Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Highland Black 8 vs the World... of Blended Scotch

This week’s post unites a few themes from previous months – Aldi vs Lidl and  The Standard Supermarket Blend Test spring most readily to mind – so let me fill you in on what’s going on. Many years ago, when I had less money and I hadn’t become interested in spirits yet, I used to buy the occasional bottle of Highland Black 8 blended scotch from Aldi. I believe it was £8.99 the first time. I couldn’t even afford to buy one every month at that point – or I didn’t place enough importance on purchase of spirits to do so (I was going out far more often, to be fair… and buying other…things) – but I’d try to add a bottle to the shopping from time to time, which I would enjoy over ice when I could.

Time went by and in a round about way, those bottles of Highland Black, via a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, led to an interest in spirits. I think I started telling people I liked whisky, and my sister may have started buying me a bottle for Christmas… anyway, the details more or less escape me now. The point is, I’ve tried so many different whiskies now, that I had started to wonder what I would think of the Highland Black if I ever tried it again. Now I’ve finally decided to find out by conducting a series of versus experiments. I will be comparing it, one at a time with some blended whiskies of a similar class, and one or two that I just happen to have in, for a bit of variety. Let’s briefly meet our cast of characters

Highland Black 8

8 years old, bottled exclusively for Aldi, no further meaningful information available… it looks the part at least. Kind of. I really wanted to include this in the aforementioned supermarket test, but it fell outside the criteria – which, if you remember were that it had to be available in 35cl and classifiable as “standard”. It doesn’t come in a half size bottle, and its proudly displayed “8 years”, pushes it up a category above standard. This time I paid £12.99 for 70cl.


Stepping outside of the realm of blended scotch for a minute, we come to what I would consider equivalent in an Irish blend. I’d been saving the last little bit for this experiment. It was £16 (for 70cl) when I bought it.

McKendrick’s

The winner of the aforementioned Standard Supermarket Blend Test. This is the second time then, that I’ve bought this particular blend, and it’s a pleasure to have it back to see how it stacks up against some different competition. It has increased in price since the last time I bought it, by 25p to £6.75 for the 35cl.

Bells

I consider this to be the standard blend that all supermarket blends are based on, and that everyone has surely tried – if you haven’t tried Bell’s, your whisky education can never be complete. Found, it seems in every pub, newsagent, working men’s club, supermarket and duty free shop in the world, I haven’t tried it since well before starting this blog – before getting into spirits – so I’m very keen to find out what I think of it now. It was £12 for 70cl and is apparently blended from Caol Ila, Glenkinchie, Blair Athol, Dufftown and Inchgower malts – among many others no doubt, as well as a bunch of grain whiskies. Why those five malts are singled out I don’t know.

It receives generally positive reviews on TWE – except this one; “This just left me wondering how they got the cat to squat on the bottle.”

And this one, “Bells is great, if you were planning on committing suicide and had nothing else to drink. Even then you would wish your last drink had been a good one!There is no satisfaction when you drink it (other that the extra cash you have in your back pocket).”

It seems though that people seem to think it has improved over the past several years – since I tried it last, probably.

MoM reviews on the other hand are mostly negative, with one reviewer blaming it for his dad’s sneezing. Someone else mentioned sneezing, but not as a bad thing. “Better than no scotch” says another. Others are far less kind.

A lot of people ask why this is the most popular blend in the UK. I would suggest it’s because it’s pretty much the cheapest name brand. I don’t think people quite trust supermarket own brands, so they just go with Bell’s because it is well known – I mean, why do young people drink Foster’s? Exactly.

I ended up opening the Bell’s before the start of the contest. I had developed a cold by the weekend in question, so real tasting was to be out of the question. I still needed to drink something, so I thought I’d go for this. I have to say, I may not have been in full possession of my tasting faculties, but the Bell’s went down very well indeed. It’s sweet and full of flavour, gives good fumes and manages to avoid any of that burning  roughness that I generally associate with blends at the low to low-mid end of the pricing spectrum. It’s uncomplicated but not lacking in complexity – a whisky you can enjoy frequently.

My friend Phil, who was joining me actually guessed it was a Highland Park, but he hadn’t tasted any whisky for a good few months, and I hadn’t given him any clue as to what genre of whisky I was giving him.

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are still some more blends to introduce you to…

Kenmore

Like the Highland Black, I had wanted to be able to include Marks and Spencer’s slightly above basic blend in the Standard Supermarket Blend Test, but it had to be excluded because of it’s 5 year old age statement. There is a proper basic one with no age statement, but last time I didn’t get it because they don’t do a half bottle, and this time I didn’t get it because the Kenmore fits better alongside Aldi’s aged product. It retailed at the time at £16, but my voucher made it £12. It is tastefully presented, but is unusual in that it lists all the ingredients used in its production – including that of caramel for colouring.

Queen Margot 5

Not being a regular at Lidl, I was expecting to bring home a standard Queen Margot, but it turns out they do a 5 year old for £12.89, so I had to get that. Then, the next day, I learned there’s even an 8 year old, though I didn’t see it when I was there. I started thinking I’d have to take the 5 year old back and exchange it, but then I started imagining it all going wrong – like maybe they wouldn’t have it and I’d try to leave the store without anything, and security would stop me, and I’d be like, “I was going to swap this, but you didn’t have the thing I was going to swap it for. Look I have the receipt”, but the receipt was 2 days old and security would be like, “just cos you bought one the other day doesn’t mean you weren’t trying to steal this one today”, and it would be very embarrassing because the shop would be all full of students getting their cheap food in and I would have been embarrassed about trying to swap it at the checkout anyway. The queue was way beyond the booze aisle when I bought it in the first place, and I’d have to join the queue with nothing, just to get a chance to see if they had the 8 year old at all. It’s kind of embarrassing, buying booze in Lidl, in front of students, at my age.

So in the end I decided I’d stick with the 5 year old. It was roughly the same price as Aldi’s Highland Black anyway, so it is still comparable.


A bit fancier, this one. We should really expect this one to stand apart with ease given that it’s just on the verge of what I’d called the premium blend category. I bought it in duty free, where it was £29.48 for a litre (converted from euros).

Hankey Bannister Original

A very late entry to the competition, thanks to the generosity of my friend David who picked this up from Duty Free in Egypt. I know I’d heard of it before through one of the many blogs I’ve perused over the last few years, but I didn’t know anything about it. It’s a standard 40% ABV, and the limited information on the bottle is concerned with a legacy of “being enjoyed in society for over 250 years”. Something about the website (www.hankeybannister.com) – images of a top hat and a pocket watch – and the way they mention royal seals of approval from Prince Regent William iv to George v suggest they are referring to high society rather than that to which we all belong.

Let’s finish this introduction by ranking each competitor on price per cl – with the exception of Hankey Bannister, which I didn’t buy:

1.       Ballantine’s 12 – somewhat unsurprising that this should be the priciest. It comes in at 29.48p per centilitre (from Duty Free).

2.       Bushmills Original - 22.86p per centilitre, though I seem to recall there was £4 off at Asda.


3.       McKendrick’s – 18.57p per centilitre, making it just 0.01p more expensive than…

4.       Highland Black 8 – 18.56p per centilitre.


5.       Queen Margot 5 – marginally cheaper than the focus of this piece at 18.41p per centilitre.

6.       Kenmore 5 – only 17.14p/cl this one, though that’s because I had a £4 voucher. Otherwise it would be the same as the Bushmills.


7.       Bell’s – also at 17.14p per centilitre, but on this occasion it was at £3 off at Asda.


So now that everyone’s had a bit of an introduction, we can move on to the contest. The point of this exercise isn’t to find out who is the best overall – though I’m sure we’ll inevitably come to that conclusion – but to determine how Aldi’s Highland Black stacks up against products of a [mostly] similar class. For that reason, the experiment will be conducted as a series of Highland Black versus… tests. We may find out very early on where it stacks up against other brands without having to carry out a specific test, but we shall determine that when we come to it.

Test 1 – Highland Black vs Bushmills Original

This ended up being the first test because Bushmills was the blend I’d had open for the longest. There was about a double left in the bottle that, until deciding to do this post, I’d been saving to soup up a disappointing can of lager.

Let’s see then; in the glass these are almost identical in colour, with the Highland Black possibly being slightly darker. On the nose, the Bushmills is sweet, while the HB is very rough. Based on that, I’m inclined to worry about drinking a full bottle of Aldi’s finest, but let’s get onto the tasting anyway…

On the palate, the Bushmills is buttery with a hint of bran. It is sweet and quite pleasant. HB on the other hand is light and reminiscent of a personal favourite, Ballantine’s Finest, though it doesn’t follow this good initial impression with much. It seems rough and it burns a little, but it does give good fumes.

Luckily, as the tasting progressed, the HB began to grow on me, until ultimately, there wasn’t enough in it so I had to call it a draw – and that means Aldi wins because it is cheaper.

Test 2 – Highland Black vs Ballantine’s 12 year old

The contents of the Ballantine’s 12 are starting to wane also, so while this is easily the most expensive bottle in the test and should easily outperform the HB, it still needed to prove itself in the heat of competition. I have been enjoying the Ballantine’s, as you’ll know from my earlier post, though I haven’t been convinced it is as good as its cheaper and younger brother. Let’s see how it fares against Aldi’s blend…

The HB is grainy on the nose, in contrast to Ballantine’s malty sweetness, though  on the palate, the HB is still giving great fumes. I’m actually disappointed in the Ballantine’s, given what I remember from drinking it so far. It is sweet with a bit of spice at the back of the mouth, but it isn’t full of flavour. It is better on the finish though.

I conducted a second tasting a few days later, but this time I tasted the Ballantine’s first, and was surprised to find this seemed to have an effect on the outcome. The HB was still giving great fumes, but in comparison there were one or two off notes about the finish.

Overall then, the Ballantine’s is marginally better, but certainly not in proportion to the difference in price.

Test 3 – Highland Black vs Bell’s

Bell’s gives good fumes, and I have to say I’m surprised at how much I’ve been enjoying it. It either really has improved over the last decade, or drinking it with ice ruins it. You could say that about the HB too. I’ve been enjoying both much more than I used to, and I find this very encouraging. I’m sure your whisky snobs will continue to scoff at the idea of drinking either of these two blends, but for my money, they provided excellent value. Bell’s is a little sweeter, perhaps a little more complex, and I am going to say marginally better. Equally though, it is a bit more expensive usually. You can pick it up in the sales for the same price as Aldi’s HB, as I did, which means on this occasion, HB isn’t the winner. But it isn’t by much.

Test 4 – Highland Black vs Queen Margot 5

The Margot had no nose to speak of, but initial impressions were that is was not unpleasant on the palate. There may even be a hint of pears. I couldn’t actually separate them on the occasion of direct comparison, so that was looking good for Lidl.

I tried the Margot on its own a day or two later, and sadly it didn’t fare so well. It’s unduly rough on entry, and while it’s not bad overall, you really have to taste the fuck out of it, to get any benefit. And that amount of effort isn’t really worth it overall.

In response, I tried the Highland Black on its own, and was pleased with its dry earthiness and its sweetness. So, once again, the Highland Black is the victor.

Test 5 – Highland Black vs Kenmore 5

You’d be hoping for something special from Marks and Spencer, being as they are, purveyors of fine foods. I was pleased to find it gives decent fumes with a nice hit of peat, but the nose itself is a bit yeasty. It was fairly tasty, but a disappointingly cheap alcohol feel detracted from that. There was also a slightly off note – a very strong taste of cloves threatening to derail everything. Overall though, the Kenmore is just too sweet for my personal taste and, again, I have to declare Aldi the winner.

Test 6 – Highland Black vs Hankey Bannister
Side by side, you’d be hard pressed to pick a favourite from these two. Right now they are both seeming like the kind of cheap blend you can swig casually in the early afternoon without feeling you’re wasting your product. The Highland Black probably edges it slightly with it’s marginally sweeter, lighter components, while it’s cheap grain to the fore with the rough and burny Hankey Bannister. I’m starting to feel that cheap blended scotch is all much of a muchness these days, with there being little in the way of variation among the brands overall.

Test 7 – Highland Black vs McKendrick’s


That leaves just one more test – against the undisputed supermarket blended scotch champion. They are almost identical in colour, but Asda’s product has a bit more caramel about the nose – but in a nice way. Aldi’s product reveals a touch of menthol. On the palate, McKendrick’s is actually marginally sweeter with good fumes and an appley, spicy finish. There still isn’t much to separate them, but I’m actually going for the current reigning Standard Supermarket Blend Champion on this one. It actually reminds me of the 7 year old Fettercairn that I had been enjoying for a while – light in flavour, but not quite as light in body.

Conclusion

I’ve just noticed a startling omission. Why didn’t I save a bit of the Bell’s to try alongside the McKendrick’s? What an idiot! Both have turned out to be marginally better than the Highland Black, so it would be interesting to know how they would fare against each other. I suppose that’s one for another time. I was going to say that from memory, the Bell’s is probably better than the McKendricks, but I had another glass of the McKendrick’s the other night, and it just never fails to surprise and delight. A true budget gem. The Ballantine’s 12 is probably the best overall, but again, the price has to count against it slightly – it just isn’t that much better.


In all then, Aldi’s Highland Black fares quite well. There are of course a wealth of blended scotches available for around the same price point, and this one is better than some, but not the overall best. If you want surprising quality and real value for money, McKendrick’s is the budget blended scotch of choice.

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