Golden Oldies: Imbibe puts luxury whiskies to the test

22 February 2018

For timeless luxury, you can’t do better than a blended whisky. Clinton Cawood calls in some of the category’s finest for a panel of suitably impressed bartenders


For all of the dominance of single malt nowadays, blends can still cut it. They’ve got great consumer recognition, dominate at entry level, and are powerful performers in the luxury arena. The ability to combine an array of single malts and grain whiskies means almost endless potential in terms of flavour profile, not to mention lots of opportunity to create top-end expressions using rare and old components.

In addition to the more common malt-and-grain blends, there have been some interesting new blended malt releases recently – and not just from Scotland – breathing new life into the category.

For this tasting, we gathered top-end examples of both blends and blended malts, including a few non-Scotch examples, for an overview of the best of the luxury end of this category.


Panel

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Dino Koletsas, The Langham (Artesian and The Wigmore); Michele Mariotti, Blue Bar at The Berkeley; Michal Maziarz, Rotunda at Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square; Erik Simonics, La Dame de Pic at Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square


How it works

We called in top-end expressions of blended whiskies and blended malts from around the world. These were blind-tasted by a panel of bartenders that weren’t aware of either price or provenance. All prices are RRP for 70cl unless otherwise specified.


Results

Compass Box No Name, blended malt Scotch whisky
This decidedly peaty blended malt evoked universal praise from our panel, and was a close second for favourite whisky of the day. According to Compass Box, over 75% of it is made up of malt whisky from Islay, aged in re-charred American oak. The resulting limited-edition whisky was described by tasters as having balanced smoke, along with a barbecued lemon note. A balanced but ultimately rich and intense whisky, with a salinity towards the finish.
‘Oily, peaty, and very Scottish. A real thing of beauty,’ summarised one taster. And if you were feeling particularly extravagant, one taster’s suggestion was to make this into a luxury Boulevardier.
48.9% abv, £100, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009

Compass Box Phenomenology, blended malt Scotch whisky
A second blended malt from Compass Box, Phenomenology, while big and powerful, initially revealed a flavour profile that was on the light, sunny end of the spectrum. Tasters talked about crusty bread, lemon tart, spun sugar, cereal, and lots of juicy nectarine and ripe apricot.
‘You need to give this one some time,’ said one taster when describing a palate with hidden depths, starting with more of those sweet pastry notes and some ripe citrus, but eventually revealing a complex spiciness, and even a wisp of smoke on the finish.
46% abv, £150, Marussia Beverages, 020 7724 5009

Dewar’s 25yo, blended Scotch whisky
Recently released to replace Dewar’s Signature, and to reinforce the company’s commitment to age statements, Dewar’s 25yo is rested in casks formerly containing Highland single malt Royal Brackla. The result, thought to be a bit shy on the nose by one taster, was praised by others for its rye-like spicy notes, on a generous base of caramel and beeswax.
A creamy yet slightly savoury palate, followed by some warmer spice, like cinnamon, and leading to a warming finish with a hint of chilli, and a clean, pithy bitterness too. A great example of the kind of subtle flavour profiles to be found in blended scotch.
40% abv, £250, Bacardi Martini, 020 7650 2800

Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 21yo, blended Scotch whisky
As the name says, William Grant’s Ghosted Reserve range, launched in 2014, blends whiskies from distilleries that are no longer operational. This 21yo scotch combines stock from single malt producers Ladyburn and Inverleven, as well as from former grain distiller Dumbarton. The result was a focused, cohesive whisky, and one that was relatively light and delicate in this company.
Tasters described an elegant, fruit-driven nose, with mandarins and nectarines, some hay aromas, and a truffle note too. The riper and fruitier palate introduced some sweet spice – cinnamon and other baking spices – leading to a well-placed smokiness towards the finish. A great whisky to serve with cheese, thought one panellist.
42.8% abv, £120, William Grant & Sons, 020 8332 1188

Hankey Bannister 21yo Partners Reserve, blended Scotch whisky
This 21yo is in keeping with Hankey Bannister’s customary blend of Highland malts and Lowland grain whiskies, and is aged in both Spanish oak and American ex-bourbon barrels. Tasters were unanimous in their praise, describing honeyed cereal grains upfront, which led to ripe, juicy stone fruit and some soft caramel and fudge notes too, joined by some evident oak.
A generous sweet and spicy palate followed, with dried apricot and more of that rich honey note, all culminating in a comforting, sweet and warming finish. ‘This would be perfect after a good meal in a cottage on a snowy mountain,’ mused one taster.
40% abv, £105, International Beverage Holdings, 01236 769377

Hankey Bannister 25yo, blended Scotch whisky
Taking things up a notch in terms of age for Hankey Bannister, this limited-release 25yo blend was among our panel’s favourite whiskies, and something of a departure from the 21yo. The presence of some subtle, well-balanced smoke brought some focus to both the nose and palate. Coffee and far-eastern spices joined on what one taster described as ‘an intriguing nose’, not to mention some sweet apricot fruit.
Panellists spoke of a rounded palate, with some hay and a savoury element from the smoke, all leading to a full, fruit cake finish. ‘Multi-layered, complex and very well balanced,’ concluded one taster.
40% abv, £250, International Beverage Holdings, 01236 769377

Hankey Bannister 40yo, blended Scotch whisky
Hankey Bannister’s oldest expression, the 40yo includes single malt dating back as far as 1967, aged in former sherry casks. Tasters were at times conflicted about this unique whisky, opening as it did with some unexpected candied fruit notes, such as rhubarb and custard, as well as honeysuckle and a toasted, nutty note too.
More unexpected fruity notes followed, with panellists finding dried lychee, raisins and rose lemonade notes on the palate. All of this caused one taster to draw parallels with rum, while another thought the sum of its parts exceeded expectations. In a tasting of whiskies with diverse flavour profiles, this one stood alone.
44.3% abv, £800, International Beverage Holdings, 01236 769377

Hibiki 21yo, blended Japanese whisky
There’s a reason this has repeatedly been crowned best whisky blend in the world, among many other awards, and was our panel’s favourite whisky in this flight. Japan’s entrant, a blend of malt and grain whiskies, had it all. There was fruit to accompany some sherried notes, a savoury element and a beautifully balanced smoky note too. And all so expressive of its country that at least one taster identified it in this blind tasting as Japanese.
Orange peel opened proceedings on the nose, as well as ripe peach, and even some menthol, with some moodier leather notes behind that.
The palate didn’t disappoint; complex and intense, silky yet spicy, and highly drinkable, with salted caramel and dried red fruit. An exceptional whisky.
43% abv, £230, Beam Suntory, 0141 243 2323

Johnnie Walker Blue Label, blended Scotch whisky
Easily amongst the most well-known of top-end whiskies, and an icon of luxury spirits. Johnnie Walker Blue’s reputation, according to our panel’s tasting notes, is entirely justified. There was a lightness of touch to the blend here, with an elegant combination of grass and seaweed, but with some richer malt and Scottish tablet too.
That sweet note continued on the palate, where a more generous flavour profile emerged, with dark chocolate, coffee and Christmas spice enrobed in some well-balanced smokiness from what is undoubtedly a strong Islay-malt component.
40% abv, £137.75, Diageo Reserve, 020 8978 6000

John Walker & Sons Odyssey, blended malt Scotch whisky
In contrast with the many whiskies that go into Johnnie Walker, Odyssey consists of a mere three exceptional malts. What you get is a forthright blended malt, packed with flavour but also showing the benefits of some serious age, with more than one taster identifying some rancio notes.
Rich chocolate and roasted notes dominated on the nose with this whisky, accompanied by overt oakiness and even some tropical fruit. A peatiness made itself felt on the palate, all iodine and sea salt. Behind that, there was no shortage of dried fruit and warming spice, leading into a satisfyingly long finish. One taster saw this as the perfect accompaniment to a late-night cigar.
40% abv, £625, Diageo Reserve, 020 8978 6000

John Walker & Sons Private Collection 2017 Edition, blended Scotch whisky
This year’s Private Collection, the fourth in the annual series, is created from rare and experimental casks, celebrating the diverse influence of oak on whisky. This had some of the most interesting and unusual characteristics of the tasting, with tasters grappling with earthy, farmyard and meaty notes – all while heaping this spirit with praise.
Distinct sherry and Brazil nut aromas, as well as some dried cherries, joined those complex characteristics on the nose, leading to a palate with sweet fudge, a fragrant smokiness, and what one taster identified as shiitake mushroom. A fascinating whisky with exceptional depth.
46.8% abv, £480, Diageo Reserve, 020 8978 6000

Midleton Very Rare, blended Irish whiskey
Ireland’s very own pot-still whisky style was represented here by the highly respected Midleton Very Rare, blended with Irish grain whiskey. In the case of this 2017 edition, an amount of 32yo grain whisky was used, as well as 26yo single pot still whisky.
American oak dominated, with vanilla and toffee to start on the nose, as well as some menthol spice and some tropical fruit. That vanilla note continued onto the palate, joined by some apricots and ripe citrus, as well as some richer dark chocolate and honeycomb.
40% abv, £160, Pernod Ricard, 020 8538 4484

Royal Salute 21yo, blended Scotch whisky
Another classic name in the luxury blended scotch category, Royal Salute lived up to its opulent packaging with a whisky that was complex, balanced, and luxury through and through. Ripe, sweet fruits such as apples and pears were balanced by some notes of leather and oak on the nose, and joined by some cinnamon and vanilla spice aromas.
Those fruit characteristics in the whisky took on a more developed character on the palate, where they were accompanied by more vanilla, leading to a rich and creamy dark chocolate finish. ‘Refined and premium, a light after-dinner treat,’ said one taster, adding: ‘Good with a brandy and Benedictine, but without the brandy and Benedictine.’
40% abv, POA, Chivas Brothers, 0141 531 1801


Conclusions
At the top end, there’s not much of a common flavour profile among these blended whiskies and nor should there be. The best of these showed strong individual character, and were a fitting showcase of the blender’s art.
While some emerged as favourites amongst our panel, every one of these whiskies deserved their place, and price points, as luxury whiskies. And tasters were confident that these had a place in their venues.
Lighter grain whisky, where present, made itself felt in these blends, in contrast with the generally richer and more powerful single-malt-only blended malts.
Higher ABVs were preferred by our panellists, with two of the top three bottled above 40%.


                                                                            Panel comments

Clinton Cawood, Imbibe

‘A whisky blender’s creative freedom and broad palette has to be one of the main advantages blended whiskies have, and it was gratifying to see that at the top end they’re taking full advantage of this.
While these all sat comfortably within the luxury category, and were generally quite advanced in age, they didn’t all dwell in the full, rich and oaky part of the spectrum. On the whole, these offered a lot for their not-inconsiderable price points.’

Dino Koletsas, The Langham (Artesian and The Wigmore)
‘The evolution of these whiskies is really interesting. There seems to be a lot more to be gained from the time you spend with one of these blends, compared to single malts, which can be a more linear journey.
When it comes to customers spending this much money, we need to sell them the dream of these being the best of many worlds rather than just one. Blends certainly do things that single malt can’t. These are also great for recommending when you don’t have a requested single malt, and have a blend that fits the flavour profile.’

Michele Mariotti, Blue Bar at The Berkeley
‘I think this is a much-overlooked category, but what’s brought fresh interest is blended malts, and independent bottlers bringing a new approach too. They get people looking for top-end blends like these.
And at this end of the category there are some very cool things out there. Money is not an issue for a lot of our customers, and it’s interesting to see how often they go back to blends.’

Michal Maziarz, Rotunda at Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square
‘Customers make assumptions about blends versus single malts, and it can be a snobbish approach. The whiskies here today ranged from pretty good to bloody awesome.
Blends are often crowd-pleasers, but two or three here were special and unusual. They’d been blended out of a common flavour profile, resulting in something you’d expect from a single malt instead.’

Erik Simonics, La Dame de Pic at Four Seasons at Ten Trinity Square
‘As a sommelier, I look at these differently to how a bartender would. For me, they’re something to offer at the end of a meal, as the cherry on the cake.
I could offer many of these confidently in that setting, and a guest would maybe even ask for a second glass. You could pair these with certain dishes too, towards the middle or the end of a meal, alongside a plate of cheese, or a rum baba.’


Many thanks to the team at the Four Seasons Hotel at Ten Trinity Square for hosting the tasting, and for all of their help on the day.

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