A thrill ran through the press shortly before Christmas, summed up by The Scotsman’s headline: "Cheaper Whisky As Good As Fine Malts Say Experts" and inspired by a Which? report which had completed a tasting of 32 Scotch and Irish whiskies from supermarkets.The tasting was of 16 malts and 16 blends: 20 of the whiskies were supermarket own-label brands (six single malts, three vatted malts, eight blends and three Irish – one a single malt) and 12 were proprietary brands (six single malts, six blends). The overall winner was Highland Park 12-year-old. Of the next six, four were Islays (all vatted malts, all own-label there were no proprietary branded Islays in the competition). The other two were Glenmorangie 10-year-old and The Glenlivet 12-year-old. Bells 8-years-old was the top-ranked proprietary blend, in 8th position. The Macallan 10-year-old and Glenfiddich 12-year-old were ranked equal at number ten. The first ranked own-label blend was Tesco 8-year-old (ranked 19), the last ranked proprietary blends were Whyte & Mackay (26th) and Grant’s (27th). What do we learn from all this? Simply, it is all a matter of personal taste.The success of malts against blends is apparent. But can they be compared directly? No. They are different drinks: blends are not designed to have the complexity of malts. As one might expect, the more expensive whiskies do better than the cheapies although, as the report gleefully points out, there are some "good buys".It is interesting that the top ten includes all the most heavily flavoured of the whiskies tasted and all the Islays. I am afraid that tasting panels the world over grasp at the positive aroma/flavour of Islay and sherried malts as 'something you can say about it', even if they do not like them and admit privately that they lack subtlety. The remaining three in the Top Ten were Glenmorangie (4th), The Glenlivet (5th) and Glenfiddich (10th=) all major malts (the only other proprietary single malt included was Glen Garioch) none of them 'obvious', all of them carefully made.
What is not apparent is how long the supermarket own-label whiskies will taste as they do. They are not constrained by the need for
consistency over long periods, as are the proprietary brand owners. This might explain why Sainsbury’s 5-year-old, which won a gold award at the IWSC only two years ago (best in its category), was ranked way down at 28th place. Nevertheless, there are some good own-label whiskies to be had at good prices from the supermarkets. Perhaps the message is, 'buy the ones you like now while stocks last'. Happy New Year!