the major cities, and they're open to non-members (with a discount for members), this was actually the first that I've attended, and as a bonus it was to be hosted by the Society's Australian cellar-master Andrew Derbidge, who made the trip up from Sydney. Andrew's main duty is the enviable task of selecting (along with a local tasting panel) and organising which SMWS bottlings make the trip from Scotland for the Australian members, and he is also responsible for operations in his home state of New South Wales. He's also the man behind one of Australia's most popular whisky blogs, Whisky & Wisdom, and has been lucky enough to tour Scotland and her distilleries multiple times, even going so far as to import his own private official single cask bottling of Glenfarclas, reviewed here, which is still my favourite Glenfarclas bottling to date.

On the evening in question, held at The Brisbane Club in the CBD, we were treated to six delicious whiskies, plus a welcoming dram of Hyde Irish single grain whiskey (because St. Patrick's Day) and a selection of finger food, along with Andrew's experienced commentary and guidance. Alongside the whisky, of particular interest were a few little bonus experiences that Andrew had brought with him, including some E150a 'spirit caramel', used by many distilleries to artificially colour their whisky prior to bottling, and never used in any SMWS bottlings. I must admit it didn't smell particularly unpleasant, with a strong burnt golden syrup / molasses aroma (which is essentially what it is, of course), but it did have a particularly nasty and bitter taste on the palate, even when sampled in a tiny amount. This was actually a first for me, and it definitely helped to highlight how this unfortunate practice affects the precious whisky that, in my opinion, it tarnishes.

Andrew had also brought along some malted barley for sampling and nosing, and a small sample of new make spirit from Glenmorangie distillery in the Scottish Highlands, a rare experience which was also very impressive. He also complimented his own commentary with a slideshow of his own photos from personal trips to the various Scottish distilleries, which really helped give some perspective and added an extra visual aid to the whiskies in the glass. Aside from the recent arrival of virtual reality distillery tours, admiring some distillery photos while drinking a naturally-presented bottling from said distillery is just about as close as you can get without getting on an aeroplane, and it's a little cheaper to boot...

So, on to the actual tasting! Andrew started off by explaining the perils of adding ice, coke or other mixers to your whisky, and also the common error of choosing to drink it from a tumbler, and he also briefly covers the main points of whisky appreciation: admiring the colour (where it's natural, of course), finding your dominant nostril and alternating between your nostrils while nosing the whisky, holding and swishing the whisky in your mouth before swallowing, and enjoying the finish post-swallow. Naturally these are things that most whisky enthusiasts will have been practising for years, but they're essential tips for the beginner, and it certainly doesn't hurt to have a little reminder of why we do what we do!

Just a reminder before we get into the whisky, the SMWS bottlings do not state the distillery name on the label, they use a numbered system instead, where the first number is the distillery code, and the second number denotes the cask. So the bottling 33.134, for example, is an Ardbeg (code 33), and is the 134th cask of Ardbeg that the SMWS has bottled. An easy reference guide to the distillery codes can be found here. Aside from the highly imaginative bottling names and some extensive and often colloquial tasting notes, you'll also find the cask information and number of bottles on the label. All bottlings are naturally presented with no chill filtration or added colouring, and all are bottled from a single cask at cask strength.

You may have noticed that there are only five bottles pictured above, while there were six glasses in the previous image. Well caught! The sixth whisky, well actually the first after the welcome dram, was a bit of a surprise. Andrew decided to mix things up a bit and catch most of us off-guard by throwing an official bottling into the mix, a Cragganmore 12-year old in fact. Why? Because dram number two was also a Cragganmore, but this time it was an SMWS bottling. So we had a direct comparison between two very differently presented bottlings from the same distillery, one chill filtered, artificially coloured and watered down to 40%, and the other non-chill filtered, naturally coloured and bottled at cask strength. And as you'd expect, they were massively different in just about every way. I must admit these drams were actually my first foray into Cragganmore distillery, and also that the 12-year old official bottling did not drink like one bottled at the minimum strength of 40%, and was actually very pleasant, although also very sweet. The 12-year old official bottling also served as our palate calibrator for the evening, to be referred back to after the food was served to get us back in the mood. Let's get on to the stars of the show!

37.81 "Orange Turmeric Margarita"
A 13-year old Cragganmore, matured in an ex-bourbon cask for the first 12 years, and then finished in a second-fill Sauternes (sweet wine) hogshead. Bottled at 56.6%, with an 'outturn' of 270 bottles. This one was a little hot and seemed a little raw, with some dried green apple, and a dry slightly-sour barley character, and a lot of spice, particularly pepper, and a lot of citrus and under-ripe tropical fruit. Certainly far less sweet than the official bottling, despite the Sauternes finishing. Cragganmore by the way use worm tub condensers rather than the more efficient and modern shell & tube style, which may explain the impressive weight of their spirit.

41.80 "Classic - Barley Meets Oak"
A 9-year old Dailuaine (pronounced "dell-you-in"), matured in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt. Bottled at 58.2%, with an 'outturn' of 540 bottles. I'd never tried a Dailuaine whisky before, so this was another first for me. Looking at this whisky in the glass, you'd never suspect it was matured in a first-fill Oloroso cask, with a yellow gold colour rather than the expected dark amber. It was much richer (both in flavour and texture) and more savoury and meaty in character, with some golden raisin notes denoting the sherry cask influence. Dailuaine is a large Speyside distillery and is mostly found in owner Diageo's Johnnie Walker and J&B blends, and is quite rare as a single malt.

G8.7 "Caribbean Banana Fritters"
Another curve ball! The 'G' in the code refers to this being a single grain whisky, and the distillery in this case is the Lowland grain distillery Cambus, which closed in 1993. This was a 27-year old bottling, matured for 25 years in a refill ex-bourbon hogshead, and finished in a second-fill Sauternes hogshead. Bottled at 59.7% with an 'outturn' of 240 bottles. This was an excellent whisky, very soft and gentle, and richly flavoured, with a lot of oak influence, spicy and lightly tannic, and a corn flake-like grain note. This is the finest grain whisky I've tasted to date, a seriously impressive whisky that doesn't drink like its strength would suggest. Cambus was a massive grain distillery north of Edinburgh, which was operated by DCL, the precursor to Diageo, prior to its closure.

35.168 "Essence of BFG"
Another curve-ball here, but in a different way. This was a 15-year old Glen Moray, that was matured for 14 years in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt, before being finished in a heavily-charred virgin oak butt. It was bottled at 60.4%, with an 'outturn' of 594 bottles. Finishing a first-fill sherry matured whisky at all is quite unusual, but even more so if the finishing cask is virgin oak! This one was very, very interesting. The virgin oak finish hadn't overwhelmed the sherry influence, but it had added huge depth of flavour and texture, giving a buttery, oaky result with plenty of wood spice and dark toffee notes. Without question the best Glen Moray I've tasted, this whisky came in at (a very close) second place on the night for me.

   42.27 "Smoked 'Aged' Riesling"
   The star of the night for me! A 9-year old Ledaig (peated Tobermory), matured in a refill ex-    bourbon barrel. Bottled at 59.4% with an 'outturn' of 222 bottles. Ledaig can be a hard one      to pin down, being so close to its Islay cousins, and I was highly convinced that this was            actually a Laphroaig until it was revealed as having come from the Isle of Mull. I'd also never    have guessed that this was a 9-year old whisky, despite the use of a refill cask it was lovely      and warming, with plenty of damp peat & soft smoke, and a delicious maritime influence as      well. It only had a narrow margin over the previous dram, despite my predilection for                peat, and was far less unusual, but that couldn't stop it from winning me over!

So, we had some extremely interesting drams, and I was lucky enough to tick another three new distilleries off my list in the one sitting! The highly unusual casks used in most of these whiskies was a real highlight for me, I don't think it's likely that I'll see a 27-year old Sauternes-finished single grain whisky again, nor a first-fill sherry cask matured whisky finished in virgin oak. This sort of thing is exactly what the SMWS bring to the table as 'not just another independent bottler'. Rather than just doing what the distilleries already do themselves, they really aim to give a different experience and a new perspective, and this was certainly driven home for us on the night. After a good chat with Andrew during the almost obligatory follow-up session at the nearby Gresham, which also happens to be the official SMWS partner bar for Brisbane (with SMWS bottlings available for purchase by the public, and a discount on those bottlings for members), it was time to call it a night. Although it was more of an early morning by that stage!

I have to say that this was quite a different crowd to what I'd usually expect to see at a whisky tasting these days, with more of an 'old school' vibe, and perhaps a more formal environment, although there were still a few relative beginners present (which is good to see). Andrew did keep things light and jovial though, with just the right mix of refreshing innuendo and banter with the crowd, plus handing out a few mystery samples to some lucky attendees as rewards for astute observations or correct answers. This all made for a very informative and fun tasting, and the afore-mentioned malted barley, new make spirit and E150a sampling really helped to bring a new perspective on the finer points of what the SMWS do differently; or choose not to do, as the case may be. An excellent approach to what is an excellent pursuit!

A big thanks to Andrew Derbidge, Scott Mansfield (QLD manager) and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for having me along. I had a great time, and it's always great fun to try new whiskies and explore new territory. See you at the next one gents!