By Richard Thomas
In yesterday’s editorial, I opined that being a whiskey-maker without a still is nothing be ashamed of, and that many companies bring considerable skill and expertise into bringing the best out of what is fundamentally the products of others. When I wrote that, Wemyss Malts was one of the small whiskey-makers I had in mind.
While such companies are usually in the business of either blending whiskey to create their own brand(s), Wemyss also has a line of limited edition single cask and single malt scotches. It’s an odd thing to do, releasing a single malt as a non-distiller, but the people at Wemyss pull it off marvelously, and their Lemon Smoke 1996 is a perfect example of that.
Lemon Smoke comes from Caol Ila (“Islay Strait”) distillery, overlooking the namesake stretch of water between Islay and Jura (home to the Isle of Jura line of single malts). Founded in 1846, the distillery has had a turbulent history, changing ownership many times before many times before ultimately coming into the hands of drinks giant Diageo. Caol Ila has their own line of single malts, and contributes to the Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle lines of blended scotch.
The Caol Ila whiskey that went into Lemon Smoke was distilled in 1996 and bottled as part of a 2012 release, so in conventional terminology it is 16 years old. Lemon smoke was bottled at 46% abv, and as previously described, it is a single cask (all whiskey in a given bottle comes from just one barrel — no blending of any kind) and single malt (all malt, all from Caol Ila). The release consisted of only 380 bottles.
The color is pale straw, of the sort where the whiskey resembles a full-bodied white wine. It is aromatic, and the nose tells you straight away why Wemyss called it “Lemon Smoke.” While low key, it has crisp and balanced notes of sweet citrus and creosote smoke. This is certainly the sort of thing you might want to sniff as much as you sip, and the whiskey is aromatic enough that you will continue to pick up hints of it even after putting it down on the table for a while.
On the palate, Lemon Smoke starts out like the nose, with the lemon sweet and smoky notes in equal measure, but with the smoke has shifting away from chimney-char and towards something more like a well-used ham and bacon smokehouse. Then the flavor ceases to be subdued, as a surge of woodiness comes right over the citrus and peat notes, overwhelming them without drowning them. At that point, the scotch becomes quite leathery, and a slight spiciness comes in at the end.
The finish is crisp, fairly long, and gains in warmth as it progresses. It continues on the leathery, woody notes that grow out of the flavor, and then winds down into a warm, mild spiciness.
Hands down, this is marvelous stuff. It packs contrast, complexity, balance and even a little theater all into one package. For a scotch of this type and this quality, I’d say it is well worth the price.
Speaking of which, after taxes the Wemyss Lemon Smoke 1996 goes for £69 in the UK, taxes included. That is assuming you can still find some. In Europe, I have seen it listed for €80, so if you can find it in the United States, expect to pay on the order of $110.