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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Bimber Distillery, six test batches and one official release

Adding onto their big 21st-century cred (local barley, floor malting, direct-fired stills, etc.), Bimber's brand gained another boost in 2019 when their inaugural release, The First, received gushing reviews from Europe's online whisky taste-makers. Last year, good friend Secret Agent Man returned from the UK with a six-piece set of six test batches of the London-based Bimber output, as well as a sample of The First. He then shared these samples with Dr. Springbank, Dr. Springbank, N.O. and me.

I tried the above six products + The First side-by-side in 10-15mL pours in an attempt to gain perspective while not getting fit-shaced. I'm going to steal Randy Brandy's review structure for brevity purposes. I'm sure he won't mind.

Unpeated New Make, 60%abv, Test Batch 195
Nose - Pears, butter, cinnamon candy and green apples
Palate - Matches the nose, adding some salt. Heat isn't bad.
Finish - Eau de vie meets white vinegar.

Thoughts - You may think the rating below is harsh, but this liquid is new make, and a decent one at that. The finish is a little bit difficult, but otherwise it seems like the distillery is starting off right.
Rating - C+ 

Peated New Make, 60%abv, Test Batch 190
Nose - Pine needles, mesquite, whiffle all, mezcal and limes.
Palate - Bitter smoke and brutally sour citrus with a little bit of sweetness beneath.
Finish - Bitter and sour and very smoky.

Thoughts - Speaking of harsh, woof, this is hairy stuff, but such is the burden of unaged peated spirit. The peated Bimber style is difficult to make out here, but it will in fact be smoky.
Rating - C-

Re-charred cask, 3 years old, 51.9%abv, Test Batch 001
Nose - Gummi Bears, cardamom and bubblegum.
Palate - Bubblegum, cinnamon and mild bitterness. It's also very acidic with some flat paperiness.
Finish - Acidic bitter bubblegum (not a thing) and circus peanuts.

Thoughts - I'm going to assume this is not the batch they turned into an official release. All the candy notes are entertaining and the whisky is not oaky. But the edgy/raw notes here knock everything out of place, turning it into the weakest of the seven.
Rating - C-

Sherry cask, 3 years old, 51.9%abv, Test Batch 001
Nose - Grilled beef, mustard, cinnamon, raisins and Palo Santo smoke.
Palate - Bubblegum, again. More on dried berries than raisins. Savory and sweet. Biggest alcohol heat of the five single malts.
Finish - Dried berries, bubblegum and eau de vie. Hot.

Thoughts - The intriguing savoriness and lack of generic raisins lifts this one up. Makes me think it could be really fun at 8-10 years old.
Rating - C+ 

Bourbon cask. 3 years old, 51.2%abv, Test Batch 001
Nose - Gummi Bears, again. Rock candy, roses and buttery caramel.
Palate - Raw and sharp. Once the heat and eau de vie notes recede, one may find bubblegum and Juicy Fruit chewing gum.
Finish - Floral bubblegum, something very drying (tannins?) and gravel.

Thoughts - Another whisky that's more difficult than its new make. That's not abnormal. Yamazaki's current NAS falls far short of the distillery's new make. Actually every Suntory NAS right now is weaker than Yamazaki's new make. But anyway. This cake only just started baking.
Rating - C-

Virgin American Oak cask, 3 years old, 53.1%abv, Test Batch 001
Nose - Roses, pears and gumdrops. Hints of earth and anise. Big League Chew.
Palate - Wood spice, tart berries, peach skin. Vanilla ice cream and a hint of green woody notes.
Finish - Floral, tart and spicy, but not tannic.

Thoughts - Can't believe I'm saying this, but the new oak whisky wins. In fact, had the cask been slightly gentler I'd say, "Roll this out!"
Rating - B-

The First, 3 years old 2016-2019, PX casks, 54.2%abv
Nose - Prunes, black raisins, mint leaf, pear and fresh butter.
Palate - Black raisins, caramel and black peppercorns,
Finish - Black raisins and woody spice. Very sweet.

Thoughts - Yes, it can be sherried whisky even at three years. It's missing the goopy sweetness of PX, which I appreciate, but I don't see it separating itself from the rest of the sherry releases on the market, which would be important for a 3yo priced at £120.
Rating - C+/B-

I'm right where I was with early Kavalan and Wolfburn. These are ultra-young whiskies, no more, no less. Palates and preferences vary widely, but I'm again left wondering if some whiskies are graded on a steep curve because we want to see new distilleries succeed. We then lose our independence and turn into cheerleaders. But, ultimately, what good is that? The bar is lowered, clear-eyed standards vanish, and we (the drinkers) are left with countless single-digit aged whiskies selling for three-digits.

Or maybe these infant whiskies don't work with my palate. I would be interested in Bimber's whisky once it hits its teens, but not if its prices follow the current course. At the same time, there's a lot of cask influence in play with all of these 3yos, so maybe I don't want to try it with ten more years of extraction.

I just hope all the well-read whisky reviewers out maintain a level of self-awareness. To those who decry hype only to generate it themselves, be careful what you cheer for.


  1. Maybe the new distillers do have this self-awareness? Perhaps these early releases are shouts of rage that economics dictate when casks leave warehouses, that a 3YO whisky has to be created even if the liquid doesn't yet match the original vision?

    I tasted Bimber The First and agree that the PX influence is refreshingly un-gloopy. However, the 'bubblegum' notes you found were consistent with my notes: I wonder whether so much flavour has been packed in to the new make that it comes across as a little confected and artificial at this stage, but could settle and blossom with more time.

    I'm inclined to be optimistic and say that the cask influence you note for these youngsters will be mitigated by the time the whisky reaches its teenage years. Though they may not publicise it at this stage, I'd like to think that the new guard put some spirit into overly active casks with the intention of sacrificing it young; they make a name for themselves with boldness and power but the ultimate goal is elegance and balance. Refill oak ('eww!' squeak the 'well-read reviewers') is going to be part of the solution.

    Spirits like Bimber, Cotswolds, Dornoch, Lakes, Smogen and Milk & Honey have sufficient character as new makes that they don't need masses of lactone and lignin to be delicious. Oak is in greater supply than years right now, but that won't always be the case. I look forward to that time.

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    2. Firstly, I'm glad someone else found that bubblegum/confected note. It was pretty consistent across the products. Secondly, like you I'm all for more refill oak and more time. Thirdly, I sincerely hope the new distilleries who have good new make also have enough funding to live for a decade or more so that the "elegance and balance" can be experienced. Quaternary, I hope Bimber's 10 year old will cost less than Amrut's 10 year old. Quinary (and also primarily), thank you for your comment!

      (edited for gooder spelings)

  2. Excellent review. I've been vocal about barely legal whisky being pimped at prices which have absolutely no justification whatsoever. Having said that I'm sure the good chaps at Bimber will course correct.