Is it possible to buy decent, award-winning whisky for under £20? We are living in crazy times, where the industry is charging so much for bottles of whisky that it’s in danger of driving away fans. For the past decade, prices have risen in ridiculous proportions. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand at best, or an industry bubble at worst.
Which brings me onto Lidl.
Lidl started off as a German discount supermarket chain. Founded in the 1940s, there are now 10,000 stores across Europe. In the UK, post-recession it managed to eat into the major supermarket chains and, like its German rival Aldi, is now thoroughly established throughout the country. It has a no-frills approach to shopping, with minimal shop-floor staffing. Consequently it manages to keep prices very low. The British shopper in particular loves a good bargain, so in such conditions the chain has thrived.
Its marketing campaign these days riffs on #LidlSurprise, with the idea that people shouldn’t be put off by the fact that it sells things cheaply. Such an attitude really suggests that there are ways to put out quality products at stupidly low prices.
Can whisky under £20 be any good?
It goes against the grain of the industry to be able to release such cheap stuff, but if all you care about is taste rather than brand, there must be something worth investigating here. In fact, Lidl and Aldi both have a bit of a discounter’s rivalry going on. Aldi, too, releases award-winning whiskies too.
It makes you wonder how a discount supermarket can sell such cheap, well-respected whisky. Perhaps it takes advantage of economies of scale. Perhaps it cares mostly about giving drinking excellent value over and above some kind of brand reputation. And I think we’ve moved way past the days of selling dodgy whisky cheaply: it’s in the competitive interest of these supermarkets to have good products.
Anyway, it’s time to put some of these cheap whiskies to the test. I have before me two blended malts, both of which have won medals at the International Spirits challenge, and a bourbon. Now, full confession: the Lidl team sent me these three whiskies in the post, much to my surprise, but regular readers will know that such kind gestures are not immune to some harsh words (i.e. the abomination that was the Fujikai 10 Years Old).
Triple Oak Matured Blended Malt Scotch Whisky bottled at 42% ABV. Cost: £17
Colour: polished mahogany. Possibly a touch of caramel colouring? On the nose: Fruity, definitely. Morello cherries. Raisins. Blackberry jam. Figs and mince pies. The sherry influence is extremely well pronounced. Touches of pear drops and perfume. Dark chocolate. It’s really very nice.
In the mouth: that all comes through perfectly in the mouth. Lovely velvety mouthfeel. It’s really at the wine end of the spectrum first, with Armagnac, praline, dark chocolate flavours, and it’s quite oily as well. Later come text-book dried fruits. Once you come used to this, there must be some younger whiskies in here fulfilling the role of grain whiskies to bring that lovely texture and almost vanilla and huskiness. The finish is a little like dark ale, too, with the flash of wood spice.
Now super-layered and complex it ain’t, but it’s tremendously well expressed. This is cask maturation wizardry, and an amazing accomplishment for the price. You must buy this and sneak it into blind tastings to shock your friends. It’s two-fingers up at the rest of the whisky industry, that’s for sure. Brilliant stuff.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky. Aged 12 Years. Bottled at 40% ABV. Cost: between £16-£20.
Colour: deep gold. On the nose: quite mild, with not a great deal going on. Grassy, touches of vanilla, apple and Chardonnay.
In the mouth: a little more flavoursome, stewed apples, cinnamon, barley, grass, and some gentle fruits: sultanas, redcurrants. A touch tart, with lingering woodnotes taking over at the end. A nice, velvety texture again, but not as thick as the Abrachan. Classic and inoffensive, I think, but by no means a bad whisky. In fact I think it’s rather pleasant.
6 Years Old Bourbon Whiskey, bottled at 40% ABV. Cost: approximately £15. It won the Gold Outstanding award at this year’s International Wine & Spirit Competition.
Colour: mahogany. On the nose: cherries – Cherry Coke, in fact. Lashings of vanilla and syrup. It really is as sweet as the school tuck shop: the aroma of childhood obesity.
In the mouth: not as sweet as predicted, and there’s a mellowness there. Vanilla and woodspices for the most part, though, and Cherryade, with a touch of aniseed. A little rough around the edges, though I imagine some fun cocktails off the back of it. Probably not for me, this one. It’s aimed at the Jack Daniel’s drinker, so if you want to mix it with something I think this ticks the right boxes.
Conclusions and conspiracy theories
So yes. You can release decent whisky for under £20.
In fact, it’s startling how easily this could be done by Lidl. But there’s one clear whisky here – the Abrachan – that’s outstanding value. At £17 a bottle, I urge you to give it a shot and see what you think.
Now, who’s the company behind this strange whisky? This one came from the “Clydesdale Scotch Whisky Co.” which is owned by Whyte & Mackay. And we know who’s behind those whiskies… And though the Ben Bracken is a blended malt, it’s likely that a good deal of it is Tamnavulin, which was at one point owned by Whyte & Mackay.
So is Richard Paterson, master blender of White & Mackay and Dalmore, the man who crafted Abrachan and Ben Bracken? Is he the wizard of Lidl? I’d wager a pound note on that…
But let’s finish on another interesting note. Lidl will shortly release three ‘Glenalba’ blended whiskies, aged at 22, 25 and 34 years respectively (each for under £50). There will be two single malts, too: a Ben Bracken 28 Years Old from Speyside and a 22 Years Old from Islay. Again, each one being less than £50… I’ll certainly be queuing up.
UPDATE: I’ve now reviewed the Ben Bracken 28 Year Old.