Lidl recently released a limited edition 19-year-old expression of their Ben Bracken Islay range, and I’m getting strong notes of Kate Bush.
Babooshka, specifically: the story of a suspicious wife who decides to test her husband’s loyalty by adopting “a pseudonym to fool him” and wooing him incognito to test his resolve… which sounds a lot like entrapment, now I come to think of it.
Needless to say, it doesn’t go well. In fact “she couldn’t have made a worse choice.” The husband is smitten, falls for the mysterious Babooshka and, well, we don’t know. The song kind of ends on a cliffhanger. Does he know it’s his wife all along? Does his concupiscence prove he’s the opportunist philanderer she suspected? Is the ending happy or sad? We’re left in a liminal state to make up our own minds.
And so to Ben Bracken: an established single malt sold under an assumed identity to woo unsuspecting customers and profit from mass market revenue shares. The comparison is obvious, right? Exactly. But, there will be no open-ended cliffhangers here. Happy or sad, a conclusion will be reached on this Babooshka bottle of whisky.
Big on Quality, Lidl on Price
Not a distillery or a place, Ben Bracken is a made-up bit of branding that Lidl uses for its Scotch whiskies. Speyside, Highland, and Islay make up the core range, with each expression sourced from a regional distillery in disguise. Much has been written about the identities of the distilleries and the quality of the award-winning core range elsewhere. I confess I haven’t tried any of them. It was the release of the limited edition 19-year-old Islay expression that piqued my interest.
I wasn’t the only one. I spent a slightly hungover Saturday morning touring local Lidls looking for a bottle, which wasn’t a hugely rewarding experience. However, I got lucky on the third attempt and picked up the last bottle from a ravaged shelf.
If you’re not familiar with Lidl – a discount supermarket that’s taken the UK by storm – you won’t be aware of their wonderfully punny tagline: “Big on Quality, Lidl on Price.” At £39.99 for a 19-year-old Islay single malt, they’re certainly delivering on the price side of the bargain.
By way of comparison – and because browsing whisky sites and compiling a list felt like a deeply festive activity that was worthy of my time – I decided to put together a rough inventory of comparable offerings from Islay distilleries, selected on loose criteria of age statement/price point relevance.
“A pseudonym to fool him…”
Doubtless that the liquid in the Ben Bracken Islay 19 comes from an Islay distillery; the clue’s in the name. A bit of Googling informs me that Caol Ila or Bowmore are the most likely contenders. If that’s the case, and this “Babooshka” bottle is indeed from either distillery, then it’s certainly a bargain; as my list attests, the price is on point:
Ardbeg Wee Beastie (five) ~£40
Ardbeg Ten ~£50
Bowmore 12 ~£35
Bowmore 15 ~£60
Bowmore 18 ~£90
Bruichladdich Classic Laddie ~£45
Port Charlotte 10 ~£55
Bunnahabhain 12 ~£40
Bunnahabhain 18 ~£125
Caol Ila 12 ~£45
Caol Ila 18 ~£100
Lagavulin 8 ~£60
Lagavulin 16 ~£80
Laphroaig 10 ~£40
Laphroaig Quarter Cask ~£45
Big on quality?
So, is it any good? To answer that question, I cracked it open this weekend for a festive tasting (you can prefix anything with the f-word at this time of year and it’s fine; festive morning drinks etc).
Ben Bracken Islay 19 – Review
Colour: Burnt amber leaning into copper.
On the nose: A subtle start. It’s a little timid and takes its time to pluck up the courage to come out and say “hello.” I’m not sure why but I was expecting a bolder first impression. Immediate notes of dried tea, shy at first, grow more muscular and become more confidently lapsang souchong. The peat smoke is present but not dominant, playing nicely with figs and dried apricots. The fruity notes evolve into toasted banana bread, whilst sooty tobacco ash lurks in the background at all times.
In the mouth: More lapsang souchong and white pepper, but again it’s a little timid. A leathery medicinal texture is also present, but folded under the smokiness of the tea. Like sucking a smoker’s finger after it’s been washed with carbolic soap… as one does. The sweeter side starts to develop with time; bonfire toffee and stewed green apples join the party to round things out and add to the overarching wintriness of the experience. The finish defies expectations and lingers pleasantly.
A well-crafted and easy-drinking whisky that ultimately left me wanting more. Maybe it’s the chill filtration, but it felt a little underpowered and slightly frail. Each note is full of promise, and everything builds nicely, but somehow never quite reaches the promised land. That’s not to say this is by any means a bad whisky, just that it could have been really special.
Hats off to Lidl (and the incognito distillery partner), they’ve created a whisky that embodies their brand promise. It’s a refreshing antidote to the over-inflated prices and baffling array of NAS concept whiskies shaping the current market. £39.99 for a 19-year-old Islay single malt, I’m all yours… Babooshka!