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Paul Currie was once involved with the creation of the Arran distillery off Scotland’s Ayrshire coast but at the conclusion of his time on the project he began to envision a new distillery, one that would stand proudly at the heart of the English Lake District. Constructed within an old cattle farm near Keswick, The Lakes Distillery launched in December of 2014, with their first single malt arriving late last year.
A distillery’s early years can be fraught with difficulties however, largely due to a lack of income whilst new make spirit slowly matures in a warehouse. In order to combat this, the Lakes produced both gin and vodka as well as The One, a series of blended whiskies made by combining distilled spirit from England, Scotland and Ireland.
Another project saw chief whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi create the first commercially available blend of malts from both England and Scotland. This unique blended malt whisky was named ‘Steel Bonnets’ in reference to the infamous Border Reivers that raided the Anglo-Scottish frontier between the 13th and 17th centuries.
The long suffering people of the Borders were inevitably the first to bear the brunt whenever Scotland and England waged war with one another and as a result, the locals felt little allegiance to either Kingdom. Instead they formed family alliances and built their own means of security, loyal to kin and community rather than to a distant King who cared little for their well-being.
Living in clan-like groups, they carried out raids on less-protected families either side of the border, an issue largely ignored by the authorities in both England and Scotland, each of whom viewed the lawless border region as a convenient barrier to invasion from the opposite side. The Reivers, or Steel Bonnets as they came to be known, tore through the countryside at will and were only acknowledged by the law when adjudged to have overstepped the mark, or journeyed too far into Royal territory.
In 1606 however, the Union of the Crowns brought a new era of collaboration between the governments of Scotland and England, signalling the beginning of the end for the Border Reivers. Patrols were organised and stricter sentencing would mean deportation or death to anyone convicted of such activities and slowly but surely, an uneasy peace descended upon the beleaguered countryside of the once wild borderlands.
Steel Bonnets apparently pays tribute to the mindset of those border folk of old: loyal to their family and ready to face the might of an entire Kingdom in order to protect the interests of their kin. Apparently.
Bottled at 46%, this blended malt retails for £55 a bottle.
*Full Disclosure: I was given a sample of Steel Bonnets free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest and impartial opinion on the inherent quality of the whisky and the value for money it represents.
Smell: Took a while to open up. Lots of spirit heat and a youth that never quite lifts. A little predictable – Honey, vanilla, apple. Pear maybe. Toffee. Some sawdust. There’s smoke too but it seems somehow disconnected, never quite fully integrating itself.
Taste: Follows a similar pattern to the nose… Opens with notes of honey and vanilla. Green apples and pears. Breakfast cereal and Scottish tablet. Soft smoke weaves throughout.
Thoughts: Interesting to note that Steel Bonnets has come down in price since its initial release. Originally £65, it has dropped to £55 but still doesn’t compare particularly favourably with other no-age-statement blended malts from the likes of Compass Box, Douglas Laing or Wemyss and since there’s virtually no information about the whisky used in the blend, or the casks it was matured in, it’s difficult to justify that price. It certainly doesn’t merit it on flavour alone.
Lots of people hate to see whisky with a ton of unrelated historical bumf attached to it but personally I’ve always enjoyed a good story and I have no objection to it, so long as it relates to the product and doesn’t come at the cost of useful, practical information about the makeup of the dram, which sadly doesn’t seem to be the case here.
I understand the desire to tell stories local to the distillery but why this particular story for this particular dram? If the story was framed as the coming together of opposing Governments to quash the threat of lawless bandits, it would make complete sense for a blend of Scottish and English whiskies but instead they say it pays tribute to the bandits themselves, so what is the connection? Isn’t it story enough that the whiskies of Scotland and England were being combined for the first time?
As for the dram itself, it just didn’t hit the spot for me and it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. I think it simply didn’t offer anything particularly unique and surely the whole point in doing something that has never been done before is to create a new and exciting product?! Steel Bonnets didn’t feel new or exciting though, instead it was all rather pedestrian. Maybe even a wee bit raw. Not a dram I’d be rushing to try again sadly.
*If, for some bizarre reason, the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your eye, you can buy it from Master of Malt here. Please be aware that as an affiliate I can be paid a small commission on any purchases you make after following links from my page. The whisky is also available from several other excellent retailers.
Visit the Lakes Distillery website here.