So – with the distillery tour over and done with, it was time to move onto the main event; that which we had all been invited along to see. The deconstruction of Ballantine's 12 Year Old.
Before we get into all that though, I’d like everyone to take a second to behold the image below:
An absolutely massive helmet.
If the person who designed this, the team that signed it off, the distillery manager, and every single visitor to the facility in the last 9 years *didn’t* look at this and immediately realise that they’d just done a few grand on what is unmistakably a massive hat for a giant, then they all need to go into some sort of giant mincer. I digress.
We were ushered into the inner sanctum of the distillery – the tasting cottage*. Once safely ensconced, we were presented with a mat featuring the grain blend that’s used for Ballantine's 12, the Malt blend, as well as a cask sample of Glenburgie, and one of Miltonduff (the two malts that form the backbone of the Ballantine’s Blend).
The Malt Cottage, or something...
Sandy took great pains to explain the way that he and his team go about putting together Ballantine's – nosing of various batches of casks, always done at between 20% and 23% abv, in order to achieve the consistency they’re after.
Now I have to confess that this was something of a revelation. I’ve never before been forced to sit down and nose whisky at this ABV. Sure, I’ve tried taking whisky down to 20% or thereabouts at tastings and when selecting casks, but my perspective has always been (much to the consternation of Dr. Whisky with whom I remember having at least one vigorous discussion about exactly this issue) that I’m not particularly interested in dissecting the profile of a whisky at 20% in order to pull out all the various flaws / identify the compounds within. I’m much more interested in what it tastes like at the sort of ABV that most people tend to drink it – either at natural strength, or a touch above 40% if you really must add water.
Now I don’t think this is just pig-headed ignorance on my part** – more of a retailer / cask selector’s perspective versus a blender’s. It was genuinely eye-opening to see just what an impact this simple change makes, and how much more olfactory information was accessible at this ABV. I wouldn’t say that the whisky was necessarily more enjoyable as a result, just more, well, *more*.
Sandy went on to explain that he and his team had very different views on just what flavours and aromas are given off by the various constituent parts that go to form the blend. Just because one person smells roses, doesn’t necessarily mean that the next person will perceive roses too. They might get perfume, or English Country gardens in the rain, or their grandmother.
Aroma is obviously an intrinsically memory-linked sense, but what was surprising to me was that rather than try to break that bond and approach the problem of compound-identification objectively and clinically, Sandy was happy to embrace the differences between the various team-members’ perceptions and work on a more individual level.
Sandy talks us through the blending process
On bringing the various constituents together, the result is really quite delicious:
Ballantine's 12 Year Old
Ballantine's 12 Year Old Tasting Note:
Nose: Jaffa Cakes! Boom! Big honey, and maybe just a touch of menthol? There’s definitely peat there, but it’s incredibly fleeting***. Big nose for a blend, but then again the malt content in this is around 40%, so probably to be expected.
Palate: Thick and rich for a blend – no doubt. The orangey note from the nose is there in force, as is a touch of something else fruity. Maybe the strawberry jam from the Glenburgie just nosing its way through?
Finish: Strawberry jam turns to roly-poly pudding. Thick, rich, and with more than a touch of baked-goods about it. Delicious.
Overall: If ever there was a blend that’s perfect for cocktails?
If I had to take away one other piece of information from the blending class, it would be the overriding, slap-in-the-face revelation about Glenburgie’s flavour profile gleaned from tasting a first-fill cask – it tastes like Strawberry Jam. Hugely.
These revelations on overarching flavour profiles come to me from time to time in a sort of rain-man-esque manner – like the fact that Bushmills 10 year old tastes almost exclusively of Nectarine. In fact I’ll go a bit further than that. It tastes of the pieces of Nectarine that you get in low-quality yoghurts. From the 1980s. From Safeway. Promise. Try it.
1930s Blended Whisky
Following this, we were taken to the Ballantine’s brand archive. Amongst the usual old bottlings (like the one above hailing from the 1930s) and old marketing materials was one photo that was particularly interesting:
NOT Neil Ridley from www.caskstrength.net
Yep. Ballantine's employed none other than a young David Niven as a (particularly terrible) salesman in his early acting years. Hard to believe, but true.
In the evening, we were treated to a delicious dinner, as well as, if anything, too many cocktails made using Ballantine's 12. I have to say that as far as blended whisky goes, I’ve yet to come across anything that works as well in mixed drinks, and I don’t say this lightly. Keep your eyes on our brand new feature #MasterofCocktails for a couple of recipes made using this excellent blend. Or at least there would be, if indeed Ballantine's 12 Year Old was available in the UK. It’s not though. Sort of makes you wonder what this was all about really.
Nevertheless – the excellent Ballantine's Finest, and incredible (and previous winner of Jim Murray’s ‘Best Whisky in the world’) Ballantine's 17 year old are. So console yourselves with a little dram of one of them, as well as the following marvellous news:
The two key malts in the Ballantine's Blend are Glenburgie and Miltonduff. We’ve managed to get hold of casks of both of these, and they’re available here:
Glenburgie 21 Year Old – 56.9% – 183 bottles
Miltonduff 18 Year Old – 59.4% – 166 bottles
There may also be a couple of boutique-y releases on the way for these two distilleries, one of which may feature a malevolent giant who’s lost a hat.
*okay – it might not be called the tasting cottage, but that’s what I’m going with.
**I’ll concede there’s some of that.
***BOAST alert: I asked Sandy, and apparently the peat levels in Ballantine's 12 are around 8ppb (yes, ‘b’).