Members or watchers of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society may recently have heard about one of the Society’s latest projects: The release of a blended malt. No, not a blend….a blended malt. (And if that subtle distinction in terminology still confuses you, you are welcome to write to the Scotch Whisky Association and let them know your thoughts on the matter. Good luck.)
If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Society of doing in recent times, it’s standing still. Clubs, societies, bottlers, and brands need to continually evolve and change with the times, and the Society has been particularly pro-active in expanding its list of bottlings and the benefits that membership bestows on its members.
Of course, it’s been over two decades since the Society first turned heads by bottling a non-Scotch whisky, namely a Japanese malt. Irish whiskey followed, as did Scottish grain whiskies, bourbon, Armagnac and some cider brandies! Rums entered the picture not too long ago, and the portfolio increased further with the addition of Cognacs, Indian whisky, and other USA whiskies. In spite of all these different categories of spirit, one thing remained constant: The Society’s releases remained single cask bottlings.
And so it is that the Society’s latest release bucks that trend and tradition: Exotic Cargo is a blended malt, being a vatting of several casks combined together, and from more than just one, single distillery. On paper, the whisky’s credentials are impressive: The whisky has a declared age statement of 10 years, and all of the casks used in creating the whisky were 1st-Fill ex-sherry Spanish oak hogsheads. As a further point of interest, it just so happens that all of the casks were filled on the same day back in 2006.
Interestingly, the Society elected not to bottle this at its natural strength, but settled on a final bottling strength of 50% ABV. A number of different cask combinations and bottling strengths were trialled and tested by the whisky’s creation team, and 50% ABV was found to be the optimum strength that delivered the best balance and flavour profile. (Having tasted many 1st-Fill Spanish oak casks over the years, I can agree that higher ABV cask-strengths don’t always portray such spirit in the best light).
Exotic Cargo is being released “for Members’ Approval” and feedback and comments are welcome. The Australian branch of the Society won’t receive its allocation of Exotic Cargo until early 2018, but a “sneak peek” preview and launch was held this week in Sydney at Archie Rose Distillery. Archie Rose is an SMWS Partner Bar, and the setting proved an appropriate and enjoyable venue to see and taste the new whisky.
To set the scene for the star of the show, attendees were presented with two arrival drams: The first was Monkey Shoulder (a well known and widely available blended malt), and the second was a Glenfarclas 8yo (a whisky with a relatively sherry-heavy profile). The Glenfarclas, sadly, had a wee bit of sulphur on the nose but, nonetheless, both drams gave a snapshot of what either blended malts or sherry-influenced whiskies could purport to be.
The audience consisted of some media and whisky bloggers, together with some long-term members of the Society. Perhaps, more critically, it also consisted of the Australian branch’s original Local Tasting Panel…the team that, for so many years, tasted, assessed, and scored each of the Society’s bottlings and decided which ones should be brought into Australia. As an entity, their palates have tasted more Society whisky than anyone else in the country, and – just as the job required – they can pick a brilliant whisky from a good whisky.
So, with all that as background…what’s the whisky actually like? The truth is, it’s good. Very good.
The first thing you notice with the whisky is that it’s deliciously dark. There’s no caramel added here, so the colour is just the natural and wonderful rich jarrah hue that comes with a decade in 1st-Fill Spanish oak. The second thing you notice is that the nose is incredibly clean. There’s no sign of sulphur or tainted casks; everything is sweet, spicy, rich and balanced. The nose got the room talking somewhat, with many finding wonderful savoury aspects to it (e.g. cured meats, gravy, meatiness), whilst other focussed on the sweetness. The nose was so complex, some observed it also shared characteristics with other spirits such as Armagnac or rum.
On the palate, the experience is happy and sweet. Again, everything is clean and balanced, but the sweetness shines through with notes of sweet cereal, fairy floss (cotton candy to our American friends), roasted nuts (cashews), and Old Gold chocolate. The sherry and oloroso notes are prevalent, but not dominant – in fact, it strikes a very good balance between wine, spice, and malt.
The finish is long and stays sweet – unlike many sherried drams, it does not trail away to a dry or bitter ending.
Towards the end of the night, the members of the Local Tasting Panel were invited to score the whisky and share their assessment with the group. Needless to say, the scores were high and confirmed the obvious: It’s a great whisky.
As a personal comment and observation, this is a whisky that is almost too easy to drink! I’m admittedly a self-confessed cask-strength junkie, and this wonderfully smooth and balanced whisky at 50% ABV is dangerously drinkable. The flavours, texture, and mouthfeel are all full, unctuous, oily and complete, and – whilst the palate is not the most complex dram on the planet – it’s certainly one of the tastier ones. Fans of sherried malts will not be disappointed.
Full marks to the whisky creation team at SMWS HQ for putting this together. The label on the bottle states that this is “Batch 1”, which leads one only to assume that Batch 2 and beyond won’t be far behind. Batch 1 evidently consists of just under 2000 bottles, and 120 were allocated to the Australian/NZ branch, split 90/30 respectively. The price for members is yet to be determined, but – regardless of whether this whisky was made from one cask or six, a 1st-Fill ex-sherry Spanish oak whisky at 50% ABV of this quality is a dram worth reaching into your pocket for.