“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.