January 20, 2012 10:05 pm

The taste test: Burns Night blended whisky

If you only buy one bottle of blended whisky a year, Peter Bazalgette’s advice is to trade up to a 12-year-old

I was once unwise enough to taste a range of 60 per cent proof cask whiskies in Scotland. The following day I suffered a rather extreme attack of pins and needles as the neat spirit slowly percolated through my nervous system. Thankfully the blended and malt whiskies we buy are watered down to 40 per cent before bottling. Although malt whisky has become more fashionable of late we decided to taste 10 bestselling blended whiskies (a mixture of malt and grain distillations) to discover how much variety they offer. And the answer is, a lot.

Our tasters were the Gourmet Celeb (GC), the Discerning Litigator (DL), the Gluttonous Pig (GP) and, appropriately enough, the Bibulous Shipowner (BS). Our technique, mindful of the hazards, was to dilute the whisky with water, half and half, and spit out the samples. A small amount of water helpfully releases the drink’s aromas without over-diluting it. Neat spirit is not only powerfully intoxicating but also has a strange anaesthetising effect on the lips. Expert whisky blenders, unlike us, can judge a brew simply by “nosing” it. Indeed I once challenged a great whisky noser to identify four different malts on live television. He calmly projected his magnificent hooter into each glass for a nanosecond and precisely identified their provenance – a Lowland, a Highland, a Speyside and an Islay. The blended whiskies, of course, rely on different combinations of these malts, which is what makes their tastes so distinctive. Some are smoky from the smouldering peat sometimes used to flavour the malted barley, some creamy from the oak barrels used for maturation. Others are gentler altogether.

All our products are well-established, quality brands. We can only tell you which we favoured on the day. The Gourmet Celeb hedged his bets with a double recommendation. The first was Claymore: “touch of peat, sophisticated, good for a blend”. His other was Whyte and Mackay: “classic, smooth, not bad if you like ’em mild”. The Bibulous Shipowner, who prefers stronger stuff, took issue with this, comparing W&M to a “bland, unappealing” party leader. This column leaves the politics to others in the FT so his remarks were struck from the record.

The Bibulous Shipowner and the Discerning Litigator agreed on their top whisky – Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old: “smoky, satisfying (BS); “rich aroma, agreeably astringent” (DL). The Gluttonous Pig went for another 12-year-old, Chivas Regal: “the distinct smell of prohibition – a bourbon creaminess”.

Johnnie Walker Black Label

On the day we were surprised that the whisky which left us underwhelmed with fewest plaudits was The Famous Grouse. It bills itself as “Scotland’s favourite whisky” but we found it a trifle timid with less character than its peers. Its makers, though, would no doubt chide us for missing its greater subtlety.

It’s no surprise that our overall runner-up was Chivas Regal 12-year-old from Keith, Banffshire. Its publicity claims flavour notes of wild herbs, heather, honey, orchard fruits, hazelnut and butterscotch. Blimey – quite a cocktail – but we’d go along with vanilla and butterscotch.

Our top whisky was the aforementioned Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old from Kilmarnock, East Ayrshire. If you only buy one bottle of blended whisky a year, our clear advice is to trade up to a 12-year-old. The extra £5-£7 is worth it. And note that the peatier Johnnie Walker (owing more to Islay) and the more buttery Chivas Regal (closer to the Speyside flavour) offer a good choice of styles. Finally, of the cheaper proprietary whiskies in our blind tasting, Teacher’s was the most enjoyed (“smoky, baby, like a flame-grilled whopper” – GP).

After our labours the Bibulous Shipowner generously took us all out to dinner. Could this be the first twitch of the barometer towards economic recovery – when a shipowner pushes the boat out? You read it here first.

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The winner

Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old from £23, widely available www.johnniewalker.com

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