This is a bit unfair to old JWB — he wants to just keep walking, but just as the old boy saunters past the once-garish, now-tatty hawker’s booth nestled in the seawall of Old Brighton, just west of the pier, out come a couple yobs wielding – wait for it – glencairn glasses. Frightening. You guessed it, we’re not just looking at old JW Black here, but comparing him to another Black and a simian. And even a single-malt. Which we gotta do as there are 1000 reviews of JWB around – we need some spice for this old pottage.
Johnnie Walker comes up a lot in my reviews of blends because I consider the Black a damn good whisky for the price. At $40 US (two Jacksons), you get a consistent product which has enough character to sip neat. And yet, do I buy it often? No, because like my wife and her cooking, I can’t leave well enough alone. I’m always trying new things, even when I’ve found something I like. Johnny Black is like a Seymour Duncan ‘JB’ guitar pickup – reliable in character, and although you know you’ll stray, it’s also known you’ll return home now and then to its comfortable familiarity. It even has a similar name, and costs about the same. Weird, huh?
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.
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:
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.