I took on responsibility for The Wine Society's spirits selection when my colleague Mark Buckenham retired. I was delighted at the small but perfectly formed range I inherited, working, often directly, with an enviable list of high-quality small producers to source what might be called a classic side-table selection for members. The range is not about showcasing every new-fangled spirit to come onto the market, but rather about curating a range of seriously good quality spirits at fair prices. The idea with this range is that it covers the bases without trying to hog the limelight from our (if I may say so) extraordinary range of wines.
However, The Wine Society has, to our knowledge, always sold spirits (they are included in the oldest List we have dating from 1880), and at times in much larger proportional quantities to wine, such as during both world wars. You might also be surprised to learn that we still sell good volumes of some of our spirits range. Our whiskies and brandies sell well, and our Society Gin, and Chambéry do show up amongst our top-selling products from time to time (if you haven't tried them yet – pop a bottle in your basket).
You may also not be aware that for many years we created all our blended whiskies ourselves from our own malt and grain stocks held at distilleries on our behalf.
A precious inheritance
Like many wine merchants, we used to ship wine in barrel and then in bulk and bottle it ourselves. When we moved out of London to Stevenage in 1965 our purpose-built warehouse was equipped with a bottling hall and by the mid-seventies we were bottling about 60% of our wine here. This included a great deal of sherry and rather than send the empty, but valuable, sherry barrels and hogsheads back to Spain at vast expense, they were dispatched to Scottish coopers. They would repurpose the barrels, enabling us to buy first-fill malt and grain distillate to mature ourselves to form the basis of our Society whiskies.
The popularity and recognition for malt whisky's incredible complexity and quality was not as great through the seventies and eighties as it is today, which meant that we were able to get some great fills for our whiskies. The Wine Society has records of working directly with a range of top-quality distilleries including Lagavulin, Tamdhu, Ardbeg, Mortlach, Glenrothes, Bowmore and Glengoyne to name just a few. The aim was to buy a range of styles, so that when blended with high-quality grain, good blends were achieved at excellent prices.
However, sales of young blended whiskies at The Wine Society began to slow around the same time that we stopped bottling sherry in Stevenage in 1992 and with that we stopped commissioning first fills (the last in early 1993). This meant that we also needed to rationalise which of our whiskies we blended from our own stocks, and which we chose good partners to work with. The last of these blends was our highly regarded 16-year-old which was last assembled in 2017. But it doesn't take a mathematician to work out that this '16-year-old' may have had a slightly older average age by 2017, as despite a one-off purchase of some younger grain, all of our malts were barrelled well before 1994.
On discovering the tome that is our 'whisky ledger' I was stuck with the dilemma of what to do with our dwindling stocks of now 20-year-plus malts…
This exercise began with a detailed look at what we had. I had each barrel (some for the first time) 'dipped' ascertaining the approximate volume left (after 20-30 years of angels taking their share – when the spirit is lost to evaporation) and acquiring small samples of each barrel and hogshead to taste. The angels had their fair share, with each barrel or hogshead at time of dipping being on average 58% lower in volume than originally documented. Our tasting took place in 2019, when I with a number of colleagues, nosed and blind tasted everything we had, scoring the malts out of 100, and building a tasting matrix to work from.
On analysis the quality and inherent spirits-geek interest was so incredible it was clear that we had to bottle these separately to showcase this unique opportunity. We found that within each barrelling there were 'outstanding' and more 'average' barrels, we also had one rancid barrel that had been spoiled. For these select cask bottlings I only used casks that scored above 80 with all tasters, most scoring a 90+ with at least one taster. Any 'average' samples and the one spoiled barrel were excluded from the venture.
Our new limited-release malts explained:
For me, on reflection, this project has two distinct and unique factors at play, that appeal deeply to my wine and spirit geek side!
- This is a rare opportunity to try a wine-first whisky. The origin of the casks is indelibly linked to The Wine Society, some even bear our old logo stamp. The original quality focus was on the sherry, for one of our best-selling wines at the time. Their secondary repurposed use was the whisky, where we showed our commitment to quality even then, by the distilleries we worked with. The barrels were then rarely moved, kept in perfect condition, benefitting from the extended ageing that was more-or-less unintentional. These malts are a part of our history and are likely unrepeatable, especially at these prices.
- This is a rare opportunity for whisky fanatics too. Not only are these planned releases very good malts, but they offer an unparalleled opportunity to taste a less-curated range. The usual way in which a distillery would select a 30-year-old bottling would be for a skilled distiller to taste thousands of casks annually, putting to one side those he or she felt would suit this fully mature style the most. I want to be very transparent that that is not something we were able to do. Our releases reflect what we had available (with a little deselection involved) that give a fascinating snapshot of what is representative of a classic Highland, Speyside or Islay malt at this age. I like the honesty of this, and where a distillery's own-selection 30-year-old malt may have reached a peak just beyond these releases, I defy anyone to not find this discovery an exciting part of the project.
These releases will all disclose the number of barrels, and/or hogsheads that were included in the vatting. They will also all be minimally fined, non chill-filtered and have their natural colour. The bottled abv will be determined after vatting based on taste, and all batches will be handbottled, labelled and numbered.
We will not be releasing the name of each distillery. We have long-term relationships with producers in Scotland and we understand that the advantage of being a co-operative is that we are not charged with maximising the profits available. These mature malt releases, although not inexpensive, are well below the market value for their origin and ages. This is to encourage you, our members, to actually open and enjoy these malts. They are not intended as museum pieces, though you may want to collect the set.
We have only released these malts because when I tasted them, I knew we had to share them, as they are, with you. I hope you enjoy our first release. I look forward to sharing the subsequent releases that will be staggered over the next few years to hopefully allow as many of you as possible, to enjoy these extremely rare drams.
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