I

Islay Supermarket Special

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.

Colour: caramel.

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.

Score: 3/10

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.

Score: 4/10

Conclusions

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.

Our thanks once again, to our Patreons for making this article possible with their monthly support.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Anders Larson says:

    How would you say these compare to Teacher’s Highland Cream? That’s usually my go-to for cheap peat, and it’s 43% ABV here in the States which is a big draw for me in a cheap blend.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Andres

      I’ve not had Teacher’s, certainly the modern variant, in some time. Used to be my grandad’s blend of choice back in the 70s and 80s. Really good stuff. If I think of that and these whiskies, then I’d suggest that these are sweeter and a little more limited.

      Cheers, Jason.

    2. Avatar
      MR SCOTT ANDERSON says:

      Its not about ABV
      SINGLE MALT is simple combined flavour floral and fruit
      Peat from islay waters of defined areas
      I would buy a few cheap singles and not consiider ABV

      1. Jason
        Jason says:

        Hi Scott

        Not always, but ABV can play a part in the texture, oils etc. As we’ll see in the forthcoming Benriach new releases with some at 43% and 46%.

        Cheers, Jason.

        1. Avatar
          Alan says:

          Absolutely Jason. Mr Anderson might need to check up on that.

          Anything under about 45% ( I’m sure you’ll give us the exact ABV in your comparison) needs to be chill filtered otherwise it goes cloudy in the bottle, and that removes some of the textures and oils.

  2. Avatar
    Gordon Homer says:

    At one time you used to get a good cross section of Islay Malts bottle under Supermarket own brands , one time (2007 i think….) myself and Willie Jackson got a tip off from John at Bunnahabhain that the Tesco Islay 10yo was at the time a Peated Bunnahabhain , very nice it was too (still got a few tucked away….) . At the same time the PB was in the Finlaggan bottling (Burn Stewarts didn’t know what to do with it and were selling it to all and sundry , hence Raymond formerly at Bladnoch got a few casks which he kindly sold on !) , Happy days !!!!!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi G

      The good old days! I was quite surprised just how limited the supermarket exclusives were nowadays. Just expected a little more across the retailers. Will keep an eye out for that Tesco 10yo!

      Cheers, Jason.

    2. Avatar
      David Wright says:

      Shame. The colours of the two bottles are off putting straight away. The last Glen Marnoch Islay I had was way lighter than this, I doubt they used any colouring at all. Why the need to use it now?
      I’ll stick with Elixir Distillers for cheap, tasty Caol Ila. I know the Elements bottles are only 50cl but under £30 for 45% and well under £40 for cask strength. I like the apothecary vibe too!

  3. Avatar
    Andrew says:

    The world seems mad for Islay Peat of late. Indy bottles disappear in the blink of an eye. Wee beastie, that was meant to be an entry level aged Ardbeg (initial reports were £30 in UK that I heard) was released at a higher price point and still sold out.

    What is it about Islay Peat that is so desireable?

    I vaguely remember having a Glen Garnoch Islay early in my Whisky journey and finding it decent but nothing to write home about. I’ve not seen it for ages now. If we’re not careful everywhere will start doing just peated expressions…

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Andrew

      Very apt timing. I’ve just finished the Benriach’s who are doing 10 and 12 smoky versions that stand alongside a 10 and 12 non-smoky. Why, why, why?

      Cheers, Jason.

  4. Roy
    Roy says:

    Jason, did your local Lidl not have any of their Islay “Ben Bracken” bottle to hand? (stock has been sporadic recently) Our nearest was doing it on special for £16.50 a pop, which is really something when prices are heading (mainly) in the other direction. Think that was the third variant I’ve bought and I’ve always preferred it to Aldi’s offering (albeit laced with E150A and filtered more heavily than even my Insta pics). We are in such a weird time, if the store chose to put a 3yo age statement on it I think it would probably sell out.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Roy

      Tried, but as you say, hard to track down. Probably due to that price!

      Was only thinking yesterday, we’re nearing the seasonal whiskies from these stores. Made to think where 2020 has gone.

      Cheers, Jason.

  5. Reuben
    Reuben says:

    “Both have a little sweetness from the overuse of colouring…” but e150a is bitter? Unless they are colouring with something else?

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Reuben

      When it is used in significant quantities (perhaps the extreme end of the application scale), I do get that distinctive feature. I’ve only had it on such bottles across the years. So, it does do something in my mind. Quite the colour!

  6. Avatar
    Scott Turner-Preece says:

    If you can, try to get your hands on a bottle of Lidl’s Ben Bracken; it used to be the best own brand Islay out there. Granted, I’ve not had it for a couple of years so it may be naff now but at £16.49 it’s worth a go!

  7. Avatar
    Vittu Harkonnen says:

    I’d rather paid that 9 quid and change extra and got Laproaig 10 YO whilst it’s on offer in Asda. Why compromise? Just drink less but better quality stuff.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Vittu?

      Is the Laphroaig 10 quality? It’s a pale shadow of what it once was. Agree with drinking less and more quality, so aim little higher with the cask strength batches if you can find ’em.

      Cheers, Jason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *