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Ballantine’s 12: 1980s vs Today

As Top Gun: Maverick has proven, the 80s never dies. Rather, it just hasn’t died yet.

Something strange happens to our brains when we think of the 1980s. It’s like we briefly forget when we are and how to do math. The 80s are already at least four decades behind us, yet most of us still think that it’s just been twenty years, as if we’re still in the 2000s.

I think it’s due to associating the 80s with good times. Add the fact that people tend to be sentimental and romanticize the past. That decade is notorious for having good music we still enjoy today. Just look at how today’s youth have been reacting to Stranger Things’ music of choice. A lot of basketball fans also think the 80s is better than today’s NBA. Along with this sentimentality is the fascination of collectors and connoisseurs with Scotch from that era. I’m one of them, so I can totally understand it. Old is gold, after all.

Some of you might be wondering why? One of the reasons is for the sake of comparing. Scotch’s minimum bottling ABV was 43%. This only changed when the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988 lowered the minimum ABV to 40%. Scotch from previous decades were also bottled at 43%. More alcohol usually means more flavor. But, since the 80s are more recent, they’re easier to attain.

Another reason is that they’re perceived to be better for a few reasons. One, there was less demand for single malts then. Thus, there was greater availability of well-aged stock. Single malts and blends are believed to have contained more older stock compared to today. The recipes can also be different. Distilleries (single malt or grain) have closed and opened over the decades. Not to mention the changing of distillery ownership could mean losing access to whisky used in the recipe.

With the greater availability of well-aged single malt stocks, blends from the past also had a higher single malt to grain whisky ratio in them. It’s said that in the 60s, blends were about 60% grain and 40% single malt, while today it’s said to be around 80% grain and 20% single malt. It may even be less now. With blends having contained more single malt, we can assume that they’d have more body compared to today’s blended Scotch.

Let me also add my personal belief that Scotch then was made better. With the demand being not great, the producers weren’t aiming for efficiency. So, the strains of grain and yeast were surely not used for efficiency, which meant more impurities in the grain, which held more flavor. The yeast used might have also meant that fermentations lasted longer to create more flavor.

When I first started getting serious about whisky a decade ago, Ballantine’s was seen by the community as a “craft” blend compared to the bigger Chivas brand. I guess this was due to the brand having been just acquired by Pernod Ricard from Allied Domecq in 2009, which would have made the brand appear smaller. But why speculate when we – more accurately: I – can taste and compare? Because I have a bottle of Ballantine’s 12 (found in Japan) bottled at 43% from the 1980s.

Ballantine’s 12 Year Old (Current) – Review

40% ABV. $24.99 ifrom Total Wine. $22 locally.

Color: e150.

On the nose: Cereals and fruits. There’s a mildly sharp and enveloping ethanol bite, but after that I get short and light to medium aromas of apples, toffee, cereals, vanilla, honey, caramel, butterscotch, kiwi, and vinegar.

In the mouth: Cereals and fruits as well. The ethanol bite is more like nipping here. I get short and light to medium tastes of Fuji apples, green apple skin, caramel, toffee, vanilla, honey, cereals, and butterscotch.

Conclusions:

A very pleasant whisky with a profile that will be more to everyone’s liking. There are no off flavors here, but it’s not exciting either. I think this is a bang for your buck blended Scotch. I’ll be bold and say this is the best big brand-owned blended Scotch widely available.

Score: 6/10

(5/10 if price isn’t counted)

Ballantine’s 12 Year Old (1980s) – Review

43% ABV. £135 from The Whisky Exchange.

Color: Ale.

On the nose: No ethanol bite this time. Also, a lot more cereal-like and less fruit, with a rounder texture. I get light aromas of apple chips, peppercorn, toffee, honey, Korean barley tea, caramel, Frosted Flakes cereal, vanilla, and sharp orange peel.

In the mouth: Also comes with a round body and texture. There’s also this big spice note that comes along with the cereal notes. I get light but slightly lasting tastes of peppercorn, honey, Korean barley tea, toffee, caramel, and vanilla.

Conclusions:

It’s certainly very different from the modern Ballantine’s 12. For one, this isn’t as dark. Maybe less caramel coloring was used then?

There’s also way less fruit flavor, while there are more cereals and a more pronounced bite of spice. I’m more inclined to think that this bottling has a higher single malt ratio, which explains the heavier cereal flavor. But then again, the recipe could have also changed. Another explanation might be that the quality of grain whisky was better then. Maybe the grain whisky used here had more malted barley in it compared to today’s?

I’m not giving this a score as this might not be the original flavor of the whisky. The fill level was lower than normal when I found this in Japan. (It cost me around ¥5,000 just a while before COVID). This bottle’s fill-level was in the middle of the golden part below the “bottled in Scotland” part. Perhaps we can say that this might have been tampered with by oxygen and/or by time?

Score:

No score, but I like this better than the contemporary version.

CategoriesBlends
  1. Alex says:

    I love rummaging in old liquor stores in rural towns in Japan. They are quickly disappearing due to population decline, so the owners are usually very happy for anyone to walk in, and they sometimes like to show you their last special stock. You often find a treasurer or two in there, often old blends. I recently found a Bells 12 YO from around 30 years ago (according to the shop owner) for ¥5,500, still in the box at a normal fill level, with a simple screw cap. I didn’t have high expectations, but it turned out to be very flavourful with a nice mouthfeel too at only 43% ABV.

    1. John says:

      Hi Alex, I agree. Sometimes the owners don’t even know what they have. It’s how I find a lot of my dusty bottles.

      Lucky you for finding that Bell’s! That should still have a high amount of single malt ratio in the blend.

  2. Gordon says:

    Hi John,
    I worked as a printer in Glasgow for the entire 1980’s and we produced labels for the Ballantines range.
    I’m a little concerned about the authenticity of the label on the old bottling. Back then the Ballantines crest was almost identical to the present one with 2 blue saltire flags. This bottle has one blue saltire and one red one.
    I can’t recall ever producing a label like this.
    I may be mistaken and many years have passed since I was involved in label production but this label is odd. Very odd.

    1. John says:

      Hi Gordon, thanks for the message.
      We got a reply in Twitter regarding the label too. But that reply says this might be a bottle from the 1960s. The reasoning being the “in used for 135 years” and established in 1827. 1827 + 135 would be 1962. This might explain why you dont recall producing a label like this.

  3. Roy says:

    One of my favourite things to do, compare old to ‘now’. But as well as nostalgia being troublesome, there’s no doubt whisky changes in glass over time.
    Efficiency was very much part of the drive in whisky production as demand boomed post war.
    Also… whisky used to be 43% minimum? I need to know more about this?! As far as I’m aware, it’s been 40% since Lloyd George’s shenanigans 100 years ago. Cheers all

    1. John says:

      Hi Roy, I noticed that all of the 80s and before Scotch bottlings I’ve see are 43%. I only learned of this 1988 Scotch Act after digging more into it. If the 1988 act legalized the 40% minimum bottling abv, then it only makes sense that 43% was the previous minimum.

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