The Ballantine’s in the cupboard: A review of Ballantine’s 21, via a French supermarket, a Greek beach, and an esoteric pendulum.
Born in the year Beethoven died, Ballantine’s began life in 1827 when George Ballantine – a farmer’s son – set up a small grocery store in Edinburgh. Archibald Ballantine, George’s son, later took over the running of the Edinburgh store whilst George expanded operations to Glasgow. It was from here that he really focused on expanding into the spirit trade and blending his own whiskies. A brand marketing blurb suggests that George Ballantine and Son Ltd, as they were then known, even began exporting to India as early as the 1860s.
Whether that’s true or not is a bit of a mystery; I couldn’t find any supporting evidence whilst researching online. But, for me at least, Ballantine’s has always been a bit of a mysterious brand. For instance, is it true that The Finest’s iconic square bottle design was a product of prohibition-era ingenuity? It’s said that the square bottles slotted more easily into the suitcases of travelling American salesmen. Was there really a gaggle of security geese, led by a “crusty old gander called Mr Ballantine,” protecting the Dumbarton warehouse in the 1960s? An ad in Life Magazine from 1963 certainly suggests so. Last but not least: why is it so difficult to find older age statements on the shelf in the UK? The expressions have a well-known champion in Jim Murray, as a Ballantine’s has won “Scottish Blend of the Year” in nine of the past twelve years.
I’m guessing the last point has something to do with ownership and distribution. Since 2005 Ballantine’s has been part of French behemoth Pernod Ricard, and it was on holiday in France last year that I unexpectedly found a shelf load of “seventeens” in a Dordogne supermarket. Having picked up two boxes of the seventeen, each costing €48, I noticed a single un-boxed bottle of the twenty-one-year-old (very reasonably priced at €98) sitting on its own at the back of the shelf. It was alone and gathering dust, almost as if it had been stashed there by someone to collect at a later date, and then forgotten about.
I picked it up and looked around to see if anyone was watching before gently slipping it into the shopping trolley. I felt a bit like a thief, perhaps a low-rent Sir Charles Lytton, the international playboy/thief known as “The Phantom.” Incidentally, Lytton was played by David Niven in The Pink Panther… the same David Niven who briefly worked as a Ballantine’s sales rep in post-prohibition Manhattan.
Anyway, I digress. Having bought all three bottles and carted them home, I drank the seventeens (not all at once) and put the twenty-one in the cupboard for a special occasion. Inevitably – and somewhat ironically – I forgot about it.
It wasn’t until a recent holiday to Greece that I remembered its existence. For reasons unknown, I had decided to take Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco’s esoteric classic, as my beach read. It’s a book brimming with cryptic clues, cults, mystical notes and numerology. At one point in the story, during a particularly poignant and confusing passage, a character (Jacopo Belbo) bets the protagonist (Casaubon) a bottle of Ballantine’s twelve that he can’t “deliver the Popelicans” in two weeks.
Having now finished the book, I’m still unclear who the Popelicans were, and whether or not they were delivered. I can confirm there was no further mention of said Ballantine’s twelve in the story. Anyhow, perhaps inspired by the numerological significance of the inverse digits, I suddenly recalled my twenty-one patiently waiting for me in the cupboard at home.
For the rest of the holiday, with every evening glass of Metaxa, my mind was on the Ballantine’s in the cupboard. Now I’m back at home, after a painfully long first week back at work, it’s time to crack it open and see whether the long wait has been worth it.
Ballantine’s 21 Year Old – Review
Colour: Amber Honey (e150?).
On the nose: An intense hit of sherry-soaked fruitcake immediately transports you to an idealised image of Christmas Day evening. You can almost feel the warm glow of the imagined fire on your cheeks and smell the slight smokiness of burning logs mingling with the creamy vanilla and brandy butter rising out of the glass. Next come the sugary apricots, like the waft of a freshly flipped (apricot) tarte tatin, mixed with figs and wine gums. Then a hint of almonds and more caramel sweetness as everything comes together. I’m briefly overcome by the slight fear that I should’ve saved it for another couple of months, followed by the realisation that it will be hard to find another bottle in the UK for Christmas. Shit. It’s a powerfully complex opening movement and expectations are high.
In the mouth: The expected sweetness is present but pared back and much subtler and more delicate. Nowhere near the intensity on the nose. Very quickly there’s a very pleasing pepperiness that punches through the unctuous mouthfeel, accompanied by liquorice and an indefinite spiciness that’s hard to pin down. The sweetness is still there, rising and falling in harmony with the bitter notes as the pepperiness begins to assert itself. Finally, as the mouth begins to tingle, a suggestion of mint disappears almost as quickly as it arrives.
A whisky that will forever live in my head as a sort of cubist grotesque. A nose the size of Pinocchio and the two faces of Janus, simultaneously looking towards the opposing horizons of sweet and spice. The only quibble is the 40% ABV – it feels like it deserves a bit more punch.
Nonetheless, Sandy Hislop (only the 5th Master Blender in the company’s history) has brought everything together wonderfully well. All aspects working in concert to create a finely balanced and immensely enjoyable blend of which farmer George – and Beethoven – would have been proud.
Now, can I get back over to France to scour the shelves of E. Leclerc for another forgotten bottle before Christmas?
Having done a bit of searching online it seems that there’s a real shortage of Ballantine’s 21. Of the few retailers with available stock, the best price I can find for a replacement bottle is £189.99 at oldandrarewhisky.co.uk