Tasting & Matching: Blended Scotch Whiskey
You’ll rarely find a back bar without at least one blended whisky on its shelves – so why is so little care and attention paid to choosing the right one? Clinton Cawood redresses the balance with the help of a panel featuring some of Leeds’ best bartenders
As the relentless wheel of all-things-fashionable turns, and some style or category is hoisted up high, so another one is brought down low. Blended scotch no doubt had its time in the sun, but the rise of single malts, and more recently whiskies from other countries, has turned it into a category that’s anything but trendy.
And yet most bars will still list one blend at the very least – so why not make it a good one? After all, there’s a wealth of blended whiskies out there, from great-value mixers to premium blends better suited to sipping – not to mention several innovative newcomers of late. It’s time, we thought, to take a fresh look at the category, and see if blended whisky deserves to be about more than simply the bottom line.
HOW IT WORKS
An array of blended scotch whiskies were called in, with producers able to submit any expression provided it had an RRP of below £50. Panellists tasted the whiskies blind, first neat and then with soda. At each stage, each whisky was given a rating out of 20, with scores averaged to determine a percentage score. The scores given below are those derived from the neat tasting. Only the whiskies that scored over 50% are listed here. All are available in the UK, and the prices given are RRP.
Dan Alonso, Brooklyn Bar Sophie Bratt, Harvey Nichols, Leeds Clinton Cawood, Imbibe Daniel Crowther, Jake’s Bar & Still Room Rico Dynan, Jake’s Bar & Still Room Kat Sellers, Epernay Leeds Will Smale, Latitude Wine Scott Tyrer, Smokestack Robert Worsley, Soulshakers
77 Naked Grouse
This was a real crowd-pleaser, drawing praise and good scores from the entire panel. Butterscotch was the main word used by our panel to describe Famous Grouse’s Naked offering, with accompanying caramel and cereal notes. This was supported by both spice and fruit character, from anise, pepper and nutmeg, to peach, berry and fruitcake. One taster was reminded of agave, while others found crème brûlée. Not cheap, but certainly worth it. As with some of the other richer whiskies on show, this didn’t perform particularly well with soda, with those big flavours just not translating well with the mixer. One for sipping on its own, then.
40% abv. £27.69/70cl. Maxxium, 01786 430500
76 Whyte & Mackay 13yo
Single malt comparisons were rife with this one. More than one taster saw this as a good introductory scotch, and one that would serve as a bridge to single malts. Whyte & Mackay’s offering started with oats and honey on the nose, as well as some clove spice and toasted notes, alongside some dried apricot and raisin aromas. The palate delivered a burst of peat, along with more dried fruit, some liquorice spice, and a walnut character. All of this held up beautifully with the addition of soda, gaining this whisky even more glowing praise from the panel. Smoky elements shone through, as did some attractive fruit notes – pear and peach, specifically. One taster daydreamed about combining this with ginger ale on a hot summer’s day.
40% abv. £20/70cl. Whyte & Mackay, 0141 248 5771
71 Compass Box Great King Street
Compass Box’s relatively new addition to the range did an excellent job of charming our panel. Rich toffee and fudge aromas started things off, along with raisin, apricot and even mango on the nose. Tasters commented on the complexity of the palate, with distinct elderflower notes, as well as apricot, pear and the suggestion of milk chocolate. Most important, perhaps, was an attractive grainy texture on the palate. Great King Street excelled in the mix too, maintaining that complexity but adapting well, resulting in a very appealing, light drink.
43% abv. £25/70cl. Eaux de Vie, 020 7724 5009
70 Dewars 12yo
Moving away from the realm of toffee and caramel inhabited by the other top-scoring whiskies in this tasting, Dewars 12yo had distinct cigar-tobacco notes on the nose, as well as ginger and clove, and some tinned pineapple aromas too. A fiery palate continued with some more tropical fruit, as well as some cherry and marzipan flavours. An overall earthy mustiness was a defining characteristic on both the nose and palate. This was also the only whisky to get a perfect score from one taster. The addition of soda divided the panel. For some, the attractive flavours were lost, while others thought the result was a refreshing summer drink – lean and dry.
40% abv. £28.69/70cl. Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 01962 762450
68 Chivas Regal 12yo
Decidedly fruity on the nose – apricot, plum and marmalade were all identified – some fresh, grassy notes lifted the aromas, as did some floral notes. Grain flavours dominated on the palate, reminiscent of Weetabix and sugar, with some coffee, toffee and vanilla flavours in support. Before even trying this with soda, some panellists were suggesting a neat serve. It did admirably with soda, however, retaining its character, and delivering some honeyed sweetness, as well as some ripe citrus.
40% abv. £24.39/70cl. Pernod Ricard UK, 0800 376 5550
The Word Cloud above is generated from the panel’s notes over the course of this tasting. The bigger the word in the cloud, the more often it was used in the notes.
66 Ballantine’s Finest
‘Honeyed’ and ‘buttery’ were the predominant tasting notes for this blend, which most tasters also described as light on the nose, with some cinnamon spice, vanilla and butterscotch. The palate was rather sweet, with more cinnamon plus raisins and figs. A good introductory whisky, and one that tasters predicted would be good with a mixer – and they were sort of right. Refreshing and delicate, it made a very acceptable mixed drink.
40% abv. £15.79/70cl. Pernod Ricard UK, 0800 376 5550
65 Johnnie Walker Black
Assertive was the best way to describe this, with tasters all commenting on its rich, powerful character, as well as a flavour profile that was sweeter than most. Cereal, brazil nut, vanilla and toffee were among the descriptors of the aroma, going into a robust palate, with prominent wood and pepper notes. It performed admirably with soda too, its character shining through clearly, with distinct grain notes, and a clean finish.
40% abv. £27.99/70cl. Diageo, 020 8978 6000
62 Monkey Shoulder
For better or worse, this was a whisky that stood apart from the others. A number of those on the panel were charmed by its quirks, one taster going so far as to describe it as ‘the best-smelling whisky of the day’. An array of fruit contributed to this – pear, dried apricot, and mango – as well as cinnamon, ginger and cedar. The palate had elements of milk chocolate, aniseed, mango and opal fruits. It didn’t necessarily suit being mixed with soda, the interesting elements becoming lost.
40% abv. £24.39/70cl. First Drinks, 01256 748100
The nose on this one was thought to be rather better than the palate. This was among the lighter whiskies on show, with distinct grain notes, apricot jam, and a medicinal, iodine element. The palate had some pronounced woody notes, along with candied almonds and some smokiness. Some soft cream soda flavours emerged when mixed, but tasters felt that soda overpowered it.
40% abv. £20.99/70cl. Diageo, 020 8978 6000
Also tasted: Bell’s
Many thanks to the team at Jake’s Bar & Still Room in Leeds for hosting the tasting and also to the team at SLB PR for their help with arrangements.
After tasting each sample neat, we presented the panel with the same flight of whiskies, but this time with soda. There were some real surprises at this stage, and some extreme scores (both high and low) awarded as a result.
81 Whyte & Mackay 13yo
There were many examples here that would serve as good introductory whiskies, either as an introduction to the category in general, or as a bridge into the world of single malts.
There was real diversity here, with some whiskies conforming to the kinds of flavours expected in blended scotch, while others had more unusual flavour profiles.
Price wasn’t a major predictor when it came to taste. While the top scorer was among the highest priced, a number of more reasonably priced whiskies were highly ranked. Tasters also felt that the more affordable whiskies were maybe better suited to mixing than the more premium offerings.
While our panellists had strong opinions about the whiskies they tasted here, their thoughts were more extreme when it came to the mixed drink, resulting in far greater variation in the scores for that section. If something worked with soda, or didn’t, it was much easier to distinguish.
Panellists saw the potential for some of these blends in mixed drinks, including cocktails, while others were thought better off in a neat serve.
Points per penny
Let’s talk bottom line, shall we? When it comes to blends, a lot of them are fated to end up in a simple mixed drink, either with soda or cola. A pouring whisky really needs to deliver, not only in terms of flavour, but in terms of price as well. So for this next ranking we divided each of the top-ranking whiskies’ neat tasting score by their RRP, as a means of quantifying their bang for buck. Here are the top five:
1st Ballantine’s Finest
Dan Alonso, Brooklyn Bar
‘Before this session, I wouldn’t have chosen a blended scotch when at the bar, mainly due to the ingrained yet misguided notion that single malts are superior in every respect. The tasting threw up both a few surprises and a few expected results. The most influential aspect was the effect of blind tasting on shattering perceptions.’
Sophie Bratt, Harvey Nichols, Leeds
‘I was expecting these blends to be a bit samey, but there was real complexity. There were some good examples at the cheaper end, that were lighter. The more expensive ones didn’t work as well with soda. In my experience, blends can be a lot tougher to shift in bars than categories such as bourbon.’
Clinton Cawood, Imbibe
‘There were almost two distinct camps here – the lighter, versatile whiskies that you’d expect to find in a tasting of blended scotch, then the bolder, more robust whiskies (often at higher prices). The former were often better suited to being mixed, retaining their character when soda was added. If nothing else, this tasting proved that there’s still life, and some real variation, in this category.’
Daniel Crowther, Jake’s Bar & Still Room
‘A lot of the examples here would be best served with just a mixer, while I thought that about a quarter of them would work well in cocktails. Some of the higher-priced whiskies in this tasting lost their flavour when mixed with soda. And there were some here that could have been mistaken for single malts.’
Rico Dynan, Jake’s Bar & Still Room
‘There has always been an argument between blended whiskies and single malts, with blends seen as the lesser of the two. This tasting was an eye opener for me. The more reasonably priced products in this tasting really stood their ground. Some of the grainier examples sat fine with soda, and were among my preferred whiskies on the day.’
Kat Sellers, epernay Leeds
‘I don’t think this is a go-to category for consumers, at least not in city-centre bars. Drinks such as bourbon or rum are more accessible and offer more choice. Some of the blends that we tasted today weren’t too robust on their own, but then improved when mixed with soda. Conversely, others were lost when put with soda. Overall, this is a neglected category.’
Will Smale, Latitude Wine
‘Some blends seemed a lot less balanced than others. I found that the lower price points offered better value. Overall, I think blended scotch is perceived to be of lower quality when compared to single malt, and people usually drink it with cheap mixers.’
Scott Tyrer, Smokestack
‘Having been a scotch-and-dry drinker for the past few years, this tasting intrigued me. What piqued my interest the most was how much people are biased towards certain brands without ever having tasted them in a blind comparison. I’m definitely surprised by the category, if not overly excited by its prospects – but that isn’t always a bad thing. There is reliability, here; something we can turn to when times change to keep us anchored.’
Robert Worsley, soulshakers
‘There are a few clear market leaders in this category, so it was good to be able to try some of the others. The ascendancy of categories like rum has led to the decline of blended scotch,
although the blends tasted here are ideally suited to cocktails.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – May/June 2012