Quietly, consistently, the word spreads. On the blogs especially, between the single malt pangeyrics and cocktail correspondence mention is increasingly made of blended Scotch whisky. And the coverage is informed, open-minded and – heaven forfend – positive.
If the principle barrier to blended appreciation has been, as Casktrength.net put it, ‘ubiquity’ I have come to realise that however recognisable the faces of Scotch blends may be, my familiarity with them is only skin deep. Far from demonstrating discernment, comprehensively passing over entry-level blends exposed a yawning chasm of ignorance for me. How could I claim to know anything about Scotch whisky when the category of Scotch whisky that 90% of the world chooses to drink was entirely alien to me?
Over the past two months platoons of samples have passed under my nose and what an enlightening process it has been. In many cases, the supposedly Plain Janes of the whisky world boast a subtle beauty, blessed with sparkling repartee and disarming charm. In a new feature, I want to focus on some of the blended Scotch whiskies you may have overlooked and detail the histories and personalities; the enterprise and innovation, and finally the flavours at their heart.
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Recently, I returned to Skye in the Scottish Hebrides for a week of walking, gastronomy and whisky. The Waternish peninsula would take care of the former, fine food would be guaranteed at the Kinloch Lodge Hotel and the Three Chimneys, and fortunately – three days prior to leaving for my holiday – I found a contender to satisfy most requirements on the latter front.
Isle of Skye is a blended Scotch under the control of Ian Macleod Distillers. Other notable brands of theirs include Glengoyne and Smokehead while they have recently revitalised Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside. The blend lies at the heart of the business, however, with the recipe ‘in the family’ from the 19th century and acquired by Ian Macleod along with the Isle of Skye name in 1963. The Skye connection is an obvious one: over the course of my week in the Dunvegan area it was almost impossible to move for Macleods and Dunvegan Castle, which we visited on a foul Wednesday morning, is the spiritual home of the Clan. Now based in Edinburgh, courtesy of the Isle of Skye blend the company retains this ancestral bond to the West Coast.
Today’s blend harnesses the honeyed body of Speyside malts and the peated pace of one or two island distillates to good effect. The standard expression is the 8yo, but it is also possible to come across a 12yo and a 21yo as part of the core range. They have even released a 50yo, although stocks are very limited.
The UK and USA remain core markets, but in-roads are being made with the whisky-drinking publics of Ukraine and Russia.
The bottle design takes its cues from the Cuillin Hills – the awe-inspiring geological razor blade which dominates the island’s skyline (or should that be Skyeline). The Cuillins represent one of the longest and most testing ridge walks in the British Isles and their moods alter depending on the time of year and the weather; the 8yo highlights their red russet phase, while at other times the prospect can be a furious, Mordor-like black – alluded to by the 12yo.
When I contacted the company they hinted at a significant new sponsorship agreement to be announced at the beginning of next month. In the past, however, Ian Macleod’s blend has headlined at the 135th Year of the Isle of Skye Highland Games in Portree as well as partnering with the revamped Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh during last summer’s Festival Fringe.
I picked up my bottle of the 8yo at my local Tesco for £17.50 having been surprised by its robust but rounded nature and intriguing fruity depths, discovered in a sample from Master of Malt.
Isle of Skye 8yo 40%
Colour – honey with deep orange tones
Nose – light and crusty peat grafted on to rich, fruity Sherry oak at first. With nose in the glass the grains take the lead and their luscious body, zest and rich vanilla qualities suggest some are older than the stated 8 years. Behind this is impressively sensuous honey and berry fruit hints, as well as caramel made from condensed milk. Jelly sweets, soft grassy smoke and suggestions of cigar wrapper. Rounded and assured.
Palate – rich and peaty textures before honey, redcurrent and plum take matters into sweeter, rounder territory. The grain is predominant throughout but adds lovely, potent and above all clean body. A crackle of spice to close.
Finish – very grain-driven again with fleshy fruit (papaya, mango) and a background of ginger, cinnamon and raisin.
While I might not always agree with him, Jim Murray does write with ardent eloquence on the subject of blended Scotch and he rates this expression very highly indeed. For me, it is a perfect example of a blend that is on the one hand very ‘different’ yet soothingly familiar.