A single cask spirits journey
Two decades ago, it was unheard of for the Society to bottle anything other than cask strength whisky. Now as the SMWS celebrates its 40th anniversary, the Single Cask Spirit range is a core pillar in the Society’s flavour offerings. Society writer Julien Willems shares the journey of how this came to be
It is often said that trade and war have always been two of the favoured dissemination mechanisms of technological innovation. Though distillation may seem like a relatively modern craft due to its energy requirements and the volume needed to make it worthwhile, under one form or another it has been around for about 5,000 years. Beginning in the Near East before making its way to ancient Greece, China and the Middle East and finally arriving in the West in the Middle Ages. During these early periods it was often used to create ingredients for medicinal preparations in monasteries. It’s a long and rich history that has yielded many local adaptations to make use of the raw materials available, creating many bespoke stills along the way.
Scotch whisky is one such example of distillation evolving to suit its environment, local ingredients and raw materials. But you don’t have to go far to see how things can take a different turn. Where Scotland’s flagship product is the single malt, the Irish have long distilled single pot still whiskey or poitín. When things already differ quite a bit just the next island over, you can imagine what happens when distillation travels further afield. The Society understood this early in its history, bottling its first Irish whiskey in 1988, but why stop there? It took a bit of time for some members to accept why the Society would seize the opportunity to bottle tasty spirits other than Scotch, but ultimately curiosity prevailed for the greater pleasure of our members.
PICTURED: The Society started to bottle single cask cognac in 2015
THE DARK AGES
In 2001 the Society offered a series of casks with a different nature to its shareholders for the first time. Cask 1: Jamaican Rum Monymusk (1976, 73.1%, 144 bottles), Cask 2: Demerara Rum Port Mourant (1989, 66.7%, 324 bottles, fino butt) and Cask 3: Barbadian rum Rockley Still (1986, 64.4%, 648 bottles, oloroso cask).
“These rums were first offered to SMWS shareholder members before making their way to the venues and wider membership,” explains long-serving member and ambassador Olaf Meier. “Cask 1 and Cask 2 were quite straightforward in their provenance, but after all these years I still have not managed to establish what Cask 3 actually was and believe me I have tried!
ABOVE: Head of whisky creation Euan Campbell sampling rum with global brand ambassador Ian Burrell
“These were the first rums bottled by the Society, and it was such an outlandish proposition at the time that the releases were simply given a cask number. No one really thought we’d be asked to release more. There was certainly no expectation that rum would become a regular feature of Society releases.”
Some Society pirates must have had a mighty fun time with these new casks, as the following year in 2002 they sailed back to port, their hold full of booty. Soon members were presented with the Society’s first Japanese whisky as well as the first batch of American bourbons. Now this is where things get a bit more complex, as these bourbons were bottled under codes B1 through to B13. But they also had the same cask by cask numbering without mention of the distillery, so in the current system you might say they are B1.1, B1.2, B1.3, and so forth. As Euan Campbell, head of whisky creation, explains: “The only catch here is that B1 through B12 were from the same distillery, but B13 was from another.”
In 2005, it was time for something different again, with the Society introducing a range of casks from Gascony in France containing armagnacs numbered A1 through A6. Very much like the bourbon whiskey a few years before, these codes actually described casks rather than a distillery, but they all came from the same château: A1. With A1 now defunct it is unlikely we will see more of it, so you could accurately think of these releases as A1.1 to A1.6. Olaf explains: “Back in the early 1990s Bristol spirits bought all the existing stocks from this closed château, that had gone bankrupt, to sell to premium wine shops. According to an ad I found in the trade press from 2003, interest for these stocks were high, as a Brooklyn wine shop was looking for an importer to source this armagnac. The SMWS managed to acquire six delightful casks of the stuff.”
PICTURED: Armagnac is another spirit worth exploring from the Society’s Single Cask Spirits collection
INTO THE LIGHT
In 2006 came R4, the fourth cask of rum bottled by the Society. After that, it seems there was a lull in the releases of non-whisky spirits until 2011. That year, the release of Cask No. R1.2 marked a change in direction, with the Society allowing rums their fully-fledged coding system. Next in line was Cask No. R1.3: Taking your time is not being lazy in May 2012.
ABOVE: Lance Surujbally, who blogs about rum under the name The Lone Caner, is a fan of the Society’s single cask offerings
The flavour pirates were back and this time, they had brought the big guns. Cask No. R5.1: Mint humbugs was a nine-year old animal of a dram, demanding your unconditional sterilisation with its eye-watering strength of 81.3% abv.
Olaf pointed me to an entry of The Lone Caner rum blog noting that being “bottled at a grinningly ferocious cask-strength 81.3% abv isn’t really out there to kill you: it just feels that way”.
The piece continued: “Here’s one that […] indulges itself in a level of industrial overkill and outright belligerence one can only admire”, adding: “it’s cask strength, it’s over 160 proof of tail-whuppin’ badass. Tread warily because it smells your fear.” You’ve been warned!
It was a tough act to follow, but in November 2012, two more offerings landed on the shelves. Cask No. R1.4: Gets the juices flowing, and Cask No. R2.2: Too much of a good thing, which both more than held their ground as far as flavour intensity was concerned.
Then in November 2013 the release of Cask No. R1.5: Caressed by the cool Caribbean Tradewinds is worth mentioning, as it flew under the radar in our records and the code was later accidentally repeated in 2019.
Soon after, Cask No. R5.2: To life, love and loot landed on the Society’s shelves in December 2013.
After a quieter 2014 on the spirits front, the year’s end festivities in 2015 and 2016 were the perfect opportunity to release some new and seasonal flavours, first with Cask No. C1: Nectar Céleste and a year later Cask No. C1.2: Deep as the fountains of sleep and Cask No. C3.1: A fragrant ramble, adding cognac to the list of spirits bottled by the Society. Rye whisky also made a first appearance in 2016 with Cask No. RW1.1: Simply Supermassive.
THEY BELONG HERE
In 2017 the Society went on to put some order into its bottling ranges and decided to separate spirits from single malt whisky. The Single Cask Spirits range was born, and cask-aged gin made its first appearance on the Society’s shelves with Cask No. GN1.1: Gee-Whiz. Corn whisky then followed in 2021 with Cask No. CW1.1: A rocking chair whiskey.
This was the final step in acknowledging that these single cask spirits were a fully-fledged part of the Society’s offerings. Though these releases have remained sparse, they now are a beloved part of SMWS flavours.
Many have also contributed to opening up our minds to possibilities, with Cask No. 54.78: Sugarcane flowers in Speyside and Cask No. 9.172: Quantum endramglement being, to the best of my knowledge, the first SMWS rum cask-matured whiskies (at least since 2014).
Armagnac casks were used for both Cask No. 53.311: A farewell to Armagnac as well as the Heresy Small Batch blended malt Black Oak. Rye whisky casks have also been used extensively.
So, more than just a few new products. Single Cask Spirits has become a symbiotic addition to the Society’s core whisky offering, living alongside it and sometimes influencing its direction.
If after all this I had to draw a conclusion from this adventure in non-whisky spirits of over two decades, it would be that in our case it is trade, not war, that contributed to the spirits emancipation of the Society and the creation of the Single Cask Spirits range.
Yes, there may have been some mild rule breaking and ruffling of some members’ feathers involved, but after 40 years of Society, surely that doesn’t come as a surprise?