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Thursday, 1 May 2014

Whisky Flavour Profile: J&B Urban Honey, Ballantine's Brasil, Early Times Fire Eater

Life Imitating Art:

I’m Alan Partridge: A Room With An Alan. BBC TV, 1997.

Fictional radio DJ and TV presenter Alan Partridge meets the Head of BBC Programming, Tony Hayers to pitch ideas for some fourthcoming shows:

Alan Partridge:  ‘Shoestring’, ‘Taggart’, ‘Spender’, ‘Bergerac’, ‘Morse’. What does that say to you about regional detective series’?

Tony Hayers: There’s too many of them?

Alan: That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is, ‘people like them, let’s make some more of them’....

An alternative scene in a drinks company marketing department, c.2013:

Marketing Person 1: ‘Jim Beam Red Stag’, ‘Wild Turkey American Honey’, ‘Jack Daniel’s Honey’, ‘Dewar’s Honey’, ‘Evan Williams Honey’, ‘Bushmills Irish Honey’, ‘Fireball Cinnamon Canadian Whisky’, ‘Paddy Devil’s Apple’. What does that say to you about flavoured whiskies?

Marketing Person 2: There are too many of them?

Marketing Person 1: That’s one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is 'people like them, let’s make some more of them’...

And so here we are today, with a glut of flavoured whisky from both sides of the Atlantic. But what are these beasts which seem to have been unleashed on us and what are they for?

Well, the first thing to point out is that they are not ‘whisky’, something which is made clear on their labels with the use of the phrase ‘Spirit Drink’ in large letters (although on the Scotch products, the term ‘Scotch whisky’ does appear, which could lead to some light confusion for the consumer).

The reason these products, specifically the ones from Scotland, are not ‘Scotch whiskies’ is twofold: firstly, because they (more often than not) are under 40% abv, and secondly because they have been flavoured.

So what is the point of these remixed editions? Well, it certainly is not about sipping and savouring. If you want to find that, buy a ‘proper’ whisky. These products are more about making spirit drinks more accessible, hopefully in a positive ‘David Beckham-esque’ manner, not a ‘make-it-sweeter-so-teenage-drinkers-can-woolf-it-down-in-the-graveyard-after-dark’ stylee.

The versatility of whisky (and we’re talking ‘whisky’ again here now, not ‘spirit drinks’) has been focused on in a new book by the always fantastic whisky writer Dave Broom. Whisky: The Manual takes the reader on a journey of discovery, looking at different whiskies and how they work with mixers; everything from your classic Jack & Coke combo through to Macallan’s and Yamazaki 18 with coconut water, cola and green tea.
Scrabbling around the office, we managed to find a couple of the whiskies included in Broom’s book and try out his little exercises to see what whisky works with what mixer.
First up, a classic: Cutty Sark Original and Soda Water. Broom scores this a 5* (the highest rating in the book) calling it an ‘an instant, appetizing, moreish, lightly herbal drink where the crispness of the mixer plays off the sweetness, revealing perfume notes’.
This drink is a favourite in both the Ridley and Harrison households, with many a summer sundowner created with a light whisky (which Cutty is famed for) and a good slug of soda and ice. Test in the office, which was little needed to be honest, mirrored Broom’s notes, creating a vibrant and delicious drink perfect for a warm spring afternoon.
Casting the net from the other side of the boat, Broom kicks the hornets’ nest that is single malt and mixers, taking some reverenced  expressions such as The Macallan 18, Highland Park 18, Yamazaki 18, Talikser 10 and The Balvenie 12 Year Old Doublewood and trying them out with different partners.
Not all scored well (for example, the Yamazaki and Macallan 18’s were both regarded as being perfect ‘naked’ or with a drizzle of water, but not much else), where as the Bowmore 12 Years Old scored well with coconut water and the one we decided to try, Lagavulin 16 with coke, both coming in with a 5/5 score.
Lagavulin 16 with cola was a real surprise. Measured out in equal parts, the smoke kicks through the bold cola flavours and delivers something not too far off a smoky Dr. Pepper. I’d be interested to see where a cola syrup would take this (or even a cola cube in an Old Fashioned: ‘Smoke and Coke’, which sounds like a like a night out in 1980’s New York, anyone?) and how far this partnership could be pushed. Well worth a try at home.
Broom’s book is another step towards the idea of whisky (in ALL forms) as a mixer. Not to remove the halo that, say single malt Scotch has and force on a crown of thorns, whisky is just a drink and should be enjoyed. If enjoying it means mixing it, then by all means do so.
And this brings us back around to flavoured whisky: if used properly, they can provide a great entry point for the consumer into the world of whisky and a wonderful mixer to a cocktail. At their very bet, these ‘pop’ editions of whisky might even encourage their fans to seek out the real flavours behind the booze. But only if they’re good.
Of the new releases we have seen recently, few have taken well to our palate. Not for their over-sweetened ideal of what a cocktail ingredient should taste like, but their closeness to reality: how real do they taste.
One good example has been Jim Beam Red Stag, something we used a few years ago in a coffee cocktail, and it was excellent.

But recently there have been some new release, in the shape of J&B Urban Honey and Ballantine’s Brasil from Scotland and Early Times Fire Eater from the States.
Ballantine’s Brasil is bottled t 35% abv and is a Spirit Drink made from ‘Scotch whisky selectively cask steeped with Brazilian lime peel’. The result is a rather odd affair of sweetness and bitterness, delivering some oak-tones and a smoothness on the palate with a hint of lime coming through. Too much of a liqueur note about this for us, used as a mixer it added an additional layer of sweetness to most of the cocktails we tried it with. However, with soda and a lime wedge with wasn’t half bad.
Urban Honey sounds like a new album from Beyonce, but is actually the new expression from the age-old blended Scotch house J&B. The thing about this release is... it is actually really, really nice. On the nose, there is nothing but honey and whisky; no saccharine sweet notes. It doesn’t smell like a freshly cleaned diabetes ward, which a lot of these products can. The biggest surprise here is the taste, which is a brilliant balance of honey and whisky. Enough earthy tones from the oak matured spirit, this certainly has a ‘real’ feel to it. Again, this has been developed at 35% abv.
Early Times Fire Eater: this is a ‘hot cinnamon liqueur’ and is ‘a blend of fine spirits, Early Times whisky and cinnamon flavours’. Also at 35% abv, this is very sweet and full of cinnamon (as you would expect). I’m not quite sure what the point of this is or where one would best use it. Aside from the extreme sweetness, the flavour is good and it tastes real. I think this could work well with Ginger Beer... something for the backburner (if you excuse the pun), the results of which I’ll let you know about at some stage.
So there you have it, as the doors of ‘Club Whisky’ swing wider by the day, with grain whisky, flavoured offerings and books like Whisky: The Manual, opening the appeal of our beloved spirit to an even wider audience, we are seeing the dusty old members’ club become more of a drinking democracy. In the words of Woolf Smith: Power To The People.

Long Live The Whisky Popular Front.