Over the past year, I have had many opportunities to experience a range of single malt whiskies, the chance for which I feel very privileged.
However, it has also been a year where blends have not featured as heavily in my tasting experiences as I may have originally planned.
While I love a good single malt, I have no major issues with blends. It’s true that poor quality blends can put off new whisky drinkers if they are too harsh, unbalanced or lacking in anything exciting. But it is equally true that – just like grain whiskies, which I often enjoy – blends can get a bad rap.
Companies like Compass Box are looking, well, outside of the box, and helping to make blends of interest again, focusing on the fact this style of whisky can be very well constructed and still take a hell of a lot of work.
Of course, many new whisky drinkers may not come across more boutique companies like Compass Box in the early stages of their whisky journey. This is why I think it’s important to sometimes go back to brands that one can easily find in supermarkets (along with whisky specialists, since some blends are as pricy as single malts) and give them a chance too.
I have recently had the opportunity to try much of the range from Ballantine’s – a blended Scotch that is extremely popular on the continent, if not as much here in the UK.
As background, George Ballantine was a grocer who set up his own shop in Edinburgh in 1827 at the tender age of 18. As his grocery store became more successful, he began to specialise in whisky, bringing in his own stock and amassing great quantities. In 1867, he set up two much larger stores in Edinburgh and Glasgow with son Archibald and, along with continuing to sell other whisky brands, began creating his own range. He died in 1892 but was posthumously awarded a Royal Warrant by Queen Victoria in 1895. The company was eventually acquired by Canadian company Hirim Walker Gooderham & Worts in 1936. It is now a part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio.
I had not come across much Ballantine’s previous to this tasting so it was almost a complete mystery.
So what did I try?
I’ll start with the Ballantine’s 12-year old. Introduced to the range in 1960, this whisky comes in at 40% and is the colour of golden hay. The nose was sweet, with notes of banana skins, caramel and oak. The palate has an initial sweetness of ripe fruit, apples, vanilla fudge and a dry smoky, spicy note just at the end. The finish is slightly bitter (almost fungal or grassy) but with hardly any alcoholic bite. It was very pleasant and I would suggest a great entry level dram if you can find it, that is, as I’ve not found it to be heavily stocked here in the UK.
Next up I sampled Ballantine’s Finest, which has been on store shelves since 1910 and is the biggest seller in the range. At 40%, it is the colour of straw and has a more delicate nose than the 12-year old, with notes of peach, apricot and, rhubarb and custard sweets. There was also a hint of chalk. The palate was very light, with an apple, toasted grain and butter flavour. The finish was drying at first, before moving into a grassy bitterness and a final dash of apple sauce. It won the Scotch blend of the year in both 2011 and 2012 in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible and is another stellar example of an entry level blend (price-point wise) since it can be found for less than £20 in most places.
Finally, I sampled the Ballantine’s 17-year old. This is a couple of steps up from the other two, in relation to price, normally coming in at somewhere around the £45 mark. It has been in the collection since 1930 and is a wee bit stronger at 43%. The colour of this whisky was a light golden honeycomb and the nose was sweet at first, with notes of Quality Street strawberries, caramel and honey-roasted peanuts before adding a dash of spice and smoke. I was expecting the palate to be similarly sugary but it hinted instead of sugared lemons, oranges, honey, toffee and peppery spice. The finish was similar to the 12 in that the grassy flavour reappeared for me, but this also had a citrus and spice hint too.
As always with whisky write-ups, this is just my opinion about the Ballantine’s range. I was pleased to get the chance to try them out and remember that blends should not be forgotten despite the sea of single malts that equally please.