A small batch bounty

It all started in the summer of 2017, when the unthinkable happened – a blended malt in a clear glass bottle landed on the Society’s shelves, enticingly named Exotic Cargo. The release immediately sparked debate, but members jumped at the opportunity to take a sumptuously juicy, spicy bite from this forbidden fruit. You can’t please all the members all the time, but the voice of the majority who had sampled this new and decadent adventure merged into a single word: “More!” The Society’s Julien Willems charts the creation and development of these experimental small batch bottlings

Though fully aware releasing a blended malt went against the grain, clashing with the SMWS’s pursuit of single cask, single malt whiskies, the Spirits Team relished the opportunity to develop a whole new range of fun and unique experimental products for members to discover.

Behind the scenes, this project was ironically dubbed “Heresy”, which reveals the mindset behind the entire endeavour: doing things in a humorous and tongue-in-cheek fashion, the “Society way”.

The concept had been a while in the making as SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo says: “Very often what appears to be new, really isn’t that new at all.”

It was first presented back in 2011 when the Society was under Glenmorangie’s ownership. After much deliberation, it was agreed that the time had not yet come for such a project. However, the idea never went away and in 2015, when Kai and the Society’s spirits manager Euan Campbell acquired a number of fresh Spanish oak sherry casks containing a delicious vatting of two 2006 distillates, it re-ignited the interest for a small batch blended malt project. Moreover, amidst a rising appetite for variety and experimentation among whisky fans and in the industry in general, the stars were finally aligned for this exciting endeavour.

In the time leading up to the reveal of Batch #1 Exotic Cargo, the tension behind the scenes was palpable.

A great amount of work and attention went into making sure the first release reached the Society’s exacting standards.

In fact, volunteer member “guinea pigs” lent their noses and palates to taste and appraise the first release, as ultimately, it would be up to members to decide if this new venture had potential in their eyes. All samples were tasted blind to prevent preconceptions and bias toward the quality of the whisky. The results were excellent, and with that green light, this new flavour odyssey began.

Now let us have a look at the 12 released batches currently at the core of this project.

Batch #1

Exotic Cargo, aged 10 years

1,937 bottles released August 2017

Each first fill Spanish oak oloroso sherry cask of vatted malt whisky purchased in 2015 was tasted and evaluated, then graded by the intensity of the sherry influence on the spirit: light, medium and heavy. Casks within each grade category were vatted to create three ingredients that were used in varying amounts for the Batch #1 Exotic Cargo recipe. The remaining ingredients were then returned into the original casks.

Batch #2

Exotic Cargo, Aged 11 years 925 Bottles released March 2018

When the Society released Batch #2, Euan Campbell explained: “We selected these casks for blending due to the intensity of their sherry influence, giving this blended malt an added richness and an even longer finish.” Indeed, after the success of Batch #1, this expression explores the heavier side of the sherry world. It drew from the same three ingredients as Exotic Cargo #1, but with more influence from the consolidated “heavy” first fill Spanish oak sherry casks stock. Additionally, all the components had now spent 11 years in wood rather than 10, influencing the taste experience even further.

Curiosity Corner: After providing the casks required for Batch #2, all the remaining casks from the three ingredients, light, medium, and heavy were vatted together and then returned to the original sherry casks. More on that later…

Batch #3

Peat Faerie, aged 10 years 2948 Bottles released August 2018

After the big sherried indulgence of the Exotic Cargo editions, the focus moved on to something slightly different. Although the Society’s experimental blended malts do not have an individual flavour profile assigned to them, one or more flavour profiles are often used as an inspiration, and in this case, it’s a pretty easy guess which profiles were used as a template. Peat Faerie was the first attempt to use peat while combining very different whiskies, one from a first fill bourbon Speyside, the other a youthful Islay malt. Although the spirits varied substantially in their character, they both had a very fruity side, which was ultimately the common denominator allowing both malts to blend seamlessly.

Curiosity Corner: Peat Faerie is the largest release of a blended malt to date.

Batch #4

Peat Faerie, aged 7 years 2,172 Bottles released November 2018

Though the process was similar to the one used for Peat Faerie in Batch #3, Euan Campbell explains: “I wanted more oak but also more smoke”. To make the second foray into peated flavours more assertive, younger Speyside and Islay malt whiskies were selected to give peat the front seat. While this explains the smokier kick of Batch #4, the oakier aspect is linked to the types of casks used to mature the Speyside whiskies.

Curiosity Corner: Some HTMC and #4 char casks entered this recipe adding some fruity heft and charred flavours to support the peat influence.

Batch #5

Old Fashioned, aged 11 years 2,122 Bottles released August 2019

Old Fashioned was born of a collaboration with Tempest Brewery in the Scottish Borders. Indeed, the name for this batch comes from Tempest’s Old Fashioned IPA (which in turn was named after the classic cocktail). First, the brewery was entrusted with freshly emptied bourbon casks to mature their pale ale. Once emptied, the casks were sent back to the Society and used to give a 10-year old whisky an extra maturation of just over 15 months. As mentioned earlier, the series of SMWS experimental blended malts started at a time when experiments with different types of casks were starting to appear. Although IPA casks had already been used to finish whisky at this point, no one had used an extra maturation this long in IPA casks. The result of this experiment was a recipe containing 70 per cent of IPA cask extra-matured whisky and 30 per cent of sherry cask-matured whisky.

Curiosity Corner: You have probably guessed it, the sherried whiskies contributing to this recipe were from the consolidated Exotic Cargo ingredients after Batch #2.

Batch #6

The Beach Comber, aged 7 years 1,995 Bottles released November 2019

Moving away from cask experiments this next opus was more flavour focussed, attempting to take inspiration from the Oily & Coastal profile yet aiming for its lighter side (think driftwood, sea breeze and fruit rather than smoke). Euan Campbell explains that: “We had already done the classic mix of Islay and Speyside, so we wanted to try and balance less smoky flavours.” The Campbeltown malt chosen to partner up with a northern Highland malt to create this recipe was very lightly peated, subtly contributing to the coastal characteristics of this expression, appropriately named The Beach Comber.

Curiosity Corner: The well-known Highland distillery we encounter here in this blended malt is much loved by blenders and whisky fans alike for its rare ‘waxy’ character.

Batch #7

Big Swirl, aged 10 years 1,895 Bottles released December 2019

This 10-year-old blended malt aims to harness some of the characteristics of the Deep, Rich and Dried Fruits flavour profile. Big Swirl was created from components of Exotic Cargo, and sees the first introduction of quarter casks and American oak into the sherried blended malts. Appropriately named, this blend has a complex story. First, the Exotic Cargo ingredients were vatted with whiskies from American oak sherry quarter casks that had previously been matured in bourbon wood. Part of the mix was then re-casked in the original Spanish oak hogsheads belonging to the Exotic Cargo elements and the other part in the empty American oak sherry quarter casks. Big Swirl comes exclusively from the quarter casks, after being returned to wood for a marrying period and then diluted to 50% abv.

Curiosity Corner: This is in essence the first expression coming out of the SMWS sherry solera and the first addition of both American oak and extra matured bourbon stock to it, providing extra fruitiness and creaminess.

Batch #8

Battle Axe, aged 8 years 1,957 Bottles released January 2020

Battle Axe is an 8-year-old whisky, purely composed of Islay whiskies. All distillates entering this recipe originate from North Islay distilleries, and were matured in refill bourbon hogsheads to let peat and smoke take the forefront. As the name suggests, this expression shows “a raw and uncompromising side of these Islay malts”, explains Euan Campbell. The idea here was to build on the Peated flavour profile, but making brine and sea spray a more prominent feature, echoing some much-loved characteristics of the Oily & Coastal profile. This was achieved by blending in some un-peated whisky from one of these Islay distilleries, which provided a very complementary addition to the blended malt’s smokiness.

Curiosity Corner: Not all the ingredients making up Battle Axe were used up in this Batch…

Batch #9

Black Oak, aged 8 years 1,007 Bottles released August 2020

Bottling other spirits beside whisky opened some unexpected doors. Indeed, the Society seized the opportunity to purchase two armagnacs and the barrels in which they had aged. These barrels are quite unique in that they came from farm distilleries that have now disappeared, which lends a ‘je ne sais quoi’ of nostalgia to Black Oak. Moreover, the casks are made of Gascon black oak, a traditional wood used for armagnac maturation. This type of wood infused the whisky with good amounts of tannic and spicy notes but also brambles and dark fruits. This is the first small-batch single malt of the Heresy range, Black Oak: a Speyside whisky married in armagnac casks made of Gascon black oak.

Curiosity Corner: The two barrique casks had previously matured Cask Nos. A6.1: Candlelit dinner in a 2CV and A7.1: A peasant’s delight bottlings respectively.

Batch #10

Spice Cannon, aged 10 years 1,496 Bottles released November 2020

Just in time to get members in the mood for the festive season, another big sherried number landed. Batch #10 Spice Cannon is another blended malt born from the Society’s sherry solera. After the creation of Batch #7 Big Swirl, the solera was once again vatted and given new components. This time, a Highland malt entered the solera for the first time, after maturing for 10 years in Pedro Ximénez (PX) sherry butts. Since the start of the experiment with the 2006 distilled Exotic Cargo ingredients (post Batch #2), whether in European or American oak, the casks entering the sherry solera had always been of the oloroso sherry variety.

Curiosity Corner: The link between batches does not stop there – Spice Cannon was married in the very same quarter casks that had also matured ingredients of Big Swirl and then married the blended malt.

Batch #11

Tar Pit, aged 9 years 1,446 Bottles released November 2020

After Batch #10 Spice Cannon, no one was expecting a new addition to the range so soon, but two weeks later, Batch #11 Tar Pit made a surprise entrance to the Society range online. As surprises go, this one certainly did not disappoint. The aim was to bring some intense sherry influence to complement massively smoky distillates. Flavour-wise the idea was to associate smoke and treacle. This was achieved by first relying on less common PX sherry butts and the very syrupy nature of the sherry they contained prior to maturing whisky. These butts were then combined with peated and smoky whiskies matured in refill bourbon hogsheads (from the remaining Batch #8 Battle Axe ingredients) to find a balance between unyielding smoke and dark sweetness.

Curiosity Corner: Speaking of ‘dark’, the subtle hint of geological humour on the label certainly got a few smiles. As Euan Campbell remembers: “The label was great fun to select, and granted, none of the other labels from the Society blended malts are as mad as this one, but the boldness of the whisky flavours commanded it in this case.”

Batch #12

Clementine Confit, aged 10 years 1,138 Bottles released June 2021

Clementine Confit is an experiment with wood rarely seen in the maturation of whisky previously matured in bourbon barrels. To create this expression, the journey began in 2017 at the Seguin Moreau cooperage in France, where Euan Campbell and Kai Ivalo were presented with samples from their different cask types. Some of these made quite an impression and were subsequently ordered, made specifically to the Society’s specifications. Two types of such casks were used to create this recipe. Type one is made from American oak, with each stave tested for a higher-than-normal oak lactones content. Type two is comprised of Caucasian oak originating from East of the Black Sea, with a longer toast providing orange and stone fruit flavours.

Curiosity Corner: Although barrels and hogsheads are the standard types of vessels through the massive re-use of bourbon wood, the casks used in this case were 225 litres capacity new oak barriques.

Batch #?

Of course, there is much more to come. The Society’s Spirits Team has been busier than ever so who knows what they have in store for us? One can only speculate, but most expressions so far have been relatively young, so some of the future releases may play with age or maturation length. Could our delicious sherry cask solera produce some more delights? Moreover, single malts have already found their way into the range so that might also be something to look out for? Looking even further, some of these experiments might find a more permanent place on the Society’s shelves. After all, experimenting for the sake of experimenting makes little sense unless something is learnt and put to use for the good of Society members.

Indeed, beyond conjectures, whatever the future holds, it will be members who ultimately decide if parts of heresy become canon.