Tasted: six of the best blended whiskies in 2021

Tasted: six of the best blended whiskies in 2021

Though single malt whisky is currently in the spotlight, there are still some blends out there worthy of attention and admiration
Christopher Coates

06 October 2021

Publication: Issue 178

It is a strange thing, how different generations have entered and engaged with the world of whisky. For someone born in Europe or even North America in the 1950s, drinking whisky would in all likelihood have almost exclusively meant drinking blends of some kind.

Today, of course, it is single malt which is capturing the imagination of drinkers in Western Europe, North America, and many other places besides. The reasons for this shift in these so-called ‘mature’ whisky markets (and even some ‘developing’ whisky markets) are varied, though to hear it from whisky drinkers of, let’s say, more advanced years, there has allegedly been a noticeable decline in perceived quality of some of the most famous and readily available ‘premium’ blended brands over the last 60 years. This, at least, has led many more experienced whisky drinkers to look elsewhere for their kicks.

More than just a simple harking back to the ‘good old days’, this allegation can certainly be backed up to some extent and with some degree of accuracy by conducting a cursory tasting of bottles sourced at auction dating from the 60s, 70s, 80s and so on. Assuming seals are intact and storage conditions have been favourable, these blends can undoubtedly serve up some of the most delightfully refined and complex whisky-drinking experiences to be had for any money – sometimes even offering up flavours which simply don’t crop up in modern whiskies. Unfortunately, the word is out and prices in the secondary market – once lower or comparable to modern RRPs for entry-level blends – have skyrocketed to eye-watering heights.

The reasons for changes in the ages and organoleptic qualities of whiskies utilised in readily accessible blends are numerous and have been written about at length elsewhere, but what has perhaps received less attention is the question of where the blended whisky drinker of today can look to find some of those same qualities presented by the legendary expressions of the past. (After all, not everyone can justify dropping increasingly vast sums at auction on mid-century bottles from brands like White Horse, or, even if the bank balance allows, one’s conscience might forbid their opening.)

Thankfully, a handful of whisky makers are recapturing the glories of those ‘golden years’ of blending. Some quite literally use liquids distilled decades ago, while others are better described as ‘spiritual’ successors. Though their methods vary and both the ages and characters of the whiskies contained within are mostly quite different from those used by blenders of the past, these whisky makers are nevertheless producing liquids well worthy of the throne once occupied by the legendary blends of old.

Below are some of our favourite blended whiskies, which prove that mixing grain and single malt whiskies can still deliver some of the most palatable drams money can buy.

Johnnie Walker
Ghost & Rare Port Ellen

ABV: 43.8%
Style: Blended Scotch
Price per bottle: £300
Availability: Limited edition

For the whisky drinker who… wants a taste of the past at a (relatively) affordable price

Isn’t it wonderful when something much anticipated lives up to the hype? Though it’s questionable whether anyone had ever called a closed distillery a ‘ghost’ before, the Ghost & Rare range from Johnnie Walker turned out to be much more than just a fancy brand extension for its Blue Label range. A trio of releases were built around very old whiskies from the closed Port Ellen, Brora and Glenury Royal distilleries, with aged stock from fan favourites like Mortlach, Dailuaine, Cragganmore, Blair Athol, and Oban bringing added muscle to each. For the grain component, the closed Caledonian and Carsebridge distilleries add what only beautiful old grain can. One of the most pleasant surprises and, arguably, complex whiskies to arrive in the past 18 months, the Port Ellen expression is particularly worthy of high praise. This comes highly recommended.

The Lakes
The One

ABV: 46.6%
Style: Blended Whisky
Price per bottle: £39
Availability: Core range, specialists

For the whisky drinker who… wants a trusty dram to end the day

The Lakes’ whisky maker Dhavall Gandhi is passionately and vocally opposed to the ‘blending by spreadsheet’ that goes on elsewhere in the industry. Gandhi instead takes an immensely hands-on approach; locking himself away in his distillery laboratory, without distractions like the internet, he reportedly immerses himself in hours-long creative sessions which often extend long after others have clocked off. The effort clearly pays off. Utilising a core of The Lakes’ own spirit, Gandhi builds on this with whiskies sourced from Speyside and Islay to create The One, an easy-going blend which ticks all the necessary boxes of a ‘daily sipper’. Things become even more interesting, however, when he is able to indulge his passion for maturation: subsequent editions now include cask finishes utilising ex sherry, Moscatel, orange wine, and port casks.

The Last Drop
50 Years Old

ABV: 47.8%
Style: Blended Scotch
Price per bottle: £3087
Availability: 500 bottles, specialists

For the whisky drinker who… seeks flavours that are almost impossible to find anywhere else

Colin Scott began his career at Chivas Brothers in 1973 and was elevated to the role of master blender in 1989, so he certainly has the experience needed to develop outstanding whiskies. After ‘retiring’ in 2020, he swiftly joined The Last Drop Distillers’ ‘assembly’ of veteran spirits experts and began developing this truly exceptional aged blend using components distilled around the same time he was starting his own whisky journey. The quality of the grain component in this release is immediately apparent on the nose, with complex spiciness and a hint of the distinctive dried fruit and pot pourri elements which are apparent on the palate. Its florals-forward flavour character is rarely found in commercially produced whiskies of today and not something that would be easy to replicate again. This is a rare bird and a real taste of years gone by.

Murray McDavid
Cult of Islay

ABV: 50%
Style: Blended Scotch
Price per bottle: £189
Availability: 600 bottles, specialists

For the whisky drinker who… appreciates the delights of delicate peat and old grain

Though mostly known for its single-cask offerings, Murray McDavid has also moved into what its team call ‘Crafted Blends’. Broadly, these are small-batch blended whiskies made with high proportions of malt (often around 50 per cent) which have been aged for at least 15 years. This particular release, Cult of Islay, is a 50:50 blend of North British grain whisky with malt from Bowmore (90 per cent) and Laphroaig (10 per cent), all of which was distilled in 1988 and aged in ex bourbon hogsheads. These components were then finished in first-fill ex sherry casks and bourbon barrels, before being reduced to 50% ABV and bottled without additional colour or use of chill filtering. Both the transparency regarding the blend’s components and the reasonable price point are commendable, as is the impressive quality of the end result.

White Heather
21 Years Old

ABV: 48%
Style: Blended Scotch
Price per bottle: £120
Availability: Core range, specialists

For the whisky drinker who… likes things fruity and wood-forward

When it was announced in March this year that Billy Walker of The GlenAllachie would resurrect the White Heather brand and launch a 21-year-old blended Scotch, whisky drinkers all over pricked up their ears. Having already picked up the title of World’s Best Single Malt for The GlenAllachie 10 Years Old Cask Strength Batch 4, not to mention countless others, any new endeavour was hotly anticipated. Intensely fruity and malt-forward, with a whisp of smoke, a combination of whiskies from the Highlands, Islay and Speyside were utilised. After creating the initial blend, Walker refilled this spirit into a selection of Pedro Ximénez puncheons, Oloroso puncheons and Appalachian new oak casks for a final three years of maturation, before remarrying and bottling without use of artificial colour or chill filtration. The result: a blend worthy of Walker’s reputation.

Woven Whisky
No.3 – Modern Nostalgia

ABV: 46.8%
Style: Blended Scotch
Price per bottle: £65
Availability: Limited, specialists

For the whisky drinker who… has a taste for the unusual

A new and disruptive influence in the global whisky scene, Woven is based at the Biscuit Factory in Leith, Edinburgh, and recently launched its first series of ‘experiences’ – which is what the team behind the brand call their bottlings. Bottled in decidedly un-whisky-like packaging, the founders have set out not to create whiskies but to bottle feelings. Experience No.3 was designed to evoke memories of days gone by and, in particular, whiskies of previous decades. “Our philosophy owes much to the ideas and practices from Japanese whisky as Scotch. Despite hailing from the historic epicentre of Scotland’s whisky industry, we are part of the new world whisky movement,” said the founders. This initial offering is very strong and certainly delivers a degree of complexity not common in most blended Scotch whiskies at similar pricepoints. Let’s hope the team keep up the good work.

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