Like every region within the UK, there is a strong sense of pride amongst the local communities about their history and heritage, and Cumbria is certainly no exception. This sense of pride and heritage is usually most prevalent on the packaging of a bottle of whisky whereby the local influences, water, terroir and history usually form part and parcel of the product you will soon be savouring. From out of the Lakes Distillery, we have previously seen their flagship blended whisky, The One, take a broader view on this and celebrate the British influences with a marriage of whiskies from the 4 home nations in the British Isles. The Lakes Distillery’s latest offering, Steel Bonnets, looks to take a similarly patriotic and historical stance by celebrating the nearby history of the Scotland-England borderlands. The bottled whisky is reportedly the first ever available blended malt whisky comprised solely of Scottish and English whiskies, most notably, with the English component coming from the Lakes Distillery itself. The peculiar name, Steel Bonnets, is an ancient reference to the people who lived in those borderlands in the 13th to 17th Century, but sided with neither side of the border, and remained their own people, who “claimed allegiance to Kin and not Kingdom”. The marketing and packaging are therefore clearly very bold in their nature, and what they house is a blended malt whisky at 46.6% ABV.
Dark sugars, oak and smoke are all rushing for attention as soon as this is poured out of the bottle, let alone before sticking my nose in. Once at the glass, there’s a slight potpourri-esque piercing impact and astringency but with little floral flavours trailing behind – heather and lavender are the forerunners. It also reminds me of the smell of parma violets with that sherbet-like tingle to it too. Once past those more delicate flavours though there is smoke right at the heart of the whisky. It’s not an overpowering smoke either. Nor is it a peaty smoke – it has more of a wood-smoke type fragrance. Overall, a punchy nose without much of an alcoholic sting to it.
Quite a peppery burst of flavours once you taste it, which the nose seemed to mask. The alcohol really bites in now too and fills the mouth. As the sting fizzles away, it leaves a slightly milk chocolatey and nutty tang (Terry’s Chocolate Brazil Nuts?). There’s a little fruity element to it on the aftertaste too, like candied peel / dried orange pieces. Quite a lot going on.
That texture and flavour explodes with the contrasting influences of black pepper and cream – like a peppercorn sauce. Without the steak. But it would definitely go well with steak! The smoke has almost disappeared now and all of the barrel influences have presumably taken over. Almost a Vicks-like warming of the chest, as it goes down.
For all the marketing about the history that this whisky is supposed to be demonstrating, a strange thought occurred to me, which was to imagine if the Scottish independence referendum went the other way. Would this product have ever been made? Could this have been the item that re-unified the two? Well, probably not, given the huge socio-economic impact that decision would have had. The fact that the Lakes Distillery started distilling its first malt spirit several months after the referendum however puts the age of their whisky into perspective. Given that the blend does feature the Lakes Distillery’s own single malt whisky must mean that it is just past the 3 years and 1 day landmark, but with so many flavours going on it makes me wonder about where the Scottish malt components come from, how old they are, what maturations they have had, what the proportions are etc. etc. and how much of this is the influence of the Lakes’ spirit itself? Overall it is an interesting concept and it is a nice tipple, just not a great whisky. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good whisky – what was it that Raymond Chandler once said? – but certainly not great enough to warrant its £65+ price tag, in my opinion. Whilst all of the tasting notes above sound like good elements, collectively, I just didn’t get it, and maybe it is just a case that my purse strings wouldn’t stretch that far, (given that it is classed as an “Ultra-Premium blended malt” – and now a gold medal-winning one at that) but that is not to say that I did not enjoy it. As a frenetic blend of tastes and experiences, this comes across as a box-checking exercise, which would probably thrill most whisky drinkers. It is certainly one that got me thinking and will prove as a good conversational piece. It is also a tantalising insight into what The Lakes Distillery’s own single malt will be like, even if I just got to taste a fraction of it here.
Sample disclosure: Whisky Unplugged received this sample after being contacted by The Lakes Distillery as part of the initial promotional release. All notes above are an honest and unbiased representation of the whisky.