Some like it hot
What on earth possessed us to take a cask of whisky at 10 years old and throw in a tray of Scotch bonnet chilli peppers? The story goes back to a previous Society experiment, when we matured whisky in casks which had been used to ferment and age Tabasco® pepper sauce. Julien Willems reports on the spark of maverick inspiration behind the release of our Exp.01 that dates back more two decades
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
It’s an otherwise ordinary day when the Society’s head of whisky creation Euan Campbell approaches. “I’d like your opinion on a sample,” is all he says. “Do you have five minutes?”
In the lab he hands over a tasting glass with an innocuous looking Earl Grey tea-coloured liquid. “What do you think?” Euan asks.
On the nose, it smells old, with a whiff of tobacco, dried chilli, some stone fruit jams. Pleasant indeed. Onwards to the palate, it delivers what the nose promised, and for the briefest moment I relax and think to myself: “This is fine”.
Behind the allure of this finely aged dram though, a reaction of cosmic proportions is building up. A cloud of flavours comes together until I feel a point at its centre ignite. I have a mouthful of sun, more solar flare than sunshine. Transfixed by the heat, I feel like we’ve unlocked the secrets to nuclear fusion. Between the burn and the sweat now beading on my forehead, an altogether too jolly Euan tells me what I’ve just tasted: it’s Exp.01 – the Society’s new chilli-infused spirit drink.
It’s not the first time the Society has played with fire. In fact, the origins of Exp.01 date back to the late 1990s, when Richard Gordon, then managing director of the SMWS, had a flash of inspiration.
“I was walking round a distillery warehouse and listening to my host talk about the casks and finishes when a rather delinquent idea started to take hold,” he wrote in the Society’s Newsletter in 2002. “The finish to end all finishes – what would a whisky taste like after a few months in an ex-Tabasco® cask?”
The ‘delinquent idea’ took hold, and casks were somehow procured from the McIlhenny Company in Louisiana, producer of the iconic Tabasco® pepper sauce.
ABOVE: Richard Gordon, former Society managing director
“When the casks first arrived they were moist with pepper,” writes Richard. “Just touching the inside was a mistake.”
“After three months we hoped for a lingering pepper warmth, but instead some very fine malt whisky had turned into something quite undrinkable; unbelievably hot, sour (from the vinegar mash) and cloudy. The whisky anoraks were aghast at this folly, the accountants tut-tutted, the value was written off, but I, and by now a growing team, were unbowed.”
It may have been undrinkable, but it turned out to be an excellent condiment, extensively used by the chefs in the Society’s kitchens and apparently working a treat in a Bloody Mary. The Society still wasn’t sure what to do with the stuff, but regular samples were taken and after five years a remarkable change was found to have taken place.
According to Dr Jim Swan, the late whisky expert who was at that time a contributor to the Society’s Tasting Panel, the alcohol had converted the vinegar from the pepper mash into fragrant ethyl acetate, and the proteins that made it cloudy had dropped out of the solution. The whisky character had returned but there was still an incredible fiery heat shining through.
The answer was to bottle it not as a drink, but as a condiment – and thus “The MD’s Folly, Hotscotch Sauce” finally saw the light of day in 2002, launched at a Society dinner where it was used in the preparation of every dish.
It seemed like the experiment was worth a second go, but Tabasco® refused to sell the Society any more casks. That’s when Richard Gordon took a DIY approach – he sliced around 2kg of Scotch bonnet chilli peppers and added them directly to a Society hogshead from distillery 42, which at that point had been maturing for 10 years.
That was in 2005, since when the Society has seen changes of ownership and management, with Richard Gordon leaving in 2006 – but the chilli-infused cask has been lying in wait ever since, quietly maturing along with its macerated Scotch bonnets.
It’s finally seeing the light of day this July, after 27 years in preparation. But why now?
Well, when we were planning our special releases to celebrate the Society’s 40th anniversary, we realised that somewhere in the warehouse these Scotch bonnets were still bobbing about in a cask approaching its third decade. It seemed like the ideal moment to bring out our new and improved version of Hotscotch, and frankly, after 17 years of chilli-infusion, we wanted to double-check if we hadn’t ‘over-cooked’ it.
Turns out it was perfect – give or take a couple of charred palates. Exp.01 makes for a quintessential Society offering: its flavours are off-the-wall, it’s a bit controversial, it’s certainly off the beaten track, and it’s perfect to prank your whisky friends in a blind tasting, acting as a wonderful (for you at least) reminder that the flame of mischief still burns. For ultimately there are some fires that neither time nor water can quell.