Whiskey Review: Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky

If you drink whisky, chances are you’ve run across Monkey Shoulder before. I myself have fond memories of being at a friend’s wedding and smiling from ear to ear when the open bar had Monkey Shoulder as far as the eye could see (which was also probably a strategic move on the groom’s part to stock up his personal supply and hide it in the wedding budget). Today we’re going to take a closer look at this relative newcomer in the whisky world… and what makes it so darn appealing.

History

In 1886, William Grant invested his entire life savings into opening the Glenfiddich distillery in North Lanarkshire, Scotland to make scotch whisky. He had been working at the Mortlach distillery but dreamed of opening his own facility one day. The first whisky was successfully run through their stills on Christmas Day 1887, and the successful business was launched selling to distributors who combined their product with that of other distilleries to make the blends that were popular in those days.

The business was successful enough that five years later, in 1891, William Grant purchased the nearby Balvenie distillery and began creating his own blends, thus launching their own brand of spirits.

Over the years, William Grant & Sons (as the company would be known) would have many firsts — the first “single malt” scotch from the Glenfiddich distillery, and the first distillery to open up to the public for regular tours among others.

Nearly a century later in 1990, the Kininvie distillery would finally join the three distilleries that William Grant & Sons continue to operate to this day.

The company remains privately held and family run — holding their own against the giants Diageo and Pernod Ricard, who own the majority of distilleries in Scotland.

The Monkey Shoulder brand was developed in 2005 to service a perceived demand for “fun-yet-premium” scotch whisky spirits. The original blended scotch whisky was produced from the three primary William Grant & Sons distilleries (Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Kininvie), but the explosion in popularity of Monkey Shoulder in the American market required WG&S to pull in product from other distilleries under their control to meet production demands.

The name “Monkey Shoulder” is actually a historical name for a strain injury that men would get from milling malted barley by hand. Not, as some might think, a reference to having a monkey on your shoulder (which has some alcoholism connotations).

Product

The original version of Monkey Shoulder was a blend of three premium scotch whiskies: Glenfiddich, Balvenie, and Kininvie. The label still claims that the spirit is a blend of three distilled spirits; however, to keep up with demand, some other distilleries are swapped in from time to time and the specific provenance is no longer identified.

In any case, the whisky starts its life as a batch of malted barley. That barley is typically not peated in this version of the spirit (although a peated, smokey version is available) prior to fermentation. Once the sugars in that mash have turned to alcohol, it is distilled and placed into oak barrels for a period of no less than three years.

At this point, there’s not a whole lot more to the story that we know for sure. There’s no age statement on the bottle, probably allowing for different ages and varieties of whisky to be used without needing to document every different blend, so we don’t know the true age of the spirit. And there’s no indication of the ratio or the actual source of the spirit.

Packaging

Overall, the bottle is a pretty boring and standard design. The rounded short body with a short neck makes it look like the bottle version of ‘Sir Topham Hatt’ from Thomas the Tank Engine, which is a design that we’ve seen numerous times throughout the industry. The only big difference in the design is the addition of a metallic emblem of three monkeys that is affixed to the bottle, which is a cool technical achievement for the design.

Otherwise, it’s pretty standard. The bottle is capped off with a wooden and cork stopper also bearing the three monkeys emblem, and there’s a label designed to look old and aged, with rough edges and old printing block letters. It bumps into my usual pet peeve that the label takes up way too much of the bottle and doesn’t let the whiskey shine through, but overall it’s a fine design.

Neat

It smells sweet and fruity from the moment you take a first whiff. Scotch whisky, in my experience, is usually sweeter and more delicate than the American take on the craft and this is no exception. To me, it smells like brunch — sweet melon, honey, a bit of Earl Grey tea, and some orange citrus.

There’s a good weight to the spirit, right on point for a 43% ABV spirit. Not too heavy and not too light, definitely enjoyable to sip.

As for the flavors…

The Malt-O-Meal factory is in Northfield, Minnesota, home to Carleton College where my sister studied (and naturally, where I visited from time to time). I bring this up because, when the plant is running, the entire town smells like their flagship Malt-o-Meal product. It’s this sweet, malty cereal with warm flavors (richer than oatmeal, more like Cookie Crisp but without the chocolate).

This whisky tastes exactly like Malt-o-Meal smells. Which is a great thing: it’s smooth and warm, with some notes of honey, vanilla, and caramel to round out the sweetness.

On Ice

The good thing about the flavor profile in this whisky is that it doesn’t rely on delicate flavors or subtle notes. There’s less than five core flavors, and all of them are bold and robust enough that they don’t get lost when you add a bit of ice into the mix.

In this case, all you’re doing with adding some ice is bringing down the temperature and diluting it a little bit. You’re not going to get quite the same weight or alcohol content per sip, but the flavors are all present and accounted for. Which means this whisky would be great in a cocktail like a penicillin.

Overall Rating

I’m a fan. It’s a solid scotch whisky that goes well in just about everything, has a great flavor profile all on its own, and won’t break the bank. In my opinion, it’s a good step up from the Lismore when you’re not quite in the mood to break out a proper single malt.

It’s a good modern blend that takes the best attributes of scotch whisky and updates them for the modern palate, and does so at a darn reasonable price point.

Monkey Shoulder Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Produced By: Monkey Shoulder
Owned By: William Grant and Sons
Production Location: Scotland
Classification: Blended Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 43% ABV
Price: $26.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:

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Overall Rating: 4/5
They certainly aren’t monkeying around with quality.

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