Whisky Battle of the Sub-Jacksons: Cutty Sark, Duggan’s Dew, Grant’s, Ballantine’s

Alright, we’re all not driving Ferraris and eating at Shanghai Shanghai every day. Some of us punters have to grab a value whisky now and then. Usually, my bottom line is Teachers, which at a 45% malt blend is a pretty solid pick. But that’s more than a double-deucer here in Oregon ($22). More on that battle later. This entry is a test of what sub-$20 whiskies will leave you wanting more, vs. going for the Altoids to clean the horrid burnt-rubber taste out of your mouth (I’m looking at you, Old Smuggler).

What I expect

What I am expecting is drinkable blends one could enjoy in a mix that doesn’t overwhelm. I don’t mix cola with scotch, for example, but I might do soda. There has to be some taste to the scotch, else why not use rum, it’s cheaper still. So, these have to have something going for them. I also expect there to be an inverse relationship between advertising budget and taste. Why? At these prices, they can’t have their cake and eat it too. Either their cost basis is in Sportsman Afield adverts or in the bottle.

What I was hoping for was to find that these could be contenders for a sip neat now and then. Who knows, we might get lucky.

The contenders

This is an interesting bunch. We have a big name, which comes with the biggest price (and biggest advertising budget), a whisky I’d never heard of until I started researching Monkey Shoulder, and another I’ve never seen even on the web. It’s a dark horse, for sure.

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Why are there no hats in GOT?

Of course they are sad, they're getting frostbite.
Of course they are sad, they’re getting frostbite.

I have to say this really bugs me. I’m catching up on Game of Thrones, I bought the DVDs for Seasons two and three, after hanging around my bro-in-law’s house some years back and catching the first season. It was good. And I’ve gone a bit video since the last big book edit. Being a fan of the series (I’ve read all the books, reviews coming), I’m watching these characters and getting into the story, enjoying how they moved such a monster of a story arc onto video — tighter, quicker -paced, just as hard hitting. The casting has been excellent and the acting superb.

But as I watch, now and them I am wondering, where are their damn hats??! Let’s start with those wacky Crows, bumbling about in the Far North, beyond the wall, where it’s got to be bone-chilling cold. Okay, I get it, we’ve debunked the myth that you lose 45% of your body heat through your head (link), it is more like 10%. However, having lived in a very cold climate (the High Sierra) in winter, I guarantee that if you are out all day in below freezing weather, carrying/scavenging for food, you aren’t going to blithely brave frostbite and waste 10% of your hard-to-replenish body heat by forgetting your hat. Just look at Laplanders. Always the hat.

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Whisky and Words Number Four: Bunnahabhain 12

I first heard about Bunnahabhain while walking around Edinburgh back in 1992. I had been making my way down to high street from Nelson’s column on a Sunday. Not much was open, the skies were leaden, the city quiet. It wasn’t late but the light dim — it was November in Scotland, and that means short days. I was making the most of a day off after having done some business with Heriot-Watt University. Heriot-Watt is notable for being the college where James Bond went to school. I heard that from another Bond fan, I’m not entirely sure this is so, but we’ll let it go for now. What is certain is that they are involved in the country’s business education and especially the whisky business. They even had their own bottling of whisky, and I brought back a sample. I have the bottle still, but the spirit is long gone, so no solid review of that, though I remember not being too taken by it at the time.

A (very old) sample bottle of Heriot-Watt Univ. whisky
A (very old) sample bottle of Heriot-Watt Univ. whisky

The folks at Heriot-Watt were quite friendly, though they had taken particular care in softening up the young greenhorn from the U.S. That had been a day to remember, mainly due to the challenge of remembering it. Professor Scott had dosed me with my first taste of cask-strength whisky, taken me out for Chinese food and a cigar, then on a pub crawl. It was a hell of an introduction to Scottish social life. I’ll never forget him leaning over to me at one pub and saying, “If a Scotsman smashes his glass against the bar, watch out, because he’s gonna swipe it across your face!”

Nevertheless I felt some affection and brotherhood towards my cousins from across the sea (being a long-lost MacNaughton, after all). I enjoyed my time there and took advantage of Sunday’s quiet to tramp all over town. While I stopped in front of a liquor shop’s picture window to gaze at the bottles, another gent wandered up and took station beside me. “It’s too bad they’re closed,” I said. My accent tagged me as an American but he didn’t seem to mind. “What’s your favorite?” I asked after some small talk.

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Whisky and Words Number Three: Bushmills White

Bushmills White
Bushmills White

Bushmills white was the first whisky I actually savored. I was young, and impressionable, and thinking myself sophisticated — yet without means of acquiring sophistication. I’d muffed an opportunity to get my life together enough for higher education, so I worked a series of jobs and looked where I could for inspiration in our small town. I had read a book by Jack Higgins, The Eagle has Landed, in which a character named Devlin (an Irish revolutionary) helps out some Nazi paratroopers. It’s an outlandish plot delivered with aplomb and I remember Devlin favoring a specific Irish whisky, Bushmills. As fortune would have it, the local liquor/convenience store across from which I worked had Bushmills in stock and a compliant late-night clerk who would sell us adult (but not adult enough for America) working stiffs some booze.

I had also read that serious students at the university would speak gravely when they were reading The Russians, so I quickly learned who The Russians were (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, that lot) and began ending my day with Lev Nikolayevich and a glass of Bushmills.

An appropriate title, given the reader I was at the time.
An appropriate title, given the reader I was at the time.

So, one wonders if my early search for sophistication was at all well-founded? I’d have to say at least it set my taste for whisky. I’d had bourbon now and then with friends and not liked what I found — an overpowering fruity/sweet nose. That and I overindulged once, and anything that remotely reminded me of bourbon made me ill for some years. But Bushmills has a taste very different of that from the American whiskies. It is light, clean, and refreshing compared to old-school bourbons. That’s no surprise, as the mash bill and process is quite different. Whereas the American whiskies use a lot of corn, in Ireland it is barley and barley malt that goes into their whiskies. That and the Irish triple-distillation would make a sizable difference. Finally, being a blend, Bushmills has some grain whiskies added as well.

At $22 locally, Bushmills white label is in the rotation still at my house. We call on it when a non-peated dram is desired — which, for my wife, is most of the time. I call on Teachers for a taste of smoke for that same price.

Tasting Notes

Nose: Not like any other whisky I’ve tried and I still struggle to describe it. Grassy? A bit of sweetness, a touch of green peppers, dustiness.

Taste: Distinct barley taste, just a touch of sweetness, roses, oranges, plums. Nicely balanced.

Finish: Clean and quick. A touch of oak tannins.

Bottom line: Quick on the finish but a very good dram for a non-peaty night. Great value.

Whisky and Words Number Two: Monkey Shoulder

Since I can’t afford to drink a single malt every day (or nearly every day as moderation dictates), I’ve been looking for something to usurp the place of Johnnie Walker Black and Bushmills Black at my house. Those are both respected and popular blends, and they have enough complexity and refinement to provide a nice grown-up reward after a hard day.

As blends, both contain grain alcohol to dilute the single malt component. In the case of Johnnie Walker, the distiller claims a mix  of 40 single malts, and the best information I have (here) is that there is about 23% grain whisky in the mix. With forty individual malts in JWB, the character will be diluted, if predictable. And that describes JWB: predictable. It used to be my go-to dram for the average day, but at its price point (about $40 US where I live), it’s a bit pricey for a daily dram. Bushmills Black is another very good whisky with a cleaner, spicier taste which the wife prefers. There are some decent single malts near that price — even some aged as long as JWB (12 years). Thus, I’ve been looking for a Scotch whose price falls in between JWB and the range of blends like Johnnie Walker Red, Teachers (about 45% single malts), and Black Grouse — reasonably good and reasonably priced blends.

And thus we come to Monkey Shoulder. This Scotch is a blend. But it’s a bit special. In the old days, they would have called Monkey Shoulder a vatted malt — a mix of single malts, no grain alcohol added. That William Grant & Sons have produced a vatted malt priced ($32 locally) well below the blacks from both Johnnie Walker and Bushmills is pretty amazing. One wonders how they do it. To determine that, we’ll have to investigate what is in the Monkey Shoulder blend.

Through a glass, lightly.
Through a glass, lightly.

First of all, there are three Speyside malts in Monkey Shoulder (see label photo below). We can guess these include the single-malt members of the William Grant family — both Speysiders:

  • The Balvenie
  • Glenfiddich

That’s only two single malts — but that’s just the malts Grant sells as single malt. Not all distilleries’ output is sold that way, the single malt being a relatively new (20th century) invention. A clue to Grant’s sources for Monkey Shoulder is found on the Grant website: “Grant’s owns a number of malt and grain whisky distilleries in Scotland.” So we can assume there are distilleries in the Grant family making malt whisky which is not being sold as a single malt, but included in the Monkey and other blends (the firm’s Grant’s Family Reserve line has 25 malts blended). They may even buy some malts from other distillers.

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An old-fashioned tax tip

Long ago, in the dark ages of the Internet, when half the links led to sites with the ‘digging man’ in yellow and an “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” banner, I found a site that assisted the harried Father and Husband (as it was assumed by the host) to do his taxes. The video was presented by a stately-looking gent, grey hair (white at the temples), wire-framed glasses, a white dress shirt and, if I remember correctly (this was almost 20 years ago), a tan cardigan. He could have been a lawyer, or the family doctor (nothing so pretentious as a specialist, mind you.) He stood behind a wide wooden desk, a leather wingback chair and bookcases in the background.

What I have on tax morning
What I have on tax morning

In a calm voice, he began with now-familiar advice: “Get your papers in order. Take your time. Arrange your forms to the left, then your income statements and bank returns to the right.” Ah, yes, the old ‘lay it out neatly’ approach.

Then he stood up, straightened his glasses and pronounced this little gem: “When you’ve finished, and your forms are sorted, pour your first whisky.”

A fine tax tip indeed. And that was just the first whisky — there were more to be had — after the Schedule A was completed, for example. Then after Schedule D, when all of those stock transactions (he assumed) were entered. For this guide, the drinks were breadcrumbs in the Forest of Tax Drudgery, little rewards to draw the striving taxpayer along the way and keep him calm.

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Whisky and Words Number One: The Macallan

Why not mix them up? Some of the greatest writers have drunk whisky. I’m not advocating that for anyone — I never write unless I’m sober, and responsible imbibing is the message here. But I think they can go together. I often have a dram while I’m reading. Both I do at the end of the day to relax. And since I muse a lot about other weird stuff, I’ll be writing about whisky to relax, too.

Note: what I won’t be doing is getting overly-wrought in my descriptions. I do not pretend to be a super-taster, capable of discriminating upon which Caribbean island my toffee was browned. And that’s OK as most likely, you aren’t either. So we’ll keep it sane.

Whisky Review: The Macallan 12

So let’s start with a standard and safe selection, a dram no one will criticize you for buying and everyone will enjoy (no overpowering peat, smoke or oil). The Macallan 12-year-old.

Whenever you see a whisky that’s ‘the’ something, you can bet it has been around a long time. But it does not necessarily mean it is good. ‘The Glenlivet’ 12-year-old, for example, has been around for ages. The Glenlivet is the first single-malt many (such as I ) tried and it has admirers, but to me, the cost/benefit just is not there. The Glenlivet to my palate is uninspiring — just not a lot of ‘there’ there. For a bit more you can get Highland Park 12, which has vastly more character, or Ardbeg, .

But back to the Macallan 12. You have to give those folks at Macallan credit. They use barrels that have been used to age sherry. But not just any barrels — they buy the barrels themselves, from wood they select, then essentially rent them to the sherry producers and get them back after a single run. So Macallan guarantees a steady supply of sherry-aged oak in top condition.

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