Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Upping the Blended Scotch Ante: Ballantine's 12

I’ll start this week’s post with a bit of confusion. I looked up the 12 year old Ballantine’s in JimMurray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, and found two products. One called “Aged 12 Years” and scoring 84.5 – “attractive but odd” – and the other called “12 Years Old” and scoring 87 – “too good for a quirt of soda”. Which one did I have?!

Try as I might online, I can’t find anything to distinguish them. They all say “aged 12 years” on the bottle whether tagged that way or as “12 years old”. Why would there be two 12 year old products anyway?

I’m putting this down as another failing for Jim Murray’s 2013 Whisky Bible, and if he dunt like it, he can damn well sort it out and make his self bloody clear. [I’ve since learned that there is a pure malt -  - but you would expect Murray would have made that plain, since after looking it up online, the pure malt is clearly labelled as such on the bottle, and would therefore have been included in a different section in Murray’s book. For the record, there is a 12 year old pure malt in Murray’s book, and that scores 88.5].

Enough. Who cares anyway? It’s what I think that matters.

The presentation is along the same lines as the Finest, except this time you get a flimsy blue box to keep your bottle in. The bottle itself is the same shape as the Finest, but the intriguing brown tint has been eschewed in favour of clear glass. While the label is similar, it doesn’t quite have the same class. In spite of all that, you do get one step up in terms of cap quality.

The day following another pub crawl in Stockport was not the best time to get a first impression a blend I consider to be in the next price bracket up from all your various standards. 41 euros for a litre in Duty Free suggests a price of around £30 for 70cl in the UK. I’m not all that comfortable with spending that much for a blend, but presumably there must be some that are worth it, and therefore directly comparable with single malt. That will have to be a study for another time.

I was surprised to find I was feeling ropey. I didn’t feel I’d drank that much and I’d remembered to drink two large beakers of water before I’d gone to sleep. As a result, the opening of the Ballantine’s 12 represented the only alcoholic drink I would have that Saturday. That’s unusual.

Evaluation would always hinge on how I felt the Ballantine’s upgrade compared with the entry level Finest which I have been forthcoming about thinking very highly of. That, after all, was what had inspired me to invest my 41 euros in this in the first place – that and my decision to try a more expensive blend next time round.

So, as often seems to be the case, one night of mildly heavy drinking ruined my drinking on the next night. I actually gave up on my glass halfway through, only finishing it off after a pause of about an hour, after which I thought I might be ready. No.

There seemed to be more body and indeed more flavour than its everyday value cousin, but that didn’t make it immediately better.

It is always better to open a new bottle on consecutive drinking days though, and that’s what I did by returning on the Sunday when I felt much better. I was immediately able to appreciate the 12 year old better as a result and, while I’m still not entirely sure I’d prefer this over Finest, I did enjoy the glass very much. I’m starting to think I should treat my whiskies a bit more cavalierly (should that be a word), and just enjoy them instead of over-analysing them. Maybe though, this one’s just a bit too expensive to treat that way – I do have a litre of it mind. That should be plenty.

It is a bit silkier and, given the right circumstances a hugely enjoyable dram that makes it good value whether you compare it to its younger brother or not. Nor is it too snooty to be above being a Saturday afternoon drink.

In terms of 12 year old blends in general, sadly the only other experience I’ve had was with Dewar’s (accidentally twice). Nevertheless, I can confidently declare the Ballantine’s is a lot better than that. Dewar’s was basically a cheap blend with an age statement on it – it seems a shame for all the spirit to have to be at least 12 years old when you could make a  roughly comparable (even improved) blend with much younger whisky.

I’ve actually come to enjoy it very much, and I can’t think back now to whether the Finest is actually better. The 12 is no doubt richer, even silkier… but it’s also more expensive and it comes down to value once again. I suppose, if I was going to give you a good idea of where we stand now, I could try to imagine how much I’d be happy to pay for each one. The Finest, I think, I would happily pay £15 for (against its more standard price of £20), and the 12 year old… I’d probably happily pay £20. It may look bad that I’m saying I’d be unwilling to go up to full price, but there’s all kinds of considerations gone into these assertions. First, the Finest only cost me £15 in the first place, and I’ve seen it again for that price in the UK since. There are also a whole smorgasbord of other blends at around this price range that I haven’t tried yet, and £20, while it is better than all the other blends of my experience at that price point and below, is still a bit too much for a no age statement blend.
As far as the 12 year old is concerned, £30 is just a bit too much for a blend. You’re only a step or so away from getting a very decent single malt at that point, so you may as well get a Talisker or a Highland Park, or stump up a few extra pounds and get an Ardbeg or a Bowmore.

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