Back in the middle of 2020 I posted reviews of a trio of whiskies from Edradour. Let’s begin 2021 with reviews of a trio that bear the name Ballechin, aka peated Edradour. Until that trio of Edradours in mid-2020 I had actually only ever reviewed Ballechins from the distillery. And with only one exception—this Signatory release—I had only reviewed official releases, including a number of the cask variations (port, oloroso, marsala, madeira) released during the spirit’s initial march to the first 10 yo release. Since then a number of older Ballechins have hit the market from various indie bottlers. Which leads us to this trio which represents the oldest Ballechins I have yet tried. This trio, furthermore, has been bottled by WhiskySponge, the outfit that bears the nickname of its proprietor, Angus MacRaild. The Whisky Sponge first became known to the general populace via the excellent eponymous blog that lampooned the excesses of the industry—and occasionally published more serious commentary as well. Somewhere along the line Angus M. seems to have become an indie bottler himself—more evidence that I really am out of touch with malt whisky developments is that I only noted this relatively recently. He also became a contributing writer on Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun a few years ago. Now Angus seems to be an upstanding type but I have to confess I find a little messy the situation of one independent bottler regularly reviewing releases from his competition on what is undoubtedly the most influential whisky buying guide around—especially for indie releases.
This particular trio was released as the Spongetopia Trilogy bearing the appellations 36A, 36B and 36C. Let’s hope that as trilogies go it’s closer to the original Star Wars films and not the prequels. I am reviewing 36A today, a 17 yo bottled from a first-fill bourbon barrel.
Ballechin 17, 2004 (53.7%; WhiskySponge; Edition 36A; first-fill bourbon barrel; from a bottle split)
Nose: Big farmy peat along with a fair bit of salt; some sweeter notes come out from below on the second sniff (vanilla). The sweet stuff expands with time and it softens on the whole. With more time and air still some of the lime from the palate pops out here as well. A few drops of water push the smoke back and pull out more of the lime; the whole is softer now.
Palate: Comes in very much as on the palate. The smoke is perhaps drier here and the sweet notes aren’t really in evidence at first. Nice texture and a very good drinking strength. Burnt rope as I swallow. More char and more salt with time and just a bit of lime peeking out too. With more time the sweeter vanilla begins to emerge here, melding well with the char. Okay, let’s see what water does. As on the nose, it softens the whole but it’s still quite smoky here, still quite a lot of char (less farmy though).
Finish: Long. The smoke keeps going and picks up a fair bit of phenols and tar. With time and water it’s softer here as well with more acid coming out to join the smoke.
Comments: This is very nice. It doesn’t wear its age very openly on its sleeve—which is not an undesirable quality if you are a human in my age bracket but perhaps not what you’d want if paying for a 17 yo whisky in today’s market. Be that as it may, what it is is a big peaty whisky of the farmy school that may not have much by way of development or complexity but also does not have any flaws. All of that is good (depending on what the price was).
Rating: 87 points.
Being an industry critic / satirist, as well as a “serious” reviewer, as well as running a bottling line which utilises the branding of the satirical blog does seem rather like Angus is having his cake, eating it and selling it too – or in other words it’s a very successful marketing ploy, I guess? The seamless blending of satire into salesmanship is what I find most queasy, but the lack of transparency or of declarations of the obvious conflict of interests comes a close second. I guess Angus’s authorship of the WhiskySponge blog is a pretty open secret, but as far as I am aware it’s not formally stated on the WhiskySponge website, or on Decadent Drinks or Whiskyfun. And while (as far as I am aware) Angus refrains from reviewing his own bottlings Serge regularly reviews Sponge bottlings without making it clear that they are issued by his co-author.
The whole thing could easily go unnoticed by the casual enthusiast, which I think is pretty close to being actively deceptive and in rather bad form, and I don’t see how anybody who does know what’s going on can fail to be left with a rather unpleasant aftertaste about the whole affair.
Oh, and last I checked the Sponge bottlings weren’t exactly cheap either.
I guess my moral outrage here is a bit of storm in a teacup, nor will my Sponge boycott have much of an impact, especially given I can’t afford 90% of the releases anyway, but it does surprise me how uncritically the arrangement seems to be received by much of the whiskysphere.
I hadn’t realized that Serge reviews the WhiskySponge bottlings. That does seem a fair bit out of bounds to me. Of course, Serge’s position on this kind of thing in the past has been that it’s all in “fun”.
I have to rescind part of what I said above – there *is* an About Us page on Decadent Drinks where Angus clearly states his authorship of the blog and his role in the bottling line, so it’s all a little bit less secretive than I made out. (https://decadent-drinks.com/about-us)
The whole “I’m so edgy, please buy my lifestyle brand” gimmick does rather undercut the Sponge’s satire though. I think if you have to call yourself subversive in a brand statement it’s fair to say that you’re probably not.
I don’t object to the branding per se or to his having made the transition to becoming a bottler. I’m just not sure he should be continuing to review those who are now his competitors. I am quite sure, however, that the influential blog on which he is one of only two writers should not be reviewing any of his whiskies (even if he does not review them himself), leave alone not openly disclosing the conflict each time it does so.
Doubtless, these kinds of dull objections are part of what is being warded off in branding statements that mention “a sense of fun, subversiveness, and a reminder that life is too short and crazy to be taken seriously all the time”. I do recall, however, that in the heyday of the Malt Maniacs, a couple of maniacs who became bottlers left the collective. That may have been under Johannnes’ oversight, however.
Just playing devil’s advocate here, but might Angus be so intertwined with the industry that the notion of ‘competitors’ doesn’t actually apply?
He does receive most of his casks from Signatory, so is he likely to give any of their bottlings a ‘bad’ review? Angus will doubtless have connections with other indies, through their stock lists. He is also close to the Thompson Brothers both personally and philosophically; their bottlings do well on WhiskyFun and I’d suggest they are after very similar markets. I’m not at all saying that Angus inflates his scores for any reviews, or that he or Serge give favourable coverage based on personal relationships – I just want to point out that the imputed suspicion that he would pan ‘competitors’ has a straightforward counter argument, and that there is evidence to the contrary.
Angus’s WF reviews tend to focus on historical bottlings, with occasional current official releases from distilleries that interest him. He seems to be one of those reviewers that only publishes notes on things he likes rather than penning hatchet jobs. It would be good to know if this is deliberate, given his position.
Also, I don’t think there is as much conflict of interest going on with Serge’s reviews of his buddy’s bottles as is made out here. Typically, reviews of Sponge releases arrive long after they have already sold out on the Decadent Drinks website – Angus doesn’t need Serge to review his bottles for them to disappear. I accept that positive reviews from Serge garner a reputation that stokes interest in future bottlings, but these tiny new releases are already over-subscribed. A lot has been made of how similar Angus and Serge’s palates are, with spirit-driven whiskies especially favoured; if Angus likes a cask enough to bottle it, no surprises if Serge rates it highly too. More transparency connecting all the dots would be welcome, of course.
I have tried a few Sponge bottlings and while they’re usually distinctive, I wouldn’t pay the money for the single casks. I am more of a fan of Decadent Drinks’ approach to storytelling, which builds on the persona and stance of the Whisky Sponge blog. Sadly, since Angus has helped establish DD, he now posts very rarely.
Transparency is always good and ethically sound, even if it seems superfluous. In this case it would apply to both Angus and Serge.
And panning competitors is only one possible conflict of interest—as you yourself point out, giving positive reviews to suppliers and friends is another.