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Monday, 12 July 2010

FOUR! (blends)

Luckily, here at towers we have some good friends. One such person is our mate Andy. A Northern Irish fella who now lives in London, Andy is a massive golf and whisky fan and sends this report down from the Barclay's Scottish Open at Loch Lomond this weekend. Lucky git... Finally you get a break from our inane ramblings to hear those of another misguided fool:

Hello! Here I am, in Scotland again for what feels like the third time in as many weeks (mainly because it IS the third time in as many weeks). It’s a perfect July day, grey, cold, and windy, with the type of rain that Vietnam would be proud of in the monsoon season. I also have 3 text messages from friends in London informing me it’s 31 degrees and sunny. (Note to self, don’t rub people’s noses in it when heading to Scotland.) Added to that, a 3 hour delay at Gatwick the night before had led to a missed dinner and an intimate knowledge of just how uncomfortable the seats are at gate 45.

However, you’d be VERY much mistaken if you think my damp exterior would lead to low spirits… I had the prospect of seeing some of the best golfers in the world play The Scottish Open along with a tasting of the Ballantine’s prestige range around lunchtime!

Off I set on the 30 minute cab ride to the course. Jim the very friendly driver, pointed out the Ballantine’s bottling plant at Kilmalid on the way and, in what felt like no time at all I had arrived at the course, grabbed a coffee and a bacon roll and nestled under an umbrella by the 8th green in front of the club house to watch a few groups of players come through.

Golf and whisky are regular bedfellows and go hand-in-hand like Russell Brand and Katy Perry, though perhaps with a little more class. I never set foot on a course without making sure my hipflask is topped off and in the side pocket of my bag. If you don’t play golf, and I know many of you won’t (oh what infuriating joy you’re missing out on!) it may not quite translate, but the tasting of a wonderful dram while walking through beautiful countryside with good friends is an experience that simply cannot be bettered. The fact you have to stop occasionally to hit a ball (and then usually look for it in the trees) very often does come second (insert joke here about Tiger Woods coming second…).

I digress, back to the present. After standing still for an hour or so, I was thankful to see a group with Graeme McDowell coming through as not only did he win the US Open 3 weeks ago, he’s a fellow Ulsterman and as I discovered, a fellow lover of whisky. He’s is also a Ballantine’s brand ambassador and gets personally involved in special golf commemorative blends. What a man. After following them for a few holes my heart began to sink as I slowly came to the realisation that “no, I would never be good enough to be a professional golfer” and “yes, these guys really are that good”.

Checking my watch I realised it was time for lunch followed by a much anticipated tasting. I walked up the impressive steps of Rossdhu House and was shown through to a fantastic old dining room which couldn’t have been purpose built any better for a whisky tasting. With the setting so perfect, the whiskies laid out and the golf on a telly in the corner, I wondered if life gets any better? (Just to reiterate, it was 31 Deg down here in London! – Ed)

Ken Lindsay, Ballantine’s Global Brand Ambassador took us through some of the background of the blend and had some bottles of the two key Single Malts that go in to the range (Glenburgie and Miltonduff), along with a sample of the blended grain that forms the base of the range too. A wonderful opportunity to taste the ingredients in their virgin states! While it’s fair to assume that the bulk of the grain spirit does come from the Pernod Ricard group distilleries Dumbarton and Strathclyde, not even he knows the exact blend with grain from all 7 major distilleries being used. In fact, anywhere between 35 and 40 different whiskies actually go in to each different blend from all corners of Scotland.

At this stage I must hold my hands up and say that I’m not a huge drinker of blends. That’s certainly not to say I’m a Malt snob, or that I don’t enjoy them; it’s simply the case that in the course of my drinking life I haven’t had the opportunity to sample as many blends as I have Single Malts. Added to that the general “down the nose” look that most whisky drinkers give to grain whisky, I must admit that I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth and complexity in the drams I sampled.

Ballantine’s - 17yr – 43%

Nose: A soft buttery vanilla nose with hints of summer spice and heather.

Palate: Over-riding sweet vanilla and fruit with undertones of creamy fudge. Balanced with a touch of citrus. Overall very smooth and balanced.

Finish: A fairly short sweet fruit finish which is worryingly moreish.

Ballantine’s - 21yr – 43%

Nose: A very floral nose, hints of cadbury’s crunchie, and sweet spice.

Palate: Sweet rich mouth with hints of smoke, honey, and citrus.

Finish: Very balanced sweet spicy finish that lingers.

Ballantine’s Limited – Release No A00553 – 43%

A special limited release with no age statement. A “representative” blend from the master blender Sandy Hyslop.

Nose: Rich fruit, brown toast, Devon fudge.

Palate: Honey, hints of coal, rich sultana type fruits. Very soft creamy mouth feel.

Finish: Sweet, sherry hints, spicy, and enough body to be very pleasing.

Ballantine’s - 30yr – 43%

Nose: Rich vanilla, honey, oak.

Palate: Hints of smoke, toffee apple, winter cake, heather.

Finish: A finish that stays for a LONG time. Full and rich, hints of liquorice, with sweetness from caramel tones.

I’m sure you’ll have noticed from the above notes, similar hints are common throughout the range and to be honest that’s what I was actually most impressed with. To be able to have a consistent thread through all of the blends to maintain a “Ballantines-ie” identity, despite huge age differences really surprised me. Obviously each has it’s own nuances and the age difference gives the older blends considerably more oak and richness, but the key flavours were still common to all. For me, the 17 YO, (for its simple drinkable enjoyment) and the 30yr for its remarkable finish were the two standouts on the day. Now I’m not one to parrot corporate identities around, but Ballantine’s use the banner for their brand of “soft, sweet, complex, elegant” and I’ve got to hold my hands up and say that it’s probably a fair commentary on their blends!

In the hour and a half I’d spent in the clubhouse, the weather had decided to brighten up considerably (people were sunbathing!) so with a warm glow from the tasting and a spring in my step, having checked to find out that Darren Clarke (another fellow Ulsterman!) was still leading, I headed back to the course and managed to catch his group heading down the 12th.

For the rest of the afternoon I wandered happily around the course immersed in my new found love of, well, pretty much all things around me really. The course looked magnificent in the sun, the players were bombing their drives 320 yards+, and hitting it stiff to the pins (You what? – Ed). I also had a lovely warm glow in my chest which lasted me right up until I got back to my hotel and tucked in to their considerable back bar. I began with a Yamazaki 12….. and well, the evening just carried on from there.

Extra Notes……

Glenburgie 17yr – A floral fruity nose which leads to smooth honey and fruit palate with slight citrus hints. Not a long finish, but very pleasing and sweet.

Miltonduff 17yr – A vanilla floral nose, with hints of candle wax leading to a rich fruity palate and quite long sticky toffee finish with hints of floral spice.

Grain Vat (used for the Ballantine’s 17yr) – Light honey nose with hints of candy floss and toffee popcorn. A vanilla/ floral palate with narrower fruit tones, leading to a sharper finish, which is sweetened by the caramel hints that stay through it. One of the nicer Grains I’ve tried to be honest.

A big "thank you" to Andy for his guest blog post. It must have been tough...