Steel Bonnets

On approaching coming-of-age, fledgling distilleries face a decision of increasing importance in today’s burgeoning industry: what is to be their identity?

In days gone by, merely being a new distillery would be adequate distinction. In addition to the marketing-led — and entirely spurious — implications of a product which has seen more hands-on, personalised care than would be possible from an established player, simply offering something new to a consumer would be enough to establish oneself as The Upstarts. Instant brand proposition.

Today’s figurative retail shelves are creaking and as tired as that metaphor with the sheer volume of releases from new distilleries. For many whisky enthusiasts a sense of release fatigue is setting in, and for the casual consumer another new distillery will likely be lost in the crowd.

As one unique brand story blends in to another, the search for personality remains out of reach of those solely claiming to be the “first whisky from some-ever-more-specific-location”. Unless you as a consumer happen to have a connection to the location in question, then far from establishing identity, this approach instead immediately places the distillery in a basket of brands with nothing more interesting to tell you than their address.

With that said, whisky tourism is without doubt big business. If you are situated in an area with an existing tourist footfall then a distillery tour is evidently an attraction, and this is where location-associative branding pays dividends. A bottle of whisky makes an excellent souvenir.

The Lakes Distillery is well-placed to exploit this market. Situated at the top end of Bassenthwaite Lake in the picturesque holiday destination of The Lake District, there is a ready-made market waiting patiently at the end of a hike to be ushered into a visitor’s centre. This positioning of the distillery (with its attached bistro) as a tourist attraction has worked well, with over 100,000 visitors per annum browsing the shelves.

Relying on visitors will inevitably become a limiting factor in growing a brand; the proportion of a potential market who will actually turn up at a distillery either by intention or by chance is miniscule. The Lakes Distillery have come to realise this, and with ex-Macallan whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi taking the helm there is more of a focus on establishing quality and considered, flavour-driven whisky-making as the brand proposition.

In the last year there has been something of an effort to rebrand to reflect this emphasis; gone are the vague notions of prestige and premium — without evidence — from the Lakes Distillery website, and in their place are mentions of utilising multiple yeast types and of the practice of élévage. The Lakes Distillery is clearly still on a journey in this direction, but there is heartening progress.

With this in mind – and with the first general release of single malt from the distillery upon us – it is a good time to look back prior to this shift in brand focus. June last year saw the release of Steel Bonnets, the first in a rather immaterial category of blended English-Scottish malt whisky. An accompanying booklet offers several pages on the region and its people whom the whisky supposedly honours, yet only manages a sentence to tell us that this whisky is a blend of an unspecified proportion of The Lakes malt whisky and some malt whiskies from Scotland. This could be great whisky, but by focusing on stories of historic clans and neglecting to sell the whisky itself, would I be compelled to take a chance on this particular early-days placeholder versus the equivalent from similar budding distilleries?

Colour & First Impressions

Bright gold. Thick, slow legs confirm the fairly generous bottle strength of 46.6% and hint at a possible syrupy mouthfeel.

Nose

An initial balance between malt, warm vanilla and other sweet wood spice (reminiscent of an ice cream stick) and young stone fruit. In the background is the slight nuttiness of sherry influence. Given time the fruit settles in to a grape juice note. A dry smoke is initially delicate, growing in intensity with time in the glass.

Taste

The dry smoke from the nose makes its presence felt on the attack, but it is not altogether pleasant and feels slightly acrid. The smoke is joined as on the nose by light malt biscuits and a touch of vanilla. There’s not a great deal of depth to the palate, which for a blended malt is disappointing. A drop of water tones down the acridity but leaves the palate feeling more muted.

Finish & Final Impressions

The unfortunate bitterness of the smoke follows on through the finish which sees the malt and vanilla fade a little too quickly.

There’s not a lot of information on the constituent components of this blend, but the peated element certainly isn’t doing the whisky any favours. Nevertheless, without this flaw we are still left with a fairly flat whisky which lacks sufficient dimensionality to capture interest. As an everyday drinking blend or a pour for longer serves there’s nothing wrong with this of course, but for that purpose there are far more cost-appropriate options available. At £55 at the time of writing we are only £10 away from Whisky Maker’s Reserve No.1, the inaugural general-release single malt which promises to showcase the distillery’s character and direction it is heading, and has more to say about the whisky itself and less about border reivers. I know where I would spend my money!


Details

  • Non-chill filtered
  • Naturally coloured
  • Bottled at 46.6% ABV

Thank you to The Lakes Distillery for providing a sample of Steel Bonnets for review.

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