Friday, January 6, 2012

Review: Royal Salute 21 years

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:

Nose (undiluted)
Dandelion, honey, a wee peat and ocean air laden with salt.  Not a show stopper.  Pleasant but that's about it.

Palate (undiluted)
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.

Finish (undiluted)
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.

Peer Review
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!


Jason Debly

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.


  1. I like that you do not turn your nose up to the blends. So many whiskey writers do that.

    I also cut my teeth on Famous Grouse and blends like Chivas 12 and Dimple Pinch before moving on to fuller flavors. I still have a nostalgic weakness for some of those old blends.

    Keep on going with the open minded and flavor based reviews.

  2. Love how you continue to save me money Jason. Royal Salute was on my wish list. No more. While I enjoy many a single malt, blends still have a place in my cupboard -- Teachers, JW Green and Black, Chivas 12.

    My quest for Hibiki 17 continues. Liquor distributors in Arizona do not carry. Thought they might in Nevada, but I just returned from Vegas and no luck there, either. Maybe someone has a reasonable online purchasing source. The only one I have found so far is in Great Britain. Hibiki goes for about 64 pounds there, but shipping a single bottle is another 26! I'm too tight to spring for that. Any help from you or your readers would be appreciated.

  3. Dry Heat, if there is a liquor store in the US that might have Hibiki 17 it would be Federal Wine and Spirits of Boston ( Call Joe at 617.367.8605 or alternatively email him at

    If he doesn't have it, he will know who in the US might.

    Good luck!

  4. Hi Jason,

    I have been a very avid reader of your blog for almost a year now and have made great buys based off your reviews and suggestions.

    I have always been reading some of your reviews and have noticed that before, you have always referred to Royal Salute as "the best blend" for you even ranking it above JW Blue and Ballantines 17.

    I had to comment to make sure of this, or maybe you meant a different Royal Salute? If not, maybe your tastes have matured to a more complex higher level?

    More power and Godspeed Jason!

  5. Andrew, you are correct: there is a tension in comparison with past reviews. Particularly in comparison with Johnnie Walker Blue Label. I would typically tout Royal Salute as better.

    What I can say is that in the past it tasted better than it does today. Whisky is, after all, organic, and so some years will be better than others. The current release is a shadow of its former self and I will point this out in the review.

    Thanks for your comment.

  6. Hi,

    I've been using your reviews as a sort of appendix for buying sometimes, heh. Just wondering if you have tried anything by Glenmorangie? If so, thoughts? Recommendations?

  7. I have had Glenmorangie in bars, but that's about it. I need to buy a bottle and do repeated samplings over a period of time. I will try to review one in the next two months, so tune in, at your convenience.

  8. Thank you for response Jason. Highly appreciated. More power to your blog and to our drinks!

    And yes please do Glenmorangie. I have had their 10 yr old and Nectar D'Or blend and i have grown very fond of them. Your opinions will be highly enlightening.

  9. Andrew, I just bought a bottle of Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban 12 yrs. I can't wait to crack it open! Will review and post in about two weeks.

  10. Hi Jason,

    Nice story! I've been promised a sample of the Royal Salute so it will be fun to compare our tasting notes. Like Andrew in the comment above I'm a big fan of the Glenmorange Nectar d' Or. You should try that one if you get the opportunity. And I will get myself a Quinta Ruban on my next visit abroad. I hear a lot of good things about it! Look forward to read your findings.

  11. Actually Jan, while reading your comment, I am drinking Glenmorangie "The Quinta Ruban" 12 year old in port casks. I am really enjoying it. Just opened the bottle tonight, so I will have to go back to it some more over the next week, but it is very good so far. Very, very good actually!

    I look forward to your thoughts on Royal Salute.


  12. Jason -- Thanks for suggesting I give Joe a call at Federal in Boston. We spoke and the definitive word on Hibiki 17 is that it is not available anywhere in the U.S. right now. The 12, yes, but not the 17.

    Fortunately, I am traveling to London in April, so I'll bring a bottle back. Along those lines, is there any other killer scotch you can think of not available in North America that I should get in GB? Thanks.

    1. Glad Joe was able to bring closure to the search for Hibiki 17 in the US.

      London? Besides Hibiki 17, there is always the 21yrs that apparently won a number of awards this year.

      The other one that comes to mind is Balvenie 21 Portwood. Stellar, but hard to come by and expensive.


  13. As far as less expensive blends go, Isle of Skye is one of my favorites. The 8 year is totally solid for its price point and does a decent job of integrating the sweeter Speyside single malts with the somewhat brutish Talisker and leavening the whole mess with grain whisky. I'm really looking to trying their blended malt 12 Year, which should be even better.

  14. Jason,
    Have you tried the Chivas Regal 18 y.o.? The price tag is quite reasonable for an 18 y.o. blend. Great review by the way mate!

    1. Where I live, Chivas Regal 18 years is very expensive, priced above many 12 year old single malts that I consider to be better.

      I have reviewed Chivas 18, and I guess it is the price that takes a lot of my enthusiasm for it. It's not a bad malt by any means, but for the price (ie. $85) I expect a lot.

      Here is the web address of my reivew of Chivas 18:

      My website is rather hard to navigate unless you use the topic cloud which is at the bottom of the page.

  15. Hi Jason, as a regular drink of Chivas Regal 12 & 18 myself, I do realize that the consistencies of these blends can vary quite a lot from batch to batch. For instance, the 12yo can be creamy and smooth in batch, or grainy with alcohol burnt in the other. Same for 18 yo, one batch can be floral with good complexity, while the other can be flat and over-sweeten. What do you think?

    1. I absolutely agree that there can be variance from batch to batch. The variance can be due to a number of factors beyond the control of the distillery like change in Master Blender, changes in recipe, lack of casks of from a certain region, etc. Mind you, whisky blended today in oak casks different than in the past wont actually be tasted till bottled 12, 18 or more years from now.

      I have noticed that Chivas 18 can be flat, over-sweetened as you put it, and at other times sparkle like a diamond.

      In general, blended scotch is more consistent when compared to the consistency of single malts. In any event, I continue to marvel at how consistent Johnnie Walker Black and Teacher's have been over the years. Never had an odd bottle of either one.


  16. I have bene looking for some information on the variability of Chivas Royal Salute over recent years and your blog has reinforced my belief that it is not the drink it used to be!
    I first tried it 10 years ago and was very impressed and remembered it well. Then about 18 months ago I was visiting a friend and he pulled out a bottle he had received as a gift approx 5 year earlier. We uncorked and it really was like liquid gold and honey, so smooth that even my girlfriend who usually isn't into a wee dram commented on it and enjoyed one or two.
    Following this experience I was determined to try get a bottle of my own and purchased one duty-free on a holiday. It was very nice but nothing to write home about.
    Recently my girlfriend returned from a business trip and picked up 2 bottles for US$100 in the duty free and she gave me a bottle. Having had a couple of tastes I have been trying to figure out what is going on? It bears little to no resemblance to my previous experiences and on examination is dated 2011/12/7.
    I understand that we can expect variability in all whisky but as Royal Salute is a blend this seems beyond a reasonable degree. I always thought the benefit of blending was to achieve a comparable product year after year, and thereby produce a consistent whisky that can be relied upon. At this point I won't be buying it again as it seems like the quality has been substantially reduced and it is now a poor cousin to the always reliable JW Black.
    I enjoy single malts as well but this experience with what should be a premium blend is a great disappointment.

    1. Hi Marc!

      Thanks for sharing your experience with Royal Salute.

      Coincidentally, I had tried another dram from the bottle that was the subject of this review and again was very underwhelmed. Either I got a bad bottle or Royal Salute is resting on past laurels because it just is not what it used to be.

      If you are in the market for a high quality blended scotch, try Famous Grouse 30yrs, very good but can be hard to find.

  17. Hi Jason,

    Thanks, I will look out for the Famous Grouse 30yr.

    also, I found this information that if accurate may also be relevant;

    "Chivas inherited the Glendronach brand as part of their acquisition of Allied Distillers but saw fit to sell the distillery, maturing stocks and brand to the Benriach Distillery Company in 2008.

    Chivas’ parent company, Pernod Ricard, have become increasingly debt laden in recent times and have resorted to “selling the family silver” to make ends meet."

    Read this as 'reduction in quality' and this may explain our recent disappointing experiences.


  18. This was a great review. This is a big thing in all fine items I suppose. What's funny to me is that we are conditioned to assume those of wealth are also those of taste. I mean, the packaging of Chivas Royal Salute or JW Blue is totally cheesy. Ralfy is always pleading on his blog for more craft presentation, which I agree is way classier. These overpriced blends are the costume jewelry of Whisky. I also would like to commend you on the attention you pay to the working man's blends. I am obsessed with finding my budget go to blend that I can stick to and always have in my cabinet regardless of whatever single malts I'm sampling given that it's the first time in my life I'm even able to afford the $50-70 dollar single malts. As my palate expands and I enjoy new single malt experiences, I also find myself wanting to make sure I have that solid and pleasant blend that I can drink when in a less heady mood, or wanting it on the rocks and this blog has been a fun place to engage in a sophisticated way about our everyday blends as I search for my go to brand that my children will one day tell their peers that they associated with their pops. As for now they are too young to even know what whisky is so I have time.

    1. Thanks Pointto!

      I must say that I try lots of single malts, but I will never let go of my go-to/comfort blends like: Teacher's, Black Bottle, White Horse, Chivas Regal 12 and Johnnie Walker Black.

  19. The high end blends put me in mind of an upscale Japanese car with an auto tranny: competent, but soulless, and ultimately uninteresting.

  20. Consider Cutty Sark 25 YO blend.

    1. I have had it at a whisky festival and it was very good. Just have not been able to locate a bottle where I live. It is very good!