A bit of a unexpected move by The Whisky Squad this month. Having gone through various high powered single malts this meeting’s theme was to be the whisky snob’s enemy – the much maligned blend. The idea behind this was to help further put down the theory that blended whisky is by its very nature inferior to single malt. Granted there are a bunch of rubbishy blends out there, but with blended whisky still making up over 90% of the whisky market they must be doing something right.
Looking up blends brings up some interesting definition questions, such as the rather fundamental “What is a blended scotch whisky”. At the end of 2009 the Scotch Whisky Association (the love it or loathe it organisation who lobby government over whisky regulation) pushed through some legislation to formalise the nomenclature of whisky. There’s a full text of the definitions over on website of The Squad’s resident whisky expert, Darren The Whisky Guy, but as a quick precis here are 4 categories:
- Single Malt Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with malted barley.
- Blended Malt Whisky – Single malt from a variety of distilleries blended together.
- Single Grain Whisky – Whisky from a single distillery made with any grains.
- Blended Whisky – A mixture of grain and malt whiskies.
While many within the whisky appreciation world look down on blends the art of blending whisky isn’t something to be sniffed at (bad pun acknowledged) – to take a potentially large number of component whiskies from a variety of sources, all of which might change in quality, quantity and flavour between purchased batches of barrels, and then mix them together to create a consistently flavoured product in potentially large quantities is a serious skill. I still drink mainly single malt whisky but my prejudice against all blends has been hit on the head in recent times and this tasting certainly helped kick it further out the door.
The first whisky, tasted blind as is tradition, had loads of vanilla on the nose, along with a slab of wood at the back and a bit of floral oil. To taste it was lighter than the nose suggested with lots of wood leading to a spicy finish. Water brought out a lot more flavour with creamy custard, a little bit of fruit and a dry woody finish. Not the most complex of whiskies but quite happily drinkable. The paper sheath came off to reveal that it was Bailie Nicol Jarvie. Named after the bailiff from Rob Roy this is Glenmorangie’s blend and the whisky that my flatmates bought me for my 21st birthday. While the complete recipe is secret we heard that it at least contains malt whisky from Ardbeg, Glenmorangie and Caol Ila (although an unpeated version rather than their regular peated spirit), and grain whisky from North British. It’s one of the only blends known to have a good chance of containing Ardbeg, although as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg are both owned by the LVMH group it’s fairly obvious how they get their hands on it. Like most blends it does have caramel added to the mix for colour, but in this case (as it’s quite a light whisky) it’s very much more for consistency between batches than darkening younger spirit to make it look older (as the ‘older whisky is darker and better’ meme runs deep within whisky buying society). Darren’s quite a fan, buying some each Christmas for doling out to all and sundry during the festive season. He also recommended it as an accompaniment to creamy coffee.
Next up was a taller bottle which we were told we might recognise. On the nose the whisky had lots of fruit – with apples and pears, cherry and pineapple all popping up around the table. Darren also got Caramac and I got some almonds. To taste it was very creamy, with vanilla, a touch of dried fruit and a delicate woody spiciness. Water brought out more of the wood, a little bit of lower cocoa solid dark chocolate and raisins, but reined in the vanilla and cream a bit. With the paper off the bottle it was revealed to be my most polarising whisky – Compass Box Hedonism. The whiskies in the bottle come in at about an average of 20 years old, matured in american oak hogsheads, and come from Carsebridge, Cameron Bridge and Cambus grain distilleries – the conceit of this bottle is that it’s a blended grain whisky, a 5th category not mentioned above: a blend of single grain whiskies from different distilleries. It was the first booze I wrote about on this site and I am still as divided on it as I was then. Luckily I was in the mood for it that evening and rather enjoyed my dram although it won’t surprise me if I open my bottle tonight and decided that it’s thin, astringent and nasty…
Number 3 was the one I’d been waiting for – having been given a bit of a sneak preview of the whiskies a few weeks before this was the one I had remembered. On the nose it had gummi cola bottles (a flavour that I have ranted about being distinct from cola drinks for a while. Don’t ask me about it in real life, I can talk for up to half an hour on the topic), an acetoney tang, pine needles and Copydex glue. It also had a slightly meaty undertone to everything. To taste it had an initial burst of sweet pineapple and kola cubes with a strong lemoniness, followed quickly by a tannic dryness and a prickly dry wood finish. Water helped, with more fruit appearing on the nose. The taste had more sweetness and the lemony citrus became more orangey. The dryness retreated, although was still present, and the finish was still very woody, but I also got some salt and menthol in the middle. A bit of a strange one this and one that I’m not sure I liked. It was revealed to be an Adelphi bottling of single cask Ben Nevis. The special thing about this cask was that it had been filled with a mix of malt and grain whisky, both produced at the distillery as they had a continuous still installed for grain production in the 1950s in addition to the pot stills for malt production, and then left to mature for 34 years. Thus it is a single cask blended whisky, bottled at cask strength, a very uncommon beast. Ben Nevis didn’t have the greatest of reputations in the past, with this going in the barrel in 1970, but they were bought by Nikka in 1991 and quality has been rising ever since. While I’m not sure I’ll seek this one out again it was a very interesting drink – unlike any whisky I’ve tried before. There was a little bit of it left behind the bar at The Gunmakers, so there’s a chance you might be able to try it if you get over there soon (before I decide I need another taste).
The final whisky of the night was one that I had no clue about at all. On the nose it had grapefruit, cordosyl mouthwash, cucumbers and single cream. To taste there were walnuts, coconut husks, liquorice root and cream, all tied together with a woody rubbery smokiness. Some water brought out salt and citrus on the nose and wood at the back of the palate. There was creamy pine, dark chocolate and tea, with delicate wood on the finish. Again the paper was torn off, this time to show a bottle of Ardbeg Serendipity, a blended malt. This is no ordinary blended malt, having come about (so the story tells it) by accident. Back in the days when Ardbeg was newly reopened they decided they needed to raise some cash, so prepared to bottle some casks of 1977 Ardbeg (about 25 years old at the time). They transported it to the vatting plant and turned on the taps to dump it into a tank ready for bottling only to discover that the vat wasn’t empty. So it was that they mixed four parts of an old and rare Ardbeg with one part of 12 year old Glen Moray (also owned by the LVMH group at the time). There is a cynical view that this was a story dreamed up by Ardbeg’s rather creative marketing department to explain away the strengthening of some spirit that had dropped below 40% ABV during its maturation (as 40% is the legal minimum that a spirit can be and be called whisky) by dosing it with some stronger, younger, cheaper Glen Moray. Whatever the truth, its price has risen and fallen as it has been snapped up by collectors and merchants over the years, having settled recently at a respectable £70ish a bottle, even though they can only put “12 years old” on the label.
Anyways, yet another interesting selection of whiskies, although happily not as potentially financially crippling as previous months – I already have a bottle of Hedonism (which gets drunk slowly due to my fear that I won’t like it when I open it) and my other favourite of the evening was the very reasonably priced Bailie Nicol Jarvie. I may not wait until Christmas until it joins the illustrious selection of boozes in my cupboard.
Bailie Nicol Jarvie
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£18
Compass Box Hedonism
Vatted grain whisky. 43%. ~£50
Adelphi 34 year old Ben Nevis blend, cask 4640 (186 bottles in total)
Cask strength single cask blended scotch whisky. 50.3%. ~£130
Blended scotch whisky. 40%. ~£70