For most, really getting into whisky generally follows a combination of many visits into bottles shops, bars, events, tastings and knowledge sharing.
Of course nothing beats sharing a glass of whisky with a couple of mates or picking up a bottle of something special while going through duty free – but recently users have been asking us how we got into whisky and how to develop this knowledge of different cask types, yeast, grain types, alcohol content, flavor profiles, the differences between each of the hundreds of distilleries that exist, the whisky regions, where the peat / smoke comes from in some whiskies, how climate affects whisky maturation and much, much more!
Yes whisky is indeed very special and each whisky has a story to tell and over the coming months we’ll explore a number of these topics. Today, however, we have a very singular (he he) rabbit-hole we'd to go down.
!Warning: No apologies here but this is where we begin to get really geeky when it comes to whisky. It’s our passion and we invite you to join us!
For Whisky List Co-founder Oliver, his decade long journey into whisky is considered quite traditional.
Part 1 – His dad gave him a sip of Glenfiddich 18 – great whisky, you have my curiosity.
Part 2 – Picked up a bottle of Ardbeg 10 and Laphroaig PX cask at duty free. Ok whisky can be smoky but also sweet. Now you have my attention – I need to try more.
Part 3 – Started attending a few whisky tastings at bottleshops, bars and even whisky conferences (we’ll touch on these topics at another time) and boom! Suddenly you’re trying 20-30 different whiskies per year.
Maybe you’ve been lucky enough to attend a whisky tasting hosted by a brand ambassador and try a particular distillery's core range and maybe a special release bottle. These events are packed full of knowledge as you get to hear about the distillery's history, their production techniques and experience a showcase of the spirit of the distillery across their range of bottlings.
So where to from here? Where can one go to level up on their whisky journey and dive deeper into whisky, the passion we love so much.
For Oliver, the next phase was exploring single casks. Before that though, a quick rundown of some of the major types of whisky - mainly of the Scotch category:
- Blended whisky like Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, Ballantine's. Blends are a combination of different distilleries and different grain types (malted barley and other grains) blended together for a very balanced, easy sipping whisky – majority of the world drinks this type of whisky.
- Next you have the single malt whisky, meaning whisky produced and bottled by an individual distillery made only from malted barley. Glenfiddich 18 and Ardbeg 10 referred earlier are examples of single malts.
- Finally, you get single cask (or single barrel) whisky – meaning whisky that has been bottled from an individual cask of whisky. What’s truly special about this is the whisky from each cask develops its own unique flavours and characteristics that cannot ever be replicated. Once that cask is decanted – it’s gone. So when you find a single cask whisky you really enjoy, you tend to go back and try and buy other bottles from that same cask. Typically, when bottling a single cask whisky, the distillery will give each bottle bearing the barrel or cask number, a bottle number (e.g., bottle 1 of 120 bottles) and in most cases the dates or years the whisky was both distilled and bottled. Sometimes you even get which distiller distilled the spirit or who selected this cask, which (for the super-geeks) can indicate something about the style or quality of the cask.
Now if this sounds exciting, take it from is, it is! Trying different casks from your favourite distillery seems to be ever growing in popularity. At The Whisky List, we were incredibly lucky to find our favourite single cask, from legendary distillery Glendronach and we couldn’t pass the opportunity so we decided to import the entire barrel just for Australia – more info on Glendronach cask #392 here.
But how does one figure out which single cask is amazing, and which is just okay? Apart from tasting lots of different cask bottlings, you need to do some research. Obviously, this can become time-consuming and whilst there are some excellent resources online that can help, especially whisky reviews by many notable and experienced whisky bloggers globally, however nothing can replace tasting many different single casks yourselves.
(Image by onemoredram.com)
SMWS Australia Branch – experts in single casks
So, it’s 2019, we’re all leading busy, productive lives, working hard, family time – you know it. Surely there must be another way to get into single casks and thankfully there is. Introducing Matt Bailey and the Australian branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (or more commonly known as SMWS or the Society).
Matt Bailey (left) interviews Jonnie Edwards, Head Distiller (right), at Lark Distillery.
Coincidently both Heath and Oliver joined SMWS back in January, 2017 (Hint: they make excellent Christmas presents). The society is not some gentleman’s club or secret society, but it’s open for everyone to join. They are warm, friendly and welcoming, regardless of how much you know about whisky or how much you may have had in the past. They host tastings, dinners, pop-up events like the SMWS bar at Sydney’s Archie Rose distillery, themed degustation’s, daily livestreams with Matt on instagram (follow @smws_aus), they have a network of partner bars across Australia and the world, and most importantly they are an independent bottler that specialises in cask strength, single cask whiskies.
With 30 years of experience, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society are experts at selecting single casks whiskies. They have a global network and partnership with over 130 distilleries, branches in 16 countries (the Aussie branch is obviously the best and one of the oldest) and thousands of members who each month get either by mail or e-mail something called the “Outturn”.
The Monthly Outturn
The Outturn is a beautifully printed catalogue of that particular month’s allocation of single casks from each branch. The Australian branch is headed up by whisky lover, writer and Cellarmaster, Andrew Derbidge who gets tasked with the magnificent job of selecting the casks we all get to purchase each month. Then on the first Friday of every month, at exactly 12 p.m. on the SMWS website, those casks go for sale. And it’s an event. You have to be quick as the favourites usually disappear in minutes.
Today is the release of November’s outturn and each year (making sure everyone has enough time to buy their single casks before Xmas) the society combines December in with the November outturn to create a double-outturn month. So rather than your typical 12+ bottles, you can at least 30 unique single cask whiskies to choose from, plus other gifts and bundles.
(photo taken at Whisky & Alement, SWMS Partner Bar located in Melbourne CBD)
SMWS Bottling System
The final twist is the society have their own bottling system. Rather than listing which distillery the whisky is from, they use a unique numbering system, such as 112.13 and a name to describe each bottle. The society want to focus on the whisky itself. They’re dedicated to taking you on what they call a flavour and sensory adventure. Each bottle along with the numbering system follows a guide of 12 distinct flavour categories, each represented by its own colour, from Young & Spritely to Old & Dignified; Light and Delicate to Heavily Peated. These 12 categories offer an alternative to the more traditional method of categorising whiskies by their region of origin (Islay, Speyside, and so on).
TWL picks this month
In anticipation of today’s outturn, Heath and Oliver sat down and make our picks of which bottles were of most interest to us.
The full outturn for this month can be viewed here. Remember it goes on sale 12 p.m. Friday 15th November 2019.
If you’re thinking you're thinking you want to get in on the action of buying from a monthly allocation of single casks at cask strength, joining is super easy. Just click on this link smws.com.au and go through the steps in setting up your profile. Membership is $120 per year.
SMWS doesn't just do whisky
They bottle single malts, grain whisky, rums, cognac, Armagnac, rye, bourbon, and just recently released their first gin.
Images provided by Matt Bailey, SMWS.