One of the benefits of international travel is duty free and visiting the whisky shops at most airports in Britain.
Travelling back and forth from Canada to our base in Yorkshire, and family in Oxfordshire and Sussex, we use Manchester, Heathrow and Gatwick airports alternately, where we always make a visit to the World of Whisky shops to see what they have to offer. Not the least inducement is a free shot of very good Scotch before breakfast. The shops can also be found at Aberdeen, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Newcastle and Stansted airports.
Over the past year or so I realize that while the infamous ‘Scotch Bucket’ empties of blended Scotch frequently, the single malts seem to be languishing. Perhaps it is because master blenders have an opportunity to make a more interesting taste with a blend, rather than the simpler notes of single malt, or whether I’m finding blends smoother and prefer my Scotch over ice, taste buds do change as we age. In any event, the great thing about Scotch is you can drink whatever you like, however you like and whenever you like … and slàinte to all the Scotch snobs.
Given the time of year, it’s worth reminding that a bottle of good blended Scotch whisky makes an ideal Christmas present, especially if you are not sure what sort of single malt the recipient prefers.
In have two personal favourite blended Scotch whiskies. In the cold winter months, I lean towards the original Johnnie Walker Black Label, when I can relax in front of the fire of an evening with a good book, our two lovely Siamese cats at my feet, and a Gentleman’s Portion of scotch on the rocks in a handsome and heavy crystal glass. Johnnie Black is made from smoky single malts from the major Scotch distilling regions, plus grain whiskies, and aged for a minimum of 12 years, to create a classic smooth character. No wonder it’s the world’s best selling blend.
In the warmer months of spring and autumn, and when travelling in the Caribbean, I favour J & B Rare which brings together 42 single malt and grain whiskies, principally from Speyside, and blends them to create a light and drinkable character. Wine and spirits merchants Justerini and Brooks have been around for 250 years. A 1779 ad claims: “Gentlemen of the army may be supplied with compleat (sic) camp and travelling cellar cafes, filled with most necessary articles.” The Rare blend dates back to just after Prohibition, when they began exporting massive quantities to the newly thirsty Americans. Hard to find in the UK, it’s popular in North America, the Caribbean and Spain, where my dad acquired a taste for it. And which he passed on to me.
In the past I’ve bought many exceptional single malts at duty free, but now I’m focusing on interesting blends that aren’t regularly available in stores. Johnnie Walker Double Black is Johnnie Black only more so. It’s a blend of Caol Ila and Lagavulin (from Islay), Talisker (from the Isle of Skye), Glendullan and Mortlach (from Speyside), a few more besides, topped up with grain whisky from Cameron Brig. It has a big nose, it’s smooth and smoky and has a lighter finish.
Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve is a rebranding of the old Gold 18-year-old without an age statement. It’s a blend of more than 15 single malts, aged between 15 and 18 years. It’s lighter on the nose, sweet with honey notes and a big finish.
Johnnie Walker Explorers’ Club Collection-The Spice Road is zesty on the nose, mild and smooth.
Johnnie Walker Green Label is crafted from Speyside, Highland, Lowland and Island malts matured for at least 15 years, bringing together aromas of cut grass, fresh fruit, wood smoke, deep vanilla and sandalwood. The named malts are Talisker (Isle of Skye), Linkwood (Speyside), Cragganmore (Speyside) and Caol Ila (Islay). Each brings its own special notes to the blend: wood smoke from Talisker, fruit, flowers and cedar from Linkwood, malty flavours from Cragganmore and peat smoke from Caol Ila. I’ve only lucked upon one bottle of this and very much enjoyed it.
This blend should not be confused with Johnny Walker Island Green, a new offering which I have yet to sample. As the name would suggest, the maritime malt whisky Caol Ila from Islay provides the greatest influence with notes of smoke, sweetness and spice.
More recently, I’ve opened a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Triple Cask Edition, new in June 2018. The box blurb reveals that blender Chris Clark included three Speyside malts from Blair Athol, Cardhu and Strathmill, and matured them in a combination of bourbon and rum casks. It claims rich layers of vanilla, ginger, toffee, brown sugar and a whisper of smoke. Frankly, all I can taste is the rum and if I’d wanted a glass of neat rum then I have better and much cheaper options in my liquor cabinet. So much for that idea. It will languish in the Scotch Bucket and I’ll see what my guests think over Christmas.
The last time I passed through duty free, I noticed but did not buy, for frankly it seemed just too much like a marketing gimmick, something called Johnnie Walker White Walker. It seems odd to name a brand after the undead villains of HBO’s massive television series Game of Thrones, but there you are. At the end of season seven, the undead army of White Walkers emerged from the frozen north. “Winter is coming,” as characters in the series keep reminding us. It remains to be seen, when the final and eighth season of six movie length episodes finally launches in April 2019, whether these creatures with icy blue eyes will prevail. If they lose, I’m not sure what it will do for this brand of Johnnie’s sales.
Box notes reveal the limited edition was created by blender George Harper from single malts Cardhu and Clynelish, one of Scotland’s most northern distilleries. Best served from the freezer, the blend develops notes of caramelised sugar, vanilla, fresh red berries and a touch of orchard fruit as it warms to room temperature. As a final trick, it features packaging technology which reveals an icy design when chilled. Dare I say, save your money?
On a more balanced note is a special treat I received in Yorkshire as a gift from my friend Ben. He has been to London and the House of Lords and has brought me back a rare taste of their Lordships’ own blended Scotch. This is currently not available except at Parliament, so find a Lord in your family and go visit. Where is the late Lord Nigel Napier, after whom I am named, when you need him? The blend is from Gordon & MacPhail, one of Scotland’s oldest whisky bottlers, so it should be good. Their retail shop in Elgin, Scotland, in the heart of Speyside is still going strong after 123 years. One reviewer notes that House of Lords Blended Scotch is clean, bright and fruity and very easy to drink. I agree.
Ben has also brought me a special monogrammed House of Lords Glencairn whisky glass, so to end this column, I’ll raise a glass to my friend and say “Cheers!”
And Merry Christmas to all our readers!
Finally! The art of blending fine whiskey seems to have been diminished by the single malt craze. Thank you Nigel for this article. It will be shared. (A very Merry Christmas to you and your lovely lady!)
I’ve almost finished up ALL the single malts in the Scotch Bucket. From now on it is a world of blended only.