SMWS 35th Anniversary: Charlie’s Choice

After the delights of last year’s Cadenhead 175th anniversary releases, followed by Signatory’s 30th this year, expectations were high for the SMWS’s 35th birthday offerings. Over to the SMWS:

  • The SMWS is marking its 35th anniversary with a series of 21 single cask bottlings selected by whisky writer Charlie MacLean.
  • MacLean, who chairs the SMWS tasting panel and has created tasting notes for the 21 whiskies, said: ‘I was looking for samples of distinction. We came across many samples that were ok, but not yet ready for bottling. We were hunting for whiskies that were unusually good examples of the distillery character.’
  • Eight bottlings will be available to members in the UK:

To ‘avoid confusion for people buying the bottles’, SMWS has declined to provide further information about the remaining 13 bottles in the series. Wha???

On this night [last July], we got to try 5 of these specially selected 21 bottles, only two of which were on the ‘revealed list’. We start with an undeclared Aperitif. Was this one of the 21? No idea.

  • N: Peppery vanilla. Little joy.
  • T: Astringent even when doused with water. Both cask & spirit swing strong punches, so it’s a matched scrap at least.
  • F: The finish comes as a relief frankly. Medicinal aniseed concludes & lingers.
  • C: Mannochmore meets the Speyside Distillery. Fierce!

Scores 79 points


Charles Maclean introduces himself:

SMWS 35th anniversary PIC.jpg
Official SMWS photo
  • 1981 First whisky writing job.
  • 1983 Joined the SMWS. Back then – at the Vaults – you poured yourself a dram and placed money in an honesty box.
  • 1992 Becomes a ‘chair’ of the SMWS nosing panel. He describes his role then as a ballast between the more conservative/accepted way of describing whisky, over the more artistic style of writing the SMWS are now synonymous for. ‘Chairs’ also decide on bottling dates, re-racking, when to sell on,… basically the fate of the society’s whisky. All of the SMWS’s whisky descriptions are borne from a panel of at least four, though generally up to eight people. For these anniversary whiskies however, Charles selected them personally.


Longmorn 2002/2018 15yo SMWS 7.203 ‘Angels’ Tears [203 bts] 56.5% WB0

SMWS 35th anniversary Charlie's Choice.jpg

The first dram of the flight of five is poured. “What’s this?” asks Charles. This would remain the theme of the evening. Listed on Whiskybase as a 16yo but described on the SMWS tasting panel sheet as a 15yo, a 2nd fill bourbon barrel is credited.

  • N: Charles starts us off with “bung cloth”. I get hessian sacks and dry grain also. Along with our host, this was collectively regarded as ‘a prickly one’.
  • T: The prickliness continues along resinous vanilla lines. 50/50 water brings a softer textured mouthfeel, though it continues to snap.
  • F: Chalky/milky-dry and still with some resinous heat. Finishes bitter. 
  • C: Tactfully described as “inoffensive”, this I found similar to our aperitif.

Scores 79 points


Charles on: ‘Observing colour & beading’, a practice that helps to rule out false expectation.

  • Observing colour helps distinguish cask type. We are told that nowadays, once a cask has been refilled once, most distilleries will simply state ‘refill’, regardless whether its 1st, 2nd or 3rd use – and that it doesnt really matter anyway, as every refill is dependant on what’s gone on & in before.
  • Beading is something Jean-Michel had introduced me too only a few weeks ago at a very special Cadenhead’s tasting [blog]. Maclean’s general rules for observing beading are: you dont get much beading under 50% abv, or conversely at very high strength. Beads that ‘hold on’ are a sign of age, whereas legs tend to give clues over texture/mouthfeel. 


Blair Athol 2009 8yo SMWS 68.16 ‘Pleasingly Precocious’ [314 bts] 59.4% WB87.33[3] MR3/10 PS4/5

The colour of this one, says Charles, indicates EU sherry. It is in fact from a re-charred hogshead which raises some murmurs. Big beads that quickly dissipate indicate a high strength whisky, though given we are at the SMWS, this isn’t a revelation.

Version 2

  • N: Clearly high strength, bringing a fiery wine-sweetness with soy sauce-laced cereals and sewing machine oil. Opening out with water, there are hints of fermenting tomatoes, toffee and fudge. A few people around me started picking up strong notes of sweet pickle. Given it was a boiling hot evening in the middle of this year’s glorious heatwave, I pointed out the meats, cheeses and [in particular], strong sweet pickles festering in the middle of every small table. I really do despise food around whisky. It makes a mockery of the process.
  • T: Even with 50/50 water, this is still really pokey, ungainly and unwelcoming. Note-wise, I picked out runny toffee, bitter herbs and spices, but by now my interest was waining.
  • F: Metallic, spirity and astringent to the last with a touch of shampoo in the mix, to conclude another less that satisfying malt moment. There’s not much of a marriage as far as I can tell.
  • C: “Pokey” says Charles. “You chose it” cries one member.

Scores 83 points


Discussions then ensue, regarding the rapid price inflation of whisky in recent times.


  • Charles explains that around the 1880/90’s, whisky was generally only exchanged between distilleries, bottlers and blenders. The price of whisky back then, says Charles, was largely based on insurance premiums.
  • Around the later part of the 1900’s [1970’s?], brokers emerged in earnest which resulted in some independent bottlers struggling to source profitable and quality liquid. These days, if you want a cask you have to seize it quick. We are told that cask samples can now cost independent bottlers up to £25, and when you consider Adelphi for example, dismiss 86% of their cask offerings!
  • Before then, there had only really been suppliers & consumers. The collectors came later. Italy was one of the first whisky collecting markets. We hear how [Armando] Giovannetti would travel around Europe, acquiring & filling his Volvo with [now old and vintage] bottlings. Before then, Italy’s favourite tipple was grappa. The Italians however soon latched onto Glen Grant, helping it become one of the biggest selling single malts in the world. Giovannetti and others went on to make a lot of money, Italy eventually becoming a global hub for Scotch sales and private collections.
  • These days there’s a trade prices book that comes out annually with tiered prices for each distillery, from new make to their very oldest juice. For us geeks, that would make for interesting reading.


Glen Moray 1994 23yo SMWS 35.210 ‘A Painter’s Studio’ [171 bts] 56% WB0

Version 2

A toasted 1st fill hogshead is credited, though we are informed that this was fully matured in one refill hogshead. I bring up the confusion over instances where a brief finishing or re-racking cask gets the maturation credit. Charles doesn’t seem too bothered about it either way, only the result really counting. Fair do’s.

  • N: The initial few sniffs indicate we may finally be getting somewhere with this flight. A sweet & welcoming, not quite overly blatant, sherry cask brings forth all the mince pies – despite also being big on bourbon. Extras include dusty spices and perfumed spiced fruit.
  • T: Butterscotch, heathery herbal fudge, polish, ECOS varnish, linseed oil,… There’s a big bruising Balcones vibe here also.
  • F: This soon falls in line with familiar bourbon>fudge action and a hark to a rye mash bill [The Foz]. I also found it salty and herbal with dark wood/fence panels. We’ve a dusty, ashy and really rather bitter conclusion. 
  • C: A cask-centric whacky whisky “that has lost it’s distillery character”, adds Charles. The balance is shot, though i like it in comparison to tonight’s modest offerings.

Scores 82 points


Charles on: the quality & supply of sherry casks, now & then.

  • Up until the 1980’s, Spanish sherry was imported in shipment casks. These casks weren’t always automatically regarded for their quality, though distilleries soon caught on and utilised them.
  • In the 1980’s, Spanish law stipulated that all sherry had to be bottled in Spain. As a result, the supply of shipment casks ceased almost overnight. This had a huge effect on distilleries who’s profile relied more heavily on sherry casks, an affect we fully see today.


Highland Park 2005/2018 13yo SMWS 4.243 ‘A Bothy on the Burnt Moor’ [249 bts] 56.5% WB0

Let’s hope we get somewhere tonight, because frustrations are building.

Version 2

  • N: It’s the first fruity one of the night, and the first decent and balanced nose. It comes with a touch of rubber, a touch of smoke, hot dusty electrical components, clean barley, coal dust, sweet sponge and only a little volatile heat. Water allows the coal/soot & smoke to build around the toffee-d barley.
  • T: Starting with prominent peated barley, it’s one that takes well to water, which is needed. It soon develops into metallic & sooty oily barley juice, though we still never get away from the cask resinousness.
  • F: Continues with a bold straight forward form, finishing vanilla/green and slightly sour>sweet.
  • C: A refreshingly firm peated HP expression, Laphroaig-esque in part – though one that soon becomes a little tedious.

Scores 85 points



[Tobermory] Ledaig 2008/2018 9yo SMWS 42.44 ‘Winter Warmer’ (323 bts) 58.5% WB86.75[6] MR5/10 PS4.5/5

Version 2

A refill ex-bourbon hogshead is credited.

  • N: Buttery/oily youthfully fresh and a little peaty with sweet pickled onions. Charles identifies this as very Ardbegian and most seem to agree. An excellent start from our final anniversary dram.
  • T: Chewy, dirty & mineral-y oily caramel-y barley juice. Water exacerbates the oily chew, but there’s no getting away from the astringency which becomes tiring after the initial arrival.
  • F: Tales off, disappointingly distant from the fabulous nose. An anaemic burnt/toasted spirity barley concludes. 
  • C: It’s still a decent Ledaig, but expectations for all the whiskies tonight had been far higher. Further reading from:, who try a number of the anniversary bottlings [including this one], and conclude with “Sadly the whisky didn’t really turn up to the party“.

Scores 86 points


Fortunately, who did turn up to the party was the man himself and the star of the show, Charles Maclean. Before leaving, I probe him on the alchemy that makes a great whisky:

  • “Spirit is spirit, everyone can make good spirit”, he says. “Put that spirit in a decent cask and leave it for a good amount of time – that’s it!”
  • He also recommends checking out a BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Drama called Cherry Blossom Whisky Company, which knowing the BBC will be unavailable.






Flight SMWS 35th anniversary Charlie's Choice

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