The new consumer, so we’re told, was seeking “further innovation within Scotch whisky that didn’t involve the addition of sugar or flavours”. Not least because adding anything would be illegal and therefore not Scotch whisky any longer. (This is the positive side of why Scotch whisky is so heavily regulated.) That’s why Chivas Brothers created Ballantine’s Hard Fired earlier this year – named after the hard fired casks in which this blend of whiskies has been finished.
The process basically involves disgorging the whisky from its old home in second-fill American oak barrels for no longer than a day (in order to stop the oak from drying out). The barrels are then given a heavy char from the hard firing and then are refilled with the same blend of whisky for several months. Basically, the idea is that you can’t add flavour to whisky by law, so you have to find other ways – and a newer way is to
tit about innovate by altering the wood itself.
And thus, we have Ballantine’s Hard Fired, a new blended whisky available for about £30 (or at travel retail for €24). There’s plenty of talk in the press material online about creating a masculine whisky (whatever that means) and that the consumer is demanding such things (apparently millennials are suckers for stories and themes rather than knowing what they’re actually drinking). I’m not here to tease about what branding teams come up with. They’re just trying to shout about their products in a rowdy market place – and besides, such mockery is too easy a sport. No, I’m concerned the whisky itself, which isn’t at all that bad.
Ballantine’s Hard Fired Tasting Notes
Nose: first impressions: unusual for a blend, and rather nice. Not too sweet at all. Yes there is vanilla, but at first it’s masked behind this curious burnt toast smell. I suspect this is the hard firing in action, and it is unusual for a whisky. Heavily toasted brown bread in fact, then a little bit of ginger and all spice. Cinnamon. But really that toasting dominates.
In the mouth: very nice texture as you’d expect for a blend, and a surprising amount of flavour (though don’t mistake that for complexity). Yes, toffee and vanilla notes. And yes, a warmth from ginger, nutmeg and pepper. A good balance too between those extremes, but not much going on in between. That toasted quality – whatever this hard-firing does – lends a lightly ashy, peated note on what is a very warming finish for a blend. Lovely silky texture too.
Mass market blends have to be judged differently to single malts or even boutique blended malts. They’re different beasts, performing different jobs for different audiences. If Ballantine’s Hard Fired is indeed a mass market whisky then it’s the polar opposite of something as bland as Haig Club. This does have an intensity of flavour. It is curiously different. It might not typically be my thing, but this has character. Modern online culture tends to blot out character in all corners of life, so I think actually for a blend to try something like this is rather good. Well done Ballantine’s.