Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Review: Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky

Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky

Everybody likes a bargain!  Teacher's Highland Cream is one great deal.  In the American whisky realm, Jim Beam Black is another. 

I am always on the look-out for a low priced blend that delivers good value for my hard earned cash.  With inflation and rising taxes eroding my purchasing power, I really have to have some reasonably priced spirits.  But, when you are staring at the bottom shelf of the whisky section of your local purveyor of fine spirits, you certainly run the risk of buying some very terrible whiskies.  So, you understand my motivation for picking up a bottle of Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky.  Could it be another Teacher's or Jim Beam Black?  Let's find out.

Price Point
Bell's Scotch Whisky is priced the same as Teacher's, J&B and Dewar's White Label.  So far, so good!

Nose (undiluted)
Sweet, grassy, cookie dough and some peat.

Palate (undiluted)
Super sweet, wheat, biscuit, sugared shortbread cookies, and a little peat.  Thereafter, turns malty.

Finish (undiluted)
Very short.  What you experience in the blink of any eye is Cool Whip, fresh out of the cannister, a couple of salt licks, hints of peat and a grand finale of unrivaled GRAININESS!!!!!!!!!!! 

Simple, boring, terribly sweet!  Flat tasting.  Just no dimensions to this blended scotch.  Would be suitable for mixed drinks, but on its own or with ice, it is just a huge dive into the sugar bowl of whiskies.  Sure, economy blended scotch is not meant to be overly complex.  I agree, but hey, that doesn't give the blenders carte blanche to create an extra boring whisky.  I think this whisky exists in the marketplace because it appeals to the lowest common denominator of whiskies, namely smooth, super sweet, no playful bite and virtually no evolution from the initial cloyingly sweet beginining to the Cool Whip finish.  Ugh!  This is the handy choice of drunks who wake under a bridge and college students looking to get loaded. 

Oh, did I say this was sweet?  That's all it is.  It's like a mouthful of sugar cubes slowingly melting in your mouth.  Not a pleasant sugar cane  or honey sweetness.  No!  Think high-fructose corn syrup!  Gumballs, dime store candies, vending machine candy.  That's the sweetness Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky exhibits!  Yuck!

Ever read a whisky tasting note and the critic speaks of tasting the 'grains' of a scotch, and you think "what the hell does grain taste like?" 

As you probably know, blended whisky is made up of many grain and malt whiskies.  The grain used in scotch is mainly wheat.  This grain imparts a light, sweet taste and provides a narrow flavor field of sugar, vanilla and sweet toffee.  If the grain whisky is young it can be harsh (tasting bitter or acidic) and lacking in much flavor because grain whisky in blends may be aged (however briefly) in poor quality casks for too short a period of time. 

Grain whisky can be delightful in blended scotch, but much will hinge upon the quality of the casks.  Are they first-fill ex-bourbon casks?  Are casks made of American or European oak?  How long are they in the casks?  The quality of the wood making up the casks is just as important, if not more important than the grain making up the whisky.

Malt whisky is whisky derived from barley.  Barley provides a much broader spectrum of flavors than wheat, which is probably an enormous factor in explaining the importance placed upon it.  Malt whisky, especially when young, is very distinctive, and blending it with sweet grain whisky can make it more palatable.  The tremendous sweetness of Bell's suggests to me that there is far too much grain whisky used and not enough malt whiskies.  My theory would explain the absence of flavor in this scotch.

Returning to Bell's, when I say it is grainy, I am saying it is terribly sweet, cloyingly so.  Honey sweet is nice.  High-fructose corn syrup sweetness is not, unless it is the flavor quality of cough syrup you are trying to convince your 4 year old child with a fever to down.

Bell's Blended Scotch Whisky is not a bottom shelf bargain.  It is a terribly sweet whisky suitable for mixed drinks at best.  There are no interesting flavors to be found.  You just get wicked sugar, biscuits and some oak.  No sherry or great treatment of peat here.  No licorice, toffee flavors either.

Don't buy it!

Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved.


  1. Awful stuff. Was so nice as an eight year old, but the new formulation is practically undrinkable without a pile of ice. I've been thinking a lot about Canadian Whiskies these days. It is at this price point where they shine. Even the best of them are relatively uncomplicated and simplistic compared with single malts, but they are always smooth and drinkable. I don't believe that any Scotch blends (available here) are potable until you reach the level of Johnny Walker Black.

    Take The Famous Grouse for instance. The label trumpets the fact that Macallan and Highland Park (albeit young) are in the mix, but combined with the equally young grain you have a spirit reminiscent of a mix of gasoline and turpentine.

    In the old formulation Bell's was by far my favourite cheap blend. Now my money goes elsewhere. I don't understand it. I've heard that blenders primarily work with their noses but surely some responsible person has to taste this awful stuff. What were they thinking?

  2. I've never tried Bell's and am very unlikely to after reading your review, but you make it sound like a contender for "worst blended scotch in the world." Perhaps it is, but I'd like to offer up another for consideration.

    Many years ago, before developing much of a discerning palate and at a time when cost was king, I used to get my scotch fix swilling Clan MacGregor. That, in my estimation, is the worst blended scotch in the world and just might make Bell's taste like a significant upgrade.

  3. Of course, one has to lower their expectations when drinking 'economy' blended scotch whiskies. One cannot compare them to single malts naturally, but Bell's is near the bottom of what I would term the 'junk scotch' pile. At the bottom might be Clan MacGregor and I would add Ballantine's Finest. And! Last, but not least is "Grant's Family Reserve!"

    Thanks for commenting!

    1. Clearly it's all about personal taste, since I consider Ballantine's Finest to be one of the best low price blended scotches.

      It's a long time since I've tried Bell's but I recently picked up a bottle for the purpose of comparing alongside a bunch of other cheap whiskies - including Aldi's Highland Black, Bushmills Original, Asda's McKendrick's 3 year old, Marks and Spencer's Kenmore 5 year old and Lidl's Queen Margot. The only higher priced product in the experiment is going to be the Ballantine's 12. Anyways, I'll be posting about that on my blog at some point in the future. Your post on Bell's will form an important part of the research. So thanks for that!

  4. Howard, you are on the money about Famous Grouse, standard bottling, another grainy sweet blend. You cannot get much taste of the Highland Park and Macallan till there are some serious age statements like 12, 18 and 30yrs. I do enjoy the 18 and 30yrs.

    I have heard that Bell's as an 8yr old blend was pretty decent. Pity they discontinued it.

  5. Hey Jason,

    It does seem that the best-selling Scotch blends now fit this same formula: Light, sweet, easy drinking. The reasons why they might sell, along with marketing and as the bigger names, is as you said, the appealing to the "lowest common denominator" of whiskey drinker.
    I too have been re-discovering the blend, as I may have expressed a bit in my comments earlier, trying to scope out as many of the slightly lesser-known, bang-for-the-buck blends as I can get my grubby (and cheap...well...but not too cheap...) hands on. Isle of Skye 8 and Islay Mist 8 are two respectable and very affordable discoveries. Any quick thoughts on those two?

  6. Hi Yochanan,

    I have not had either one. A great blend I would recommend is Black Bottle. Worth trying.

    This search of mine for good blended scotch continues . . . next up: Grant's Ale Cask Reserve

  7. Hi Jason,

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  8. Cannot agree more, its a real shame that when many think malt brands, its labels such as this they recognise. At Hogmanay enjoying others hospitality, I found myself with your average supermarket Whyte & Mackay. Not a cheap tipple but the lingering taste was dire. You're better paying slightly more or going for a smaller bottle of a single malt.

  9. your comments on Graininess was educational. I never done whisky course.

    the comments always funny at

  10. I never did whisky course.

    When i say 'grainy' i am referring to grainy feel in mouth. Love it.
    Not sweet as you mention on bells review.

    what term could I use correctly. I'm referring to a ballintine's.

  11. I'm in Japan right now and have been looking for a reasonably priced whiskey so bought this one today. It cost 980 yen, or around $12 at the current exchange rate.
    It will do until I get paid and then I'll go and buy one of my favourite Irish malts.
    Nice site, by the way.

  12. I agree, this is not a great bottom shelf scotch. Just started going through the bottom scotches myself and am now 0/3 in finding a winner.

    Started neat and found no flavour to speak of, better with a little water/ice but not much. Very sweet as mentioned.

    Better than Grant's, not as good as Cutty's, though I wouldn't recommend any of them.

  13. Interesting. I am relatively new to scotch, but Bell's was not the worst I have tasted. Nothing, but nothing beats Johnny Walker Red label for the worst scotch ever! Due to budget considerations I have only purchased a few higher end single malts and have discovered that older (and more expensive) single malts cannot be beat. Glenn Fiddich 15 year is very nice compared to the 12 and when I get up the courage to spend $100 on a bottle of liquor, I will try the 18 year old.

    Teachers is a nice, everyday scotch along with Johnny Walker Black. I really prefer a smokier, peaty type scotch so JW Black wins out in the lower end blends. I'm just learning and have long ways to go. Thanks for you advice.

  14. Tried Bell's blended scotch whisky for the first time today.Very smokey flavour!Felt like I licked an ashtray after sipping this.It has promise after the initial sip,but that over smokiness lingers on the palate. I won't buy this one again.

  15. I don't recall this blend as being particularly smoky, but rather super sweet. In any case, there are much better options for affordable blended scotch on the market. Spend a few extra dollars and get Chivas 12.

    1. I didn't find it overly sweet but upon reflection,that smokiness is more like a dried prune taste.Almost like a compote flavour.

  16. Jason, I wonder how many folks are under the impression that Bell's (or Cutty Sark, J&B, JW Red, Ballantine's Finest and the like) should even be evaluated as having been intended for sipping without ice or soda or bitters or a lot of water. They're not. They are all cheap blends, best use for mixing or with ice cubes. I wouldn't drink them any other way, nor would I expect much of them as a sipper. I've found only two cheapies (Grant's and Bank Note) in the past twenty years or so that I'd repeat a sip straight. The current discoounted $20 US price for sipping Scotch whiskey starts with Chivas Regal 12 and heads up market rather quickly. For me anyway. JK

    1. I think all scotch whisky to meet a minimum standard of quality should be able to be enjoyed neat. A blend that is so poor that it's flavor profile needs to be disguised by ice, water or soda is a testament to poor scotch.

      In any case, I can think of several blends that work great neat: Teacher's, Black Bottle, Te Bheag and White Horse to name but a few. While these examples are not marketed explicitly to be enjoyed neat, it is implicit. When you read the tasting notes on the back of these bottles there is no suggestion that they are best enjoyed mixed. Instead you will read a tasting note that borders on bad, love sick high school poetry as it attempts to explain the taste, unadulterated by water, ice or mix.

      Conversely, if you visit the Ballantine's Finest (an oxymoron if there ever was one)website, I believe you will read clear statements that it is great enjoyed mixed, and basically as a nightclub party drink.

      Visit Johnnie Walker's site and I believe Red Label is identified as designed and intended for mixing.

      So, you are correct that some blends never were intended to be consumed neat. However, I really think others are marketed as intended for neat consumption.

      Thanks for the discussion!


      P.S. I hope you get to try Te Bheag. Great blend!

  17. Jason, Wow, I really disagree. I disagree that straight sipping quality is a standard that's useful for evaluating cheap whiskey, and certainly for all whiskey. It's intuitive. Criticism of a blend that works well in mixes but not on its own steers people away from the product by misleading them without helping them. It distorts a blend's actual usefulness (in its intended use). Do you mix your expensive single malts with coke or quinine ? No. Do you care ? Do you mention it ? No, it's intuitive to not do so.

    Other markets illustrate it as well. Dirt bikes and 600 pound highway cruiser motorcycles with luggage racks are two wheeled vehicles, but they are build for entirely different uses. Evaluate them that way. Do we care that hitch capacity for towing trailers is not a standard meaningful for tiny cars ? No, it's not worth the mention and certainly any criticism unearned.

  18. I agree that it is hard to find a whisky that is mellow enough to be mixed and interesting enough to be drunk neat. It is far easier to treat these as contradictory tasks. When out of mixer whisky I have had to try to use single malt and that has not worked at all. Bushmill 12 YO worked OK in an Old Fashioned, but it still felt like a waste, with no added value. I once had a Macallan Rob Roy at the Balmoral in Edinburgh, and that was also a waste.

  19. Hi Jason,

    I bought the Bell's today and tried it neat (I agree, whiskey should have the minimum standard of being palatable neat) and needless to say, I was unimpressed which is why I tried looking for some reviews on this and found your blog. Must Say I enjoyed the read. I'm fairly new to the whiskey scene and don't drink much so long way to go, but I have had Grant's 12 YO and I have actually enjoyed it so I wouldn't put it in the bottom pile just yet, unless they sell a different blend here in Australia!

    Anyway, I once tried a French Whiskey with a black coloured label on it that I really loved, I can't remember the name of it now and I was wondering if you know it.

    1. I think you are referring to "Label 5" Scotch whisky. It is enormously popular in France. I have not had it, and do not read much positive about it.

      As for Grant's 12, it could indeed be very good. My beef is with Grant's entry level, bottom shelf blends like Grant's Family Reserve. Awful stuff.

  20. Hi Jason,

    Label 5 is actually a Scottish whiskey. The one I had was an actual French whiskey. Anyway thanks for trying.

    1. I know Label 5 is a Scotch blend, it is just that it sells very well in France and thought you might of misidentified it as French whisky.

      Anyhow, good luck!

  21. Why is the Bell's blended so sweet? Do they add corn syrup or somesuch? Surely not.

  22. Sorry. Just read the review again. Too much grain, not enough malt.

  23. The best and most scathing review I've read regarding Bell's, which was written by a reviewer from the UK: "The flavour of Bell's blended scotch whiskey is akin to boiled urine that has been slow-filtered through the crotch of an old bag lady's knickers." Needless to say, I've yet muster the courage to sample this wonderful dram....

    1. Take my word for it and that of the reviewer in the UK, and pass on this instantly forgettable blend. Much better alternatives out there.

  24. Just got a bottle today (bells) I do enjoy the odd drinky poo!!

    Its awful sweet but it's not as harsh as some other bottom shelf products.

    I'll drink it with a touch of water until it's gone but I won't be back for seconds