A SMWS single cask spirits tasting

STORY. The flavour frontier expands. It is an interesting title to start their flyer, which accompanied the sample bottles that I received from the SMWS. What follows is a sort of apology to their members for the fact that this will not concern whisky, and the promise that the main purpose of the SMWS “is, and always will be, about sourcing and offering to members the best single cask whisky in the world“. I agree that this wás the reason I joined the SMWS this year, and otherwise they would have been obliged to change their name into something like SCSS. But tell me, what is more exciting then to discover new bottlings, new distilleries, new tastes, let alone new awesome spirits? Aren’t we all explorers? Well, surely not everybody. I couldn’t help to notice the disgruntled opinions of some of their members on the social media. What on earth did the SMWS think that they were doing!? Well, to answer that, they were seeking out the finer spirity things in life outside of whisky, seeking as they state “a whole new world of single cask flavour“. Since I occasionally enjoy spirits besides whisky, also to give me a broader view of what happens inside the closed walls of the whisky society, I think that this is a great initiative. Of course, I realise that the SMWS has been releasing a single cask cognac, armagnac or rum now and then, however these were never given a proper platform of their own and mostly served as some sort of exquisite side-dish. That has changed with the instalment of the Single Cask Spirit range.

In recent years particularly, a large group of independent bottlers have shown that rum is so much more than the overly sweet, sugar-coated commercial versions. In fact, rum can be utterly fantastic and can rival with many well-known single malt whiskies. So, it was time that the SMWS would also move some of their attention to these rough diamonds. In contrast, cognac and armagnac is rarely on topic for the average independent bottler, although we have several examples that single cask versions can be great (I think of Berry’s Armagnac). Single cask versions of these fine French spirits deserve much more attention, since we surely can find many excellent casks that are currently catching dust in their ‘entrepôts’.

But let us move to the tasting of the samples that the SMWS has sent me. Each selected applicant was rewarded with three samples of single cask spirits that were released in the 2017 August outturn. I was lucky enough to receive two single cask XO cognacs and one single cask 25-year-old (!) rum from Trinidad. Notes from other lucky members you can read here on the SMWS site.

TASTING NOTES

 

Tasting 2017-01 «Specifics» Samples (3x 3cl) • Occasion was the launch of the rebranded single cask spirit range in August 2017 • Sent by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society to a selected group of SMWS members

C4.1 “A tantalising tightrope”

No idea from which house this is besides that it is located in the Grande Champagne, a region famous for producing the best cognacs. When poured into the glass, the nose offers a refreshing start with prickling orange soda or, if you are in the mood, champagne on a sunny terrace in the morning sun with an early morning breeze that blow scents from your fresh orange-pineapple-mango fruit salad to which, surprisingly, some marinated olive oil were added. My surprise being that I did not expect this kind of olive oiliness in a cognac. A second surprise is the hints of turpentine reminiscent of entering a painter’s room. A painter initiating van Gogh’s sunflowers while enjoying a fancy healthy breakfast? Anyway, the taste prolongs the freshness and oiliness from the nose with citrus-infused soda, more fruit salad, and a hint of candle wax. Here, more ‘usual’ cognac notes are present with white fruits (grapes, apples) and some floral/herbal notes. The taste is a bit thinner compared to the nose though. Also the high strength of 57.5% is not felt at all. All in all, I find this a refreshing take on cognac. On the downside, it is still young and therefore slightly pricy, but we certainly want the SMWS to locate more of these single casks!

Score: 83.2%

More details here.

C5.1 “A tapestry of flavours”

Same as for C4.1, no clue about the house, only the region (Grand Champagne). The nose is oily, earthy and chalky, but in a mysteriously fresh kind of way. I think I checked the label two times to check that this was really cognac!? Over time it reveal more the expected cognac notes with an increased level of fruits (ripe melons, white grapes) and some Riesling wine. I added some water, however that is not absolutely necessary. It does release a hint of smoke. I mean, in cognac, really? Qu’est que c’est ca? It is definitely not peat, but a different kind of smokiness. I also find roasted nuts, walnut oil, tropical fruits and faint hints of gasoline and Velpon glue. The taste brings wet limestone, twigs, some pineapples, rain water, watermelon, apples, and a couple of strawberries. Does this make sense? It all has a very Campbeltown feeling about it and it is certainly not very sweet, which is good in my book. With water, the hint of incense smoke, olives and minerals. What an interesting choice by the people at the SMWS. Very distinguishable from the mainstream bottlings and a very elegantly mix of cognac and Campbeltown single malt features. I think this might even please some lovers of Springbank, Kilkerran or even Clynelish. The only critical comment is that is still misses some maturation, a couple of more years extra and wow… and the price is slightly overestimated (ok, this were two critical comments then).

Score: 84.6%

More details here.

R10.1 “Carnival concerto”

Seeing that this rum was from Trinidad, I was really hoping that the SMWS scored some barrels of Caroni rum from the 90s… but no this is actually from Trinidad Distillers who produce a completely different style. The nose is very in-your-face extravagant with overcooked tropical fruits (bananas, mangos and passion fruits) accompanied by mahogany wood, sugarcane molasses and curry spices. Then comes a burst of vanilla, smoked wood and wood spices, which is unfortunate because from that point on the cask, and not the spirit, starts to do the talking. Water is definitely needed, but still the wood still is overpowering after dilution and I can only get some notes of mint, cinnamon, vanilla, and some faints related to the original rum. Leaving it for more than 30 minutes in the glass does improve it and brings more gentle tropical spices, mango, passion fruit, brown sugar and freshly sawn planks. The taste is dominated by vanilla, smoked wood, hot spices and mint, all mostly extracted from the cask. After adding water, I get some aniseed, liquorice and tropical spices. Again it needs time, which delivers some gentler spices, caramelised banana, pineapple juice and mint. The finish is dry with lots of sugar cane and brown sugar. My first impression is that this is a big, big rum. It is huge, think of Wagner. However, the more I tried it, the less I liked it. The wood totally overpowers the rum, and I have no idea if it was a nice one or not. Probably not then?

Score: 75.6%

More details here.

My final conclusion is that the SMWS has going into the right direction with this. I would like to see a more reasonable pricing, since £95 for a 6-10 year-old cognac (I do not expect it to be any older) or £195 is high compared other excellent spirits that are currently on the market.

A big thank you to the SMWS for providing the samples!