Saturday, March 8, 2014

Spirits: Worthy Blends to Try

I enjoyed my previous experimental gin review so much that I just had to try another.  We'll keep to categories that I think are somewhat neglected by mixologists, this time blended scotch whiskey.

Hold the howls of outraged derision while I reiterate that I don't fuck around with this "whiskey" vs. "whisky" nonsense.  According to David Wondrich, who I consider a sage and reliable source on all historically spiritous matters, this is a purely modern convention, and to me it doesn't have any logical basis either.  Therefore I choose to consider it along the same lines as the minor spelling differences you find between standard UK and US English, and go with my personal preference.  I won't dispute your right to spell the word however you damn well please, but I insist on the same basic courtesy.  So, yeah: I'm reviewing blended scotch whiskeys here, deal with it.

Ahem.  Let's review some other terminology.  For those not in the know, scotch whiskey comes in a couple of different tiers, labelled by regulated terms (the same way that terms like "bourbon" or "Champagne" are subject to specific standards).  Single malt can only be bottled from a single distillery and is generally considered higher quality, while blended scotch can be mixed from multiple distillers and can contain some proportion of grain spirit.  There's also the somewhat controversial "blended malt", which indicates a blend of single malts without any grain spirit.  The products I'm drawing from here all come from the latter two categories.  Why bother when single malt is generally considered best?  Well, here are three good reasons:

  1. I'm primarily focused on cocktails here, and it makes little sense to use a top-quality spirit known for its nuanced flavor in a mixed drink.  If you insist on single malt, you're probably going to drink it straight anyway, and I complement you on a fine choice.
  2. Blends are typically less expensive than single malts.  Most of the products covered here cost about $30 at retail, and it's tough to find a decent single malt at that price, let alone a really good one.  Like cognac and other popular spirits, premium quality costs a lot with scotch.  I like using top quality when I can, but I don't have an unlimited budget and I doubt you do either.
  3. The challenge of finding a diamond in the rough!  I consider this one reason enough.  Scotch is a pretty wide category, and there are plenty of poor selections out there.  However, the popularity of single malt and its escalating price point means there's healthy interest in affordable alternatives, and much better stuff hitting the market than in years past.  I for one am happy to give the various offerings a try and share my experience with you here.
So, without further ado, let's review.

Pig's Nose is not an especially complex whiskey, but it's certainly a well-balanced and effective one.  Part of that comes from its mixed heritage, which cross-breeds Speyside, Islay, and Lowlands malts to great effect.  On the palate it's got a bit of soft grain, some floral character akin to chamomile, that classic scotch peatiness, and a hint of black tea bitterness.  All of that is carried by a moderately rich, smooth body, much more so than with bigger-name blends (hence the tagline "smooth as a pig's nose").  One of the main reasons I like this is that the body stands up to mixing the same way that a decent bourbon or brandy would.  This makes for some interesting substitutions; a Scotch Sour is certainly fun to try, especially if you go all-out with a Penicillin Cocktail.  Or keep things simple with a scotch & soda or Mamie Taylor (perhaps my favorite highball, and Pig's Nose does it right).

If Pig's Nose lies at one end of the blend spectrum, Artist's Blend lies at the other; it's still smooth, don't worry, but far more subtle.  It's primarily composed of very soft Lowlands whiskies; the very pale, slightly greenish color is a dead giveaway.  The palate starts off slowly, and gradually escalates into a complex wave of green apple, pear, almond, and dried herbs with a bready feel.  The finish winds up being modestly grainy with a bit of smoke thrown in, and a little more subtle herb character (bay leaf, maybe?).  Subtlety makes this probably my favorite of these blends; when I drink this, it's usually neat.  However, it also makes for one of my all-time personal favorite creations, the Golden Carriage.  Looking back at that recipe, I'm really surprised that I didn't write it for this specific brand, as I did with this one; should probably go back and fix that.  

This is an interesting blend, one that I probably wouldn't have tried were it not for a rather positive review.  Supposedly commemorating a famous rum-runner, this is bottled at a nice punchy 100 proof, probably for the sake of novelty.  Same goes for the pitch-black bottle.  Despite this, it's got an interesting profile, with intense sweet toffee flavors, hazelnut, and orange peel, capped off by a hint of coffee bitterness and a classic, tarry finish.  All of that puts me a bit in mind of bourbon, suggesting substitutions like a scotch-based Boulevardier.  If you'd rather simplify, strip out the Campari for a straightforward Rob Roy, or dial back to an Improved Cocktail in the spirit of Imbibe!; this blend gets along really well with orange curacao.

Monkey Shoulder is one of those controversial "blended malts", being a mix of three individual malts that includes some well-known names (Balvenie and Glenfiddich).  All of its constituents come from Speyside, so you could consider this a sort of regional blend if you like.  The name sounds cute, but it actually comes from a sort of repetitive stress injury (think tennis elbow) that sometimes happened to the guy with the important job of stirring the protean whiskey with a big wooden paddle.  It's got a very nice, classic grainy character throughout, spiked with a little bit of orange, mango, and... yep, banana on the palate.  The finish is spicy with a hint of raisin and smoke behind it, but very classic Speyside.  This is really the closest you can get to single-malt quality out of a blend, and it's hard to argue with the price point.  For that reason I use it in spirit-focused scotch cocktails like the Rob Roy, Remember the Maine, or Affinity Cocktail.

Well, I was hoping for a total of 5 again, but unfortunately I've exhausted my knowledge of actual quality blends.  I'm sure there are plenty more out there.  Scotch is a growing category in the spirits world, and with prices rising for top-quality single malts, more blends are rising up to fill the middle shelves.  Compass Box (the company behind the Artist's Blend) makes quite a few that I would love to try and which I'm sure would qualify for recommendation here.  Maybe I'll get back to expanding this list in future.  For now, enjoy.

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