The initial premise seemed simple in theory at least. Pull together as many of the supermarket Islay releases and see which one comes out on top? At least that was the plan, but revisiting various retailers confirmed just how few exclusives are now available from Scotland’s peat isle.
We take these bargain-basement offerings from granted. For many, it is their bread and butter, their only taste of single malt for £20 or less. Yet, I was surprised by just how few actually remained in existence. I had hoped to maybe bring you 5 or so, from the big chains. Possibly all from the same distillery (who knows?) and touting the biggest attraction of value. Goodness knows, we all need a bargain right now and the sense of value in hard times.
Visiting these retailers confirmed the presence of a new breed of single malt offering. Namely, the store exclusive that’s been created by an established distillery or firm. And being labelled under a new brand such as the Aerstone Sea Cask and Land Cask releases that have been bottled by William Grant & Sons. The Tesco Finest exclusives created with the assistance of Richard Paterson have vanished from view. And those that do still manage to stock their own exclusive creation, often only seem to have the Highland or Speyside regions available.
Others that once had an Islay staple, such as Sainsbury’s, are now noticeably lacking any effort to provide a budget offering. As speculated on our Ardbeg Wee Beastie article, there will be an abundance of stock right now and possibly new products. If many independents are unable to purchase in sufficient quantities then you’d expect the supermarket sector could bring their buying power. After all, speaking with some brand ambassadors, current sales are in the lower value end right now and the more expensive releases are gathering dust. That trend is only set to continue as we step into a difficult autumn and winter period.
Thankfully, Asda and Aldi are still stocking their own Islay single malt. Both are fairly similar in presentation, being bottled at 40% and being chill-filtered with lots of colouring to make these youthful peated Islay’s look like a whisky. At 3 years of age or thereabouts, there won’t be much natural colour prior to the caramel being added and I expect that its use has added to some of the tasting notes below.
The aforementioned Ardbeg article also tapped into the theme of batch variation. And that’s been a constant with the Glen Marnoch Islay bottling if the comments are anything to go by. In fact, it’s been a constant with all of our Glen Marnoch releases, in comparison to the Asda Extra Special Islay releases, which we’ve reviewed in 2013 and 2018 and neither has generated any comments.
I’ve also included the bottle batch numbers where possible. Given the batch variations that time has underlined in some cases, I do think it is worthwhile to highlight that something reviewed in 2013, 2016 or 2018, won’t be the same in 2020. This is a fact that possibly isn’t considered by the wider public or those that just enjoy their monthly supermarket bottle. The consumers who give it little thought beyond reaching up and pulling down a bottle from the top shelf – or bottom depending on where you shop. Just because the name and branding remain intact doesn’t mean everything remains constant. These releases are driven by their source. The quality and consistency are less of a driver when stock from Islay is in such high demand.
All these youthful Caol Ila’s we’re seeing bottled as a single malt nowadays add up, as do other distilleries. If you can hold onto a cask/s for a couple of years and bottle it (or sell it on) with a natural presentation for £60-£80, that’s clearly a better business model for some. But we should remain thankful that we still have a handful of bargain Islay releases out there.
Glen Marnoch Islay Single Malt – review
Bottled at 40% strength and purchased for £16.49, this features colouring and chill filtration. This is batch L CB2 E 20200597 01/07 0826.
On the nose: a gentle peat which given the strength isn’t too surprising. Sea salt, driftwood and the usual coastal beach assortment. Some sweetness as well with brown sugar and a soggy moss.
In the mouth: less Islay and more muggy. Tepid black tea. Lacklustre peat, chocolate sponge, liquorice and a peppery caramel on the finish.
Asda Extra Special Islay – review
Bottled at 40% strength and purchased for £20, this features colouring and chill filtration. This is batch LCB2E 20618655 20/07 1340.
Colour: glowing amber.
On the nose: a sweet maple syrup with some treacle and a hint of earthy peat. Aniseed balls, fir trees and cinnamon. A flat cola and spent matchsticks.
In the mouth: refined soot, aniseed and a sweet peat. It does feel engineered and drab in places. Brown sugar, black pepper and licking a gum strip on an envelope.
This almost felt like a relegation dogfight. Pretty ugly and unpleasant viewing in places. Not a match-up for the purist, but at least the price of admission was cheap. The Asda release has the edge in a very close run competition yet is the slightly more expensive option.
There’s been a noticeable decline in quality since I last tried this regional Glen Marnoch. It feels less punchy, less Islay and a more timid affair. There is still a lick of the coastal elements and the peaty aspect that many of us subscribe to. Yet, it’s a faint echo, when you’re expecting a little more oomph.
But then you have to balance this with the price. Just £16.49 for an Islay single malt? Ridiculous, even if it is just 3 years old. If someone is operating on a limited budget and looking for something peaty, but doesn’t want to pay Islay prices, then this will probably do the trick. And I think it’s important that we appreciate how fortunate many of us are with our expensive single malts; not everyone can subscribe to such an indulgent lifestyle of whisky drinking.
Both have a little sweetness from the overuse of colouring and in Islay terms are approachable without being challenging. They are drinkable as well, which sometimes isn’t always a given in my experience! And for those looking for a peated whisky to use as a mixer or in a cocktail, then both give you that added value.
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