When I first started drinking scotch whisky, I was all about the blends. I loved blends. Why? As a newbie, I put a premium on smooth character. Single malts overwhelmed my palate. I'd try a single malt and couldn't figure out what the big deal was about them. They tasted, to my untrained palate, rough, strong, just too much. I used to wonder: "if single malt's are so great, how come they are not as smooth and sweet as blends?" And then, there was the peat in single malts. Again, too much I thought.
So, for a couple of years, I drank nothing, but blends. First there was Famous Grouse. I loved that sweet malt. It was sweet, a little nip on the tongue. I never liked Ballantine's Finest Finest or J & B Rare. It's one thing to be sweet, but not cloyingly so.
Eventually, after a couple of years, I wanted more out of my whisky. Being smooth and sweet was not enough. It got boring. I enjoyed smoke and sea salt and even a little peat! Hence, I progressed to Teacher's Highland Cream, Chivas Regal 12 years and Johnnie Walker Black Label. When I started to appreciate Black Label, I decided to try single malts again, and this time I started to slowly develop an appreciation for them. You see, Black Label really is the crossroads or intersection where blended scotch and single malt enthusiasts meet. It offers something to both camps that is very satisfying.
Judging from the above, you can see how I have a soft spot for blended scotch. It was the first love, where it all began. Once people start to appreciate single malts, their memory and fondness for blended scotch wanes. I try not to be like that. Besides being a sentimentalist, I still enjoy blends. I still regularly buy Teacher's, Black Bottle and Johnnie Black.
Today's post is about Royal Salute 21 years (bottled Oct. 28, 2010). It is Chivas Brothers ultra premium blended scotch with a 21 year age statement. I expect a lot for the high price, and the impressive age of grain and malt whiskies making up this blend being not less than 21 years.
Upon opening, it tasted like this:
Dandelion, honey, a wee peat and ocean air laden with salt. Not a show stopper. Pleasant but that's about it.
Dollops of wild honey on crunchy toast, zinging with tarragon, dill and other exotic spices. Snuff box from the Orient. Cardamom. Some complexity mid-palate.
Big malty notes, mint chocolate, heavy oak and sweet grains with good shakes of freshly ground black pepper. But, none of these flavors last very long. The finish to this whisky is not nearly long enough as it should be for the price.
Adding water did nothing to enhance this whisky. Not recommended.
In subsequent tastings, the whisky became much tamer. Oxygen is not a friend of this scotch. Some whiskies seem almost impervious to oxidation. The flavor remains the same after opening. Johnnie Walker Blue Label is such a whisky and in this sense is clearly superior to Royal Salute.
Other whiskies can actually improve following opening. Clynelish 14 years is one. Clynelish 14 can be a bit wild, untame, the sherry is too pronounced. Return to the bottle a week later, and the wildness that was a tad unpleasant has left, leaving in its wake a fantastic whisky. You knew it was good when you opened it, and now, a couple of days later, you are assured. Not so with Royal Salute.
A week later, Royal Salute becomes more oakey, sweet, smooth, while losing the spiciness and complexity that was initially impressive upon opening.
Value for Money?
Chivas' Royal Salute 21 year old blended scotch whisky is more expensive than many 18 year old single malts. Is it worth the money?
I would not spend $125 or in that range for this whisky. It is simply not worth it. Why? This whisky, a week or so later, is simply sweet, smooth, oaked and not much else. It really tastes like your typical blended scotch. Middle of the road, Speyside honeyed dram. Not much going on, and for the price there should be tiny dancers doing The Nutcracker on my palate or at least the very least the three go-go dancers from Russ Meyer's 1968 classic sexploitation film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! doing a little dance!
The Age Statement Illusion
Drinking Royal Salute brings to mind the age statement illusion. Whisky companies want you to think that older whisky is better whisky. Not necessarily so. Royal Salute is living proof of that.
You think that since you are paying more money for this older whisky it must be better, but guess what? It's not better. It's boring. It cloyingly sweet, yep, it is. There isn't much complexity, virtually no peat whatsoever and hardly any smoke. Was that smoke I tasted or red candle wax? I'm not sure.
Take a look at some of the sporting events sponsored by Royal Salute:
- Sentebale Polo Cup 2011 (Ascot, England)
- Foundation Challenge Cup 2011 (California, USA)
- Royal Salute China Open Polo Tournament (Beijing, China)
- Royal Salute Tang Polo Cup (Beijing, China)
- The Royal Salute Maharaja of Jodhpur Golden Jubilee Cup (Jodhur, India)
- The Royal Salute Nations Cup (Dubai, UAE)
- Triplice Coroa Tournament (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
- Copa Ouro (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
- Sydney Gold Cup (Sydney, Australia)
Obviously, this whisky is pitched to the establishment rich and the nouveau-riche who like the idea of liking scotch whisky, but have no idea what good scotch is. There are plenty of knowledgeable scotch fans in India, China, Brazil, and other parts of the world. However, there are also plenty of people in those countries enjoying first-time, new found affluence, and so they are unsure as to what is a good whisky. These people are the target audience of Chivas Brothers. Whisky consumption in these countries is growing at a much greater rate than say more stagnant or mature markets like North America and the UK.
I receive email every once in a while from guys in Hong Kong and India looking for scotch recommendations for their bosses or on the occasion of closing a big deal. I usually suggest single malts and they invariably ask: "what about Johnnie Walker Blue and Royal Salute?" When I explain there is better, they agree personally, but say the gift is more about prestige and how expensive it is. Well, if that is the criteria of spirits selection, then I guess high end blends have the edge.
I mean, seriously, Glenfiddich 15 years Solera is a fraction of the cost and is far better, far more complex and interesting than Royal Salute will ever be. Royal Salute is clearly a whisky that is trying to achieve mass appeal (well for those masses called the rich who can afford this pancake syrup). Easy drinking, smooth, sweet and wonderfully packaged in a velvet bag.
If you want a gentle blended whisky that is not offensive, yet interesting, there are alternatives: Chivas Regal 12 (yeah, it's better), Hibiki 17 (a Japanese blended whisky) and Johnnie Walker Gold Label. If you want to compare this whisky to blended malts, there are many more better choices like: Famous Grouse 18, Famous Grouse 30 years (often overlooked, but truly incredible) and Johnnie Walker Green. Some people might think it is not a fair comparison to place a bottle in a head-up Pepsi challenge where one is blended scotch and the other is a blended malt. I say nonsense. If they both occupy the same price point, they get comparisons.
The Thrill is Gone!
In past years, I really enjoyed this luxury blend. What happened? I dunno. We always have to remember that scotch whisky is after all an organic substance that can vary from batch to batch. Five years ago, I enjoyed this blended scotch tremendously. It was very good. Complexity that remained after opening of the bottle with wonderful punch of flavors, crisp honey, peanut brittle and caramel. It's no longer great. Something happened. Maybe the master blender has tinkered with the ingredient whiskies, changing the proportion or maybe adding in a few different ones. Maybe there has been a change in wood management do to a problem sourcing a certain type of cask? Who knows? What I do know is that the current bottling (October 28, 2010) is a shadow of its former self. Maybe in a few years it will regain its former glory, but for this October 10th, 2010 release (2010 / 10 / 28 LKSC3675 006008) I would stay away.
Hip Hop Music and Great Blended Whisky
Chivas Brothers would do well to recognize that great blended whisky is a lot like great hip hop (rap) songs. A lot of excellent rap music involves digital sampling. Sampling is where a musician takes one sound or melody from another song and uses it in a new one.
Great blends work the same way. Take a little peat from Islay, some sweet fruit from Speyside, add in some smoke and toffee from the islands, mix it all together with other regions of Scotland to produce something great.
That's musically what 50 Cent and Jayceon Taylor (also known as 'The Game') did with an old 1970's song called Rubber Band by The Trammps. About two and half minutes into 'Rubber Band' there is an interesting musical melody that doesn't last long, but 50 Cent and Mr. Taylor picked up on it, and astutely sampled it below to produce an amazingly melancholic song, "Hate it or Love it" (which kinda sums up my thoughts on Royal Salute). Chivas Bros! Listen up and try to do for high end blended scotch what 50 Cent and Mr. Taylor did for hip-hop!
Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission, except for the song, Hate it or Love it, which is posted purely for educational purposes. All rights to that song vest with the composers.