Saturday, May 28, 2011

Review: Te Bheag Connoisseur's Blended Scotch Whisky

You and I are a lot like Michael Caine's character, Jack Carter, in the brilliant 1971 film noir, Get Carter.  Jack Carter is on a mission.  Upon learning of his brother's untimely death, Jack decides to take a train ride from London to attend the funeral up in Newcastle.  He decides more too.  He's asking around about his brother's death in an apparent car accident.  The more questions he asks, the more heads he kicks in, the more rough interrogations he conducts, the more . . . the facts don't add up.  Someone murdered his brother.  Jack is making waves.  The Newcastle organized crime syndicate don't like him nosing around.

Jack Carter doesn't give a damn.  The Newcastle hoods want him to go back to London . . . or else.  They push back hard.  Jack doesn't mind, he pushes back too . . . violently.

You and I are a member of a clan, a counterculture, a subculture.  You see, we are scotch nuts.  We are obsessed.  We wax poetically about the beauty of some scotch whiskies and curse loudly the flaws of others.  We will not shut up and humbly accept the marketing drivel funneled to us by the multinational drinks companies with their cunning marketing campaigns telling us what is the best scotch.  Our brother is the 'truth' in our sojourn in search of great scotch.  Brother Truth is the victim of marketing campaigns.  We are undeterred.  We ask the tough questions.  We don't accept the hog wash being sold to us as the gospel.  We are on a search.  A mission.  We want to know what is the best, no age statement, blended scotch whisky in the marketplace today.  And if rough interrogation of spirits is necessary, we are ready!

Te Bheag Blended Scotch Whisky

We have kicked in a lot of doors, pissed off a lot of people, and thrown some stones in glass houses.  We know Ballantine's Finest is anything but!  Whyte & Mackay is horrendous!  On the other hand, Johnnie Walker Red is not as bad as others may have lead you to believe. 

So far, our search has concluded that Teacher's Highland Cream is the best of the economy, no-age-statement blended scotch category.  We have now just pushed the saloon doors open and at the bar is Te Bheag (pronounced 'chey vek').  It's available in Canada and the United Kingdom, but not widely available in the US.  Not sure why.  In fact, a search online failed to turn up a US based vendor of this blend.

Nose (undiluted)
Great medium peat aromas rising up in the glass, chased by tendrils of sherry and earth.

Palate (undiluted)
Velvet textured licorice and rich Virginia tobacco (think Lucky Strikes unfiltered) with plenty peat and cranberry/sherry taste!  What a delight!

Finish (undiluted)
Smoke, prunes and smoked mackerel.  Salty too!

General Impressions
An excellent find!  Great big flavors abound!  The hallmark of the vast majority of blended scotch is the gentle, soft, middle of the road flavor profile that takes no chances.  As a result many blends are mediocre.  The truly great blends tend to have great big, sky scraper flavors.  These spirits take chances. The room for error is enormous, but success can be an incredible thing, and that is precisely what we have with Te Bheag.  I have to say without a shadow of a doubt, this is the best blended, no-age-statement scotch whisky!  It rivals Compass Point's Spice Tree or Sheep Dip.  But guess what?  They are both pure malts (meaning blends of single malts only - no grain whisky).  That is how good, Te Bheag is.

I taste a lot of Highland malt in this blend.  Specifically, Oban comes to mind.  In general, this is a Speysider with a significant Highland malt emphasis.  Really rich milk chocolate and hazelnuts comes to mind.  Damn!  This is good!  In ligh of the fact that this blender is located on the Isle of Skye, I would imagine that there must be some Talisker in the mix too.  In addition, this blend is non-chill filtered and no caramel is added, which all helps make this blend a crackling dram!

Te Bheag is highly drinkable with no apparent flaws.  It is not grainy, no bite, and no taste of alcohol.  Te Bheag is so good that if I tasted this blind and someone said this is a blended malt (meaning made up solely of single malts) I would believe it.  It's that damn good.  I would go so far to say that this superior to a few single malts.  Yep, I said it.

The owners of Te Bheag are small and independent.  Accordingly, distribution in the US marketplace may be limited, but don't worry, there are plenty of online UK retailers happy to ship to you.

Highly Recommended!
I highly recommend this blended scotch.  The price in Canada is around $36, so it is not what I would call an economy blend by any means.  While Teacher's Highland Cream reins supreme in that segment of the marketplace, Te Bheag owns the higher end blended, no-age-statement segment.  Like Jack Carter, I think we found the truth!


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for images above taken from the film "Get Carter" as they belong to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I do not own any rights to "Get Carter" which is posted for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Review: Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky

Cutty Sark Blended Scotch Whisky

I am always on the hunt for a reasonably priced blended scotch.  Cutty Sark occupies a spot on the shelves of liquor stores around the world that is devoted to 'economy blends.'  In other words, bottom shelf scotch.

We know some of the suspects occupying space on the bottom shelf are bad characters . . . Ballantine's Finest, J&B and Bell's.  Horribly sweet swill suitable only for lighting your hibachi barbecue

 You also know that there are some great economy blends:  Teacher's Highland Cream, Black Bottle, Islay Mist, White Horse and a few others.  The question for us to consider today is what camp does 'Cutty Sark' fall into?  The Good?  The Bad? or the Ugly?  Inquiring minds want to know.  C'mon, let's see what it's like . . .

Nose (undiluted)
Malty, ale, apples and dandelion.  Not offensive in the least.  I'm surprised.

Palate (undiluted)
Certainly is sweet.  Malty.  Fruit cocktail in heavy syrup.  Honey Crisp apples.  Vanilla is lurking in the background. 

Finish (undiluted)
The vanilla sweetness becoming more of a gently spiced malt.  Warming too.  You are also left with a teensy weensy puff of smoke.  The finish is very short (meaning the flavors do not linger very long) and so I suppose the serious whisky critic would take some points off for that attribute of this whisky.  I am willing to overlook that small deficiency in light of the cheap price for a bottle.

General Impressions
I am quite surprised by this blend.  I like it!  It is not the best of the economy blended scotch whisky category.  However, Cutty Sark is a good, everyday sipper that meets the basic needs of decent scotch.  What are those basic requirements?  They are:  (1) no nasty bite;  (2) no taste of unadulterated rubbing alcohol; (3) not bitter, and (4) not grainy. 

What is worthy of note is how it is so sweet, yet not cloyingly so.  Cloying sweetness is the failure of many economy blended scotch whiskies like Ballantine's Finest, J & B and Bells.  To succeed, a blend has to do something with the sweetness and Cutty Sark has managed just that.  Sweetness has to go somewhere.  It cannot build indefinitely, otherwise it will become overwhelming by the finish. 

Cutty Sark, by the time of the finish, transitions to lemons!  Lemons as in lemon meringue pie.  There's a puff of smoke too.  Real pleasant and very quaffable.  The bottle just disappears because it is so easy-drinking.

If I were to summarize the Cutty Sark flavor profile in a brief line, something that would be acceptable to Twitter (I don't have an account . . . probably like the only living soul on the planet) I would say:  "a sweet, light malt experience, serving up fruit cocktail, with a finish of drying vanilla and lemon with just a touch of smoke."

Cutty Sark on ice!

Cutty Sark on Ice?
I don't recommend it. 

If you are just putting your little toe in the lake of scotch whisky, I can understand your preference to add ice to blended scotch whisky.  You want your whisky to be smooth, avoid that bite, and certainly tone down the graininess and alcohol taste that is typical of many bottom shelf blended scotch whiskies.  Cutty Sark is one of those blends that actually does not need ice added to it for the scotch newbie.  It is smooth enough, gentle enough, that you can sip neat.  Yeah, newbie, neat.  I said neat.  You can do it.  Just take a little sip and evaluate it.  If there was ever a blended scotch whisky to cut your teeth on for the purpose of sipping neat, this is the one!

I find for the serious whisky fan, adding ice will add no benefit to the tasting experience.  Ice tends to bring out a raw alcohol and grainy flavor that is not present when enjoyed neat.  Ice?  Like the Reagan era public advertisement on drugs: "Just say no!"

Value for Money?
Absolutely!  A lot of the reviews online, I am told by readers, are negative on Cutty Sark.  You know what?  I don't care what they think.  I happen to like Cutty, but you have to appreciate that a lot of my appreciation has to do with the price point.  I am getting great value for money.  Some reviewers online tear this blended scotch apart, but are their comments fair?  To be fair, please compare apples to apples.  To compare Cutty Sark to a single malt and say it misses the mark is like saying a Mercedes handles the road better than a Hyundai.  That's not rocket science!  When I compare Cutty Sark to other bottom shelf blends in its price point, I am mightily satisfied that I am getting good value for money.

I do not care what the critics think of my affection for Cutty Sark!  I like it.  It is a simple, straight forward blend that delivers a pleasant lemon/marmalade flavor at a reasoable price that I have no reservation with shelling out for as I sail around the lake this summer.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for the image of US dollars which can be seen at the flickr account: Tracy Q.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Black Bottle Blended Scotch Whisky

Spring is here!  The birds are chirpin' and the sun actually is warming as it shines down on my pointed head.    There may be a nip in the air and my lawn is still recovering from winter kill, but these are merely telltale signs that another season of golf is about to begin!  

There are two scotch whiskies that I associate with this time of year.  Glenfiddich 12 years and Black Bottle.  Why?  Many years ago, in the very early Spring, I played a round of golf on a very cold and windy day.  When I and some friends shook hands on the 18th hole following our inaugural round of the season, I was spent.  Wind burnt face, tired and in dire need of something to warm me up, and not knowing anything about scotch, I ordered the only malt in the clubhouse:  Glenfiddich 12 years.

It warmed me up, made me think of pine needles and to this day I can remember it like yesterday.  Just one of those moments I have never forgotten.  Some people can tell you the price they paid for their first car, not me, finances are a blur, details that do not interest me.  Ask me when I first tried this or that scotch and I will give you a level of detail that might make you question whether I have just gone completely over the deep end.  We all have our callings.  Forensic accountants attention for detail is valued a helluva a lot more by society than mine.

So, because of that first experience, Glenfiddich is invariably the choice malt, an ol' favorite for that first golf outing of the year.  But, after the first round, there will be another malt on days of inclement weather.  On those wind whipped days, often accompanied by intermittent lashings of rain, it is an Islay that calls my name.  Not a single malt, but a blend, a special blend:  Black Bottle.  In the clubhouse, after 18 holes, I want comfort scotch, warmth and flavor, but not an Islay single malt (ie. Lagavulin) that makes me feel I am wasting it because I am not paying enough attention to it.  Hence, Lagavulin and other great Islay are not suitable for such a setting.

Malty!  For an Islay blend, I was expecting more smoke and peat, but what I sniff initially is malt.  Not bad at all, just a little surprising.  After the pleasant malt flavor, the scotch does reveal peat and smoke, but very restrained.  This is not a screaming Archie Bunker in Edith's face smoke and peat scenario.  No Ardbeg style nose here.  This is subdued.  It's Ricardo Montalban smoothly talking about the "soft corinthian leather" in that 1975 Chrysler Cordoba advertisement:

The smooth Cordoba ride continues onto the palate with a sweet entry of malt followed by soft smoke and gentle peat.  Hardly any peat.  This is very soft.  Extremely quaffable.  A bottle that is disappearing far too quickly!  A great introductory blend to anyone who wants to learn about Islay scotch or are convinced that they do not like Islays.

Pencil shavings, malt, cardamon and of course smoke and peat.

General Impressions
In the category of "blended scotch whisky," Black Bottle is outstanding!  This scotch whisky has something for everyone.  The newbie will delight in the gentle, smooth texture while the scotch nut (like moi) will marvel at the great balance between smoke, peat and sweetness.  Damn! this is good!  And warming too on those cold blustery days when I walk off the 18th hole!


Jason Debly

Note:  This is a review of Black Bottle prior to the 2013 relaunch of this iconic blend.  Accordingly my tasting notes apply to bottle prior to the 2013 relaunch.  The relaunch has changed the flavor profile of this blend considerably.  The new bottling places less emphasis on Islay and more on traditional Speyside sherry, dark plum notes.  The relaunched version is a shadow of its ancestor.  A good article on this can be found here: here

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for video cap above that was taken from the 1975 Chrysler Cordoba advertisement as it belongs to the owners of Chrysler.    I do not own any rights to the Chrysler Cordoba advertisement which is posted for the purposes of nostalgia and entertainment.