Time for another old blend. This time it’s a White Horse whisky from the 1940s. That makes it certainly up there with the oldest whiskies I’ve reviewed on Malt – probably on par with the Berry Bros & Rudd 1940s blend from a year or so ago.
In the 1850s whisky pioneer Andrew Usher found he could whisk up a cocktail of malt whisky and (comparatively rather boring) grain whisky that was both flavoursome and tame enough for the masses. It greatly annoyed the Irish whiskey industry (along with the innovation of the Coffey still some time before this). Usher opened the floodgates for the Scotch industry to mass produce cheap, decent blended whisky – and eventually dominate the world.
As ever, Scotch whisky history tends to be flakey and contradictory, particularly online. Certain online sources have it that one of the earliest to capitalise on these developments in Scotch whisky was James Logan Mackie who, in 1861, created the White Horse product. But others (proper ones – you know, books) date the registration of White Horse by James’ nephew, Peter Mackie, in 1891, suggesting that the family were only blending seriously in the 1880s. It would make sense that it is the latter. Around that time branded names – rather than the names of family merchants – became more frequently used in an attempt to gain over market share internationally, where the brand names could connect with consumers.
The Mackies, particularly Peter Mackie, learned their craft fully at Lagavulin distillery, which was owned by the uncle. In 1883 they formed Mackie & Co, built the famous but defunct Malt Mill, constructed Craigellachie in 1892, and then reached over to Campbeltown in 1920, where they bought Hazelburn distillery and established a lab. (Curiously it was at this lab that Masataka Taketsuru learned his craft before igniting the Japanese whisky industry.) All of these distilleries likely contributed towards the White Horse blend.
White Horse’s biggest contribution to the whisky industry was probably that, in the 1920s, the brand was first to deploy a screwtop cap instead of corks. More recently, I can’t think of too much they’ve contributed. I suppose of all the brands, White Horse has always attempted to come across as slightly more progressive, when one looks through the archives. It targeted women in several campaigns through the decades, though not necessarily all that successfully, and even showed a more inclusive approach in its trade promotion. This does dispel the myth that whisky has always been promoted as an old man’s drink when the advertising archives reveal, clearly, some brands were trying to do something about this 40 years ago.
Anyway. Onto a sample of White Horse that came from the 1940s.
White Horse 1940 – The Old Blend – Review
Colour: quite dark, getting on for russet. (These were the good old days before the practice of re-using casks became commonplace – alongside the rise of E150 colour being added to mask the poor wood.)
On the nose: there’s a familiar note with these old blends, a sort of coal dust, industrial, oily undertone that really smells very nice. Huge amounts of toffee and caramel. Chicory drink (like Camp Coffee). Linseed oil (maybe olive oil as well). Praline. Old wood mustiness. A touch medicinal, with a few vegetative, coastal and sea weed notes.
In the mouth: herbal, sage and thyme. Quite oily in texture. Salted caramel. The peat smoke is more distinct here: ashier, aggressive but not powerful. Slightly bitter undercurrent. Meaty olive oil. Orange blossom. Apricots. Green tea with a little honey. Plenty of vegetative notes again, and it becomes something gentle and earthy. Not a great deal of sweetness on display, curiously, so this makes the whole experience feel slightly unbalanced. Underlying cardboard notes hint at a bit of oxidation.
I didn’t think a lot of it. We could say that the bottle may have been stored poorly over the years somewhere. The misdemeanours here could be simply down to the flavour imbalance, or signs of too much oxidation. The bottle was only opened recently by fellow writer Whisky Rover, so maybe I could just blame him. Or maybe it just wasn’t very good to start with. We’ll never really know where it’s flaws lie, except to say merely that it is flawed, and sometimes that can happen with very old bottles of whisky. Caveat emptor.
What’s fascinating, though, is that this blend likely contains whisky from the legendary Malt Mill, so it’s rather nice to imagine a piece of whisky history has recently passed through my body.
(Well, probably not nice for you to imagine.)