Having gotten into whisky in July 2008 on a trip to Scotland, I’m still in a “discovery” phase, trying to get a feel for as many different scotch whisky profiles as possible. This can be a somewhat expensive proposition if your approach is to collect full size bottles representing a significant portion of the distilleries (open and closed). Storage can also be an issue if you don’t have a large cellar at your disposal.
One way to deal with the cost and storage problem is to sample whiskies before deciding which ones you want a full bottle of. You might know others with an interest in whisky, and be able to exchange samples with them. You can also buy miniatures at your local whisky store or online. Another option that I recently discovered is to order 3 cl samples from www.whiskysamples.eu.
About whiskysamples (and Luc Timmermans)
The whiskysamples web site, apparently masterminded by Luc Timmermans of Belgium, offers up for sale 3 cl samples of rare malts from his collection of 2,000+ whiskies. I found this YouTube video (embedded later in this post) from October 31, 2008 where Luc explained that they would start with 4 bottles, and open up a new bottle each month, from which you can order samples. Seven months later, with 148 available bottles to sample from, they’ve apparently decided to release them at a faster pace. Prices range from 2.50 Euros for a 7 year Berry Bros Bowmore to 66 Euros for a Glen Garioch 46 year. They ship worldwide.
Looking on the whiskysamples About page, we can see that Luc is the Belgian representative of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and one of the 26 Malt Maniacs. You may have seen his name mentioned on the whiskyfun web site, as he and a few Lindores provided notes and scores for whiskyfun from the special bottlings introduced at the Feis Ile festival. Luc proceeded to make these bottlings available as samples through the whiskysamples web site. Obviously, he’s a well respected member of the scotch whisky community, which made me feel much more comfortable about ordering from his web site.
The whiskysamples.eu web site
On the main page of the whiskysamples web site, you will see the latest news and most recently added samples posted at the top. You can scroll down for additional news, links to whiskysamples on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and finally a list of “Featured Items”. I’m not sure exactly what the criteria is for a sample to be in this category.
On the top left side of any page on the site, there is a search box so you can search for particular samples (by Distillery, for example). There are also links to “departments”, or groupings of samples. For example, as of this writing, there is a link to all of the Feis Ile 2009 samples that are available. This is what first brought me to this web site.
It’s reasonably easy to navigate the site and browse the available samples by department, or via search. My only real complaint is that there isn’t (or I haven’t found it) a “view all” option. As of this writing, the front page says there are 148 samples available. I’m still not 100% sure I’ve viewed every single sample available. I did notice that if you search for “whisky”, you’ll get back a list of 117 samples, but I couldn’t figure out a search term to get all 148.
Browse the site and add samples to your cart. If you want more than 3 cl, you can adjust the quantity from the cart. If you continue shopping, then want to get back to your cart, there’s a link in the upper right. Pressing the Proceed to Checkout button in the cart simply expands the page at the bottom and allows you to select your shipping destination. Select your destination and click the Calculate button to see your total cost including shipment. You might need to scroll down a little to see the totals, along with a Submit button that takes you through the payment process.
Tip: I found that for shipments to the United States, it was the same cost to ship anywhere from 2 to 7 samples, so you might want to find at least 6 or 7 samples to defray the shipping costs and get as much as possible for your money. I’m not sure if this is the same for all countries. You can always add one sample to your cart, play with the quantity, and check the shipping cost.
The web site is set up to take advantage of PayPal, which I really like, because 1) I didn’t have to go find my credit card and type in the number and expiration, and 2) they can just use your verified PayPal shipping address. Easy! One quirk…after your order has been placed, your items still remain in your cart. I guess there’s a bit of a disconnect between the site and the payment system.
My initial order was comprised of three special Feis Ile bottlings, and each of the expressions in the Port Askaig range. I already have PA 17, but they only offered these as a set. It only took 5 days for the samples to arrive via air mail. Looking at the postage, I noticed the rate was exactly what they charged me, so no extra padding on the shipping cost. Here are a couple of pictures of the package and contents (click thumbnail for full size image):
The bottles were protected from banging against each other, but there’s not any extra padding between the bottles and the box. The sample bottles are small and sturdy, though, and it doesn’t sound like they’ve had any real problems with shipping.
Taking the bottles out of the box, I noticed that they are labeled, but just with numbers. It turns out they print your invoice and mark the corresponding numbers next to each item listed in your order. Ok, that works I suppose. I think I’d prefer more explicit labeling, though.
The Port Askaig samples had additional markings to distinguish them, since they all corresponded to order item #1. I went ahead and put my own labels on the other bottles so I don’t have to worry about keeping the invoice around.
Testing the samples
Since I already have a bottle of Port Askaig 17 on hand, I decided to compare that with my PA 17 sample. I’m happy to report that the product delivered does indeed appear to match the original. Not that I was expecting any different, but since I’m writing up my experience, I might as well do the full investigative reporting thing.
[Update 6/16/09] [I commented on this in response to a question, but I thought I'd add it into the post, as I meant to say something about it originally.]
I don’t have a problem with them selling 30 ml samples, but my personal preference would be for a 50 ml sample, as I can easily split that into two 25 ml drams for sampling on separate days. This gives me a better feel for the whisky. I understand that the 50 ml sample would be priced higher than the 30 ml, but it should be less expensive than ordering two 30 ml samples. Perhaps at least a 50 ml option where more than one source bottle is available, but limiting to 30 ml for very rare single bottles?
I was very impressed with the service provided by whiskysamples, and will not hesitate to order from them again. At this point, the selection feels somewhat limited compared to shopping at a big online store. However, what they do offer at whiskysamples is some very rare bottles that would be very hard to find, and extremely expensive to buy. Plus, there’s the new, limited release bottlings that they make available in a very timely manner (like the Feis Ile bottles, or the Paps of Jura collection). Finally, there are some samples of more easily attainable expressions like Lagavulin 1991 DE and Springbank 18. With whiskysamples, you can try expressions like these out before paying what is still a pretty high cost for the full bottles. [On the other hand...just go ahead and buy the Laga DE. It's awesome.]
Additionally, Luc’s customer service is amazing! Moments after placing my order, another Feis Ile bottling was posted on the site. Luc told me how to place another order with no shipping charge, and he added it in with my original order. He responds quickly to email questions, and is very gracious and polite in the way he deals with you. He was very patient as I asked him a bunch of questions (see Q&A below), and maintained the same level of promptness and pleasant demeanor throughout. He seems like a real class act.
Tip: If you’re interested in ordering from whiskysamples, make sure you follow them on Twitter. They tweet new arrivals as soon as they’re available.
Q & A with Luc Timmermans
Me: Has anybody ever had a sample arrive broken, and do you have a policy to cover damaged shipments?
Luc: So far, only one customer had a broken sample. Yes, we have a policy for replacements. If one or more samples are broken, we will replace them free of charge. This includes free shipping. We do ask for a proof photo showing the broken sample and parcel.
Me: What if a sample is sold out by the time the damage is discovered?
Luc: We replace it with another sample of equal or lesser value, which the customer can choose from the site.
Note: Luc has now posted a link to their replacement policy at the top of their web site.
Me: Didn’t you originally offer both 3 cl and 10 cl samples? I don’t see any options for 10 cl bottles.
Luc: Nobody was ordering the 10 cl option, so we decided to go with just the 3 cl samples. This makes the shipment and parcel choices much easier too.
Me: Some samples are available for pre-order. How is shipping handled if I place an order with a combination of pre-order and in-stock samples?
Luc: The entire order will ship together once the pre-order samples arrive. All samples are secured [they won't sell out a sample that you have reserved] once the order is placed. If you want to get the in-stock samples right away, you can place separate orders.
Me: Where do you store all of these bottles?
Luc: In a BIG whisky cellar.
Check out these YouTube videos to see Luc introduce whiskysamples, and describe a few of the bottles. It looks like these were filmed in Luc’s amazing whisky cellar as well:
Opening Bowmore 1965:
December 2008 bottles:
Yikes. 1640 words? No time to proof read this post.Cheers, Jeff