Thursday, 13 March 2014

Which is the best cheap blend... out of Cutty Sark and Ballantine's Finest?


I have been blessed with some decent cheap blends recently – specifically White Horse and Jim McEwan’s Symphony No 1 – and this has helped create a new air of excitement around procurement of single malt’s often disparaged brother. This week then, we have a very interesting matching between two of the more renowned cheap blends, Cutty Sark and Ballantine’s Finest.

Now, in previous matchings on this blog there has often been some disparity between contestants – one might be particularly expensive, one might have a more impressive ABV, but here we have probably the most even matching yet – the same weight class, if you will.

Both are the standard expressions of brands that extend much further and higher. Cutty Sark has expressions ranging up to a 25 year old, retailing around £110 at Master of Malt while Ballantine’s range includes a 30 year old which pushes up to around the £200 mark – and that’s before you get to the special editions, one of which I’ve seen on The Whisky Exhange at nearly a grand.

In terms of recommendations I’ve had, 101 Whiskies toTry Before You Die includes both the standard expression of Cutty Sark and the 25 year old as well as the 17 year old expression of Ballantine’s.

Sticking to the standard expressions though, Jim Murray rates the Ballantine’s very highly (96) and the Cutty Sark much less so (78).

So now it’s my turn.

Marketing Bumf

Cutty Sark is predominantly blended from Speyside single malts and ‘top quality’ grain whiskies, and aged (again, predominantly) in American oak casks. Their website states that, once matured, “the malts are blended together, as are the grain whiskies” and that this is a particular feature of Cutty Sark. Frankly I don’t see what’s so special about this, it sounds like the basic definition of a cheap blend to me, but at least they do provide some information. I doubt there are any producers who blend their spirit first and then age it since blending is used to achieve a certain taste profile – you don’t know what the spirit is going to taste like after you age it before you age it, if you get what I mean. Some producers though, do age their spirit, blend it and then age it again – I think they call that ‘marrying’ and I seem to recall Dewar’s doing it with their “Double Aged” expression. Cutty Sark is merely aged and then blended, it seems.

Ballantine’s reckon that their standard blend is a ‘taste to satisfy a modern style” - whatever that means. Nevertheless, all whiskies malt and grain are aged for “many a year” (read: at least 3) in “high quality” casks.

Pricing

As I say, both are standard expressions. I paid 11 euros for the Cutty Sark and £15 for Ballantine’s. On the Whisky Exchange you’re looking at just over £18 plus P&P on both counts.
 
Aesthetics

I know, not all that important, and they won’t figure in the overall verdict, but I do like a nicely presented whisky. My favourite of these two is the Ballantine’s. It just has a vintage look about it. I like the shape, I like the slightly brittle sound the bottle makes when you tap it, I like the weight and I like the label which is printed on a nice matt finish paper – like a tasteful wedding invitation. That has to rank as one of my favourite bottles of all time.

Colour
 
Little to choose between these. You probably can’t tell from the picture because the dark nights are drawing in and this was taken under artificial light in the kitchen, but Ballantine’s is marginally darker than Cutty Sark.

Nose

I found little on the nose, merely determining that Ballantine’s was slightly more fragrant, and possibly had a note of sherry. Even the Cutty Sark website gives up little: “grassy, fresh and fragrant” it says.

Palate

Sadly the Cutty Sark doesn’t give up too much to me on the palate, though on one occasion I got a hint of apple pie on my lips.

In contrast, there’s a lot going on with Ballantine’s Finest. In the first instance it has what I could call that classic whisky flavour that brings back memories of my first tentative steps into the whole genre. It is beautifully balanced, not too bitter, not too sweet. The grain, while evident is unobtrusive and the whole solution just sits softly and luxuriantly on the tongue – I think the Ballantine’s website would describe this as being ‘rounded’.

The only time I’ve noticed any defect with the Ballantine’s is if I drink it after a single malt. The grain becomes far more evident, but I wouldn’t tend to follow a single malt with a blend anyway (though that might be a test I can carry out from time to time). I would expect many a blend to suffer under those circumstances.

Finish

Ballantine’s has a particularly good finish; long, warming and complex while Cutty Sark’s is of acceptable length but just has that tell-tale rasp of grain about it.

Value and Verdict

Well, it’s nice to analyse, sitting there watching the football with two glasses of whisky, but it’s  better to enjoy. And what I mean by that is you don’t really know which is the better whisky until you have lived with it. Which one did you enjoy most throughout the bottle’s lifespan? Which one provided the ideal accompaniment to the situation? Did one develop and deepen as familiarity grew? These are the things that really matter, and what I can tell you is that my favourite is still the Ballantine’s. I would be loath however to pay £18 plus P & P for either but at the prices I paid, both are great value.

Shall we have a look at what everyone in the world is saying about them on the internet, then? There’s certainly more to be found concerning the Ballantine’s, but is it better?

Ballantine’s:

The consensus appears to be fond admiration among customer reviews but almost snooty disapproval among bloggers, who say it’s only good for mixing. One said that it’s one of those blends that people discover early in life and then stick to, and the implication is that this is a bad thing – but if you find your favourite early in life and nothing matches up to it, that’s what you’re going to continue drinking after a while, isn’ it? Just a few nutty comments for you, then:

From Master of Malt

“I have a bottle more than 40 years old” So? Aside from the fact that whisky doesn’t age in the bottle… why haven’t you drunk it?

“It’s so sexy and fine just like man.” For some reason I read this in a foreign accent.

From For Peat’s Sake

Nose

“Grandad's garage.” Show me on the doll where granddad touched you.

Body

“eager to download flavor to your brain.” Possibly a review of the Ballantine’s Finest Digital from the future.

Overall

“in company of women its rated as an industrial strength panty-remover.” If that’s true, what  are you waiting for?... I’m just imagining a factory where panties are removed on an industrial scale…

“Something to try on the girlfriend.” Presumably he’s read the review above. Sadly no instructions are provided. For the record, Mrs Cake enjoyed the Ballantine’s, but underwear remained in place.I think wine and champagne are more suited to the unsheathing of lady parts than any particular whisky, should you want my advice.

Cutty Sark:

Appreciated for its affordability, but generally disparaged from all quarters. Even so, it doesn’t inspire the same level of creativity that the Ballantine’s does. Just a few  amusing comments so far:

From Amazon

“Best described as a mix of urine and white wine.” One of the world’s least popular cocktails.

From The Whisky Exchange

“This is truly the best whiskey I have ever tasted and not expensive too. Its light and very refreshing. I like to have CS during summer with just soda.” I don’t know why people feel they are qualified to review something they drink with soda.

“I've had worse. Tried it once alongside a no-age-statement Glenfidditch [sic]. Cutty won. To me this whisky kind of tastes like vegetable juice.”


So, I suppose that’ll do. Thanks for joining me. In summary, over its life the Ballantine’s Finest provided many enjoyable moments, and I’ll definitely consider repeating the purchase next time I can’t find a blend to buy. I strongly suspect I’ll be investing in the 17 year old at some point also.

It's another late post from me so once again, sorry about that. I have a quiet weekend of drinking coming up in which I might think about opening something new. The countdown starts now to opening the 32 year Bunnahabhain... er... 9 days and counting... look out for that on Twitter. Laters.

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