An antidote to perverse pricing. PATRICK LECLEZIO identifies five whiskies vying hardest for value.
It’s easy to get carried away by whisky fever. I know because I’m particularly susceptible; I’ll wax lyrical at any given opportunity, and I’ll clamour for the fancy stuff. There is a plethora of great candidates with much to be recommended. In fact whisky as a whole just lends itself to this enthusiasm. The flavours are varied and interesting, and have struck a chord with a multitude of drinkers. The stories equally are compelling: rich histories, beautiful settings, and colourful characters weave an engaging narrative. And the industry is highly capable, having carefully cultivated and exploited these attributes. It’s no surprise then that people tend to get passionate about this drink. In my circles I’m often talking up all sorts of fine whiskies – usually the type that comes with an increasingly hefty price tag. Do they warrant their cost overall, or has the market been hypnotised by the hype? I could make the case that whisky is just a beverage. You drink it and then it’s gone. Are we paying the appropriate premium for perceived increments in quality? It’s a difficult, objectively almost unresolvable, question – but I made a broader associated realisation recently. Over the years I’ve gradually passed over the cheaper-end whiskies in my bar, subconsciously assuming that I’ll get better satisfaction from the more expensive stuff. I needed a reality check, so I challenged myself to seek out five whiskies each costing under R500 that I could casually drink with equivalent fulfilment as my top-shelf selection (or even more fulfilment – because who doesn’t appreciate getting the same for less). Here they are in no particular order.
Bourbon: Maker’s 46
Straight bourbon is probably the most tightly regulated of all spirits. This situation has its positives and negatives. Amongst the latter is the narrow band of flavour to which it is inevitably consigned, although lately, encouragingly, this has been levered wider by some innovative product initiatives. But these can only go so far. More exciting still is the introduction of a spate of drinks that are straight bourbon (in spirit, no pun intended), but not straight bourbon (according to the letter of the law) i.e. they usually start off as a straight bourbon, but then diverge in one way or another. You’ll be able to identify these by their labelling, which typically reads “Kentucky Straight Bourbon…” addended with a qualifier of some sort. Maker’s 46 is one of these. It is effectively the same liquid from the standard-bearing Maker’s Mark, but aged for a bit longer, during which time seared French oak staves (the divergence / qualifier) have been introduced into the barrel. The result is a full-flavoured, hot-cross-bun of a bourbon. There’s vanilla, toffee and biscuits here, all expected in a wheated bourbon, but I was surprised by the prominent spice, from the staves I’m guessing , and by the thick depth of the flavour: this is one heck of rich whisky. Maker’s 46 just squeaks into the budget, but it nails my approval by a wide margin.
Blended Scotch: Dewar’s 12YO and Dewar’s 15YO
Whilst I’ve sort of lost track of it over the years the 12YO Dewar’s had always been a personal favourite. Nothing seems to have changed. Dewar’s was a pioneer of “marrying” – the process during which whisky stands and settles for a few months after blending or vatting. There are other influences of course, but this is likely a contributing factor to its extraordinary balance. These components have clearly all got to know and like each other. There isn’t a single argument, and there are no underlying tensions. All the flavours work together in perfect, contented harmony within and across the nose, palate and finish. The glorious, integrated array of fruit, cereal, spice, honey and oak in the 12YO will not disappoint, and the 15YO does it again with some added complexity. You’ll be hard pressed to find better blended Scotch all-rounders at these price points. Sadly they’re a bit sparse in South Africa compared to some of their peers, but it’s worth hunting around until you find them.
Blended Irish: Black Bush
If I played golf this would be my hole-in-one drink. I’d want the celebration to be unreservedly enjoyable, I’m picturing a chorus of clicking glasses and vibrant camaraderie, but without excessively punishing my pocket. Black Bush is the ideal catalyst for this outcome, and indeed many other wonderful occasions. What it promises on paper: high malt content, predominant Oloroso cask ageing, significant maturation, it delivers emphatically in its full-bodied person: an intense out-of-the-park flavour that is husky, fruity, and spicy, with a masculine background of leather and perhaps tobacco. If I had to plot the broader continuum of whisky pricing versus performance, definitely featuring a quadrant I’d label “perverse”, Black Bush would dominate the opposite position, at the head of the “charity” quadrant; for what it is they’re almost giving this stuff away. An enduring classic. I’ve never had a glass of Black Bush in which I didn’t delight.
Malt: Monkey Shoulder
I’ll allow myself to stand corrected but I think Monkey Shoulder is the only whisky named after an injury – one sustained by distillery workers whilst shifting barley with shiels on a malting floor. It’s the type of quirkiness that defines this young, fun, monkey-mischievous whisky. In days past it might have been called a triple malt, with its parts originating from three malt distilleries: Kininvie, Glenfiddich, and The Balvenie, but today it is known as a blended malt – a sadly underrepresented style, those with such clearly identifiable provenance even more so. For this reason alone, that it’s one of few representatives, it’s a whisky worth noting. That it’s also a smooth, approachable, uncomplicated, and reasonably priced – an ideal introduction to malt whisky drinking, but with enough range of flavour, especially for what is ostensibly a young whisky, to keep the more seasoned interested – puts it over the top and into my group of hard-hitting stars.