Coming towards the end of a family meal at a hotel in Kenmore (Scottish Highlands, near Aberfeldy), I decided that I’d quite like a whisky to accompany my dessert. So, I went for a walk through the hotel to the whisky snug, which had a small bar with an impressive array of whiskies behind it, ranging from the commonplace to the rare and stupendous. It was the kind of line-up that often leaves me paralysed by choice, and unable to make a decision. On the top shelf, I saw something tucked away that caught my eye, Timorous Beastie, a blended malt by Douglas Laing, said to represent the Highland whisky region. At the time this was the only one of the ‘Regional Malts’ I had yet to try. As I’m a completionist, and as I wasn’t looking for a premium malt to accompany my pudding, my mind was made up.
Asking for a dram of Timorous Beastie not only surprised the young barman, but it seemed to cause personal offence like I had committed a massive cultural faux pas. He went to great lengths to explain that I had ordered a blended whisky, instead of a single malt, suggesting that it would be far inferior. There are few more annoying things than having to justify your decision to an ill-informed bartender, but I stuck to my guns, and walked away with a blended malt that in my opinion turned out to be better than quite a few of the single malts the barman held in high regard.
There is clearly some more work to do in order to challenge the misguided belief that a single malt is always better than a blend. To proclaim such overlooks the fact that even a single malt is usually blended together from whisky that has matured in a range of different casks types, aged for varying lengths of time, and sometimes will include whisky produced with different mash bills, fermentation times, or spirit cuts. The only whisky that isn’t a blend in some way is a single cask bottling. Whisky blending is a skill used by master distillers at specific distilleries, every bit as much as it is by those who compose blends for independent bottlers.
The fetish for single malts also overlooks the fact that most distilleries were set up with blending in mind. It is still the case that many of the larger distilleries only bottle a small proportion of their output as single malt. The majority is destined for blends, which is still by far the main way in which scotch is consumed across the world. Back in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, new distilleries were built to fill in gaps in blending stock, providing more of spirit styles in short supply. The whole concept of constructing a distillery around single malt production and accompanying branding is a relatively new phenomenon. (Dave Broom spoke at length about this in a session on regional whisky outliers at the Virtual Whisky Show, so if you’re interested and had a ticket you might find it a worthwhile watch.)
Blended whisky then should not be overlooked simply because it isn’t a single malt. It is surely a good thing for a bottler to blend together malts that don’t stand up to close scrutiny by themselves, in order to produce a range of better quality whisky, rather than flood the market with bland and flawed single malt bottlings.
John recently wrote about the core bottlings of Douglas Laing’s Regional Malts, giving an introduction to what I find to be a very satisfying range of blended malt whisky (excluding The Epicurean; I don’t like the lowland blend at all!) [Ed: we’re not fans either!]. They seem to be put together consistently well, without colouring or chill-filtration. They are also quirkily presented, and they fit the bill for daily sippers when I can’t decide which particular single malt I want to drink!
I do have a couple of quibbles with the range, the first being the concept itself, seeing as the whisky regions are quite arbitrary, and the whiskies produced within each region can vary wildly. The ‘Highland’ region being the most problematic, due to size and the amount of variation in the distilleries it includes. Glengoyne’s location beside Loch Lomond is quite a bit different to Dalwhinnie high up on the Drumochter Pass, and just as different to Old Pulteney at Wick, way up on the northeast coast. Also, regionality seems ever more irrelevant with the number of distilleries that now produce peated as well as non-peated expressions, and with so many distilleries releasing a plethora of cask finishes that often overwhelm any regional spirit characteristics. This all means that the Regional Malts range can only really be said to produce a stereotypical whisky for each region, the equivalent of a ‘greatest hits’ album if you like.
My other frustration is a lack of transparency regarding the contents in the Regional Malt blends. It’s all well and good to list a few high profile distillery names on the bottle (Port Ellen, Caol Ila, Ardbeg and Bowmore often feature on Big Peat labels for example), but there is no indication as to the makeup of each bottling. I would assume the amount of Port Ellen in Big Peat is minimal, a teaspoon at most, but I’ll happily be proved wrong.
In recent years Douglas Laing has moved well beyond the core range of Regional Malts, and there are now annual releases that diverge from the original expressions. There are Big Peats everywhere; age statement bottlings, Feis Ile bottlings, and cask strength Christmas bottlings to name but a few. The same can be said for Scallywag too; ‘Chocolate’ editions, ‘Reindeer’ editions, and most recently a ‘Munro Bagging’ edition. This barely scratches the surface of what is available, with various cask finishes now being added into the mix as well. On the whole, what is out there seems relatively well priced, especially if you’re willing to shop around, or if you wait for cyclical discounts to be offered on the Douglas Laing store.
With my limited budget, and even more limited cupboard space, when faced with such an abundance of releases I know I cannot buy all of them. So I can’t help but ask some pointed questions of these multiplying expressions: Is there any discernible difference between them and the core release? Are they any better than the regular version? Finally, are they worth paying out for when compared to the core bottling?
In order to answer these fairly subjective questions, I’ve been doing a bit of research, taking on the onerous task of trying some of the variations on offer. I often have a bottle of Big Peat and Scallywag in the house (I don’t find the sulphur hint in Scallywag anywhere near as overwhelming as John does in his article), so when they have been replaced I’ve bought a limited edition rather than the core bottling. Then, I came across some Timorous Beastie samples in a Burn’s Night tasting offer. So, you’ll find my conclusions on additional releases for these three Regional Malts below.
I found that these additions to the Regional Malt range did bring something new to the party. There is a natural development in the more aged expressions of the Timorous Beastie. Some of the limited editions of the other Regional Malts led to different aspects of the core bottling’s style being emphasised. So, the Big Peat A846 edition highlighted the briny and citrus aspects of Big Peat, whilst toning down the sweetness. The good thing about this, is that if you are familiar at all with the core bottling, when you read the tasting notes for the limited editions, you should be able to tell if you’ll like the different emphasis or not. The tasting notes on the Douglas Laing website are succinct and not plagued by over-stretched metaphors, such that they are realistic, and do a good job of showing the intention of the blender. They’re definitely worth a read before you decide to buy.
There’s a lot to commend here, and I find the Regional Malts range one that I am happy to return to when I want something familiar. Yet, if I want something just slightly different from the norm, the limited-edition releases can bring welcome variations to well-liked themes. That is, of course, one of the luxuries of a blended malt, depending on the stocks available to the blender, the whisky can be moulded in an almost unlimited number of ways, without the constraints faced by those who only have one distillery’s output to work with.
Keep turning up your nose at blends if you want; it’s your loss at the end of the day.
Big Peat A846 Feis Ile 2020 – review
This is 8 Years Old and bottled at 46 abv, this is available from Tyndrum Whisky for £44.
Colour: Very clear white wine.
On the nose: Quite medicinal, eucalyptus, freshly opened bandages, tar, a big whack of sea-air, the dying embers of a campfire. There’s some sweetness too; vanilla, and shortbread.
In the mouth: Briny peat, smoked bacon, light brown sugar, more vanilla, and some citrus hints I can’t quite pin down. Salt and smoke linger, with slightly more bite than the regular Big Peat.
For me this is a step up from the regular Big Peat, with a little bit more complexity. Whereas I tend to find the standard Big Peat to be quite sweet, this bottling dials up the salinity and medicinal notes. It’s a marginal call, but there’s just enough of a difference to justify this as a separate release. It’s pretty good value at £40-£45.
Big Peat at Christmas 2019 – review
This is cask strength at 53.7 abv and available from The Whisky Exchange for £48.95.
Colour: White wine.
On the nose: Charcoal, BBQ ashes, a sea breeze, toffee, medicinal notes including iodine and menthol, vanilla, a hint of old school pencil case, and lots of peat smoke that wafts in and out.
In the mouth: Sweet creamy vanilla and caramel is soon overtaken by lots of salty peat, smoked bacon, ashes, pepper, and some lasting citrus notes too; preserved lemon, and singed orange peel. It’s got quite a kick to it, definitely a winter warmer. Water tames it, but makes it seem ashier, so I wouldn’t add too much.
All the classic Islay notes, but with more of a kick than the regular bottling. The higher strength, and I suspect some older components in the blend, have meant that the sweetness of normal Big Peat is much more integrated and balanced. Given the high abv, and greater depth, the asking price of £50-£55 for this seems reasonable. I bought mine in a sale in January 2020, and saved it until Christmas. Sad, I know.
Timorous Beastie 10 Year Old Batch 2 – review
Colour: Sun bleached straw.
On the nose: Grapefruit, dried apricot, hints of citrus, wood sap, almonds, toasted oak, madeira sponge cake.
In the mouth: Very creamy texture, creme brulee, buttered teacake and some orchard fruits. It then becomes quite spicy, with pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg taking over, with a smooth but slightly oaky finish. Given time in the glass some salty and mineral type notes come through.
Compared to the regular release, there are fewer fruity and citrus notes coming through, and vanilla and spice take over. The youthful grist and maltiness in the original bottling has gone completely. It is a pretty smooth dram, despite the spiciness, and more time in the cask has led to greater complexity than is found in the original release. Definitely, good value, considering I paid £39 at Tyndrum Whisky Shop for a bottle of it, including drams for the online tasting.
Timorous Beastie 18 Year Old – review
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: It’s quite tight on the nose, but honey, apricot, cream, charcoal and some cocoa comes through.
In the mouth: Very heavy mouthfeel. Orange zest, grapefruit, apricot, milk chocolate, vanilla custard, and then much like the 10 year old the spices come through, again a heady mix of pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. However, with this one, everything is that much integrated, and the woody flavours are that much deeper. It’s remarkably smooth.
It’s a natural progression from the 10 Year Old, and whether you think it is worth the step up in price or not will depend on how much oak you like coming through in your whisky. I enjoyed it, it’s comfortably the best of the three Timorous Beasties I’ve tried, but I probably wouldn’t pay the £85 asking price for it, and would note that I’ve seen it being sold at big reductions from time to time (most recently £56 at Aberdeen Whisky Shop).
Scallywag 10yr Old Small Batch 2019 – review
Bottled at 46 abv and this seems to have sold out as well.
Colour: Pale gold.
On the nose: Orange peel, an iced Christmas cake (including the marzipan), coffee beans, honey, baked apple, hints of green tea and oak.
In the mouth: Apples and pears, orange peel again, alongside your sherry related familiar fruit, figs, raisins and cherries. Chewy toffies and a mid-level dark chocolate (definitely no more than 70%), merging into mocha with a touch of leather. There’s a bit of spice on the finish, but dried fruits linger.
This is not as much as a sherry bomb as you might expect, and that starts with the colour. It’s the palest Scallywag I’ve come across. The most recent 10yr Old bottling appears to be much darker in hue. I’d be very surprised to find that these were first fill casks, as old oak comes through as much as the sherry. All in all, the result is a well-balanced whisky, allowing for the orchard fruits and citrus notes from the spirit to stand up to the PX and Oloroso maturation. It reminds me of some Mortlach independent bottlings I’ve tried recently. It is fairly sweet, but not overwhelmingly so. When it comes to flavour this has very little in common with the regular Scallywag, as it is much less sherry led, it just lacks a spark and seems a bit flat. It cost £48 and came with a complimentary branded dog bowl (I don’t know why either, but the dog seems content with it!).
Scallywag The Chocolate Edition #3 2009 – review
Bottled at 11 years old and 48 abv and has sold out.
Colour: Amber Ale.
On the nose: Christmas cake in a glass, boozy raisins, ground coffee beans, leather-bound books, a hint of tobacco, and last but not least, a high cocoa content dark chocolate.
In the mouth: A mouth coating, sherry led explosion of big juicy raisins, prunes, dark cherries. Spices build-up, with some pepper, nutmeg and star anise, but what lingers is a rich chocolate fondant, candied orange and a bit of oaky spice.
One of my favourite Scallywag expressions. I seem to remember liking the 2nd batch quite a lot too. It’s full-bodied, rich, and unashamedly sherry dominated, but with enough spice to keep it from being too sweet. It also fits the bill as a whisky that commemorates ‘World Chocolate Day.’ Not only does it tick the chocolate tasting note box, but it’s also the perfect accompaniment to chocolate, especially dark, but it does well alongside a decent milk chocolate too. This was purchased for £44.50 direct from Douglas Laing, a price that I can have absolutely no complaints about, and for me it is an improvement on the regular bottling, with greater depth and body.
We’ve included some links above – not all are commission-based. It pays to shop around and your local whisky shop may still have stock.