Thursday, 28 July 2016

An Evening of Blended Whisk(e)y. And crisps.

I’ve been neglecting blends lately. I could line up a few excuses – ‘this is a distillery-visiting blog first and foremost, and the grain distilleries don’t let you in’; ‘I’ve been really busy with other stuff’; ‘The dog drank them all Miss, honest,’ – but the truth is that like most of the rest of the whisky community I’ve been smugly telling my friends not to overlook blended kit and then pouring myself malts and bourbons.

Blends are what the whisk(e)y industry, particularly the Scotch whisky industry is built on. No two ways about it. About 90% of the money generated by Scotch comes through blends, which means, once bottle prices are taken into account, that far less than one in ten bottles sold are Single Malt. Yet across the entire whisky chat-o-sphere, whether it be through festivals, books, tastings or blogs the poor old blends barely get a look-in. They usually get a courtesy mention before the speaker/writer waxes poetic about the nuances of their favourite malts; treated as second-class whisky citizens; the cheap, the ordinary, the uninspiring. 

Go on a distillery tour at Springbank or Bruichladdich and one of the first things you’ll be proudly told is that ‘none of our product goes off to blends.’ Elsewhere you’ll hear that blends are simply mixer-fodder – ‘pour whatever you like in them, but don’t you mess with our single malt.’ Well, I’ve poured coke into Lagavulin now, so I’m well down that rabbit hole, and it was about time I ignored the little voice in my head that mutters ‘pick a malt, go on, you know you want a malt. Malty malt malt,’ whenever I look at a row of bottles with pennies in my pocket. 

A bit of background for those of my readers who lead normal, sensible, un-whisky-obsessed lives. Blended whisky differs from Single Malt in two primary ways. It’s not the product of only one distillery, and it uses other grains as well as malted barley. Malt whisky will still make up a certain percentage of the blend – indeed certain blends will cite a high malt percentage as a selling point – but the other grains will take up the lion’s share more often than not. I won’t go into the science of it here, or you’d stop reading, but the upshot is that grain whisky can be produced more cheaply and in far greater bulk than malt. Hence there’s more of it. Simples.

So there I am, after work, in the big Sainsbury’s across the road, pondering the blends selection. I’d seen Ballantine’s Finest had been on offer last week. It’s not any more, but at £20 a bottle I decide it’s still worth a punt. As ever my eye is drawn to the bright orange signs that shout of unmissable deals and tempting offers, and somehow a half bottle of Jameson’s and a half bottle of Chivas Regal 12yo find their way into my basket. I really shouldn’t be allowed in supermarkets on my own, but I decide that I now have the makings of a proper tasting, so it’s not greed or impulse buying – it’s science.

Having added a scientific bag of salt and vinegar to the basket (Walkers thick-cut – solid) I clank over to checkout, where the supercilious staff member lingers over my ID, asks me my age three times, comments on my photo, double-checks my middle
name and generally leaves me feeling like a much valued Sainsbury’s customer. On returning home I resist the call of the crisps with difficulty, and set up a very professional tasting table by turning a blue box upside down. I don't have a spittoon, but happily it's just a short dash to the nearest sink. To my new purchases I add the Johnnie Walker Red Label that Ben kindly gave me a few months back, and the Asyla from Compass Box that I used in a tasting I led in March. Glencairns gleaming, and to the soundtrack of my housemates binge-watching ‘vintage’ episodes of Pokémon in the next room (I kid you not – they’re in their mid-twenties as well) I crack on.

First up is Ballantine’s Finest, which I’m pretty sure I had a glass of years ago, but haven’t crossed swords with since. The biggest seller in Pernod Ricard’s portfolio, and one of which I’m expecting rather a lot. Because in his annual bible a certain Mr Murray rates this very highly. In fact he gives it 96 points out of 100. In context, this is more than he gives Highland Park 18 or Lagavulin 16. In fact it’s more than he gives 99%+ of the whiskies he’s tasted, which given what many people seem to think of Mr Murray, and on top of it being a cheap, mass-market blended whisky means that Ballantine’s Finest comes in for rather a lot of online stick, poor thing.

So is it as good as the captain of controversy makes out? Well, first off, whilst caramel colouring has clearly been used there’s none of that thick, off-kilter toffee on the nose that this additive sometimes creates. That being said, the youth of this whisky dominates what you can smell. I’m perfectly happy for a whisky to be young, but the casks in this case haven’t fully dealt with the more spirity esters, so there’s a lingering metallic element which leaves things slightly off-key. On the other hand some nice suggestions of vanilla and pastry, with a (very) delicate wisp of smoke. Palate’s pretty lively for a 40% whisky – again probably from youth. At the lighter end of the body spectrum, and the flavours are a little more on song than they are on the nose – less of that metallic character. It’s a delicate whisky – there’s nothing fudgy or clunky. A light, bracing aperitif style. In all honesty I’d hoped for more. 

Slightly disappointed, I move on to the familiar friend that is Compass Box’s Asyla. In the world of the maltophile you always hear Compass Box talked about as the blend ‘it’s ok to like.’ Your token blend friend, if you will. ‘I’m really blend-tolerant – look, I’ve said nice things about Compass Box.’ John Glaser is an incredibly talented blender, and the image and outlook of Compass Box of promoting transparency, experimenting with flavour and focussing on quality is one that strikes a chord with many. They fit in perfectly with the independent, artisanal craft ideal – a marketeer’s dream in fact – and it helps that almost all of their stuff is absolutely delicious.

At a few shillings North of £30, Asyla costs a fair amount more than the next priciest whisky on today’s tasting table. It’s one of the blends that promotes its high malt content, and it plugs itself as a delicate, honeyed style of whisky. Which it is. I covered it in my 40 under £40, and I stand by the tasting note I made then. Very honey-and-vanilla, light and delicate in both nose and flavour (the most reticent in jumping out of the glass of the evening in fact.) A study in subtlety, albeit not the most complex in the world. ‘Harmonious’ was the word I kept thinking whilst I scribbled; there’s nothing disjointed, no off-putting notes. It all works very nicely together. Not too much poke – only 40% after all. A whisky that could be a very effective converter to the cause.

Next up is Chivas Regal 12yo, which is another from the Pernod Ricard stable. Last time I faced down this blend was the summer of 2012, when I was rehearsing for the Edinburgh Fringe, and our cast’s token Scot Conrad had a bottle. I was a bit too much of a malt snob back then, so I probably wrote it off before I even tasted it, and I certainly don’t remember my thoughts. I’m not entirely sure why it’s taken me so long to come back to, because I have to confess a guilty affection for the Chivas branding. I like the name. I
like the bottle shape. I like the logo. In my heart of hearts I like the fact that they state the age, despite my position as not having an inherent problem with NAS as a whole. 

My hopes were slightly tarnished by the vague let-down of Ballantine’s, but Chivas Regal is a very different beast. The influence of the Speyside malts is pretty clear, as are the effects of the oak. I kept writing ‘civilised’ in my notes, by which I meant that it’s very much a ‘sit in an armchair somewhere warm and switch off’ whisky. And if that sounds disparaging, it shouldn’t. It’s a hug-in-a-mug comfort whisky really, with more ‘roundness,’ body, depth and fruit (baked apples, pears, slight nuttiness, smidge of vanilla) than the two which came before it. Not as harmonious or technically accomplished and clean as the Asyla, but smooth, approachable, easy drinking and with plenty of flavour. Reminded me of the style of whisky I loved years ago when I first got into the spirit. 

Over to Ireland for taste number four. Once upon a time Jameson’s was the only concession I’d make to whisk(e)y from outside Scotland – and only on St Patrick’s Day. That was back in the ‘down it in one’ years at the start of University, and I haven’t really revisited the brand since. Jameson’s basically carried Irish whiskey on the international market for years. It contains a hefty whack of the idiosyncratically Irish ‘pure pot still’ style, which like so many others I’m a massive fan of, via Redbreast, Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Powers. So once again I had cautiously high hopes.

Apparently not high enough though, because the nose absolutely blew me away. So intense, so fresh, so vibrant and so crisp. The pure pot still element just screams out of the glass – green apples and spice and all things nice. The palate’s very nearly as good too; alive with fruit flavour and just the slightest touch of youthful graininess, it’s a thing of absolute beauty. The quality you get here for less than £20 per bottle is staggering. As I tasted away I regretted not having a Buffalo Trace, Jack Daniel’s or Jim Beam to hand to compare it against. Because – and you can quote me on this – when calibre and price are weighed against each other, I’m pretty sure Jameson’s would still come out as the best value whisk(e)y currently available in the UK market.

Which just left Johnnie Walker Red. The best selling Scotch whisky in the world; the entry level of a brand beloved of everyone from Winston Churchill to whisky expert Charles Maclean. (Albeit their affections tend towards Black Label.) The fiscal jewel in Diageo’s whisky crown, selling three times as well as the next brand of Scotch (Ballantine’s, if you’re wondering.) Johnnie Walker is a behemoth, no two ways about it. This particular bottle was a gift from Ben at the back end of 2015 and has somehow ended up becoming my ‘times of trouble’ or ‘dutch courage’ whisky. So I’ve gotten to know it pretty well, but never had the heart to pin it down to a note. Time to change that.

Though I sort of wish it wasn’t, because I’ve developed the kind of soft spot for this particular bottle that you might develop for an ugly dog with three legs that sporadically bites you. I can’t praise this objectively – I just can’t. I mean I wouldn’t pour a glass away, but it’s pretty not great. It’s about as complex as a four-piece Jigsaw puzzle – a big dollop of fudgey toffee with some ash and bitterness in the background. Chunky and all over the place on the palate – all the harmoniousness of a class of five year olds on crack, and just about as elegant as the aftermath. Plus the same estery, metallic, over-youthful notes as found in the Ballantine's. A shame, because its big brother, JW Black, is a thing of beauty. This is not; it’s pretty rough. But there’s a time and a place for weirdness and madness, and I’m alright with that. Though perhaps that’s just me.

So what did I reckon overall?

Well I felt pretty let down by the Ballantine’s. I’d wanted it to shine and it didn’t, which is a shame. Perhaps it’s just my taste – but I’m certain it’s too young, and that those metallic, spirity esters detract from the qualities of the nose. Give it a whirl, but try it by the glass first. 

I’ve recommended the Asyla before and I’ll recommend it again. Probably the most harmonious of the bunch, and probably the one I’d push the malt-only crowd towards first. 

Chivas put a big smile on my face, and as a ‘sink into a chair after a hard day,’ whisky it’s tough to beat. Easy drinking, accessible. I reckon if I put this group of whiskies to a popular vote amongst my friends, Chivas would come out on top. 

For me, Jameson’s was a revelation. I can’t believe the value it offers or the flavours you get for the money. An absolute bargain, and if you only buy a couple of bottles of whisk(e)y this year, please make one of them Jameson’s, just so you can see what I’m on about. If you’re a Redbreast or other Pure Pot Still fan it’s a no-brainer.    

Johnnie Walker Red? Well, I can’t in good conscience recommend it by the bottle. I know my motives for enjoying it come from the fact it was a gift and from the specific moments I’ve chosen to drink it. But hey, I’ve loved those moments, and hell – I’ll say it – I’ve a soft spot for the whisky too.

The bottom line is that I’ll be drinking a lot more blends going forward. What’s more, I’ll have far higher expectations of them. A couple of the bottles on show this time offered astonishing value for money, and at the end of the day, four out of five give you change from twenty quid. Which means you’ve a few pennies left over for a pack of Tear’n’Share Walkers extra crunchy. And that’s got to be good news.

Ha. ‘Share.’ Dream on.


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