The secondary market is booming right now, with various players and entities profiting from the increased demand. I haven’t engaged greatly during 2020 in terms of actually bidding for whiskies. For more often than not, I’ve set a limit and walked away when a bottle continues to soar past what you previously believed was a reasonable price.
COVID-19 has also robbed us of the annual grudge match between Justine and myself. Armed with a small budget of around £120, we each purchase 3 bottles at auction and let the attendees decide the winner. 2-0 to me, let’s make it the best of 3 Justine? This Edinburgh institution is a fun evening with whisky discoveries for each and every one. And I think in doing so, encouraged many, to utilise their growing experience, detective skills and to seek out value at auction.
So, without such demands, I’ve been left to scour the auctions for any hint of a bargain or interest. And one thing I’ve said over the years is that blends represent good value and a gateway to the past. They have in recent times gone up in price with the bigger names being sought after and anything with a spring cap coming with a premium. In spite of all this, blends still offer that Tardis ability without breaking the bank in the pursuit of unicorns.
With the odd exception, the limelight at auction has been thrust elsewhere. On the sparkling new arrivals from Bimber, Waterford and the shooting stars from bygone decades. The resulting outcome is that battered old bottles of blends, complete with unfamiliar names, bad bottle designs and label terminology such as De Luxe, still represent cheap pickups and potentially more style and swagger than London’s or Ireland’s finest youth divisions.
But as Mark Watt once wisely said, there was a great deal of rubbish bottled in the past – or words to that effect minus the expletives. And this is very true as well with rose-tinted glasses distorting the past somewhat. But at the end of the day, we’re left with the liquid and these time capsules. The only way to seek out the truth is to open and explore, which is exactly what we’re going to do here today.
I’ve picked out two auction purchases which both came in at under £25 each after costs. Think about what you can pick up online or at your local supermarket in that price realm. Certainly, not any of the aforementioned young pretenders. Even several of the established blended brands are now pitching above this price point. Both of the auction purchases are separated by a couple of years, underling that there is still value to be had, even in these crazy times. At these sorts of prices, you’re far more able to take a punt on a widely speculative purchase without hampering your wallet for the rest of the month or feeling regret at buying another mediocre single malt from the SMWS.
For the record, these were both opened within a few days of each other and given 10 days and various drams to showcase their secrets or lack of. On paper, we have an interesting comparison. The big Chivas brand of 100 Pipers versus a smaller, more regional entity, in Moorland from an old blender in the form of R.B. Smith & Sons.
Kicking off our journey into the realm of old blends, we’ll start with a Chivas brand in the form of 100 Pipers. This was launched in 1965, during a boom for the whisky industry. Demand was surging internationally; new distilleries were being built mostly across Speyside to keep up with demand. While 100 Pipers is associated with Allt-a-Bhainne in recent times, this bottle heralds from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. And as Allt wasn’t built until 1975, this means we’re dealing with other components.
So, we know that the Seagram’s was added to the name towards the end of the 1960s and the bottle shape and design was radically changed around this time. That puts us in this era and the design confirms this. Much of the imagery continues to this day, after all, 100 pipers is always going to be 100 pipers. The brand has disappeared from UK shelves and its key markets today are Australia, India, Thailand and Venezuela, totalling 1.7 million cases annually, which goes to show, there’s life still in those bagpipes.
Seagram’s 100 Pipers De Luxe – review
Bottled in the late 60’s or early 1970’s, this is at a strength of 70 proof or 40% abv.
On the nose: a calm arrival with vanilla honey, green apples and a hint of fruit pastilles. Some old bottle effect is present and also daisies with some rice pudding and diluted orange. Time reveals bruised red apples, grapefruit and a twist of lemon. Also, whisked egg whites.
In the mouth: a pleasing sweet arrival and gentle texture. Quality grain and a good proportion of malt making this very inoffensive. Subtle in places and the grain isn’t forceful. Some tobacco smoke, ground coffee, wholemeal bread, orange segments and toffee. A wee kick of alcohol and a relatively short finish.
Next up, is the Moorland whisky, which was blended by R.B. Smith & Son Ltd of Perth – a historical town when it comes to blending whisky. Bottled at 70 proof, this is equivalent to 40% strength today and this unit of measuring alcohol strength came to an end in 1980. The unit of measurement can give you a clue as to the time period of the bottle and you can also include the liquid quantity in this, as being 26⅔ fluid ounces is another bygone relic. Such things as postcodes, phone numbers, the style of address and even the use of barcodes all offer a clue. Beyond the lasting modern impression of etching batch numbers onto bottles, it’s little details like these and subtle changes in label designs, screw caps or even the use of colours, that can help you place a bottle with some reasonable confidence.
R.B. Smith & Sons are most commonly linked with Ghillie 8 year old Pure Malt Scotch whisky and the Moorland brand. The Moorland seems to have been generally available in the form of an 8 year old offering and various guises such as Moorland Choice Old Scotch Whisky, or just a simple blended scotch whisky. Other brands in its portfolio included Clanlivet, Old Selection, The Laird and Wonmore. The main market for R.B. Smith & Son was Scotland with the Moorland being particularly popular in Perth and Orkney, but France, Poland, Argentina and America were its export markets.
The company itself dates back to the early days of whisky blending in 1820 and also had strong links with Invergordon Distillers, acting as an agent for its single malts, as well as being part of Cadbury Schwepps. So, we can consider the possibility that this whisky will feature content from or elements of Invergordon, Bruichladdich, Deanston, Tamnavulin and Tullibardine – not the greatest lineup on paper. Also, of more interest, the rarity of Ben Wyvis, which existed within Invergordon distillery until 1976 and produced for blends, being demolished the following year. The stills were so underused by Ben Wyvis that they now exist at the Glengyle distillery, which bottles as Kilkerran.
The bottle itself we know was sold from A. Findlay & Sons in Kincardine, which is a town not too far from where I live. An old price tag of 4.40 is on the bottle, covered in sellotape that has gone brown and crinkly through the rigours of time. That’s a feature your latest swanky Macallan or Dalmore won’t give you. It also offers us a clue, as the shop is no more, but the UK switched to decimal currency in 1970. So, we have a rough date as to when this might have been bottled, unless it sat on the shelf, sometime prior under the old money i.e. pounds, shilling and pence, gathering dust like a Jura Seven Wood.
Moorland Blended Scotch Whisky – review
Colour: faded caramel.
On the nose: very gentle at first. Ripe apples, orange pip and soft peaches, but it is very timid with some vanilla and caramel. A sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg. Leftover bar nuts. And old fashioned lemonade that’s gone flat. After resting the bottle for a few days, I was picking up coconut, cooked apples, marmalade, apricot and a splash of cider vinegar with a touch of smoke.
In the mouth: the texture at first is what is noticeable, far from threadbare. Not a huge array of flavours, but nicely done. Pleasant. Buttery even. Perfect inoffensive blending that promotes an easy repeat pour. A trace of yeast and sappiness. Hints of spent tea leaves, caramel, a scraping of vanilla pod and oatcakes. Dark chocolate on the finish with digestive biscuits.
There are several aspects to take out of both of these purchases. Firstly, good quality blending, without a grain taint is on show. Both offer a high percentage of malt in the mix and a fair degree of skill, with the Moorland having a touch of class. There’s no fair comparison between the blends you can purchase today at this price versus these oddities. Both offer more on the nose and palate compared to their modern-day exponents.
Admittedly, there’s an element of luck, as I’ve had some bad old blends, so this comparison could have gone rapidly south. And who’s to say that a future edition won’t suffer that fate?
At the end of the day, blends are fun and can be much more besides. We’re so dismissive of unknown names and bottlers. The twee Scottish imagery that arguably belongs to an SNP campaign in today’s society. All of these factors combine, alongside our reluctance to embrace and explore blends. All I can say is try, please try. Scotland’s whisky industry was built on blends for a reason and a strong one at that.