We’re continuing our journey into the popular whisky of the mid-20th century, and along the way we’ve found that some brands have tried to modernize their branding and image, appealing to the latest generation of drinkers. Ballantine’s doesn’t play that game, keeping with its distinctive mid-century look and feel despite the changing times around it. And in spite of that (or perhaps because of it?) they seem to be doing just fine.
In 1827, George Ballantine didn’t want to follow in his farming father’s footsteps so instead he opened a small grocery store in Edinburgh. It proved relatively successfully, and he gave control of the original store to his son in 1865 when he went to open a larger version in Glasgow. In was in this new store where he started focusing more heavily on the wine and spirits trade. As was common with Scottish whiskey merchants, he started creating his own house blends and roped his second son into helping with the new venture, dubbing it “George Ballantine and Son Ltd.”
The business continued to be profitable, even despite George’s retirement in 1881 and death in 1891. Eventually George’s son sold the business in 1919 to Barclay and McKinlay, who used the brand name to market their wider selection of blended whiskey. The business was further sold to the Canadian distilling company Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts in 1937 (of Canadian Club fame), who purchased the Miltonduff and Glenburgie Distilleries as well as a building a new facility in Dumbarton to provide the spirit that went into their products.
Business boomed throughout the latter part of the 20th century, with the Ballantine’s brand being one of the most recognized whiskey labels in Europe in the 1980’s and the number one whiskey in Korea for the same time period. But with the international downturn in whiskey sales at the end of the century, the massive Dumbarton facility was mothballed and the company eventually sold to the French spirits company Pernod Ricard in 2005.
Ballantine’s remains a competitive brand, the second most popular blended scotch whisky in worldwide sales behind Diageo’s Johnnie Walker.
There’s not a whole lot of information about the source of this whisky, which is common for blended scotch such as this.
As a scotch whisky, we know that 100% of this product was distilled in Scotland and matured on-site for no less than three years. That said, which specific distilleries are used are not disclosed so we don’t specifically know the provenance of the spirit.
This reminds me of an old-school, white-tablecloth steakhouse from the 1960’s. Specifically, the white label here on the dark bottle looks like a waiter’s white coat, and consequently feels about as approachable as a porcupine to younger, millennial drinkers.
The bottle is transparent, but just barely. The glass is tinted a very deep burgundy color, meaning there’s almost no way you can see how much liquid is in the bottle — much less the color of that liquid. Further obscuring is the white waiter’s coat label, sporting some lettering that looks like it’s straight off an engraved invitation. There’s a faux wax seal at the bottom, and at the top, an image of the heraldic arms that were granted to the company in 1938.
What’s really interesting to me is the cap. There’s a screw-on top here that’s common to other lower shelf whiskey, but it’s pretty complex. The thread pitch on the cap is shallower than you’d expect, meaning you’re going to be twisting it longer but it’s also going to seal more completely. There’s also a plastic gasket that fits into the top sealing the bottle better than usual.
Which is neat, and I appreciate the extra touch… but since brown spirits don’t really need to be stored in any sort of air-tight fashion, it feels like a case of over-engineering for not much benefit.
There’s a lot of traditional whiskey notes in the aroma. I’m getting a good bit of vanilla combined with some sweet caramel, but there’s also a good bit of alcohol burn coming through, which I don’t always get in a whiskey of this proof. Beyond that, there might be some honey and some charred oak in the background, but it’s not nearly as prevalent as in other blended scotches. It’s almost closer to an American bourbon.
That impression is even stronger taking a sip, so strong that I actually needed to re-read the label to make sure I didn’t grab a bourbon instead. The vanilla and brown sugar flavors seem to be the biggest and boldest in the room, giving it an immediate sweet and delicious flavor that you’d expect from something American rather than something from the old country. As that flavor fades a bit, you can see some of the more traditional blended whisky notes making an appearance, specifically some peat smoke on the finish that lasts into the aftertaste.
Overall it’s a smooth, sweet, and delicious without any bitterness or unpleasantness.
With the addition of a little bit of ice, things seem to take a bit of a turn for the worse. Those sweeter, more delicious notes seem to have dropped out of the whisky and all that’s left is the peaty, smoky elements. In fact, I might almost say that there’s some added bitterness in the glass that wasn’t there before.
This is a bit strange, since usually with the addition of some ice any bitterness or unpleasantness disappears. In this case, though, the ice actually brings out those malicious elements.
There’s some interesting things going on here, and not always for the better. Ballantine’s acts like an American bourbon when taken neat, but the peat flavors come back with a vengeance when you add some ice cubes. The packaging is unique (if a bit stuffy) and the pour spout design is interesting. And while it definitely evokes a specific environment of white coated waiters in dark elegant dining rooms, it remains to be seen how younger drinkers will respond to this traditional style.
I can see why this is one of those whiskies that has stood the test of time… but I can also see why its not as popular with younger whisky drinkers. It’s a relic of another age, but one that deserves at least a try.
|Ballantine's Finest Blended Scotch Whisky|
Classification: Blended Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $16.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
A blast from the past that’s worth a look.