Each year, in late November and early December, whisky and scotch bloggers across the internet start posting their 'awards.' 'This whisky is the best or that one is the best.' Often the 'winners' are very expensive, limited release bottlings that are not obtainable by the average Joe or Jane (in case you are a lady whisky fan).
Anyhow, I have no such list, awards, ribbons or medals to decorate certain bottles that I am mighty passionate about. Why? Laziness mostly. It takes time and a lot of thought (and maybe a wee little arrogance too) to declare that this or that whisky is the best.
People do like lists. They are helpful, a guide of sorts. Especially during the holiday season. I must receive a minimum of five emails a month asking me what are the best whiskies. I always respond by first asking: what do you like? Smokey, peaty whisky? If so, I have my Islay recommendations ready for you. If you are a honey, cinammon nut with a flourish of smoke, I have a list of Speyside, Highland and other suggestions. Maybe I should post my suggestions. I'll get to work on that . . .
In any case, the reason I am posting today is to acknowledge that I, like you, read those lists, and cyber award ceremonies that the online experts state are the best of the best whiskies. Probably the first whisky authority to make that declaration this year was Jim Murray. (Jim, if you're reading this, I hope it is ok for me to refer to you by your name, as the write-up on you in Wikipedia states you have trademarked your name.)
|Jim Murray in a pensive moment|
If you go to Mr. Jim's website (click here) you will note that on October 12th, 2010, he wrote that Ballantine's 17 years old blended scotch whisky is the 2011 "World Whisky of the Year." A blended whisky that is better than all those wonderful single malts? Yep, according to Jim that's the facts.
I must say I was very sceptical about such a claim. Why? Well, for starters, Ballantine's Finest, the standard bottling of blended whisky is about one of the worst I have ever tried. More candied than Donny and Marie Osmond crooning on their show of the same name that ran from 1976 to 1979.
Jim is undeterred by my opinion. You see, he also declared that Ballantine's Finest was the best, no age statement, standard, blended scotch whisky. Truly baffling to me.
Returning to Ballantine's 17 years old, Jim wrote:
"This currently marks the epitome of great blending, indeed, great whisky: nowhere else can you find balance, texture, and content come together in such a sensual, graceful way. It really is the nectar of the gods, except even they might struggle to get to the bottom of its labyrinthine complexity. It needed something out of this world to see off the two Buffalo Trace whiskeys . . . and this was it."
"Nectar of the gods" and "out of this world" . . . how many times have you read those trite, overused phrases? Jim, you are setting the bar very high.
Jim reviewed the 2010-11 release pictured below:
My bottling is from the year before. Blended scotch tends to be very consistent in flavor profile from year to year. Ballantine's have been at it a very long time. So, there should not be much deviation in flavor from my bottling and Jim's. That would be the underlying assumption of my review. Here goes my non-expert opinion:
|Ballantine's 17 years old blended scotch whisky|
Soft peat, Oriental tea, wet cedar.
Sweet at first. Peat, limes, green tea, turning to slight tangerine entwined with very sticky honey. The effervesence of lime Perrier and other citrus notes will delight the palate. Grain is sweet and very good. The palate is easy, rounded and displays a classic blended scotch style. Very mellow.
The lasting flavors change up from mellow to give a little kick of interest. Malty, oak laden and tangy sea salt hang and dries a little, which is an interesting twist on a common theme.
This is a very good blended scotch whisky. Frankly, one of the better blends. Ranking among blends I would put it a little ahead of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, but behind Royal Salute. In my mind, Royal Salute is simply the best blended scotch whisky. Ballantine's 17 years is a very close and respectable second place.
Ballantine's 17 years will meet all the basic attributes that the mainstream consumer requires from their scotch whisky. It is smooth yet interesting. Pleasing to the senses (ie. eye, nose, taste). No bite or offensive qualities. Makes a super holiday gift for the casual drinker seeking a pleasurable whisky without taking any risks in terms of flavor. You cannot go wrong buying this for someone you know who likes other premium blends like Johnnie Walker Blue, Chivas Regal 18, etc.
So, with respect to Jim Murray's remark that Ballantine's 17 "marks the epitome of great blending . . ." I agree. This is one of the finer blended scotch whiskies available. Well, maybe not the 'epitome,' but yeah it is a very good blend. However, it is by no means the "nectar of the gods." That would imply that this blend is superior to all other whiskies, including single malts. This is the point where I and Jim part ways. Of course you might think: "Jason, you are not reviewing the same bottle release as he. You are not comparing apples and oranges." I hear ya, and I can appreciate that there can be deviation in taste in blended scotch (rare as that may be, but not so unusual in single malt), but Mr. Jim makes claims that go beyond this. Jim is of the opinion that this blended scotch is superior to all single malts this year!
Whisky Intelligence (click here) is a website which posts all the press releases of the whisky industry, and so naturally it had also announced Mr. Murray's selection of Ballantine's 17 years as the "Whisky of the Year" for 2011 (click here). Perusal of the press release indicates that Jim is of the opinion that Ballantine's 17 outshines all other whiskies. I would refer you to the last two sentences of his tasting note:
"One of the most beautiful, complex and stunningly structured whiskies ever created. To the extent that for the last year, I have simply been unable to find a better whisky anywhere in the world."
Mr. Murray describes Ballantine's 17 as one of the most complex whiskies ever created.
To my mind, 'complexity' refers to the ability of a whiskey, when upon the palate, to display numerous distinct flavors simultaneously. This is where a good single malt leaves blended scotch in the dust. Think of Clyenlish 14, Cragganmore 12, Glenlivet 18, Glenfiddich 15 years and others. These are whiskies that have complexity: delicate flavors that you can count and pick out with considerable clarity, as if each flavor was the footstep of a tiny dancer on your tongue. The flavors are fresh and easy to delineate.
Now, think of blended whisky, whether premium or not. Start with Johnnie Walker Red Label, Teacher's Highland Cream, Ballantine's Finest and then step up to the premium blends like Chivas Regal 18yrs, Famous Grouse 12, Ballantine's 17 and even the mighty Johnnie Walker Blue. Here all the flavors are what I term 'rounded' or 'generalized.' These spirits deliver a melding or melting pot of flavors where none dominate, and all share a slice of some generalized flavor pie diagram. Rarely can a blended scotch escape from such mainstream mellow mediocrity when compared to single malts. Nor do they want to. Blended scotch exhibits the flavor profile I have described for good reason: this is what the vast majority of casual whisky consumers prefer. But, for Mr. Murray to say that Ballantine's 17 is "the most beautiful, complex and stunningly structured whiskies ever created" simply defies logic.
And so, I also have to disagree with his statement: "To the extent that for the last year, I have simply been unable to find a better whisky anywhere in the world." What he must be drinking cannot be even remotely in the same flavor profile as what I am drinking.
Talk about hyperbole! Can't find a better whisky anywhere in the world he says? There are several single malts that are, in my opinion, stunningly complex, beautiful and awesome:
Highland Park 15 year old Earl Magnus
Highland Park 25 years
Laphroaig Cairdeas (2010)
Or how about an awesome blended whisky:
. . . and frankly, Johnnie Walker Black Label 12yrs. I prefer Johhnnie Black to Ballantines' 17. Maybe some will disagree, but if so, I think a sip of Hibiki will settle any argument that that fine Japanese whisky out classes Ballantine's 17 any day.
I fail to understand how Jim Murray can declare Ballantine's 17 years to be the overall whisky of 2011. Truly baffling. This whisky is an excellent blend. Pleasing, enjoyable, a tad expensive but not disappointing so long as you do not compare it to some stellar single malts or the fine Japanese blend mentioned above. Now, I am drinking the Ballantine's 17 from the year before, so it is possible that there is a huge improvement in taste, but somehow I doubt that is the case. But even with a huge improvement, the claim he is making is incredulous.
With the upcoming holiday season, you will read many 'must buy' lists and award winning whiskies, but a healthy dose of scepticism is useful too. Remember in the end, only your opinion truly counts!
Until next time . . .
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved except for image of Jim Murray, a photograph that is in the Public Domain according to Wikipedia and therefore free to be used by anyone.