So, you have a mere forty dollars in your pocket and yet find yourself in the whisky aisle, longingly surveying its well stocked shelves. The kids can probably do without their antibiotics for a couple more days. The dog will dig up something previously stashed to eat. You really wanted to see just how far the car will go after the fuel light came on and, now that the euthanasia bill has passed, Gramps won't be needing his pills. So that $40 is free and clear to trade for a whisky. The shelves are minefields though; more disappointment lurks there than revelation. Those little notes of recommendation left by the staff here and there are sure to guide you to the most insipid liquid ever bottled. Your teeth spontaneously commence grinding when a helpful idiot offers his suggestion of something "really smooth". Thankfully, this evolving nightmare may be avoided, if you read on....
Of course, I write this from an Australian perspective. Those of you in Japan or the US of A will face no such budgetary dilemmas but here in Australia, where the government feels obliged to bend over backwards to reward people for breeding and to bend the rest of us over in the other direction to pay for it, spirits are heavily taxed. A whisky I paid $11 for in Tokyo costs $79 here. While there are whiskies to be had in Australia for well under $40 dollars, they aren't worth drinking. Fortunately for you, comrades, the $40 price point sees a lot of competition and also the regular appearance of more expensive whiskies on sale. Since the decline of Vat 69, Teachers, White Heather, Black Bottle and others and the current absence of the lovely Bailie Nicol Jarvie, the field has thinned somewhat. Still, the following drams are, at least, pleasantly drinkable.
Suntory Kakubin Blended Japanese Whisky
40% ABV 2016
From Suntory, the whisky equivalent of Godzilla, this no age statement blend is simply presented in a medicine-style bottle of the type that the Japanese seem fond.
Colour: Amber. Not a lot happening on the nose but a wee whiff of smoke, freshly sliced bread, citrus, cinnamon and vanilla. Very polite on the palate yet a slightly creamy mouthfeel. Banana custard, vanilla, marzipan and sour dough give way to pear, dried fruits and a faint hint of tobacco. Very light, polite and inoffensive while avoiding insipidity.
Chivas Regal 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
Regular Chivas 12 year old. Available everywhere from around $39. Owned by Pernod Ricard, who hold dominion over Ballantines, Jamison, Glenlivet, Scapa, Royal Salute, Aberlour and many others including Strathisla, which is prominent in this blend.
Colour: Deep gold. This one is more aromatic; Camomile tea, sultana and caramel. Sweet, earthy and familiar. Caramel, malt, tea, honey, orange and toffee on the palate. Heavy on the sweet caramel flavour profile; nothing to dislike. Again, very light, pleasant and forgettable.
Dewar's 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
The standard 12 year old blend from Dewar's, successor to Dewar's "Double Aged" 12 Year Old. The 12 is still "Double Aged"; marketing jargon describing a period of six months the whisky is left to "marry" after its blending.
Colour:Amontillado Sherry. A nose of light peat, Brazil nuts, black tea and hot toast. Rather pleasing. The promise of the nose goes unfulfilled on the palate, which is quite pleasant nonetheless; Honey, grain, toast, brown sugar and thyme. More substance than the Chivas and Suntory. A safe bet but a little frustrating due to its unrealized potential. Please mister Dewar, can I have some more ABV?
Ballantine's 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
Ballantine's is composed of over fifty different whiskies (that's only 80 cents each then) but Miltonduff and Glenburgie allegedly are the primary contributors. Given it sells for around $50 in the UK, it's pretty good value here at $40-$55. It has also been quite consistent of late.
Colour: Deep gold. Smoke, malt, dark fruits and white pepper nose. A well balanced, mouth filling dram of butterscotch, tobacco, cherry, vanilla and nuts and honey. Finishes only slightly longer than the others here, which is to say, barely. Still, quite a decent whisky for forty bucks.
Dimple 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
A product of Haig, the distinctive Dimple "Pinch" bottle may feel awkward in the hand but is immediately recognisable. No doubt its selection as Walter White's drink of choice in Breaking Bad hasn't harmed it's popularity either. The Haigs are among the oldest of whisky families; the church recorded the sanction of Robert Haig in 1655 for operating his still on the Sabbath. In 1824 his descendant, John Haig, built the Cameron Bridge distillery in the Lowlands. His daughter, Margaret, married John Jameson who founded the Jameson Irish Whiskey Company; must have been one hell of a reception. Cameron Bridge began producing grain whisky in 1830. The distillery produced both grain and malt whisky using a combination of pot and column stills until 1929, when it shifted exclusively to the production of grain whisky. Cameron Bridge now has an enormous capacity of over thirty million litres annually. They also bottle a single grain whisky under the name Cameron Brig. This bottle of Dimple set me back $38 but if I had Walter White's cash, I'd look at a higher shelf.
Colour: Deep copper. I've been waiting for the unfortunate nose on this to improve; it hasn't. Paraffin wax, ginger biscuits, spicy fruitcake and smoked ham. Doesn't show it's age. Caramel, vanilla, sweet ginger and white pepper. Grain whisky dominates. Generic, unremarkable, unchallenging and relatively inoffensive. As such it will appeal to many.
Glen Grant The Major's Reserve Single Malt Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
The Glen Grant distillery is named after founders, James and John Grant, who built the Speyside distillery in Rothes in 1840. After the deaths of James and John, James' son James inherited the distillery and built another across the road. Channeling his father's imaginative naming ability, James named the new distillery Glen Grant II (today known as Caperdonich). The only single malt in this comparison, this no age statement malt set me back the princely sum of $39.
Colour: Yellow gold. Nose: Apples and pears. Fresh baked bread and malt. Green tea. Young and light on the palate with more red apples, vanilla, tea and caramel custard. This one even has a finish, be it ever so short, reprising the ripe red apple with which it began. A light, fresh single malt for the cost of a cheap blend. Bargain.
Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
40% ABV 2016
Twenty million cases, give or take a few. Twenty million nine litre cases. That's how much whisky Johnnie Walker sells every year. What amazes me is how consistent JW products are, given that volume of production. Much like McDonald's. While JW products are the antithesis of the craft presentation that makes for characterful whiskies, they are masters of marketing a very refined (literally and figuratively) range of products. In 1820 John Walker started selling whisky in his grocery shop in Ayrshire. After his death in 1857, it was his son Alexander and grandson Alexander II who were responsible for establishing the popularity of the brand. In 1908, the company name was changed from "Walker's Kilmarnock Whiskies" to Johnnie Walker Whisky. Black Label is said to be a blend of over forty whiskies (given how much of it they make I'm not surprised) but Caol Ila and Talisker are apparently the main contributors (where did they hide the peat?). JW also introduced the no age statement whisky Double Black a few years ago. A cynic may conclude this was to take supply pressure off the twelve year old Black Label. Having suffered through a bottle of Double Black, I found it a contrived and inferior version of Black Label which should be cheaper, not more expensive.
Colour: Burnished. No lack of E150 colour in any of these whiskies, save perhaps the Glen Grant. Nose: Sherry, vanilla and oak. The merest hint of peat. Liquorice, coconut and black pepper. Already a beautiful balance is apparent. Surprisingly velvety mouthfeel. Water is Kryptonite to its flavour so nary a drop! Peat is easier to find on the palate than the nose and is certainly reminiscent of Talisker but JW are not going to let any potentially customer-alienating heavy peat flavours loose. Just enough peat to add another flavour dimension but less intense than it was in the Ballantine's. Sweet sherry. Brown sugar. Sweet, subtle, peat, vanilla, anise and oak. This is actually quite delicious. It's subtle, elegant. Light but but not vapid. For the $39.95 I paid, a remarkably good whisky; a budget-blending masterpiece.
The Paper Bag Please....
The Suntory, Dewar's and Ballantine's stand appart from the lesser blends. The Glen Grant is inexpensive for a single malt and eminently drinkable; it's light, sweet and lively flavours are easy to like. But the Johnnie Walker Black Label is the only one that doesn't taste like a cheap (albeit decent) whisky. It's refinement and subtle complexity make it the stand out winner here. The question remains though, are these whiskies worthy of your palate? Well, if you find them satisfying, yes. If you use them as palate-priming entrées to more substantial whiskies, yes. In the case of the Black Label, definitely yes. For me though, life is too short; drink less whisky, drink better whisky. Savour your whisky and the budget does not have to be large. As to this lot though, follow the example of Jon Snow: Take The Black.
Johnnie Walker Black was the favourite whisky (or, as he described it "delivery method") of the late Christopher Hitchens. One of the great thinkers of our time, Hitchens not only possessed a wit of surgical precision and devastating efficacy but the means to enjoy whatever whisky he desired. I had wondered why JWB was the drink of choice of such a man until I read this in his book Letters to a Young Contrarian:
"Be careful about upgrading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won't be easily available". Consistent indeed, Mr Walker.