Our Experience with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Over the past few months, we’ve reviewed several examples of different whisky styles. Behind the scenes, we’ve also managed to highlight different bottling categories as well. Typically, as we’ve noted in earlier reviews, companies will blend different casks (often described as marrying in the Scotch industry) to replicate their house style. This helps control the natural variation that occurs in the flavor profile from cask to cask and year to year. In addition, water is often added to dilute the alcohol content down to a more approachable level. Occasionally, as we saw last week, distillers release a bottling at cask strength. Yet there is still one more level in the bottling hierarchy: single cask bottling. In this case, a distiller or independent bottler will create a release from the contents of one cask (sometimes labelled as ‘single barrel’ for American styles).
Independent bottlers have existed as long as there have been distillers with odd casks that they couldn’t use, and today there are dozens in Scotland alone. If you have been to a whisky tasting event, there is a strong chance you have seen the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. With their dark green bottles and colorful and even cryptic labelling, the Society is a independent bottling organization that offers members the chance to purchase single cask whiskies and other cask aged spirits from over one hundred distilleries, all bottled at cask strength. The idea can seem intimidating, as it was for us when we first sampled Society bottlings a few years ago. But we took the plunge and have been rewarded with whisky that has expanded our collective palate and given us a deeper appreciation for the art and nuances of distilling.
The Society releases several bottles each month. Unlike most private bottlers, the Society disguises the name of the distillery on their bottles, using distillery numbers instead, putting the focus on the flavors inside the bottle and less emphasis on where it came from. (If you can’t stand the suspense, a list of corresponding distilleries is available on various whisky sites, but we don’t want to spoil the secret). Along with the number code, labels include a colorful title and often poetic description of aroma and flavor of the whisky (or other spirit). Each bottling is at least somewhat unique, since every cask will create variations and cannot be replicated. However, we’ve gotten past our initial urge to hoard our Society bottlings, as the steady flow of new offerings ensures there is another fantastic whisky to be enjoyed. We’ve purchased seven bottles thus far, and will be reviewing three of those today to give you a rounded sense of single cask whisky and the variety the Society has to offer.
73.88 ‘A Garden of Delights’
We purchased this bottle while visiting the Society’s tasting room in London as a recommendation from the extremely friendly and knowledgeable bartenders. The whisky is from a Speyside distillery has existed for a long time but only recently has been once again producing their own brand of single malt.
On the Eyes: The whisky is a pale straw hue and is light and delicate in the glass with thick, yet short lasting legs.
On the Nose: (Full strength) Aromas of a newly mowed lawn and flowers, with a hint of sea breeze and lemon rind and honey like an herbal tea.
(With water added) Notes of dried herbal tea leaves and wet wood shavings.
To the Taste: (Full strength) A burst of citrus followed by a building heat and spiciness.
(With water added) More flavors of honey and an increased sweetness come through but still a nice amount of warming heat
And the Finish: (Full strength) A dash of black pepper that evolves into candied lemon.
(With water added) A combination of cereal grain and pepper.
10.118 ‘Enthralling pink and peat intensity’
This bottle comes from one of Islay’s more understated distilleries that is known for both unpeated and peated malts and is popular with independent bottlers. The Society took this whisky from an ex-bourbon hogshead and transferred it to a 1st fill Port wine barrique for the final years of maturation.
On the Eyes: The color is pale orange with a pink hue that you would find in a rosé wine. The port wine cask has left its mark in a big way. The dram is rich with viscous, long lasting legs in the glass.
On the Nose: (Full strength) The aroma is of a charred lumber—a bonfire by the sea. We also picked up the scent of leather.
(With water added) We got the scent of a fresh cinnamon roll blended with notes of a sweet wood. The char from the full strength has almost completely vanished.
To the Taste: (Full strength) The flavor is of earthy, peat smoke, with undertones of buttered pancakes.
(With water added) The cinnamon spice journey continued on the palate, with flavors of apple pie.
And the Finish: (Full strength) Heat builds towards a cinnamon spiced finish.
(With water added) The finish is more dry and balanced, with oak notes mingling with lingering baking spice.
35.179 ‘Formula Flavor’
A Speyside Lossie, this bottle comes from a distillery that you won’t often find. At 13 years old, the Society transferred the whisky from ex-bourbon casks to a 1st fill Chenin Blanc wine hogshead.
On the Eyes: The color resembles a well-aged bourbon, in between the color of maple syrup and fresh brewed tea. The liquid is rich and leaves long legs in the glass.
On the Nose: (Full strength) The nose is an intriguing combination of honey, raisins, an aged sheep's milk cheese, and dessert wine.
(With water added) With water we picked up the scent of rosewater and perfume.
To the Taste: (Full strength) We first get flavors of marzipan and a cherry flavored danish
(With water added) A few drops balances the sweetness and the Chenin Blanc influence is brought forward, giving the effect of tasting a dessert wine.
And the Finish: (Full strength) The finish is rich and long lasting with honey flavor.
(With water added) The finish is now more mellow with hints of oakiness.