Friday, March 7, 2014

Teacher's Highland Cream & The Black Grouse - Where Did Our Love Go?

What follows is an email I received from a reader in January of this year:

Dear Jason

I have just read your review of Teachers Whisky circa August 17, 2009.  I have been drinking it as my in house blend for 30 years.  I have always been ridiculed by my Grouse loving friends.  However I have been steadfast until about 18 months ago.  Teacher's has become groused, it is now much sweeter and has lost a lot of its signature flavours.

I have tried over 2 dozen differenet bottles from different sources and I now feel the time has come to part.

I would value your opinion on this 'new' blend to see how it has changed from your comprehensive review of old.

With best wishes


. . .

When I first read John's email, I had a good laugh with his use of the term "Grouse."  Teacher's has become groused, meaning of course, it has become Dinah Shore sweet, grainy, easy drinking to the point that it blurs the line between blended Scotch and cream soda.  Ah, Famous Grouse, the go-to drink of the Iron Lady.  Mind you, she was not a politician with soft, sweet and easily swallowed public policies akin to her drink of choice.

While John did amuse me, I was also tempted to be dismissive, thinking this guy doesn't know what he is talking about.  However, he did say he had been drinking Teacher's for 30 years.  Anybody who drinks the same Scotch whisky for that long is going to be intimately acquainted with its flavor profile.  Moreover, anybody who has been a loyal fan of Teacher's is someone I think has good taste.  Such a man, regardless of his faults, has got my grudging respect.  So, John's email was disconcerting, to say the least.

Like most unpleasant things in my life, I tend to ignore them, and John's email was no exception.  But, months passed, and there was this nagging suspicion that he, a 30 year student of Teacher's, might be on to something.  And then one day, I, ever the remedial primary grade student, realized his email had become the sound of a teacher's nails on the chalkboard.  No more staring blankly out the window in anticipation of recess for me.  There was a commotion at the front of the blended Scotch classroom that beckoned me.

I had drank Teacher's for years and also knew that blend's lexicon of flavors.  Damn!  The guy was messing with my beliefs, my solar system of immutable values, namely that Teacher's was one of the best, if not the best of the economy blended Scotch whiskies on the market, bar none.  I wrestled with his thesis, and of course there was only one solution:  Homework!  So, I picked up a bottle and started to study this blend anew.

Teacher's Highland Cream

Light copper.  I mention the color because it is noticeably lighter than it used to be.

Nose (undiluted)
A gentle breeze of salt laden sea air, sweet peat, and black licorice/pickled beets.

Palate (undiluted)
Thin, light, sweet sherry that quickly turns grainy.  The sherry notes are intertwined with malt and echoes of the tangy licorice and bacon, but they are only echoes.  There is some peat and maybe iodine, but it is all very fleeting.

Finish (undiluted)
Ashy like a Matinee cigarette, and then it turns unmistakably bitter, glycerin-like, accompanied by the very slight heat of alcohol.

General Impressions
Many years ago, when I was a Scotch first grader, I encountered Teacher's Highland Cream, and didn't know what to make of it.  It somehow smelled of diesel oil, tarred ship ropes, dulse, big smoke and something industrial that repelled me, but at the same time drew me in to its embrace.  Was it heavy machinery or a very in your face, unadulterated Maritime style?  I was unsure.

On the palate, Teacher's was uncompromisingly difficult at first to wholeheartedly like.  On the one hand, there was a great peat, bacon, malt backbone with iodine, that came up against sherry and sulphur.  But, on the other, those flavors were resting on the shoulders of diesel fuel, asphalt, ash, and eye-watering wood smoke that initially put me off.  However, over time, I grew to love the diesel aspect of this blend.  Even on the nose, a whiff would set me back thinking this is a tough old drink, am I up to the task?

Teacher's was old school.  You either liked it or you didn't.  There was no room in its syllabus for ambivalence.  At one time, Scotch whisky did not appeal to everyone's tastes, and made no apologies.  You had to, in a sense, learn to like it, but the more you studied, the greater the wisdom and eventual delight, and before you knew it, you loved that tough old blend, kinda like studying a Shakespearean play.  Romeo and Juliet wasn't all bad.  There was that fascinating rascal: Mercutio!

Where Did Our Love Go?

Having studied the bottle of Teacher's in front of me, I needed to borrow the title of a classic Supremes R&B song, in order to pose a troubling question: Where Did Our Love Go?

John is correct.  Something has changed.  Teacher's is now sweeter, thinner and grainier.  It is noticeably less sherried and lacks the bold and gritty dulse, Maritime tar and smoky diesel aspects that made it a challenge and immensely satisfying.  What happened?

Here is my theory.

For the longest time, Teacher's was a blend that was made up of many grain whiskies and a couple of malts.  The two key single malts that delivered a lot of the signature flavors were: Ardmore and GlenDronach.

Ardmore was established by Teacher's in 1899, in order to ensure a guaranteed supply of a peated single malt that delivered Teacher's peated and maritime character.  But, as some of you know, the peated quality of this blend is only half the story.  There is a sherried flavor dimension and that was contributed to, at least since 1960 by GlenDronach.  In 1957, the owners of Teacher's acquired the GlenDronach distillery to ensure a steady supply of a sherried single malt that would be blended into the end product: Teacher's Highland Cream.

In 1996, GlenDronach was mothballed, and sold in 2001 to the Benriach Distillery Company.  But, the owners of Teacher's still bought their share of GlenDronach from Benriach, well up until a couple of years ago.  And, now for my theory.

Beam Global bought Teacher's. Something changed after that.   The relationship and association with GlenDronach came to an end.  The distillery eventually removed a giant mirror image of Teacher's Highland Cream in the distillery public area.  Maybe Beam Global thought they could substitute GlenDronach with a sherried malt from their existing portfolio of malts.  Or, maybe they thought they could source cheaper sherried malt from another distillery.  Who knows?  But, what I do know is that if you visit the Teacher's website, GlenDronach is no longer referenced as a key malt in the blend, and I would therefore attribute that absence of such an important footnote as a clue as to why Teacher's more recently tastes quite different.

Another possible reason for the toning down of the maritime/industrial flavors may be a concerted effort to court the mainstream palate.  In general, blended Scotch whisky drinkers like sweet, smooth, inoffensive whiskies, and the reformulated Teacher's is a big step in that direction.

News flash!  Suntory Holdings to acquire Beam Global in $16 billion transaction.  As the ownership of the Teacher's brand continues to change, the link and recognition of the importance of GlenDronach to the flavor profile of Teacher's will become a more distant memory.  Changes in ownership may also result in an inclination by the new owner to try to use malts within their existing portfolio of brands, as it is cheaper than buying outside the company.  Call it synergy or whatever, but the end result is a change in the taste.  The corporate merger reinforces my opinion that blended Scotch whisky, especially a market leader like Teacher's is enormously big business.  Accordingly, the desire to appeal to as broad a market as possible is a corporate aim that may be at play here.

So, John is on to something.  I tip my hat to you sir!  Teacher's has indeed changed.

The Black Grouse
Now, you probably have been wondering throughout the above discussion of Teacher's why a bottle of Black Grouse has appeared at its side?  Black Grouse and Teacher's share something in common that is germane to this discussion.

The commonality goes beyond both being blended Scotch whiskies.  That observation is even too trite for me to make.  What they share is a significant change in flavor profile in the recent past.  While Teacher's has become lighter, thinner, and less smoked,  so too has The Black Grouse  downed a couple of Dexatrim to shake its hefty phenolic girth.  Black Grouse was once a total smoke and peat bomb, that was about as balanced as Rodney Dangerfield in snow boots.  It is now a sherried blend with a dash of peat and smoke.  Or in other words, the standard bottling seasoned with a little smoke, peat and bonfire.  What happened to The Black Grouse?

This time I do not have a theory that involves a corporate merger and the decision to source a malt elsewhere.  The Black Grouse was launched in 2007 and I got a bottle at that time.  I recall it clearly as a very intense homage to Islay.  Very peated, smoked and likely a young Ardbeg or Laphroaig was making up the core malt that was complimented by sweet grain whiskies.  My point is that this was an Islay influenced blend.  No doubt.  It gave the likes of Black Bottle and White Horse a serious run for their money.

What happened?

Here is my guess:  Maybe The Black Grouse was not flying off of shelves due to the Islay emphasis, so the Edrington people decided that sales could be strengthened by becoming sherried and accented with a little peat and smoke.  I think they were correct in that estimation (in terms of figuring out what people want).  The average person who explores blended Scotch whiskies is going to latch on to anything that is sweet, maybe consisting of red fruits with a wee little smoke and peat.  The average person buying in the blended whisky category probably will be repelled by an overly peated whisky harkening Islay.  So, a decision was made to change the blend from the bonfire it once was to essentially a sherried blend with a few glowing embers tossed in.

Another guess for the flavor change is that the core Islay single malt (possibly a young Ardbeg or Laphroaig) that was an integral part of the Black Grouse is no longer available at the price point it once was.  So, the owners of Black Grouse looked to source another Islay, and maybe too expensive to be feasible for the Grouse.  Islay whiskies are very popular for blending and in the single malt format as of late.

My great love for Teacher's is gone, but how about my affair of the heart with the Black Grouse?

Nose (undiluted)
Roses, plums, wet wood, malt notes.

Palate (undiluted)
The unmistakable taste of the standard bottling of Famous Grouse is present, but it has been accented with peat and smoke.  The sherry notes are nice, bringing to mind red licorice, strawberries and raspberries.  Black plums and malt notes appear mid to late palate.

Finish (undiluted)
Slightly drying, velvety red fruits, orange chocolate with some more smoke.

General Impressions
Black Grouse was originally launched in 2007 in the Scandinavian market, a market segment with an affinity for smoked and peated whiskies.  At that time, I tried a bottle (got it via duty free retail) and as I said above, it was a tad bit unbalanced.  A bonfire in a glass.  I did not detect much, if any, sherry or red fruit notes.  I was not a huge fan of it.

Fast forward to the present and I think The Black Grouse has changed for the better.  The plum, currants and strawberries give a fruity compliment and much needed balance to the Islay influence.  I and my whisky club really liked it for what it is: a reasonably priced blended Scotch that delivers sherry, red fruit flavors intertwined with a little embrace from Islay.  It works.  No great complexity but that is ok.  I wasn't expecting any.

So, with respect to The Black Grouse, my heart is growing fonder, and with regard to Teacher's, I'd tell the corporate owners they need to heed another Supremes tune:


Jason Debly

P.S. This new flavor style of Teacher's is not horrible.  It's ok and still represents fair value for the price, but no longer is it the beguiling blend.  While I grew up on a tougher taste, I can well imagine that Scotch newbies will enjoy this new style.  It delivers what they want: smoothness, sweetness, and while there is some graininess and a slightly bitter finish, Scotch newbies probably will not mind it.  It is guys like me who can recall the old flavors who are put out by what it has become.