Whisky and Words Number 53: Ballantine’s 12 vs. Johnnie Walker Black

My  Dewars vs. Johnnie Walker Red post was so popular, I reprised with the Irish titans, Bushmills vs. Jameson. Today, it’s Ballantine’s 12 vs. the venerable (and titanic) Johnnie Walker Black, another 12-year old blend.

The Ballantine’s story

Ballantine’s 12 – a black label…coincidence?

So, who are behind Ballantine’s? George, the namesake, started his distillery in 1827, and gained some recognition in 1895 with a royal warrant. Ballantine’s Finest was developed in 1910. Their main expression, it sells 200,000 bottles a day according to their site. Assuming a 700 ml bottle, that’s 51 million liters a year! Prodigious. In 1959, they came up with the 12-year expression which is the subject of this review.

Now Ballantine’s is owned by Pernod Ricard, a very large international spirits corporation. (See your whisky ownership map here.) On the Ballantines web site, they explain what they’re making, a blend, and how they pull whiskies from “the four corners of Scotland. These include Speyside, Islay, Highlands, and Lowland.” That’s not unusual in a blend; Grant’s, for example, includes 25 separate malts. Such a wide selection on ingredients allows the malt master to design a consistent product, year after year. The Ballantine’s site mentions American oak, but nothing else about their production methods.

That darned spout

A little about the packaging: it’s classy, with a flat, dark theme and a little chrome (the coat of arms). They have tasting notes on the front of the flat-black carton and a blurb about their history on the side, not much on the back. One thing I do not like is the no-splash pour spout. I’m quite capable of pouring my whisky without it and when I pour for the photos I’m often not drinking, and prefer to decant back into the bottle. Can’t do that here.

A nice amber color. Sherry casks contribute.

However informative their ‘story’ page might be, the product page says almost nothing, just some tasting notes. The Wikipedia page is pretty thin as well but with some searching I found a detailed site visit described at thespiritsbusiness.com, where we learn that “Glenburgie has been the ‘signature’ single malt used in Ballantine’s since 1935.” The Glenburgie still-house photo shows 6 stills, large but not enormous. They produce about 4.2M liters a year, use a lightly peated malt and mostly sherry-seasoned casks. Other malts mentioned are Glentauchers (4.1M liters) and Miltonduff (5.5M liters/year). According to the whisky.com article, Miltonduff uses both ex-bourbon and sherry-seasoned casks, and they use unpeated malt. I’ve been able to discover little of Glentauchers save for a comment on whisky.com: “flowers have been preferred to earthy weight” in respect to the style.

Those three distilleries hardly cover all the four corners of Scotland – they are all in are Speyside – which leaves 3 of the corners unaccounted for. However, we learn on scotchwhisky.com that up to 50 malts are used, all told, to make up the blend (along with four grain whiskies).

Title fight! Battle of the Blacks

The competition

We’ll compare the Ballantine’s 12 to the equally ubiquitous Johnnie Walker Black Label. They’re both blends, 12-years, 40%, and roughly the same in price, about $35 in Oregon. Johnnie Walker (all expressions) sells about 18 million cases per year. I wrote a little about JWB here. A ‘damn good’ scotch, considering the price.

Ballantine’s 12 should, given its constituents, offer a nice sherry nose and it does.  The nose delivers mostly sherry, apple and pear, but a little mineral makes it through, as do oak spiciness and vanilla. No sign of peat smoke, though. This is the sherry-cask lover’s blend. It’s quite gentle on the nose. Taking a sip, you’d probably notice the balance. The sherry gives way to caramel and custard, but the oak brings up the sides and balances it out nicely. The finish is not overlong but I get lingering hints of holiday spices: clove and nutmeg. The tannins cleaning up at the end get a little bitter.

In comparison, JWB is a different animal. It has a bit of smoke on the nose, and less sherry than the Ballantine’s. Courtesy of its Caol Isla and other island constituents, JWB has a maritime flavor, some salt and wrack funkiness. I’d say the JWB also has a little more vanilla in its custardy sweetness, a little more peppery / medicinal flavor to follow, and the finish is smoother, less bitter.

One more thing: the Ballantine’s 12 is a big upgrade on the bog-standard ‘Finest’ expression, which I covered here. The NAS Ballantine’s has an unremarkable nose, hardly any sherry, mostly just sweet with a bitter finish. Go for the 12.

Ballantine’s 12-year Blended, 40% ABV

Nose: Sherry, apple and pear, a little mineral, oak spiciness, vanilla.
Palate: Well-balanced sherry, caramel and custard; the oak gives balance and structure, not overdone. Lingering hints of nutmeg and clove.
Finish: Vanilla-heavy, a little spice on the tip of the tongue, dries quickly and to a rather bitter finish.

Bottom Line: Fairly priced. Usually you can get JWB for about the same price as Ballantine’s 12, so I’d say, it depends on your preference. Those who are newer to Scotch and not into peat or maritime funkiness should go for Ballantine’s 12 over Johnnie Walker’s black.  From my memory I’d say it’s more complex and luxurious on the palate than the Dewar’s 12 ‘Ancestor,’ though the finish is a bit rougher. Then again, you can also get a bottle of Glenmorangie single malt for the same coin.

P.S. for you lovers of /r/abandonedporn, here’s a great set of photos from a disused Ballantine’s warehouse. LINK

Looking for more head-to-head comparisons? Check this review for a comparison of: Cutty Sark Original, Duggans Dew, Grant’s Family Reserve, Ballantine’s Finest

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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