SMWS - The 26 Malts (Reviewed & Ranked)

In 2005, 26 writers were randomly paired up with 26 graphic designers/artists. Each pair received their own SMWS single cask bottling. The pairs blind tasted the whisky and created the labels, tasting notes and artwork. 

The result was put on exhibition, at The Society’s Edinburgh and London venues between August and October 2005. The exhibition was sponsored by Arts & Business Scotland and its run in London was part of the London Design Festival. The exhibition went on show again between January 20 – February 26 at The Lighthouse, Centre for Architecture and Design in Glasgow.

There were 50 sets released worldwide, with the remaining bottles sold individually. These bottles (and occasional a whole set) pop up on auction from time to time. So for anyone considering trying to nab a bottle, read on for our tasting notes and ranking from worst to best.

26. Mannochmore 64.8 / 12 Year Old 57.2%

It’s very floral, with peaches, and a nice vanilla backbone on the nose. Unfortunately, while it has a lovely nose it’s too spicy on the palate. There’s a nice mixture of fruit, like apples and raspberries, but these notes are overwhelmed by the spice. The mouthfeel is reasonable and the finish is a decent length.

25. Dailuaine 41.33 / 14 Year Old 60.4%

Malty, wafer cones, creamy custard, honey, and ginger spice on the nose. Citrus and apricots on the palate, but the ABV is really overpowering, and there’s too much hot chili spice. Saying that, some of the sweeter vanilla and custard doughnut notes linger on a good length finish. There’s also a slight waxiness that we find on the palate after a little bit of water.

24. Royal Brackla 55.15 /11 Year Old 58.4%

It begins dry and oaky, with sawn wood and dry earth, before moving into fondant icing, and dried citrus peels. The palate brings bursts of citrus, a little milk chocolate, ginger, cloves, and also a fair bit of spice here. It’s actually quite a rounded palate if you can push past the spice. Reduction brings out a little must and grapefruit on the nose, and reduces some of that powerful spice on the palate.

23. Dailuaine 41.34 / 14 Year Old 59.8%

A little bit of dust, wood and juiced apples. There’s also some chocolate and a bit of grain, oatcakes and figs right at the end. The palate begins sweet, with warm nutmeg spice, and roasted cereals, but there’s also fair whack of spice that lingers on the medium length finish. Water brings a little more fruit out but doesn’t reduce any of the spice.

22. Glen Ord 77.10, 17 Year Old 57.6%

Hint of varnish, glazed French pastries, praline, a little custard, dried orange peel and sugar cookies. It’s a touch spicy on the nose but the dram rewards you for taking time with it. The palate has orange, oak spice, fiery ginger and burnt pastries on the finish. The mouthfeel is a touch thin but the finish has a good length. Reduction loses more of the mouthfeel, but brings an almond milk-like flavour.

21. Cragganmore 37.26 / 18 Year Old 59.9%

Warm caramel notes, ginger, slightly toasted oak, shortbread, a little funkiness too. The mouthfeel is great, oily, the palate had salted caramel, honeycomb, warm ginger, following into chilli heat from the alcohol. The finish lingers for a good length but it’s a touch spicy for the age. Water brings out a musty, warehouse aroma, and the palate has more upfront sweetness, but juxtaposed against more spice.

20. Cragganmore 37.27 / 19 Year Old 59.6%

Tonka bean, clay rocks, wheat crackers, cocoa and maybe a little earthy turmeric at the end of the nose. The palate has a bit of sulphur, a lot of chili spice coming through with some sweeter sponge cake notes towards the finish. There’s a bit of limoncello here too. Reduction brings out more citrus and balance, but it’s more savoury and spicy than expected, throwing the overall balance out a little.

19. Craigellachie 44.29 / 11 Year Old 57.9%

Slightly earthy, slightly vegetal, with some melon, wet grass, and candy floss. It has quite a restrained nose. The palate has dark chocolate at the beginning, followed by dry wood, and a fizziness akin to a carbonated drink. Some honey towards the finish too. The mouthfeel and finish are decent, moving into more aniseed as the dram progresses.

18. Bowmore 3.110 / 12 Year Old 63.6%

A lot of white pepper spice and dustiness on the initial nosing, herbal rosemary and oregano, with caramel wafers on the latter part of the nose. The palate continues with the pepper spice, a little antiseptic and nail varnish remover, more of a vegetal peat smoke and a touch of seawater. It’s just a little unbalanced, too spicy, with the flavours not as well integrated as other Bowmore releases.

17. Glenlivet 2.63, 16 Year Old 59.8%

Light vanilla, some French pastries, a little menthol, barley sweetness, poached pear too. The palate has a good texture, but opens with woody spice, a pinch of ground black pepper, lemon zest, and birthday cake. It’s a little restrained and doesn’t have the same type of silky texture or heft of the (Spoilers) 2.62.

16. Glen Ord 77.11, 17 Year Old 58.7%

Sweet French pastries, reminding us of almond croissants. Wood shavings, nutmeg, and digestive biscuits. The palate begins with citrus, mandarin oranges, sugar syrup, a little cocktail bitters and ginger cake. The palate is a little thin, and the finish is a touch short, but it’s a pretty pleasant dram.

15. Laphroaig 29.44, 13 Year Old 58.4%

We’re also surprised this isn’t higher. Dirty peat up front, TCP, tar, ashy peat smoke. There’s a touch of pickle brine, burnt leaves and something slightly metallic towards the end of the nose. Saying this, it’s not as aggressive or peaty as we expected, but still has a good punch that balances well with the alcohol. The palate has a little bit of pickle brine up front, moving into creamy oak, dry earth, pink peppercorn spice, menthol and a little burnt toast on the good length finish. It’s a good quality whisky, but it’s not blowing us away.

14. Loch Lomond Croftengea 122.10 12 Year Old 60.5%

Barbecue sauce glazed meat, it’s very savoury, charred twigs, roast chestnuts, and a little herbal rosemary. You’d possibly be fooled into thinking there’s a sherry cask here - who knows. The palate comes through with with less smoke, but a good amount of charred meat, oak spice, chili heat and a little maple syrup and brown sugar too. Reduction brings strong roasted aromas, nuts mainly with a little bit of ashy smoke on the palate.

13. Ardmore 66.19 / 20 Year Old 54.1%

Rain in the forest, earthy, autumnal, a little sour, pickles perhaps, and slightly medicinal. Overall a tight nose. The palate has vegetal peat, moss, the smoke isn’t too punchy but definitely they’re giving a savoury tinge to the dram. There’s some typical bourbon notes of vanilla, honey and cream, all coming together quite nicely. As it sits on the palate, there’s a touch of acid/sourness appears. Good quality dram, good balance too.

12. Bowmore 3.109 / 12 Year Old 60.7%

Again, very restrained on the nose, but more buttery with vanilla and cake aromas appearing. The peat feels a touch sour, a little acrid, but still has a coastal feeling to it. The palate begins with warm ginger spice, nutmeg moving into fondant icing and light-yet-dirty peat. It’s quite powerful, flavourful but a little unbalanced. Still we wouldn’t turn down a dram.

11. Mannochmore 64.9 / 12 Year Old 56%

It opens with barley sugars, vanilla pod, and brioche buns. There’s a hint of woodiness on the nose that would suggest to us a it was a older than 12 years old. Like the 64.8, it has a lovely nose, but with a bit more pepperiness coming through. The palate is really quite sweet, orchard fruits, a little lime zest, a little fizzy on the palate. A touch too spicy but really good light and fruity dram. 

10. Clynelish 26.40 / 12 Year Old 53.9%

Coastal, slightly salty, bitter cocoa, a touch of wax but not as much as we’d expect. The nose seems to sweeten up as you sit with it, and some lemon peel appears too. The palate is punchy, both with alcohol and sweeter, caramel and cake flavours. The sugar feels a touch synthetic, vanilla essence with a dry citrus and oak on the finish.

9. Highland Park 4.104, 16 Year Old 54.6%

Honey, light peat, hay, lemon cake, heather. A light and delicate nose with good alcohol balance. The palate has strong vanilla custard, sponge cake, a little green apple, but the mouthfeel is a touch thinner than we’d like and there’s some warm ginger and clove spice that lingers through the long finish. We’re getting a touch of dark chocolate and coffee as well. Honestly we’re shocked this rated this high as we’re not usually fans of this distillery.

8. Bowmore 3.108 / 12 Year Old 59.6%

Creamy oak, mellow bonfire smoke, grilled peaches, salty toffee, and as we keep our nose in the glass, after a minute or two we start getting a little Parma violet. The palate is a little spicy at first, prickly pepper, sweet vanilla cake, light peat with a reasonable mouthfeel and decent finish. It’s a touch hot though, but the flavours behind the alcohol merge together well. Reduction brings out a little bit more earth on the nose and mellows out some of the spice on the palate too, as well as giving it a little more citrus.

7. Clynelish 26.42 / 12 Year Old 58.5%

A fair bit of candlewax up front, fondant icing, salted caramel, cookie dough, a little apple and mint. The palate begins with a big hit of sweetness, mint candies, empire biscuits, mild pepper spice moving into a warm, vanilla-led finish. Good balance, good mouthfeel, well integrated alcohol, all around quite pleasant.

6. Caol Ila 53.92 / 25 Year Old 59.1%

A mature nose that reminds us a touch of cognac, mixed with a fishy aroma, salt water, sea spray, slightly biscuity too. There’s also fresh lemon over grilled fish on a beach bonfire. You really get the age on the nose. The palate has a mixture of bourbon sweetness, slightly salty coastal flavours, fresh citrus and mellow smoke that only appears right at the end. Very different from a typical Caol Ila, but still delicious.

5. Bowmore 3.105 / 12 Year Old 54.8%

It’s got a restrained nose, light whispers of peat, dusty wardrobes, custard cream biscuits, and very light citrus. The palate has more of that custard forward flavour, with a mellow yet pleasing kiln smoke riding through. A good mouthfeel, with lemon sponge cake and toffee. A little bit of spice throws the balance off slightly but it’s still pretty well integrated and is perfect for a beginner getting into peat.

4. Springbank 27.60 / 15 Year Old 54.9%

Salty and sweet, coastal, dunnage warehouse funk, fruity sherry notes with black currants, raspberries and a touch of mint leaf. The palate has a good mouthfeel with rich dark chocolate, cherries in syrup, and salted caramel. There’s a bit of heat from raw ginger moving into a warm oak spice led finish. Water brings out a meatier sherry, that’s drier and nuttier than before. Good quality whisky, maybe a little rough around the edges, but we’re big fans.

3. Macallan 24.86 / 20 Year Old 55.2%

Sherried notes of chocolate coated raisins, and cinnamon. It’s a little nutty with malt loaf coming through too. The palate is silky at first, going into dates, chocolate, a little ginger and clove spice, maybe even some Indian spice mix too. A bit of chili chocolate and black currant. The finish lingers on for a while but there’s a touch too much heat on it. Pretty good Macallan, we wouldn’t complain. Water brings out a richer cherry and chocolate note but kills a bit of the mouthfeel.

2. Glenlivet 2.62 16 Year Old 57.8%

Big honey and vanilla aromas from the bourbon cask, toffee, milk chocolate and nutmeg on the latter part of the nose. The palate is silky, honeycomb, chewy toffee, coffee with milk and Biscoff spread. Water brings out some nice brown sugar, overall it’s quite delicious and well balanced.

1. Dallas Dhu 45.16 / 29 Year Old 49.2%

Oak, but in the mellow, integrated and wonderful way that some older whiskies can display. Cooked apples, watermelon, slightly grassy with a hint of mint leaf. The palate bursts open with tropical fruits, pineapple, mango, sugar syrup lasting all the way to the finish. There’s also a little vegetal note in here which compliments the fruity sweetness. The balance is incredible, the alcohol has great integration and it’s just absolutely delicious. We didn’t want to like this as much as we do, but hey.. that’s what 29 years in the cask can do.

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