As winter wraps its chilling cloak around us, a trip to the seaside probably isn't up there on everyone's to do lists. However last week, we were invited to Brighton's Hotel Du Vin, home to the south east's Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms to sample several of their new bottlings.
The trip from London to Brighton was a fairly tortuous affair, with trees on the line, the wrong leaves, farting businessmen and the overpoweringly twee sound of Justin Bieber, piped loudly from a teenage iPod next to me. It's at times like this that my inner Basil Fawlty rises up. Like David Banner trying to resist the transition into the Hulk, I furiously fought back the urges to snip the offending iPod cable discreetly with nail scissors. Fortunately, We had a hot meal and several fabulous drams to look forward to, so Basil was banished and we soon pulled into a crisp and bracing Brighton night.
The hotel has been superbly renovated and features an immaculate bar, behind which, you'll find a plethora of great whiskies. But for SMWS members, the hotel features a private room for tastings and it was here that our fun began.
London SMWS Manager Joe McGirr was on hand with 5 new bottlings from their extensive range, including an absolutely divine Clynelish and a downright bizarre Penderyn...
Here's our pick from the current outturn:
26.68 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'Morph and Minty' - 18 years old- 52.9% - 150 bottles
Nose: Butterscotch, wax jackets, Refreshers sweets, a hit of blue cheese and musty church books. Yes- a heady but superb mix of extremely diverse aromas.
Palate: Perfumed and floral notes mix with cereals, some waxy honey, mint humbugs, lavender and creamy homemade fudge. Wonderfully fruity and rich.
Finish: A hint of saltiness creeps in at the end, but the floral notes and a classic waxiness develops and you're left with a very satisfied set of senses.
Overall: Another choice cask from a consistently brilliant highland distillery.
Next up... Is it a Cognac? An Armagnac? Calvados? No... it's Welsh...
OK, so we can't really keep the identity of this one a secret, but the sheer strangeness of this, the society's first bottling from Penderyn needs to be noted. 6 years in a very fresh port cask has 'influenced' the spirit beyond all recognition...
128.1 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'A String Quartet of Flavours' - 6 years old - 55.6% - 233 bottles
Nose: Huge notes of fruity but floral Cognac, reminiscent of a very feminine VSOP. Dig past these notes and you walk headlong into buttery apple sweetness, with a distinct Calvados slant. the colour is absolutely staggering- russet red/brown.
Palate: The fruit develops, with port dominating at first, some talc notes and butterscotch.
Finish: Highly different- some lemon zest notes but again a drying finish really similar to a decent well-aged Armagnac.
Overall: It's hard to say that this is a decent whisky, as in all honestly, it isn't like any whisky we've tried for a long time. The cask has dominated the spirit to such an extent, that it is very one dimensional. But it's a dimension that displays how the use of interesting European oak can influence a whisky and because of that- this is well worth seeking out.
A heavily sherried Laphroaig reared its head (29.91) - with lots of big BBQ pork notes on the nose, coupled with a woody, slightly biting and dry palate. Also, the peaty 'chalk' to the Laphroaig's 'cheese' - a very handsome and light Ardbeg (33.96), with citrus, light peat and vanilla, mixed with cream soda and pairing very well with the Hotel du Vin's Creme Brulee.
But our attention was focused on our final pic of the night - one from Cambeltown's duo of distilleries.
27.85 - SMWS single cask bottling- 'Manly and Penetrating' - 12 years old - 58.8% - 209 bottles
Nose: Slightly musty, notes of wet wood and a slight damp warehouses. Then toffee, peanut brittle, marshmallows, and toffee apples.
Palate: Sherbet fruits, port sweetness, fruit gums, a hint of coffee and sawdust.
Finish: The fruity notes lead into slightly musty wine notes, with a little waft of west coast peat.
Overall: A highly entertaining and enjoyable dram, highlighting further that the society can root out some real gems from around the world.
As the evening drew to a close, it was clear that the SMWS continue to knock out excellent bottlings quicker than South East Rail can get you from Brighton to London. And nearly always at a reasonable price to their members. The pick of the bunch from this lot was the 26.68 and we happily took a hip flask full as preparation for the train ride home.