Dram Review 53.135 ‘Ambush by the sound of Islay’

I’ve had this sample from Tom Thomson (of Toms Whisky Reviews) for a while and only recently found it.

It’s SMWS and the code means the 135th cask bottled from Caol Ila Distillery on Islay. You can’t pick this one up any more, but SMWS get plenty of Caol Ila and the younger stuff can often be relatively inexpensive. Here are the dramstats:

  • ABV 66.0%
  • Age 9yo
  • Distillery Caol Ila

Nose: Peat and citrus. Sweet with honey and lavender but all the while the peat is dominant and huge. Lovely Islay nose for the peat heads!

Palate: Sweet smoke then a huge pepper/peat explosion. “Ambush”? More like “Punch in the face by the sound of Islay”, or “ABH in Port Askaig” This is a huge huge peat monster. Water makes this less of a violent dram and releases some fresh fruit salad and apple.

Finish: Huge peat, smoke, sweetness and some spice. Water leaves a mild fruit juice note in the finish.

Verdict: This is a really cool dram. 9 year old Caol Ila is worth checking out but be warned, it’s not for the faint hearted!


Dram Review: SMWS 26.92

This is a 28 year old Clynlish called “Hard Glazed Pretzel Sticks” that I tried down at SMWS queen street. At the time of writing there are 56 bottles left so it’s a relevant review.

Here are the dramstats:

  • Price £91.90
  • Age 28
  • Cask type: refill sherry

Nose: New make in a still room, spirit safes and very clean sherry with raisins, wort, hay, green apple peel, wood. The colour is light but the raisin note is very clear and unctuous. Great stuff!

Palate: Woody, hay, raisin apples and light vanilla cream.

Finish: Spicy oak and pine wood with a hint of raisin.

Verdict: I love the nose on this, I could sniff it all night. The palate and finish was a touch woody for my tastes, so I’m not picking up a bottle. It’s excellent, but I decided to buy 31.26 (Jura reviewed here) instead and I’m not made of money 😉

Dram Review: SMWS 125.58 “A picket fence around an orchard”

For those not familiar with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) numbering system, the format is x.y where x is the code for the distillery and y is the number of the cask released from the distillery. So, 125.58 means the 58th cask bottled from distillery 125, which happens to be Glenmorangie. They choose the distillery codes in the order of the first cask bottled. The first cask they ever bottled was from Glenfarclas, so this has distillery code 1. 2 is glenlivet, 3 Bowmore, 4 Highland park and so on.

This dram was in my members pack. In the pack you get 4 100ml “miniatures”, a pin badge, a members card and some literature. My miniatures included this Glenmorangie, a Glenfarclas, A Port Charlotte and a 20 year old Rosebank! I’ve not opened the others yet.

You can’t buy a bottle of the whisky I’m reviewing. However, there will be other Glenmorangie releases of a similar age by SMWS in the future. Plus, it might be useful to get an idea of the overall quality of SMWS drams by comparing multiple dram reviews. Plus, and most importantly, this blog is my personal record of drams I’ve had and I wanted to add this one!

Here are the dramstats:

  • Age 11 years
  • ABV 57.1%
  • Ex-bourbon cask

Nose: Icing sugar, apples, slightly floral and delicate. Water releases parma violets.

Palate: Sweet apples and icing sugar. Toffee sauce and banana. Water brings pepper, some ginger and blackened banana.

Finish: Banoffee pie and toffee sauce. Water releases a spicy finish with pepper and ginger.

Verdict: Delicate and delicious and needs water. It’s unlike any Glenmorangie I’ve ever tasted, and yet some of the notes are very “Glenmorangie”. It’s almost a lesson in “elements of Glenmorangie”, which is pretty cool by itself.

Joining SMWS and Dram Review: 31.26

I joined the Scotch Malt Whisky Society last October after agonising over the decision, because it seemed like a lot of money up front (around £110 at the time) just for the privilege of buying their whisky. I did some online research and it wasn’t hard to find posts on forums etc complaining about value for money and saying “things are not as good as they used to be” and I even read some comments complaining about sulphur.

In the end, I asked some friends on twitter and they were kind enough to share their experiences and even a couple of drams and that reassured me.

I think one of the issues is that people are more likely to make the effort to write about their negative experiences than positive ones. So, in an effort to readdress the balance, I’m going to write the sort of review that I wished I had been able to read when I was deciding to join.

So let’s not beat around the bush and start with the core question: How could it be value for money to pay £110 initially then around £50 per year just for the privilege of buying SMWS whiskies?

Answer: Their whiskies are that good! Not only that but you are a member and you are made to feel like one. The magazine, which seems to come roughly quarterly, is the best whisky magazine I’ve read (and I get 3 regularly delivered to dramstats HQ). The member rooms in London and Edinburgh are excellent places to go and taste whisky with like minded people, and the ambassadors are always willing to help you out.

Most of those things are just frills. Superficial hundreds and thousands on top of the cake. The cake’s the thing, and what of it?

Well the cake (the society’s whiskies in this rather convoluted metaphor), is consistently some of the best stuff around. I’ve been to a few whisky festivals  recently and the one thing I and many of my friends took away from those experiences was just how consistently excellent the SMWS drams were. The best stand in the room (in my opinion) has been the SMWS stand at every festival I’ve been to, and the reason is that each whisky can blow you away. I honestly havn’t tried a bad one yet.

I read forum posts about a sulphur problem and yet I’ve seen no evidence of it. I’ve had plenty of sherried SMWS drams and really really enjoyed them. A sherried Bowmore I tasted was perhaps the nicest Bowmore I’ve ever had. What’s more I have lots of friends who are also members, and they’ve never had a problem either. If you are extremely nervous about it, you can always stick to ex-bourbon drams or go to the member rooms and try before you buy! If you can’t make it there, the SMWS have a good presence at most whisky festivals and you can always ask the ambassadors who keep a presence on twitter. These guys treat you like members and I’ve always found them to be helpful.

OK, so the whisky is good. What about value? I bought a 27 year old cask strength Clynlish for £78 recently! There is currently a 28 year old Glenfarclas for £88 (£1 cheaper, 3 years older and ~20% stronger than the OB Glenfarclas 25)! There are lots of bargains and I’ve not been disappointed yet. If the older pricer drams are your thing, you’ll do well to find cheaper 30-40 year old cask strength single malt anywhere. You can expect to pay order £300 for 40 year old whisky. To put this into perspective, the 40 year old Glengoyne I saw in a glass cabinet at the distillery had a £9000 price tag.

You can expect to pay £60-£90 for most bottles and, I suppose, this might be expensive if you usually pay £40 for a bottle of single malt. All I can say is that the only time I have found price to be a problem is when I look at the outturn and realise I want to buy 3 bottles and can only afford 1. If you read my reviews regularly, you know that I’m the first to say when I think something is too expensive. I really don’t have a problem with the price here. In my opinion, the whisky is worth it.

Everyone has their own experiences with everything. Personally, I don’t have a bad thing to say about the society and consider my joining fee money well spent! Obviously I can’t comment on the sentiment “it’s not as good as it used to be”, because I only joined last October. However, it’s bloody good now and if you are considering joining, that’s all that matters.

I thought I’d add a review to this post of a whisky I bought from there recently. At the time of writing there are still of few bottles of this available.

SMWS 31.26 


  • Distillery: Jura
  • Age 24 years
  • 53.6%
  • Price £70.70

Nose: Smoke and sea spray like a BBQ on a beach. Definite maritime notes. Griddled prawns and lemon juice. Burnt toast and peat (but not an Islay style peat, more beach BBQ). I’m also getting Marmite.

Palate: Salty sea spray and tropical fruit before something bitter barges in.

Finish: Bitter salty ozone and guava. A tropical umbongo fiesta that lasts and lasts with waves of tropical fruit. I love it!

Verdict: Well I tasted it at the society and I bought a bottle then and there. I can’t say better than that.

Reviewing SMWS 48.27

This is the second SMWS 48.? I have reviewed. Code 48 refers to Balmenach distillery, the largest distillery in the Inver house distillers family (owners of Old Pultney, AnCnoc and Balblair. One can only guess, but since Balmenach is so large and as the single malt itself is not fashionable, it is likely that most Balmenach ends up in the company blends, of which, Hankey Bannister is the flagship.

The last Balmenach I reviewed was  SMWS 48.33 ‘Marshmallows and chocolate eclairs and I loved it. A real sweetshop style dram. This one is called “Honey Roast Vegetables” and was sent to me by Tom Thomson founder of Tom’s Whisky Reviews. Cheers Tom!

For distilleries like Balmenach, independent bottlers like the SMWS can be our only chance to see what the distillery has to offer. As an SMWS member and buyer of lots of whisky, I still get drawn to the more famous names when looking to buy. This is a lesson to myself, and maybe anyone who reads this, that taking a chance on the rarely seen distilleries can really pay off. Here are the dramstats:

  • Age 12yo
  • ABV 59.9%
  • Balmenach distillery

Nose:  Baked pumpkin and butternut squash, roast parsnips, nougat (like you can buy at a fair), vanilla, honey. Water brings almonds, marzipan and icing. Time in the glass leads the almonds to become “toasted” which was quite fun as the tasting went on.

Palate: Lots of sweet honey, vanilla, nougat and a touch of pepper.

Finish: Vanilla and nougat. Pepper and drying oak in the background for an overall sweet finish.

Verdict: A lovely sweet single malt. Excellent nose with sweet roast vegetables as the name suggests, morphing into nougat from the fair. It definitely takes water but it does well neat. Look out for Balmenach from the indie bottlers!

A 9yo Arran (SMWS 121.50)

The whisky I’m reviewing today is a 9yo single cask Arran by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society named “Xmas cake and Afgan coats”.  There is one minor problem with this whisky though: You can’t buy it anymore!

One of the charming joys of single cask whisky is that once it’s gone, it’s gone. And this, my friends, is gone. I got to taste some courtesy of Tom Thomson, author of excellent tasting notes at http://www.tomswhiskyreviews.com/ (I will soon get the hang of posting proper links, but I’ve not worked out how to incorporate html code in these). Any how, go to his site and ready some of his reviews. Particularly if you are thinking of buying Jura.

So, the obvious question is, why am I reviewing a whisky that you can’t buy, and, more importantly, why should you read it? Well firstly, it is interesting to review single cask whisky from SMWS. If you are not a member, it might give you insight into the quality of drams I’ve tasted. Secondly, it is relevant to review single cask Arran. Though all casks are different, it might give some idea of what to expect, even if only loosely.

So, without further ado, here are the dramstats:

SMWS 121.50 Xmas cake and Afgan coats

  • ABV 61.3%
  • Cask type: Sherry
  • Age 9

Nose: Big raisins and sultanas soaked in sherry. The edge of a slightly singed christmas cake. Toasted almonds, Cadbury’s picnic bars, heated fruit and nut milka, stewed plums. Water brings raspberry cooli on vanilla cheesecake.

Palate: A real fruit blast with strawberries, stewed plums, neat blackcurrant cordial, and alcohol burn. Water develops the christmas cake note but it morphs mid-taste into sara lee blackcurrant cheese cake.

Finish: Lots of red fruit, black fruit gums, sour strawbs.

Verdict: This is really reminds me of the Aberlour A’bunah. For me, a fantastic sherried whisky with wave upon wave of fresh red fruit. I can’t believe it is only 9 years old as it doesn’t have a young bone in its body. Obviously I can’t recommend this as it’s not available, but I can tell you what I took from it. Whisky under 10 years old can be excellent, and it doesn’t have to be peated for that to be true. I’ll be tasting more Arran, and I may catch a young bottle or two from the SMWS in the future.