Were things really better in the old days?
It’s hard to make an empirical observation about this. “Of course,” the old timers will tell you. “When I was a boy…” However, as I’m fond of noting in this space, the prism of reminiscence distorts our perspective and makes us unreliable narrators. Our personal favorites from days gone by will always have a special emotional resonance that will taint any attempt to evaluate them fairly and objectively.
For example, the lost distilleries are – by their nature – lost, and thereby occupy a hallowed place in our collective consciousness. We fetishize them, as Adam described in one of his sublime meditations, for reasons of nostalgia, as well as the oft-disappointing state of modern whisky. Even for those of us who didn’t have a chance to taste them while they were in operation, the absorbed veneration and awareness that we’re drinking something special and rare can similarly thwart any honest assessment of a dram’s virtues and flaws.
How to free myself, then, from these dual pitfalls of subjectivity? I think I’ve come up with an answer. Today, I will be tasting two incarnations of a blended scotch whisky to which I have no sentimental attachment and which remains widely available today. The first was produced between 40 and 50 years ago; the second is from a bottle freshly plucked off the shelf of a local liquor store. This has long been an aspiration of mine, and I have come about the opportunity serendipitously. More on that in a moment…
The scotch in question is Ballantine’s Finest Scotch Whisky, their entry-level blend. The backbone malts of this blend come from Miltonduff and Glenburgie, acquired by then owners Hiram Walker in 1936. Ballantine’s was sold to Allied Domecq in 1987, after the first bottle here was produced. The company was acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005, adding to their Chivas Brothers portfolio of blended Scotch. This is the regime which will have created the second bottle considered today.
As far as the composition of the blend, Jason indicates that the older bottlings have higher malt content, while contemporary blends lean more on grain. I’ll be on lookout for any discrepancies between the two that would indicate as much.
The story of how I came about the circa-1970’s bottle of Ballantine’s is really something. You may be aware that I recently traveled to Peru, which is a wonderful country full of delicious food, stunning vistas, and some of the nicest folks you’ll ever have the pleasure of meeting. What Peru lacks is much in the way of interesting whisky, as evinced by my review of the indigenous Old Times bottom-shelf brand. On arrival, I quickly reconciled myself to a holiday without the “water of life,” and dove into pisco cocktails of every conceivable permutation.
That is, until I was invited to a dinner at the home of a friend’s friend. As my gracious host stirred an enormous dish of paella, he instructed me to avail myself of his bar. Quickly, a dusty old bottle of Ballantine’s Twelve Years Old “Very Old Scotch Whisky” caught my eye. A glance up at his bar shelf revealed enormous, ancient bottles of Ballantine’s and Grants. Feeling like Edmond Dantès, I gently inquired as to the origins of this superannuated whisky collection.
He genially explained that neither he, nor his father before him, drank. As friends arrived at parties with bottles of booze as housewarming presents, he would stash them away in a cupboard where they slumbered undisturbed for decades. He pulled back a sliding door in his living room to reveal a treasure trove of vintage spirits, including a bottle of (regrettably oxidized) Jim Beam dating back to the 1950’s.
Gesticulating with all my verve, I attempted to explain to him what he had on his hands. This wasn’t just old booze; it was history! I bumbled my way through a brief dissertation on the consolidation of the Scotch whisky industry, and the associated changes to production methods and so forth. With consummate good manners he excused himself, explaining that the paella needed stirring.
I counted myself grateful to have a peek into this curio cabinet of wonders, and – to the extent permitted by decorum – splashed a bit of this and that into my glass. I would have been contented with a brief glimpse into this cache of wonders over the course of the dinner party. However, extending his considerable generosity yet further, he rummaged through a cabinet and produced a dusty carboard box. My benefactor plucked this large 1 liter bottle of Ballantine’s from it and pressed it into my hands, sending me home elated and very full of paella.
Starting with the older bottle: there is no indication on the label as regards bottling strength. A comparison of the label with other examples from auction dates this in the 1970’s; the preponderance of bottles from this era were produced at 40% ABV. As noted above, it was a kind gift from a friend, but these seem to change hands on the secondary market in the £20 to £30 range.
Ballantine’s Finest Scotch Whisky (1970’s) – Review
Color: Medium-pale gold with orange glints.
On the nose: “Aaahhh.” That’s the soulfully satisfied noise I make when I sniff really funky old white Burgundy, and I’ll be damned if it’s not apposite here, too. All sorts of maderized goodness. Salted nuts galore: salted cashews, salted hazelnuts, salted walnuts. Lemon furniture polish, slated caramel, and honeysuckle. Grainy sweetness; the malt has certainly not overwhelmed. There’s also an uncanny bit of minty-citric-milky smoothness here, reminiscent of Baskin-Robbins’ “Daiquiri Ice” in a sugar cone.
In the mouth: This is a subtle one. Texturally, a wee nip of piquant woodiness at the front of the mouth. There’s a brief reprise of the drily nutty saltiness at midpalate. A slight burst of golden raisins shows through the otherwise continually salty finish. An unexpected and momentary lick of bubblegum pokes its head out for a nanosecond before receding.
I hesitate to use the descriptor “salty” once more, but that’s what comes through most on both the nose and the palate. This is like a bag of mixed nuts meets a handful of popcorn. I adore the nose but find the palate a bit drying. In total, the delicious notes are memorable and the saline notes are tolerable. As an unexpected curiosity it delivers in fll. I rate it two full steps above average.
Our second bottle is freshly-purchased. You can find it for as low as $15 for 750ml; my neighborhood liquor store had it for $18, and – given the good fortune associated with my coming into possession of the older bottle – I considered the small markup to be my donation to the alms box of local business and whisky karma. It is bottled at 40%. It retails for £19.69 on Master of Malt, £20.95 via the Whisky Exchange or £15 from Amazon.
Ballantine’s Finest Scotch Whisky (2019) – Review
Color: A slightly lighter shade of medium-pale gold.
On the nose: Abundant wildflowers, lime juice, lime peel, key lime pie, limes everywhere! Freshly-mowed Kentucky bluegrass lawn, more Daiquiri Ice, and the unsalted meaty-nuttiness of cashews. Overall, the aromas are wispy rather than forceful.
In the mouth: Pale and weak in comparison. There’s a watered-down hint of the nuttiness of the 1970’s dram, but otherwise this disappears without a trace. Almost no entrance, no midpalate, no finish.
A complete nonentity. Imagine the dullest blended Scotch whisky and then add a deluge of water. The very best I can say for this is that it is appropriately cheap.
It’s almost like modern distilling, with its view to rush spirit through production and put it into second and third-fill knackered oak, has a detrimental effect on flavour! More proof!*
On the nose, these are kissing cousins. In the mouth, however, there are miles between these two. The 1970’s incarnation has body, force, presence, character, personality. It doesn’t entirely come off, but what it has to show for itself is excellent. The 2019 version – by way of contrast – is a wet blanket, a limp noodle, a wallflower, milquetoast, all the associated adjectives.
So were things better in the good old days? Yes, at least in this case. The generational side-by-side is a useful framework for comparison, one I hope we’ll frequently avail ourselves of on this site going forward. In the meantime, most sincere thanks to Señor Paco for making this longtime aspiration a reality.
There are commission links within this article but as you can see, they don’t affect our judgement.
*words of wisdom from our Mark?
I have just used a 1970’s 43% Ballantines in this months Whisky tasting and it also went down very well. I have some 70’s and 80’s 12,15,17,21 and 30 year old expressions too which at one point in the future would love to do a tasting all together to see if we can really tell the difference?
I agree the normal modern stuff isn’t a patch on the vintage but if your desperate for a cheap bottle of whisky to buy at that price point it in my opinion still knocks socks off Johnnie Walker Red or anything else.
Marc, I also enjoyed a 70’s 12-year-old from this same gentleman’s cabinet, and it was similarly satisfying. As for the 2019: life’s too short to drink whisky this dull, at any price. Cheers!
What a serendipitous encounter finding that old Ballantine’s. I think we owe it to the artists who made the old whisky that’s still around in the way they intended – by drinking it. Online auctions here I come.
Alex, it’s hard to feel anything but lucky and grateful when these instances of good fortune and generosity occur. Opening the bottle and enjoying it was just the cherry on the sundae! Best of luck with your hunt for a bottle.
I may be the outlier here, and my baseline is only supported by one data point. I was gifted a bottle of 1950s Haig King George, unopened and stored for ages in a cabinet. I found that to be really sweet, almost like sugar water. Made me wonder if the 50s taste buds preferred really sweet whisky, probably meant to have loaded with ice. I’m probably generalizing, but I wonder if the 50s/60s era preferred sweeter than we do. Taylor, did you find the earlier version of Ballantine’s much sweeter than the modern?
PB, on the contrary, the older version was decidedly more savory. Perhaps your Haig King George had a higher proportion of grain in the blend? Would be keen to hear from others on this- perhaps Jason can share some insights?
If the Haig was like sugar water – it might be possible that bottle was spoiled.
Taylor’s 2019 Ballantine and no smoke? Probably counterfeit.
I have really weird experience. I too wanted to do side by side. So I acquired JW Red from 60s and bouht current one. In no way old one was sweet. But strangely both were similar in flavour profile. The older was a bit better but really close to current one. If I was to rate current one (think any number) than the old would be +1 max +2.
But I have to add the problems with current bottlings one of 3 JW went to toilet and one of 2 GlenFi12 also – probably counterfeit undrinkable stuff. That is the sad state of current cheap whisky segment.
Max, with all due respect, why would someone in a developed market counterfeit a $15 bottle of a bottom-shelf blend? Seems like counterfeiting a $1 bill instead of $100.
I don’t know. Other explanation for me is ignorant warehousing where bottles would be exposed to sunlight for prolonged period of time.
But you caught on the wrong end. My point was that some original bottlings (at least indistinguishable) can contain undrinkable liquid.
Why that is leaves me baffled.
Nice writing. More enjoyable to read than the Ballantine’s I drank while reading.
Thanks, Sly. You set a low bar there, but I appreciate the compliment nonetheless. Cheers!
Hello, I have a bottle similar to the 70’s bottle, I was wondering if you might be able to tell me the year it was bottled. Would be much appreciated.
There’s also the issue of aging. I know it’s not supposed to happen but I think it does. I almost bought what looked like an ancient Johnnie Walker Red (man in opposite direction) out of a shop window in Gubio, Italy, for some experimentation. I decided it was probably iffy stuff and left it. My father in law has amassed a few bottles of whisky for me (presents and he doesn’t drink whisky) from his place in Bilbao. I’m looking forward to finding out what they are. I’m sure the contents of the two bottles were different and the older superior. Cheers Taylor.
WT, as with many things in whisky, it’s difficult to set hard and fast rules. There’s great whisky out there today, and there was revolting whisky made in days gone by. The only thing to do is open the bottles and try for yourself. Cheers!
After my father passed in 2009 I eventually found myself exploring his modest but eclectic collection of spirits and cordials. Most prominent was a nearly half full 1.5 liter bottle of Ballentine’s that I deducted hailed from the early to mid 70s. I assumed it had to have gone to pot, for no specific informed reason. But when I twisted open the cap I was greeted by a rich fragrance which grew in depth and power as it permeated my inner cavities. Whoa, I said to the bottle.
I poured a couple fingers into one of the small leaded crystal tasting cups and the fragrance fully bloomed into a wonderfully evocative symphony of classic whiskey purfumes. Whoa, I again nodded to the imposing bottle. So then I sipped it and my mouth flooded with some of the most satisfyingly balanced flavors I’d yet experienced in my admittedly meager whiskey history. But I had sampled fine 12 and 18 year old Single Malts and Blends and so I had at least a working knowledge of what to expect of a fine or even finer dram. This one certainly deserved consideration among that higher pedigree class, it was so delightfully smooth and subtle yet seductively complex.
Better than Johnny Walker Black? Absolutely. Easily. What about compared to my 12 year old Glenmorangie? Close, very damn close. It was certainly more subtle and smooth, and perhaps only lacked a bit of the single malt’s distinctive fruit and wood notes. But I’d say they were evenly matched opponents. Up against my 15 year old Oban the old blended began to fade, mostly in terms of the richness of the flavors. Oban is one of my favorites. And side by side against a contemporary Ballentine’s the old fogie utterly and thoroughly trounced the prepubescent upstart. A brutal beat down!
That was a fun and tasty evening…
Edward, thanks for sharing your reminiscenses. You’ve caught me just after a Zoom tasting with a friend where we re-sampled this Ballantine’s. I was amazed how flavorful it was; so much character and personality, in comparison with the modern-day incarnation. Cheers!
Cool to read! I just picked up an old dusty 750 of Ballantine’s from a liquor store closeout shelf ($20 out the door)… The label looks pretty much like your Peruvian treasure, with some differences: FINEST in red above the coat of arms, and “Blended Scotch Whisky” beneath; a red signature on the front, and Product of Scotland/Est 1827 in tiny writing on the rear label. “Imported by Hiram Walker” etc. is on the side. No idea what year it’s from – it’s still sealed with a metal cap but there’s a fairly large air pocket at the neck.
Your review intrigues me, but I might just let it slumber in back of the cabinet for awhile longer… it’s waited this long, what’s the rush?! Cheers
Andy, if you check the whisky auction sites, you might be able to date your bottle by finding ones with similar markings. That’s the approach took with this one. There’s certainly no hurry, as you note, but if you’re going to take your time you might consider decanting the bottle into smaller-sized sample bottles to reduce the oxygen contact with the whisky. Best of luck and thanks for dropping by!
This was a very fun read.
I will tell you though, newer Ballantine’s has its place: its place is in my heart, after making a swift journey down my esophagus. I was recently involuntarily in East Africa for a long while, and Ballantine’s was basically the go-to Scotch if you didn’t want to shell out ridiculous sums for well-known brands.
I had never even heard of Ballantine’s prior to my vacation in Hell. But the occasional glass with my good best friends made things a little less hellish. I am eternally grateful for Ballentine’s.
Harsh grain whiskey, very little barley malt. Not even good good as a mixer
It is August 2022. I have just opened and drank some Ballantine’s I bought at discount at a Morrisons in Bradford.
Decades ago I knew an educated Scottish gentleman call Niven, who was a member of the family that owned Ballantine’s. As I remember his story: the family sold the company and Niven spent his share buying a dodgy restaurant, and a dodgier pub, in Bradford: where he drank some of his money; and was robbed of the rest.
Since then l have always drank Ballantine’s if I saw it in a pub; but that’s gone from rare to never.
Today’s bottle didn’t taste as bad as stuff I made out of industrial methylated spirits in the 80’s; and I have drunk cheap French brandies that were less good; but as a brand Ballantine’s really is in the feints now.