Thursday, September 01, 2011

the blend is nigh

Let's clear up the last two un-sampled whiskies in the cupboard. These just happen both to be blends, so it seems only right to do them together. The only blended whisky we've featured here previously was the mighty Johnnie Walker Black Label (that bottle has just bitten the dust, as it happens), so it's about time we did some more.

Firstly, Jameson Special Reserve. This is a first as it's an Irish whiskey (and therefore carries an extra "e"), although I did allude way back in the early days to having recently finished a bottle of 10-year-old Bushmills. This bottle was given to me by our excellent and generous Irish friends Mark and Lorna when they popped in at our post-wedding barbecue, and it's only now, a couple of months later, that I've got round to broaching it. This carries a 12-year age statement, which means all of the whiskey in it is over 12 years old - this one is to the standard Jameson as Johnnie Walker Black is to Johnnie Walker Red, if you like.

Though the raw ingredients and most of the preparation process are pretty much identical, Irish whiskey differs from Scotch whisky in a few important ways, most notably that almost all Irish whiskey is triple-distilled - with a very few exceptions, notably Auchentoshan, Scotch whisky is distilled only twice. In theory this makes the end product a bit smoother and more refined. Also worth noting is that while Jameson is marketed as a blended whiskey, and indeed so it is, being a mixture of malt and grain whiskies, all the whiskey contained in it is produced at the Jameson distillery. This is in marked contrast to how almost all blended Scotch whisky is made; in the main the blending houses don't produce their own whisky (though they might own distilleries elsewhere whose output they have first dibs on), and they source the constituent bits from a wide variety of places.

Right, stand aside, I'm going in. It's all shortbread and honey with just a whiff of something more estery like pear drops or whiteboard cleaner; very inviting. Have a sip and it's still sweet and biscuity - if you didn't know what it was you might well assume that it must be one of the more mellow Speysiders like Knockando or Cardhu, though I think it's a bit more interesting than either of those.

The second bottle is a litre of Johnnie Walker Green Label I picked up in the duty-free shop at Heathrow before we went to Canada; remarkably it survived ten days in an RV and the return flight without getting either broken or consumed. Green Label is the next one up the hierarchy from Black Label, and a 70cl bottle will generally set you back about 40 quid, so a litre for a smidgen under £30 seemed pretty good to me. The next one up, Gold Label, generally retails for around £60, and the top one (one-off absurdly expensive specialities aside), Blue Label, will set you back something like £150, so it's unlikely I'll be shelling out for either of those in the near future.

Actually, technically Green Label isn't a blend, it's a vatted malt, which means that it's 100% malt whisky (unlike blends which contain grain whisky as well) from various distilleries. As well as the odd dash from other places the box claims that it's principally a blend of Caol Ila, Cragganmore, Linkwood and Talisker, all of which are at least 15 years old (compared with 12 years for the Black Label). Well, I've never tried Linkwood, but Caol Ila and Talisker are both pretty robustly smoky, and Cragganmore has a bit, too, so you'd expect the blended end result to be pretty aggressive.

So it's a bit of a surprise when you dip a nose (your own, ideally) in to find that it's pretty friendly - very rich and intense and cakey, but it's not shoving a burning peat brick in your eye in quite the way you might have expected. It doesn't seem to be any smokier than the Black Label, for instance. It's all rich dark raisins and sherry when you have a sip, too, and now it seems less smoky than the Black Label. There's a bit of an after-zing on the tongue from the peat, but it's really quite civilised. It's really tremendously good, but you almost wish it was just a little bit rougher and more sweary and punchy.

Of the two I'd have to say I prefer the Johnnie Walker, just because I like a little bit of a backhanded smoky slap round the kisser, but they're both very good. Ask me whether I prefer the Green Label or the Black Label, though, and I'd struggle to give you an answer, at least without a large glass of each, a big leather chair and a couple of hours to think about it.

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