The new serving standard
First published in Prestige Magazine (September 2012 Edition).
Premium. It’s the watchword of our times. The online Oxford defines it as: “relating to or denoting a commodity of superior quality and therefore a higher price”. I’ve simplified it to: “relatively extra” – specifications, quality, prestige…any or all of that good stuff. Everybody wants premium. And why not? Life is too short to settle for less.
Whisky is no exception; in fact it’s the epitome of this phenomenon. In the whisky world expensive, lavishly-packaged variants are being introduced on a weekly basis. Older, better, more! It’s exciting but also a little bit intimidating, because the bar (yes, I like my puns) is being set progressively higher. For instance, it no longer seems enough, in a well-to-do home, to serve visitors the regular fare – a 12YO blended Scotch, the first step to premium, is the new minimum standard.
To properly appreciate this new game, and to make the most of it, one needs become familiar with the players. This may be particularly relevant right now as we come out of winter hibernation, look to refill our liquor cabinets, and start entertaining afresh. In the not-so-distant South African past, although there were others lurking about, the choice invariably came down to a straight contest between Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal 12YO. One either preferred the huskiness of the former or the honeyed flavour of the latter (or, in many cases I’m sure, one just bought premium for premium’s sake). No longer. Whilst these two stalwarts still dominate the market, the repertoire of easily accessible options has expanded quite delightfully.
I recently sought out a few of Cape Town’s whisky luminaries and prompted them to gather at the Bascule, the city’s whisky HQ, to review the local pool of 12YO blended Scotch. In the midst of some typical whisky-fuelled R&R (repartee and revelry) we somehow managed to string together a few coherent observations, précised below for your reading pleasure. Enjoy, and may the dram be with you!
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Johnnie Walker is the world’s best-selling whisky. Diageo, its owner, is much maligned in the whisky world, but one thing is clear enough: it takes nothing less than high-quality, highly consistent whisky to attain and maintain such lofty heights. I found the nose somewhat brash, but if subtlety’s not the result then it’s not the objective either. Rather, this is a bold and tasty mainstream whisky that hits each and every place on the Scotch trifecta – malt, peat, and sherry – and hits it hard. And if you’re a young turk with a big swinging dick looking to make your mark in the world then there’s still no better way to announce your intent than by walking into a bar and calling for a Johnnie Black, yeah baby!
If Johnnie Walker is Scotch then Chivas is Speyside…in all of its debonair elegance. In very broad terms the region has become known for the fruit and honey flavours which happen to be prominent in Chivas Regal. The whisky’s official tasting notes also claim a slight smokiness, but this was beyond my ability to identify. Perhaps it comes from char as opposed to peat. Regardless, it’s not important. Chivas is not about smoke, or anything so robust. It is understated refinement personified. Interestingly one of our party noted that this is not a distinctively whiskied whisky – apparance of its cereal origins is restrained, and dominated by sherry notes. Indeed to a novice it might be difficult to distinguish from a similarly aged cognac or rum. I’d perhaps venture to suggest that this is a whisky for all seasons.
This new kid on the block comes from a pedigreed background. It’s a blend in which we can assume the famous Glenfiddich and Balvenie malts, emanating from the same hallowed stable, to be at the forefront. Sadly for this fine whisky my attention was diverted by a claim which seems rather forced: “Grant’s 12 Year Old is the only blended Scotch whisky to ‘marry’ the finest 12 Year Old grain and single malt whiskies for six months after blending in bourbon casks”. Technically this may be true, but it’s not quite as impressive as it sounds. Dewar’s (and W&M) has a long tradition of marrying whisky, albeit in sherry casks, and one of the variants of the local Three Ships, albeit not a Scotch, is married in bourbon casks. The good news – for peat freaks in particular – is that Grant’s is the smokiest whisky in this category. Phenol-menal! Kudos too on the best packaging amongst the lot.
The regular Ballantine’s is my favourite blended Scotch in its price category. It reminds me of my time in Rome when I spent many an evening pondering the spectacular sights, glass in hand. And big brother does not disappoint. A flavoursome and interesting all-rounder – my personal runner-up.
Jet’s mild flavours won’t start a party in your mouth; rather this is a whisky that’s ideal for newer initiates, and for occasions when fuller flavours might be distracting. Fresh but not vivid – perfect as an aperitif on a spring evening.
I’ve kept the best for last – and that’s not just my opinion. Each of the heavyweights at our gathering concurred, with no hesitation whatsoever. This whisky is magnificently integrated – it displays superb balance not only amongst it complex flavours, but also between nose, palate and finish – and is completed by a smooth, silky mouth-feel. Hugely underrated.
Big thanks to Hector McBeth, Marsh Middleton and Bernard Gutman.