Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Spirit Log: Old Ballantruan

It was back to the whisky procurement matrix for the focus of this week’s post. The target: a Speyside malt with no age statement or under 10 years old. I had a bit of a search, then made a list of targets and started comparing prices.
At the lowest end of the pricing spectrum, and very tempting, was the Glen Grant Major’s Reserve. That was going for as little as £22 at one of the major supermarkets, but the handy price comparison on Bring a Bottle showed that it frequently dipped as low as £18. I thought I’d wait for that to happen before dipping my toe in that particular bucket.
The range then extended from an uninspiring Benromach 5, through an ugly but positively reviewed Cu Dhub, a Gordon and MacPhail bottling of an 8 year old Tamdhu and finished at the top of the price range with a classy looking Spey Tenne (which I always read as “spray tan”), tawny port finish.
My heart had already been won though, by this 50% ABV, unchillfiltered Old Ballantruan. It isn’t a typical Speyside in that it is peated, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for peat, and it’s rare that I’ll pass up on those extra ABVs.
I made a note on my matrix that the next Speysider (and indeed, scotch) I buy absolutely must not be peated.
Now, Old Ballantruan is from the Tomintoul distillery, and it receives pretty much universal acclaim from the users on the main UK retailers. Let’s just have a little look then, at what Tomintoul is all about.
Presenting its product as “the gentle dram” (so you can assume this whisky will whisper tenderly in your ear and penetrate you slowly with plenty of foreplay and lubrication), the Tomintoul distillery is located close to the highest village in the highlands of Scotland (groovy), in the prestigious Glenlivet estate, though it is apparently only the second highest distillery. So is the highest distillery nowhere near a village, or is there a really steep incline between Tomintoul and the highest village? I never realised Glenlivet was an estate and not merely a distillery, so I found it confusing when I read Old Ballantruan was a Tomintoul malt, but the bottle stated “Glenlivet” on it. I’m not a fan of the standard Glenlivet, but that shouldn’t matter here.
The Tomintoul website (at the time of writing) doesn’t make mention of the Old Ballantruan expression – similarly to how the Old Ballantruan bottle (and box) doesn’t mention anything about Tomintoul. What it does say is that they use the pure spring water from the Ballantruan Spring, and that Tomintoul whiskies are not peated – except the Tomintoul Peaty Tang. It looks, after digging around some of the internets, that Old Ballantruan has actually been discontinued, and the Peaty Tang is what stands in its place. I wonder whether I should focus my energies from time to time on finding discontinued expressions, since they will represent the last chances I have to try them. That’s something to think about. Of course it will also mean it is harder to buy them again if I like them.
Now, when you get peated malts it’s nice to find out about phenol content. Phenols are measured in parts per million and particularly renowned peaty whiskies like Ardbeg are known to have a content of around 55ppm – which doesn’t seem very much, but if you’re familiar with Ardbeg, you’ll know that packs quite a punch. Bruichladdich’s Octomore range regularly exceeds 160ppm, sometimes more than 200, but they also exceed £140 for spirit aged only a few years, so you’d have to be particularly adventurous (or lucky (or extravagant)) to find out what that’s like.
All this leads me to saying that the phenol content of Old Ballantruan is unclear. One source suggested 55ppm, so matching Ardbeg, but another claimed it is only 30ppm. As ever, you just can’t trust the internet.
So how’s it looking? As far as presentation is concerned you get a dull but sturdy tube depicting some gents digging up a bit of peat and a dark bottle that matches the design of the tube. The neck is fairly long and rounds out at the shoulders before tapering slightly to a sturdy bottom.
According to Royal Mile, the finish contains “cold haggis, bitumen [and a] touch of thick cardboard”.
While from from, we have; “The smell of a big damp warehouse or cricket store at the end of winter...”
My initial impressions are favourable. Definite peaty sweetness on the nose, and some toffee on the palate. None of those other things present for me though. You only have to say “damp cricket store” to me, and I can smell it, so it definitely isn’t in this whisky. As for haggis, I doubt it is even possible for whisky to taste of that, and it just smacks of someone trying to reference something patently Scottish. Just give it up.
Some other tastings
I’ve been enjoying the Old Ballantruan so much neat that I found it hard to finally take the step toward adding a drop of water. Considering it’s an impressive 50%, there isn’t any burn to speak of. In fact, the only hint of the high strength is a very slight bitterness on the finish. Nevertheless, one day I did add water, and when I say it was only a drop, it really was only a drop. The immediate effect was wonderful; highlighting the sweet tones. As that paricular tasting progressed, for some reason the stunted taste of bottled spring water became more apparent. This wasn’t a problem on succeeding occasions though, and I took to adding a tiny drop of water every time I had a glass. It had grown to be very enjoyable, and probably the best spirit I had available at that point.
I was going to try it in a three-way tasting with Kilchoman Sanaig and an Ardbeg miniature, but for some reason my booze collection seemed to be in constant danger of disappearing, so I decided to be more frugal and just enjoy each on their own terms.
I finished the Kilchoman, enjoying its distinct earthiness for its own sake, and then decided I would do a direct Ballantruan-Ardbeg comparison one Friday night anyway.
In terms of colour, Ardbeg is much paler, while on the nose I made notes that the Old Ballantruan was “custardy” with a pleasant hint of ginger and the Ardbeg “sweet and peachy” (how I like my women – though I probably wouldn’t mind if they were custardy, too – or indeed ginger, for that matter).
I added water to the Old Ballantruan, to help bring out some of its sweetness, but I didn’t do the same to the Ardbeg, since I only had a miniature and I wouldn’t dare to disrespect it in this way – not that I’m disrespecting the Ballantruan, it’s just that the Old Ballantruan is 50% alcohol, while Ardbeg is only 46%. I don’t think you should ever add water to your whisky if it’s 46% or less. But that’s just me.
Anyways, on the tongue, Ardbeg is earthy, appley, and shows traces of Indian spices when held. It remains one of my favourites. In spite of this, I can’t find much to separate these two malts. They are both excellent, and excellent value. Ardbeg of course continues to be available, so the Old Ballantruan might be worth a punt while you can still get a hold of it.

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