“How do I taste it?” “I’m not sure what those terms mean.” “Are there guide questions I need to answer while drinking?” “What kind of glass do I need?” “Isn’t it too harsh?” “Isn’t it the kind that only old people like?”
These are some of the questions I’ve gotten from friends whom I’ve been introducing to whisky. Compared to other kinds of beverages like gongfu tea and coffee (which I’ve also tried introducing to others), there seems to be a unique veil that obstructs the stranger’s view of whisky, especially with Scotch. However, from experience, it usually only takes an encounter with the right whisky – a gateway – that can open one’s eyes to the category.
Ask any whisky enthusiast, and I’m sure that most, if not all, of them would be able to tell you what their gateway whiskies were. In the Philippines, these gateway brands tend to be the more ubiquitous ones like Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal. The brand of whisky that got me hooked – and that I believe remains underrated in terms of the ability to entice newcomers to whisky (and especially Scotch) – is Monkey Shoulder.
In early 2019, I decided that in the long-term future, I wanted to put up a bar with my partner. I figured that learning about the different kinds of spirits and drinks I could serve would be a good first step in making that dream happen. At that point, pretty much the only alcohol I drank was beer, and I only had it casually, whenever I was spending time with friends. As fate would have it, I first looked into whisky, inevitably encountered Scotch, and searched for what would be a good introductory bottle to purchase and try.
Before then, I already had multiple experiences with Johnnie Walker, but its image wasn’t one that invited me to learn more about Scotch, or whisky in general. You see, in this side of the world, Johnnie Walker’s identity largely has two sides. One involves partying or getting drunk; whether drinking it with coke or in shots, Johnnie Walker was always a great option for making an evening with friends more fun and literally less memorable. The other side of its identity is associated with luxury. You want to celebrate an occasion, impress your boss, or show off your lifestyle and spending power to your friends? Get a bottle of Johnnie Walker; the bluer the bottle, the better. Neither side was appealing to a hobbyist like me.
Monkey Shoulder, on the other hand, had a different appeal. I remember searching for suggestions in YouTube videos and online articles, and I remember seeing countless people who claim to be enthusiasts recommend Monkey Shoulder to beginners who seek to drink whisky seriously. I bought a bottle, and it was an easy fall into the rabbit hole since then.
Monkey Shoulder is a blended malt Scotch whisky owned by UK-based William Grant & Sons and created by master blender Brian Kinsman. It was launched in 2005 as a blend of single malts from three Speyside distilleries: Balvenie, Glenfiddich, and Kininvie. Today, however, the recipe is kept confidential, and we are only told that it includes single malts from Speyside in general. It is matured in first-fill ex-Bourbon casks and vatted in batches before chill-filtering and bottling at 40% strength.
Looking back at how I perceived and how I saw others to perceive the brand, it’s easy to see what makes Monkey Shoulder a welcoming entry into the world of Scotch whisky. One good example involves how the brand markets itself to consumers. According to Monkey Shoulder’s website, it is the “ultimate mixing whisky.” Alongside the whisky, the website highlights the work of bartenders and readily features cocktails like highballs and old fashioneds.
They also use a lot of energetic and vibrant colors, fonts, and hashtag campaigns, which all reveal a branding strategy that targets younger adults. Back when I attended Whisky Live Manila 2019, the same youthful branding strategy was evident in the use of games and casually-dressed brand ambassadors in Monkey Shoulder’s booth, clearly setting itself apart from other brands that were more serious, “professional,” or impenetrable.
The story behind the brand’s name and logo also lends itself well to whisky novices who have yet to be familiar with the heritage of Scotland or whisky-making. The name references a condition that plagued distillery workers of the past who manually flipped malted barley. The background is simple and playful, easily giving consumers a piece of both Scottish history and culture. Being rooted in authenticity no doubt adds to the pleasure that consumers experience as they enjoy the spirit; it certainly added to mine when I first got to try it years ago.
This isn’t to say that Monkey Shoulder’s marketing or branding is free of flaws. Despite coming across as more fun and relatable, the brand sometimes still subscribes to worn-out strategies (like this recent commercialwhere they use rock music in the background, a hairy male model’s hand, and a rough “manly” manner of handling the rocks glass) that, if anything, make Scotch seem more exclusive. Another flaw, I believe, comes in the form of the meaningless phrase “Batch 27” on the bottle. While I admit that it does shape consumer attraction by leading them to perceive Monkey Shoulder as artisanal or scarce, it also becomes an early source of disillusionment when enthusiasts become more knowledgeable about marketing tactics used in the whisky industry. Frankly, it also doesn’t help that the idea of batch releases hardly remains believable when the same batch number has been used for years.
Taking all of this into consideration, though, it’s no surprise that Monkey Shoulder was named the “World’s Top Trending Scotch” in multiple years. The brand’s ethos is clear: Scotch is a premium product but is for everyone and anyone, and it doesn’t take much effort to enjoy it. I feel that beginners like me, when I first heard about Monkey Shoulder, have no doubt resonated with that ethos somehow.
Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt – Review
I’m fully aware that Monkey Shoulder was designed primarily for mixing. However, for the purposes of this review, I’m trying this whisky neat because that’s mainly how I enjoy and critically assess spirits.
Color: Dirty gold.
On the nose: A faint mix of honey and chili flakes make up the top notes, accompanied by sliced white bread. The base notes are all about malt: porridge, oat cookies, and the slightest touch of starch. Then, it transitions into old bananas, apple skins, and cotton candy powder. These aromas blend too soon until only the malt notes remain dominant.
In the mouth: The core of malt remains but with added light citrus peel and toasted rice. The fruity aromas are less distinct, giving way to wood spice, old gumamela flowers, and Manila paper. The texture is thin. It has a medium-length finish, beginning with powdered nuts and weak Victorian perfume before trailing away with toasted wood and old flowers.
It’s pretty evident that this, indeed, was intended for use in cocktails. When taken neat, I find it to be easy, linear, and lacking in complexity. However, I believe that these qualities are also exactly why I found this blended malt to be inviting when I first tasted it. It’s not ethanol-forward, yet has clear flavors that effectively introduce one to those commonly found in many single malts. Quite plainly, it’s a perfect choice when in need of a simple dram that does not need much thinking or perusal.
I’m fortunate not to find any “vomit” notes in this; a lot of consumers dislike Monkey Shoulder because they get those repulsive flavors that have been pointed out to stem from an inherent sensitivity to the chemical compound butyric acid, which smells like vomit.
Now, we arrive at the biggest disappointment I have with this blended malt Scotch. Its price has increased drastically over the years. In 2019, I was able to buy a bottle locally for a little over $11. Now, it sells for around $37 from Master of Malt and at least around $29 among local online retailers where I am, which is the price for which I bought this bottle. Regardless of the supply, this will tangibly prevent the brand from engaging and welcoming new consumers as well as it did in the past. I would’ve given this blended malt a 5 if its price remained as it was.
Still, this blended malt’s proclivity toward accessibility and approachability remains its biggest strength. My hope is that Monkey Shoulder, despite the tragic rise of prices, continues to be a desirable and promising starting point for those who are interested in whisky and, even better, serves as a model for other Scotch brands who seek to aid in the shedding of Scotch’s largely inaccessible image.
Jigs, when I first came across Monkey Shoulder in 2012 or 13, it wasn’t being promoted as a cocktail whisky. In fact, the big brands weren’t connecting their Scotch to cocktails then. You’ll be interested to know that the recipe for Monkey Shoulder was said to have been changed back in 2018 or 2019. It was around this them when Monkey Shoulder started to get promoted in cocktails.
Hi, John! Thank you for the information you shared. You’re right; it’s interesting that Monkey Shoulder’s branding changed alongside the change in recipe. I assumed that it was promoted in cocktails ever since. Do you think or would you know if the decision to brand it as a mixer comes from WS&S’s need to compensate for a drop in quality due to the recipe change?
The recipe change, if true, is most likely due to stock issue. They need to bottle whisky under their own umbrella under their respective brands. So they changed the recipe to what they can buy.
I see. If you were to make a guess, what do you think would be their motivations for branding Monkey Shoulder as a mixer? Reach?
Reach for sure. They needed a whisky to get in the cocktail game. They already have Hendricks gin, Woods and Sailor Jerry rum. So they started presenting Monkey Shoulder in a fun way.
I quite liked Monkey Shoulder when I first tried it in about 2006, back when these blends got referred to as “vatted malts” . I’d quite like to find an old bottle to see whether my now lukewarm response to it is because of changes to the recipe or to my palate.
I agree that it has a place as a gateway whisky, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest it to a curious none whisky drinker.
Hi, Simon! Thanks for taking the time to comment. That would be an interesting, indeed, especially if you get to compare it to a new bottle. Given the ability of blenders to more or less control flavor drift, I’d wager that changes to your palate since then would be a bigger factor. If you ever get to try an old bottle , I’d love to hear about it! Cheers!
Hey Jigs, what a brilliant piece.
I keep trying to explain to Whisky lovers on this side of the world why Whisky is slowly increasing in price and heading East. As you’ve underlined, in many cultures in Asia a higher price is actually a attraction not a detractor from what’s considered a luxury product. Here in the west (I’m in the UK) we really struggle to understand it, luckily my other half worked in the Duty Free Retail Business and also spent time in China so explained the fascinating differences to me. I’d loved to see an article from you or John that really delves into this.
Ah, Monkey Shoulder, this was also my gateway Whisky back in 2015 and I’ll always have a soft spot for it. I have a bottle on my shelf even now along with a bottle of the lesser known Smoky Monkey.
I’d pretty much say your notes are spot on, it’s great for mixing and acceptable to sip (especially with ice). I also agree with your comments on price, you can get perfectly acceptable 10 year old single malts here for £30 and less. I’d love to see them bump the ABV slightly to give it a little more punch.
Keep up the great work!
Hi, Andrew! I appreciate the praise and encouragement.
I didn’t know that there’s a perception of whisky moving east! Are more and more people from where you are losing interest on whisky because of the prices? But yes, whisky will continue to be desirable for many (at least here, in the Philippines) because of the social status associated with it. In a way, for those consumers, whisky’s image tastes better than its flavor.
How is the Smoky Monkey like compared to the standard release? Unfortunately, it isn’t sold anywhere here. I definitely agree, too, on what could make Monkey Shoulder more desirable, whether regarding price or proof. Cheers, Andrew!
Been drinking monkey shoulder on and off since release and the quality has definitely dipped. It used to be marketed in the pub as a more affordable alternative to your normal single malt.
You should check out Naked Grouse as my understanding is that it has some Macallen in it and is aimed at the same market. Maybe do a side by side comparison of the 2.
Hi, Mark! Thanks for your comment. That’s correct; Naked Grouse has some Macallan in it, alongside single malts like Highland Park and Glenrothes, which are all under Edrington. It would be interesting, indeed, to compare that with the Monkey Shoulder since both are blended malts that are also, at least where I am, sold for around the same price. However, I currently have my sights set on other purchases that I’m more excited and curious about to try and maybe write about. Maybe I can make that side-by-side happen eventually, though, so I appreciate the suggestion. Cheers!
Monkey shoulder is my new favorite I do enjoy it both ways neat or on the rocks
Keith, that’s great! I’m glad you found something you enjoy and in different ways of drinking it, too. If it interests you, try checking out some of the Monkey Shoulder cocktail recipes that they feature on their website; those might help you enjoy it even more. Cheers!
Timely article as I’ve just picked up my first bottle of Monkey Shoulder. Interestingly here in the US it seems it’s bottled at 43% ABV, perhaps regional differences? Whether or not the extra 3% gives it measurably anymore heft or lasting impression on the palate I’m cannot say. Trying this neat it lacks complexity for sure and seems to fall a little flat. As you alluded to perhaps it’s purpose is more in the cocktail realm. I’ve tried it this so far in mainly classic cocktails such as the Blood & Sand and Rob Roy. Made a decent old fashioned as well. Thanks for your post any insight!
Hi, Jeff! Scotch whisky was traditionally exported at 43% strength, largely due to some foreign markets legally setting 43% as the minimum for whisky. I’m guessing that for reasons involving logistics or simplicity, many brands continue to export at that minimum strength regardless of destination.
I’m not too knowledgeable about cocktails and how to determine which base spirits work for which cocktails, but I also currently prefer drinking Monkey Shoulder in old fashioneds. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Jeff. Cheers!
If ya think liquor prices are high now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. So far the notable rise in liquor prices have been those by greedy corporations to scalp gullible Millenials, desperate Boomers and trendy secularlists who chase bourbon and scotch as part of the latest fad and in order to give meaning to their pathetic self centered lives. Many bottom shelf to midshelf, or popular brands/products, are underpriced by a large margin just if you compare them to beer prices.
The entire mid & bottom shelf distilled-liquor needs to increase at least 30% just to get relative to Budweiser/Miller/Coors beer. There is a lot of catching up to do just to get where it should have been in 2021. A 375ml flask of Smirnoff Blue 100proof is the same price it was in 2008. Depending on if it is mixed with a carbonated or sweetened beverage, that provides the consumer the equivalent alcohol buzz as 15 12oz Budweiser beers. But the Budweiser has been rising in price even as demand for beer has fallen off in favor of hard seltzers.
But then very likely there will be a lot more price rising to do after things catch-up to where they should’ve been in 2021. Go examine the futures chart of CBOT grains. And it will get worse because there already was a fertilizer shortage and the Biden harrasment of Russia will cause more shortages. And this brings on the risk of famine. . . . They may have to stop making whiskey so can feed chickens, cattle and pigs. Add to this all the currency debasement that has been happening.
And anyway, there are too many distillers and too many products. There all kinds of stupid products like peanut whiskey. And there is too much crossing of lines—viz., seasoning whiskey in pinneaple rum barrels. It’s all so typical of when an industry or market has reach a top and is due to bust. A fortiori when the costs are skyrocketing and labor is tight.
Later this year you might be lucky to get a bottle of McCormick vodka whatsoever. So enjoy what Monkey Shoulder you get now at $30.00/bbl.
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. To your point, whisky prices are indeed on the rise, and we’re possibly in for even steeper price hikes in the future. We could spend days discussing the validity of the various sociopolitical and economic conditions that might contribute to that trend.
However, I personally find it fruitless to justify the act of buying a whisky solely by comparing its price to its potentially higher price in the future or to other more expensive products like beer. Of course, the ideal goal is still to find whiskies that balance price and quality, so I’ll gladly pass up on buying whisky that I find too expensive or not good enough despite being cheap. In the case of Monkey Shoulder, it might be cheap now compared to what it will cost in the future, sure. But are there better options in terms of price and quality? Yup. So I’ll focus on searching for and trying out those options instead. This isn’t to say that I’m not enjoying the bottle that I already have, though! As I’ve said in my review and in my responses to the comments made by other readers, Monkey Shoulder isn’t a terrible whisky, and I prefer (read: enjoy) drinking it in a particular way.
Now, I don’t presume myself superior or infallible compared to those whom you say are “fooled” by greedy corporations or those who buy “stupid products.” Preferences are subjective, and as long as people are (or try to be) discerning and cognizant of their preferences and purchases, I believe it isn’t my place to judge. There might be instances, like in the past, when I’d be that “gullible Millennial” as I get myself whisky that others might find undesirable or unwise. Maybe I’ll eventually agree with those people. But if that bottle of whisky helps me learn or find and cherish more meaning in my life, in one way or another, then I’ll have made a valuable purchase, and I’ll enjoy that whisky while I can. In many ways, indulging in this hobby of ours is truly a self-centered act, but that doesn’t necessarily make us or our choices pathetic or deplorable.