Sponge: From Whisky to Funky, charismatic, High Ester Rums

This month, we cross the English Channel, and even the North Sea, to Scotland, more precisely in Perth, north of Edinburgh. Not that they produce rum there! But to meet a whisky and spirits enthusiast who, with his bottling company Decadent Drinks and his brand Sponge, offers a range of rum to his taste and without concessions. Meeting with Angus MacRaild, who gives us his vision of things, with a humour and a touch of self-mockery so British.

Angus, how old are you, where were you born and where did you grow up, in short, tell us everything about yourself?

I’m 36, I’ve been 36 for a month and a half, and then I’ll be 37 – if I understand correctly. I was born in Edinburgh and grew up in Scotland for the first few years, then in England until I was 16, before returning to Scotland on the west coast near Loch Fyne.

How did your interest in spirits come about?

When we moved to England, I missed Scotland, so I developed an interest in all things Scottish, the music, the food, the land itself, and also whisky. This interest was passed on to me by my father who loved whisky, his favourite being Laphroaig. I remember him giving me a sip and telling me how much he enjoyed the special flavour of the peat. As a teenager I became more actively interested, reading quite a few books and absorbing the knowledge. But I never really thought I would make a career out of it. Later, I developed a more general fascination with spirits, wines and beers and, in general, most alcoholic beverages that are the result of a “discussion” between nature and human know-how.

How did you become a spirits professional?

It wasn’t planned, it happened partly by accident and partly because I’m totally unqualified to do anything else! When I was at university I spent two summers working at the Ardbeg distillery as a tour guide. There I really learned a lot and honed my knowledge of whisky. I also developed a fascination for the older bottles. Then I worked in a vineyard, in wine and spirits merchants and in whisky bars, and learned more as I went along. I ended up working for a whisky auction company, specialising in old and rare vintages. That’s where my career really started. A few years later, I went out on my own, running old bottle stalls at festivals, giving advice, tastings, writing, etc. Although I can say that I am a whisky professional, I still consider myself an enthusiastic amateur for most other drinks. I’m certainly not an expert on rum, for example.

Tell us more about your blog?

My Whisky Sponge blog, like a lot of what I’ve done over the years, just started as a sort of experiment to see if I could write in a slightly different way about whisky. It started around 2013 I think, at a time when there was already a lot of stupid stuff going on in the whisky culture and trade, and a more satirical approach seemed like a good idea. So I started doing it, people seemed to like it and it evolved from there. In recent years I’ve been increasingly busy with work, and family life too, so I’ve had less time to write on the blog. Especially, and ironically, since Sponge became an independent bottling brand.

How did you go from writing, to ‘producing’ spirits?

Again, it was never planned, it was just something we decided to try and it really evolved into a small bottling company called Decadent Drinks. Today, Whisky Sponge is our main bottling brand for Decadent Drinks and from there other series like Rum Sponge and Cognac Sponge have come along.

But how did you become an independent whisky bottler?

It was really an accident. I thought I’d like to make a cask for Whisky Sponge, but it was just an idea because I didn’t have any casks and not enough money to buy one. But my friend Iain McClune, from Whisky Auctioneer, said he was considering doing a bit more independent bottling and asked me if I would be interested in working with him in partnership and if I had any ideas. So I suggested that we use Sponge as a label/brand and from there it moved very quickly. We managed to find some good barrels and were successful. So it seemed natural to create a company and make it more official. I never imagined that I would be an independent bottler one day, but I love it and appreciate the creativity that goes into both good bottling and fun, original label design.

How do you choose the whiskies you bottle? On what criteria?

I’m interested in quality (which everyone says, of course), but I take it very seriously and I think I’m a pretty good judge of the quality of drinks. But to me, quality can mean different things. Another way of putting it is that I like to bottle drinks that have a strength of character and a richness of personality. So some of our bottlings can be a bit extreme or very particular in style. I tend to go less for woody flavours, although we still have some if I think they are balanced or interesting enough and go beyond just woody flavour.

At what point did you decide to get involved with rum?

I’ve been enjoying rum as a drink for a number of years now, so it’s always been something that interested me. But honestly, it was as much a business decision as anything else. We had the contacts to buy good stock, in a style that rum lovers like, and we understood the market well enough to decide to include rum in our offering. It was also important because I deliberately chose Decadent Drinks – not Decadent Spirits – as the name of our company and I wanted to offer a wide selection of different drinks in the form of independent bottlings – so rum was an essential part of that.

How do you choose the rums you bottle? On what criteria?

With whisky, I feel I have enough knowledge to select bottlings that may not always be to my taste, but I know they are good and will appeal to others with different preferences. As far as rum is concerned, although I am fortunate enough to have tasted many types, I am an amateur and stick very closely to my own tastes. I prefer vat-distilled, high ester, rather funky and charismatic rums. I like the effects of tropical and continental ageing, and I enjoy rums from different countries. But overall, I would say we try to select slightly older, cask-distilled rums with a good degree of complexity and esters.

In the world of rum, what were the decisive encounters for you?

The first time I discovered rum was in the Bruichladdich warehouses on Islay. I used to go there on my days off and help out in the warehouses for a different experience. The specific bottling that always sticks in my mind is G&M’s Long Pond 1941. It was quite a profound tasting experience the first time I tried it and it really changed my view of rum and spirits in general in a lasting and important way.

What new releases can we expect this year?

We will soon have three new bottles of Rum Sponge: a 2007 Clarendon, a 2000 Barbados and a 1990 Enmore. Beyond that we are still considering what the next selections will be, but we aim to develop and increase our rum offering over time and hope to be able to offer some interesting bottlings.



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