The annals of whisky are littered with blended Scotches and brands that have not stood the test of time. These historical oddities may still be trademarked and owned within a dusty ledger, stashed on the bottom shelf at a corporate HQ. This is their current unglamorous existence, but during their prime, bottles were produced and whisky recipes developed with blended whiskies being more popular than today’s focus on single malts. Even today they represent the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry as we know it, but the blends that remain have changed and not for the better as Adam discussed during his Why Modern Cheap Blends Are Mostly Totally Rubbish article.
The names have faded from memory and all that remains are the adverts and glass vessels with precious capsules of liquid. For many years I just collected and enjoyed blended whiskies. They did and still do represent great value on the secondary market. Just because you don’t know – or never will – the component pieces of the whisky itself, doesn’t mean it’s not drinkable or thoroughly enjoyable.
In what may turn out to be an annual piece we’re going to explore a succession of lost blends or older versions of today’s equivalent you may see down the local supermarket. It’s also worth remembering whilst a blend may have faded from consciousness in the UK, it may still exist internationally as certain blends are now targeted at specific regional markets where they retain a degree of popularity.
The blends in the lead photograph here might not be in the reviews below just because. The infamous Old Guns isn’t one I should need to repeat featuring Port Ellen, but it does have some batch variation given the ones I’ve opened and experienced. For the record, the example in the photograph was an earlier bottling but lacked the power and punch of the Old Guns I reviewed for Malt last year. Batch variation remains an issue even in today’s computerised and efficient world of whisky. Then there are the subtle tricks of creating an initial batch full of character – and the good stuff – only to tactically withdraw slowly from this recipe on subsequent releases. As much as today or bygone decades, it is about capturing public attention through tasty whisky and promotional stunts.
Therefore its always worth exploring a blend across the decades if you can. You’ll also notice that many have regal links or fanciful names. Seemingly there are more kings within whisky than the timeline at the house of Windsor, then there are the fun names such as Big Boy and other styles that have you thinking really? The wording may proclaim the finest or lightest of whiskies are contained within. I’ve had some light old blends that are far from that. Indeed, they are vibrant, flavoursome and possess a caressing texture. As much as today’s marketing around loch monsters and ancient legends, ignore these fanciful statements and head to the contents themselves…
Ambassador Deluxe Scotch Whisky – review
Noted to be Scotch at its lightest, bottled by Taylor & Ferguson with a minimum age of 8 years within the blend. This sample kindly provided by Conor will be from the 1970’s to the early 1980’s.
On the nose: pleasant with dried oranges, a light honey and sunflower oil. Almonds, apples and a waxiness with plenty of cereals with oats.
In the mouth: the oiliness comes through nicely with a relaxing cereal texture. Flashes of the dried orange again, but this is a fairly neutral blend albeit very drinkable.
I like this concoction for its simplicity. Over the course of an evening, I believe you could easily demolish a bottle and have harvested a reasonable amount of satisfaction without destroying your bank balance. Taylor & Ferguson were a subsidiary of Hiram Walker & Sons snapped up in the 1930’s. The main crown jewel in such a purchase was the popular Ambassador brand. Hiram aggressively purchased across the industry to establish its position including Scapa distillery in 1954 along with Glencadam, having already acquired Glenburgie, Miltonduff and its Dumbarton grain facility that played host to Inverleven. Balblair followed in 1969 and these distilleries were mainly engaged in supporting the Ballantine’s blend, which Ambassador Deluxe shares similarities with.
King Edward I Specially Selected Scotch Whisky – review
This is a 1970’s bottling of a long established blend. The 1960’s labelling was more simple before the imposing black labelling and thistles appeared. Bottled at 43% strength and thanks again to Conor for this sample.
Colour: it glows gold!
On the nose: amber and a really thick oozing honeycomb. Mace, cinnamon and vanilla essence are pleasing enough but there’s more here. Dried cranberries, leather notes and the sense of age and decay. Sweet tobacco, syrup and a fleeting touch of rubber.
In the mouth: interesting as the full-bodied nature of that nose doesn’t transfer. It’s more subtle with milk chocolate, orange segments, walnuts and those leathery notes again. Caramel on the finish but its fairly fleeting. Still, I’ll reach for another quite easily. Cloves, black pepper and goddam what is that? A wet hemp sack?
Really good stuff that doesn’t blow you away but has just enough character and substance. This was bottled by Clan Munro Whisky Limited, which is just another name owned by William Lawson Distillers Limited – who you may have heard of for their own finest blended and the William Lawson’s 12 year old. Historians will know that the company became owners of MacDuff distillery from 1972. Possibly there’s some of that distillery in here. Normally companies would purchase a producer who met their blending requirements so you never know. A very enjoyable blend nevertheless.
Kings James Blended Scotch Whisky – review
100% Scotch whiskies, bottled at 80% proof and imported/bottled by the American Distilling Company Inc. Thanks to Justine for the sample.
Colour: apple juice.
On the nose: it has presence despite the labelling suggesting its light. There is a robust structure here led by apricots and a new pinewood cabinet. A nuttiness, honey and vanilla then step up, the classic aromas of peeled apples and pear drops are here but subdued. Rosehip, a touch of varnish and a slight rubbed bronze metallic aspect. Still, lots going on here and promising.
In the mouth: first impression is the texture as its far from light. There’s a pleasing oily ooze to this vanilla and pear juice bonanza. Buttery popcorn, waxy apples and gooseberries all pass by rather pleasingly. It’s an ideal leisurely whisky with no harsh edges.
When looking into the parent company of this blend – William Whiteley & Company – the blends they supported at one time or another is bewildering numbering over a hundred. It was a complicated web they spun in terms of structure. King James was registered to Donald McGregor & Co. Limited who were also responsible for brands such as McGregor’s Perfection and Club Special. Whiteley has been somewhat overlooked in favour of Irving Haim, a rather colourful character who as a former bootlegger had with links to the American mafia. It’s these strong links to America that influenced many of the brands within the company to appeal to that specific market. They also owned Edradour distillery, so once again we may have some of that product within this blend and the texture does remind me a little of Edradour itself.
Old Glencrinan 12 year old – review
Apparently matured and bottled by the Glenfyne Distillery Company Limited, its a complex history but this brand and the relaunched Glen Crinan in France – note separate words – should not be confused. If we have a few hours we can go into the details – or maybe in the conclusion. Bottled at 43% strength.
On the nose: very nice arrival with plenty of Speyside character and sherry influence. There’s an invocative roasted coffee beans presence, worn leather, ginger and dark chocolate. At the rear the fruits fight through this heavy blanket with tangerines and peaches.
In the mouth: not as dense in the mouth but a nice leisurely progression of flavours. Honeycomb, a touch of ginger and more of those oak spices. Walnuts with more chocolate memories and burnt vanilla. Figs, cherries and an old table with a decaying varnish.
The Old Glencrinan brings back memories of Tamdhu and its style – a guess on my part – but it has a really pleasant and enjoyable nature with just enough character to keep you interested, or the parent company does own Macallan and the Glenrothes as well. The fact it has an age statement on the label is reassuring and heralds from the boom time of the late 1970’s. Both Glencrinan and Glen Crinan are owned by Edrington and their forerunner Highland Distillers. What we have here is the more historical edition rather than the joint venture Glen Crinan that’s popular in France. There’s a pleasing amount of age in the bottle and a dusty sherry influence.
President De Luxe Scotch Whisky – review
Containing whiskies of a minimum age of 12 years old – the president wouldn’t be seen drinking NAS now would he – this was bottled by Macdonald Greenlees Limited formerly of Palmerston Place, Edinburgh. Their initial success came from the Old Parr brand and the company had strong links with Glendullan distillery, this De Luxe was bottled at 43% strength. Difficult to date this President bottle, as there are no tax seals but when you’re into blends you know to use other things most would simply overlook, such as a postcode. The alphanumeric type were introduced into the UK over an extended 15 year period commencing in 1959. This gives us our timeline of 1960’s or 1970’s given the bottle size and I’ve seen 80’s variations on the label that are slightly less impressive and drop the age statement emphasis.
Colour: very honeyed.
On the nose: more honey unsurprisingly but a pleasant inoffensive bouquet of almonds, vanilla and shortbread biscuits. Returning, lots of toffee now appearing with sunflower oil, apples and a touch of liquorice towards the end.
In the mouth: dried oranges, apricot and plenty of caramel with a little dusting of chocolate. There’s an uncouth element with cranberries and a slight sourness that brings more character to the experience with a nutty finish.
If this is Glendullan, then its very pleasant stuff and certainly has that appealing Speyside characteristic in abundance. It could also be from the original Glendullan distillery rather than the newer version that was built in 1972 and eventually took over completely – yet we’ll never know for sure. If you happened to join me on Instagram live when opening this you’ll have seen it had a pouring mechanism common in Latin America to prevent the bottle being reused. This was a bit of a pain to overcome as it had jammed but – as the Doors once said – break on through to the other side with a bit of brute force.
At the end of this, it’s fair to say that the standard has been above average particularly if you cast your memory back to a staple blend of today. Pitched against any of the above and they’d look somewhat out of place. There’s no noticeable grain element on the palate or a sense of industrial scale across any of these whiskies. They are of their period and all perfectly enjoyable and inoffensive, representing good value in today’s increasingly expensive Scotch realm.