Keith Bonnington, Whisky Cellar‘s founder and who we interviewed for the first Whisky Cellar Tweet Tasting, likes to be busy. We tried his first series of releases during a Tweet Tasting back in September last year, but the second series was just a few months ago in August. And he’s already working on his fourth series that I really do hope I’ll get to try once again. But let’s talk a bit about indy bottlers first, then you thirsty readers will be able to check the review of the drams we tried.
The hardships of an independent bottler
While writing this article, I saw a blog from another small (as in “not been established for long” and in “small operation with a couple people behind it”) independent bottler. As whisky enthusiasts but maybe without a real inside view of the industry, we may romanticise their job by quite a margin. We’re imagining they spend their days in distilleries’ or brokers’ warehouses, trying cask samples after cask samples in order to select which goodies they’ll want to buy. They’d then barter the price a bit, get the cask bottled, slap a nice label (or an ugly one, I won’t name names but I have a few in minds 😉 ), ship the bottles to their retailers and voilà, we hungry whisky enthusiasts can rush buy them, plagued with our FOMO, and minutes later, the new releases from our favourite indy are sold out, and if we were late or unlucky, we can moan about missing out on them. But this is just the ending part, and even one of the possible ends for those new releases from an indy bottler. More about another possible end later.
But before all that, those independent bottlers, those small entrepreneurs, have faced many hardships to get their whisky on our favourite retailer shelves. We see shiny new bottles with a nice label slapped on them, but we don’t see the stress and pain the people behind had to endure. There is a long line of logistic problems to solve. I’ll be skipping all the permit/duty/taxes and all those legal administrative headaches because I cannot even begin to imagine how complicated and full of administrative nonsense it must be. But that’s not all.
Let’s start with the bottle. We see the bottle as the container for our holy spirit – without capital letters and pun intended, but before we get it in our hands and crack it open, the empty bottles had to be delivered, on time, as specified, via a transporter, and everything can go wrong here. They can be late, the transporter can lose them, they can arrive broken, or not as ordered. Then they have to go to the bottling plant (if they weren’t sent there directly).
Then they need to be filled, and there, we have to hope there’s no hiccup at the bottling plant.
And on those bottles, the label and back label, once designed, need to be printed and delivered, without mistakes on the text or design (someone said “Bunnahabain”? Or the wrong year on an English Whisky Co private cask?), with the quality expected and when expected as well, so they can be stuck on the bottles.
And finally, if there’s a box, well same as the label and the bottle, it will need to be made as required and ordered, delivered in time, and there again everything can go wrong.
Once those bottles are filled, labelled, in their box if there’s one, and ready to ship… well let’s hope the bottler has retailers ready to order those and sell them, and that they won’t stay for ages on the shelves. Let’s hope the indy bottler will be able to sell all his bottles and find enough retailers to buy them. And let’s hope they won’t gather dust on the retailer’s shelves, even when discounted. Let’s hope the people having bought one of those bottles will appreciate them, and tell people they did.
By chance regarding The Whisky Cellar, Keith had the chance to have strong support from a few independent whisky retail shops. The Aberdeen Whisky Shop, Whisky Castle in Tomintoul and Lockett Bros in North Berwick are among them, and having this kind of support is very important for a recently established independent bottler.
Being an independent bottler must probably has some great moments, but in between those great moments, there must be lots of hair greying, fingers crossing, and a bit of swearing involved.
So to Keith, Dan, Daithí, Bert, and all the others: you have my respect. Stay strong. Don’t get discouraged. And continue showering us with great whisky for us greedy hoarders and drinkers.
The Whisky Cellar Series 003 Tweet Tasting
We received 6 samples as part of this Tweet Tasting, as well as the two notebooks you see on this photo. Series 003 contains all six whiskies tried here, as well as a 2005 Glen Moray and a 1998 Strathclyde. Many “young” whiskies in this series, but we know age doesn’t do everything on how good a whisky is, and we also know from the previous Whisky Cellar Tweet Tastings that Keith knows how to select fantastic young ones (I still remember you fondly, Royal Brackla 2013!) Unfortunately, there’s no information about Series 003 on Whisky Cellar’s website yet, let’s hope it’ll be updated soon! (wink). But let’s crack on!
Mackmyra 2013 The Easy Sipper
The Easy Sipper is a concept imagined by Keith back in June 2020 during the first lockdown in the UK. The goal is to have whiskies easy for everyone to enjoy, with a label celebrating the reconnection of families and friends, done in a 1960s Peter Max psychedelic pop-art style. We have here an 8-year-old 2013 Mackmyra matured in a Virgin American oak cask #17279. It’s bottled at 49.5%, without chill filtration nor colouring. Expect to pay £64.95 at MoM to get one.
The initial nose is on brown sugar and spice. There’s some rum funk, but also wood spices, honey, hints of orange zest and something savoury, sesame oil maybe? It’s very fruity as well, with orange sweets, stewed fruits, fruit salad sweets, we’re in a sweet shop. The addition of water let the virgin oak more obvious, but also reveals some petrichor and some kind of earthiness.
Sweet arrival before a spice hits the tongue. Gives a nice kick to the arrival without assaulting you. Brown sugar, orange peel, cinnamon, milk chocolate, chilli pepper. A few drops of water send you back to the sweets shop from the nose, with once again the virgin oak more noticeable (wood as well as spices like white pepper and clove).
Medium length, on raw wood rubbed with orange peel.
The inclusion of this Mackmyra in the Easy Sipper series is quite logical, as this is an easy-going dram. There are enough scents and flavours for a geeky enthusiast to pick one and decipher, while a more amateur drinker won’t have any difficulty quaffing this whisky, even at almost 50% ABV, as never the alcohol burns your palate or your nostrils… but that may be because I’m used to high ABV whiskies. I can’t say for someone used to 40% ABV whiskies, to be honest. Anyway, blind I wouldn’t have recognized it to be a Mackmyra, but this is a very good and easy-going whisky.
Glen Elgin 2008 13yo
Next we moved to the Private Cellars Selection Range, and first up was a Glen Elgin distilled in June 2008 and filled into an ex-bourbon cask for 12 years, before being reracked into an ex-Sauternes Barrique (number #10122) for its final 12 months. It was bottled in August 2021, giving 298 bottles at 52.5% ABV, unchill filtered and uncoloured. You can find it on Master of Malt for £80.
The nose is immediately sweet and fruity, with a slight acidity. Lots of fruits here: pear, peaches, grapes, but also wet cut grass, something sour, butter and musk. Water unlocks something citrusy and something buttery, like a buttered crumpet.
The mouthfeel is quite creamy. On the palate, gentle spices mingle with apricot jam, something fizzy like orange-flavoured Fanta, mango, banana and 60% dark chocolate. Reduction provides lots of ginger and a bit of chalk.
Long, on menthol and star anis with something a bit sour as well, then ginger and wood linger for quite a long time.
While not overly complex (or it’s just I’m not good enough to pick everything there is and really precisely observe how it evolves over time in the bottle and in the glass), this is a very good whisky. It feels a bit young in the beginning but after a few moments in the glass and a few more sips, you get comfortable, new flavours unlock, and just enjoy this fresh whisky.
Glenglassaugh 2014 6yo
The third dram of the tasting was a Glenglassaugh distilled in 2014. It was finished in the Oloroso sherry quarter cask #302 before being giving 148 bottles at a hefty 58,5% ABV, and as usual, non-chill filtered and natural-coloured. A bottle will set you back £55 at MoM.
Neat first. We’re definitely in Oloroso territory. Sourdough, strawberry pie with little chunks of pistachio, a nap on the hammock of the grass in the summer, ginger, leather, with something funky I cannot pinpoint. Don’t put your nose too close to your glass as the alcohol may burn your nostrils, though. With water, the alcohol and ginger are still quite there, a faint smoke and some pepper are added to the party.
Thick mouthfeel. Gingernut biscuits, orange juice, raspberry pie, cola sweets, green apple and some nuttiness. With water, some smokiness appears, oak spices, hints of aniseed and liquorice, burnt toast and honey.
Leather, cola sweets, treacle, with a nice warmth. I don’t want it to finish.
Well, Keith did it again. Once again, he found a young and absolutely brilliant whisky to put in his new series. The first time it was a Royal Brackla, the second time there was a very good young Balmenach, and this time it’s a young Glenglassaugh that once again shows that age is not everything. Sure this whisky is not so subtle, as the cask influence is important, but it’s a highly enjoyable whisky. Great nose, great palate, well enough terrain and alcohol to play with reduction, which it takes well. And its coastal freshness combined to the heavy sherry influence makes it a fun and delicious whisky. I’d buy one if I could get one to France without hesitation. And it’s just £55. Go for it.
Campbeltown Blended Malt 7yo
Fourth dram of the evening was a 7-year-old Campbeltown blended malt, or more exactly a teaspooned malt. A teaspooned blended malt is whenever a distillery doesn’t want its name to be mentioned when selling a cask to a bottler or broker, they’d add a teaspoon of another single malt to the cask, making it a blended malt since there are now two different single malts in the cask, even how insignificant the teaspoon of another single malt would be. There are only three running distilleries right now in Campbeltown: Springbank, its little sister Glengyle, and Glen Scotia. The teaspooned blended malt here was distilled in March 2014, finished in a second-fill Sherry Hogshead (#355634) and gave 340 bottles in August 2021 at 54.9% ABV. As usual, there was no chill filtration nor addition of caramel for the colour. Expect to pay between £50 and £54 for a bottle.
This is a very interesting dram. There’s quite a bit of funk on the nose and on the palate, and ever so slightly sulphury note, some earthiness and forestness (I create words if I want, it’s my blog), a whiff of smoke, this is a very nice whisky. Young and feisty but very good. Now, what could it be? As I said, there are only (unless I’m mistaken) three active distilleries in Campbeltown for now. Springbank, Glengyle (Kilkerran) and Glen Scotia. My guess would be that it’s an undisclosed Springbank (and others on the Tweet Tasting thought too). Now, your guess is as good as mine.
Aultmore 2011 9yo
Fifth dram of the evening was an Aultmore distilled in October 2011, and matured for 9 years in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt made from European oak. Butt #900369 it was, by the way. It was then bottled in August 2021, giving a nice outturn of 739 bottles at 57.1%, and as usual non-chill filtered and with natural colour. Recommended retail price (RRP) is £65 for a bottle.
Neat: paint thinner and furniture polish appear first on the nose, followed my malt and a feint yeasty note. Raisin, unripe bananas, unsalted butter, aniseed, a chunk or two of chocolate, ground coffee, and something astringent. With a few drops of water, coffee and chocolate again.
Soft and fruity arrival despite the abv, buuuut the proof quickly come to make you remember there are a hundred of them. Apple pie, the rest of the chocolate bar, spent coffee beans, grass, toffee, figs and freshly cut oak planks. Leather jacket and a few leaves of tobacco. Reduction cranks up the fruitiness and allows to distinguish pepper, and drops a leather saddle and a second chocolate bar in the glass.
Menthol, aniseed again, and lots of chocolate.
While this Aultmore was matured in a first-fill Oloroso sherry butt, it’s not a sherry bomb. You don’t get the thick mouthfeel and as much dried fruits as you’d expect from a FF Oloroso. The sherry influence is there but not in your face. There are a lot of things to pick both on the nose and on the palate, and this is a very enjoyable dram to spend time with, especially in this season and nearing Christmas. And at that price, I think it’s a whisky easy to recommend.
Ruadh Maor 2010 11yo
Last dram of the evening was a 11-year-old Ruadh Maor. Ruadh Maor (also seen spelled Ruadh Mhor or Ruadh Moar) is a heavily peated single malt from Glenturret distillery. It was distilled in February 2010 and filled into refill Sherry Butt #50 before being bottled in August 2021, with an outturn of 719 bottles at 55.3% ABV. NC/NCF as usual, obviously. At the time of writing, you’ll be able to get one for £75 a bottle in the UK.
We’re in the farmyard with dirty funk here: burning tyres and hay, manure from the stables, rubber boots, leather saddles, we’re Jeremy Clarkson doing a drift with his Lamborghini tractor and crashing in the stables. With reduction, for me it was just slightly toned down but there wasn’t much left in my glass so it was a bit harder to get scents.
Neat, with oily arrival, sweet smoke, damp peat, citrus, cigar stub, aniseed, bacon and dark chocolate intertwine in a melody of sweet peaty flavours. With water, the sweetness is a bit more present but there’s also a slight dryness appearing on the tongue and gums. Ginger and chilli pepper provide a nice and soft spiciness.
Sweet and smoky, dark chocolate, for a lengthy finish.
Oooh once again a very good dram. While on my first try on Monday evening I thought it was good but not as good as some others of the evening, a second go at it (with probably a slight oxidation as there was some air now in the sample bottle) made me reconsider. This is very good. There’s for me an Ardmoriness to it (which in my book is a compliment), it’s full of layers and details, and the farmyard notes on the nose are very fun to discover… While I wouldn’t say that in real life, I thought they were thoroughly enjoyable on this whisky, and the sweetness from Glenturret’s make goes well with the peat. Go get one of these!
The six drams were provided by The Whisky Cellar for free but that doesn’t have any influence over my thoughts and what I’ll write. I really enjoyed those drams and would they be available in France, I’d gladly buy a few bottles. Another strong selection from Keith Bonnington, with no whisky out of place or ugly duckling there. At the time of writing none of my usual go to whisky friends had reviewed them (except through the Tweet Tasting, look for #thewhiskycellar hashtag to get our live impressions) on their blog. But these are my own notes and own thoughts, so if anyone writes a review of one or more of those whiskies, I’ll add a link here for you to have another point of view.
Thanks again to Keith Bonnington and Steve Rush.