...where distraction is the main attraction.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The burden of single cask single malt, and also Ardmore 13 year old 2006 SMWS 66.161

I've already tried today's whisky, and my tasting notes lie here in front of me. Despite ending its maturation in a brief first-fill charred ex-red wine barrique finish, this Ardmore isn't as much of a flop as I had anticipated. But it did leave me thinking about its need to exist.

SMWS has released scores of hogshead-matured Ardmores (see the two I reviewed just this week). I can't imagine this whisky was superb when it was pulled from its first cask, a hoggie, after 12 years, before it was primed and prettied in its second vessel. Though the wine cask finish didn't mangle the whisky, why did this even need to be released as a single cask single malt at all? Because, despite fads and pandemics and tariffs and Brexits, the single malt marketplace is still humming along. Single cask single malt has become one of the most expensive spirits in history. And those single casks keep selling out. But does single cask single malt always represent scotch whisky in its finest form? It's certainly close to being scotch whisky in its most unadulterated state, but does that mean it drinks or smells best in that form?

When drinking casually (as in, no notes!), I now reach for small(-ish) batch official bottlings and dusty blends. My nose and palate have confirmed those whiskies are no less complex, satisfying and reliable than single casks, in fact they're often more so. I gain more respect for the blending craft with each passing year, and I'm beginning to believe that many mediocre-to-decent single casks could have been better utilized in a high-quality blend, vatting or small batch single malt. I'm not saying 1 + 2 = 4. Rather, 1 + 2 may in fact equal 3, though it takes tremendous skill to get there.

I stopped reviewing current bestselling blended whiskies some time ago due to the grim quality I've found in many of them. This isn't intended as a dig at individual blenders, nor do I think it's due to some sort of corporate conspiracy beyond general capitalism. Taking even a cursory look at the demand for single malt whisky, one can surmise the supply of good malt available to blenders is at one of its lowest points in the history of the craft. If the good stuff sells better and higher on its own, then that's how it will be offered. And blenders can't create the same art with fewer quality options for their palates and palettes.

I won't tell you that all old blends are amazing. There have always been plenty of stinkers. But many of the blends from the '40s through the '80s were fabulous. Even my open 1970s J&B Rare has become the best highball scotch I've ever had. The flavors, the facets, the maltiness in previous decades' blends leads me to believe that during eras of small, or nonexistent, demand for single malts, whisky companies had better options for their blenders.

That brings me back to today's whisky. Was this Ardmore malt (and its drinkers) best served by depositing its hogshead's contents into a potentially hyperactive cask for a short period of time? Or would it have been better as a pivotal element in an upscale Teacher's blend, or a Compass Box vatting? I don't know. Not too long ago, I would have chosen the single cask because Purity. But now, I'd lean towards the latter.

Distillery: Ardmore (SMWS 66)
Ownership: Beam Suntory
Region: Highlands (Eastern)
Independent Bottler: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Age: 13 years (6 March 2006 - 2019)
Maturation: ~12 years in a hogshead then ~1 year in a first-fill charred ex-red wine barrique
Cask#: 66.161
Outturn: 295
'Quirky' name: Chateau du pork scratching
Alcohol by Volume: 58.1%
Chillfiltered? No
Caramel Colorant? No
(from a bottle split)

None of the suggest meaty notes appear in the nose, instead there's cocoa, fabric, marshmallow fluff, cherry jam and jalapeños. The peat appears in the form of chocolate-dipped moss. The palate begins with a fizzy combination of cherry-flavored Tylenol, mint leaves and Dr. Brown's cream soda. Hints of herbal bitterness and blackberry jam float beneath. Cherries, tart and sweet, lead the finish, followed by salt and burlap.

DILUTED TO ~46%abv, or 1½ tsp of water per 30mL whisky
The nose shows considerable improvement. It's more herbal, vegetal and nutty. It's even slightly earthy. Cocoa, butterscotch, marzipan and raspberry jam appear here and there. The palate remains sweet and berried (a joke!?), with raspberries in whipped cream, but some sea salt, pepper and bitterness provide additional angles. It finishes with a cherry/ginger syrup, a pinch of salt and squeeze of lemon.

Despite my fears, this was not worse than 66.32. In fact, with a little added water, this Ardmore was very approachable. Though the spirit does seem hindered, tragedy is avoided. It is not "strangely sweet, gloopy" (what an odd way to pitch your whisky) despite SMWS's label notes.

Before finishing this sample I looked at the remaining whisky in my glass and wondered what the point of this whisky was. And that triggered all those paragraphs above. I'm thankful to have had just 60mL of this whisky rather 750mL. Had I a full bottle I'd immediately initiate some foolish vattings, attempting to find a better whisky.

Availability - Sold out
Pricing - was £61 one year ago
Rating - 80 with water