Monday, 15 April 2013

12 Blends - A blind tasting challenge

Following the hugely entertaining 12 Drams of Christmas organised by Tom Thomson of Toms Whisky Reviews, and while still full of the Christmas spirit, a couple of the drammers decided that another blind tasting should be organised for the Easter holidays.

I pulled out of the Christmas event due to so much going on at the time, but put my name down for this Easter event purely because it looked great fun! @DramStats suggested a blended whisky challenge, the date was set and Tom organised getting the 12 disciples together with the proposed challenge running from the 1st-12th April

We all set out to purchase our secret blend then decant into eleven 35ml dram bottles to be sent to all of the participants. Most of the team were visiting Whisky Live London and so the great sample swap was scheduled for a pre-show lunch time session at the London home of the SMWS, (you can find the photos of our meet up on our Facebook page)

Most of the twelve hail from the UK but two overseas correspondents joined our happy band of blenders, @galg of Whisky Israel and @WhiskyMarks of Texan whisky blog Whisky Marks and by some miracle of blended magnetism we all managed to have a full house of drams in time for the starting date set for Monday 1st April.

Most importantly those wonderful people at Compass Box Whisky who know a thing or two about great blended whisky kindly donated the winners prize of a bottle of their award winning Asyla for winning this competition.
Compass Box Whisky
The prize kindly donated by Compass Box Whiskies
The 1st of April is known as April Fools Day in the UK, which seemed aptly appropriate as I sat looking at my 11 numbered blended whiskies. I realised that I would be very lucky if I could even name twelve different blended whiskies that didn't feature the pre-banned Bells, Teachers and the other brands I have heard of, and can be found in most British supermarkets.

With the rules set, requiring our tasting notes and guesses to be submitted to organiser @ifotou by 2030 each evening I decided I should try and get a head start, and lined all eleven mystery drams up on the dining room table on Easter Sunday afternoon.

I had originally planned to set  up for the photo shoot and taste just blend number one, and perhaps a sip of number two, but before I'd even finished setting up the table I had poured small drams of the first four, and following the photo taking, decided I ought to find out if there were any 'doubles' or if anyone had bought the same bottle as mine.

It rapidly degenerated from here, I was having fun! Some of the other blenders were also tweeting that they were making a start due to other commitments during the week. I rattled through them taking notes which seemed to get thinner in useful information as the number on the bottle increased.

To assist my analysis I also had my blended whiskies on the table too, just for comparison, which on hindsight, probably did little to assist.
11 blends lined up for me on Easter Sunday - better than any Easter Eggs!
Day 1 provided by @mynameisgone

Dram No.1
12.5 points scored
Colour: Gold
Nose: Upon pouring I got a lovely bread dough note, and moving the glass to the nose this comes across as quite malty. There does seem to be a slight trace of peat smoke and a pinch of white pepper. The nose is not overly sweet, but there is a fruity element within.
Palate: The gentle peat reek is more pronounced on the palate, again the white pepper is there and there is a honeyed sweetness, and the fruitiness come through with some plum jam, some malted milk biscuits
Finish: Quite short, touch of the white pepper to the sweetness and even a wisp of smoke
Empty Glass: Distinct aroma of a wood ash from a previous evenings fire
Verdict: Easy drinking dram, quite light overall with a nice white pepper spice at the very end

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40% 
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Scotch
  • Brand: Johnnie Walker
  • Expression: Black Label
Reveal: Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve - I have tasted this before at last years Whisky Exchange Whisky Show (Whisky Discovery #208) I scored points here for getting all but the expression correct and jumped straight into joint first place with a score of 12.5 points!

Day 2 provided by @sjjgo

Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from #1!)
Nose:  Opens up quite spicy before settling down. Much fruitier on the nose with some peaches and kiwi fruit? White pepper notes, wood notes too
Palate: Smooth and sweet with honey, fruit has turned more apple like, rosy red ones. A touch of white pepper again, not too much, but enough to let you know it's there, lightly salted too
Finish: Very short and light, malty, touch of pepper and some honey sweetness remains at the very end
Empty Glass: Wood, wet from seawater
Verdict: A very easy drinking dram, sweet, smooth and I like the salty note at the very end

My guesses:
  • ABV: 43%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Malt
  • Brand: Compass Box
  • Expression: Oak Cross
Reveal: Nikka All Malt - again another whisky that I have tasted before (Whisky Discovery #160) but was way off this time, and only scored points for 'guessing' the age correctly slipping back into second place.

Day 3 Provided by @rodbodtoo

Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from #1 & 2)
Nose: Very gentle nose, takes a while to tease out. Got a lovely flash of liquorice before it settles down, toffee, vanilla, soft orange note. Quite sweet and creamy
Palate: Sweet initially with building spice which remains as white pepper on the sides of the tongue while the centre returns to sweetness, honey, apricots, light clove note too
Finish: Quite a spicy kick at first which settles down to a dry-ish sweetness
Empty Glass: Malty
Verdict: Yummy!

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Malt
  • Brand: Monkey Shoulder
Reveal: Grants Ale Cask, I have never tasted this before so this has been registered as a new Whisky Discovery (#374) as it was the first time I have tasted this, although I do have a miniature of this sitting on my shelf, so will complete a full discovery review later! I picked up some points for the abv and age statement, which brought me back into joint first place again.

Day 4 provided by @ardbaggie

Dram No.4
Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from #1, 2 & 3!)
Nose: Sweet, honey, gentle clove note, gentle citrus notes too, chalky
Palate: Sweet, light spice, ginger
Finish: Short sweet and gentle spice
Empty Glass: Chalky, malty
Verdict: Quite quaffable but comes across as quite a simple drinkable dram

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Brand: Cutty Sark
Reveal: Ballantines 17 Year Old Another new Whisky Discovery for me (#375) but I was so far out in all of my guess I scored no points in this round. Unwisely I had decided to start the first six mystery drams on the Easter Sunday evening (originally I was planning to run through all 12!) and so as the afternoon wore on my notes started to wander as I was comparing the blind blends with each other as well as some of the other whiskies on my shelf. This dram fooled most of us and only two of the twelve blind blenders scored points which meant I kept my joint first place position!

Day 5 provided by @dvdbloke

Dram No.5
Nil points this round too!
Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from #1-4!)
Nose: Fudge, toffee, malty
Palate: Sweet, rich, fruity, leather, pepper spice
Finish: Short, white pepper
Empty Glass: It is now
Verdict: Gone too quickly :(

My guesses:
  •  ABV: 40%
  •  Age: NAS
  •  Type: Blended Scotch
  •  Brand: Grants Sherry Cask
Reveal: The Tweeddale Blend 12 Year Old, 46% abv and another new Whisky Discovery and #376 of my liquid log. Firstly I must apologise for these random guesses, my notes for this one were far from complete having tried to write them while thoroughly enjoying tasting as many of the 12 blends as possible. For the second time I scored no points, and slipped back into joint third, however this round provided a winner.  @mynameisgone correctly identified this whisky, and his ability to 'guess' the batch and bottle number left me thinking that their was a conspiracy going on (I'm joking, there was no batch and bottle number discussed).

Day 6 provided by @ifotou

Dram No.6
Just 2.5 points from this
Colour: Gold (slightly darker than 1-5, hooray!)
Nose: not sure if this has been contaminated, but got a whiff of cabbage water at first, which put me off nosing this at first. However it settles down to give sweet honey notes, barley water
Palate: barley vanilla light toffee notes, citrus
Finish: some bitter citrus pith with the lasting taste of barley
Empty Glass: Toffee popcorn

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Brand: The Bailie Nichol Jarvie
Reveal: Johnnie Walker 18 Year Old Platinum, 40% abv and I was correct in my thinking that I had tasted this before, Whisky Discovery #165, was enjoyed during a Colin Dunn Masterclass at last years Midlands Whisky Show

Ok, this was another of the blends I enjoyed 'in session' however I was convinced I had gotten this one right, and felt certain the barley notes were the clue to the BNJ I thought it was. Fortunately I wasn't the only one, with lots of other BNJ guesses, and so the 2.5 points I scored here, along with everyone else, maintained my joint third position. I wish I could say that my next round of guesses will be more educated, however I did go on to taste all eleven on that Easter Sunday evening, but fortunately I retained half a dram of each for re-evaluation.

Day 7 provided by @DramStats

Dram No.7
Great value blend!

Colour: Gold (very similar to the other 11)
Nose: Gentle peat reek, sweet burnt toffee, buttered sweet corn, slightly smoky, medicinal, 
Palate: Smoky peat reek comes through at the forefront on the palate, charcoal, malty, salty butter, cereal grains with a creamy sweetness
Finish: Fair to good length, Gentle smoke and black pepper
Empty Glass: Sweet charcoal notes
Verdict:  I love some peated notes in my Whisky!

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Brand: Johnnie Walker 
  • Expression: Double Black
Reveal: Smokin' 40% abv, a relatively new release from Duncan Taylor and which none of the other 11 'blenders' had heard of either! I knew from the start that @DramStats would have picked something a little more difficult to find due to his confidence that no one would have the same bottle as his! However I could only find three smoky blends that fitted the profile, Double Black, Black Bottle and Black Grouse and I knew it wasn't Black Grouse having had a bottle previously. So another new Whisky Discovery, #377 in the Liquid Log, and from what I remember a damn good one. Still I managed to accrue five points for the abv and no age statement, which put me back into joint second place, with @mynameisgone still well ahead with his correct identification of Dram No.5

Day 8 provided by @galg

Dram No.8
I picked up a few points with this Irish blend
Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from #1!)
Nose: Grainy initially but settles down, heather and lavender notes, perhaps even a little rosemary bark, fruity with ripe green grapes,
Palate: Smooth with sweet ripe grains, grapes, kiwi fruits and a faint orange note, spice comes with light white pepper,
Finish: Quite short, sweet, drying nuttiness with a light salty note
Verdict: Lovely easy drinking dram
Empty Glass: Those green grapes are still there

My guesses:
  • ABV: 40%
  • Age: NAS
  • Type: Irish Blended Whiskey
  • Brand: Feckin Irish Whiskey
Reveal: Clontarf Irish Whiskey, 40% abv, and a new Whisky Discovery, #378. This is a triple distilled Irish whiskey produced by the Clontarf Whiskey Company, a subsidiary of Castle Brands Inc. The whiskey takes it name from the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, and no one had heard of this one! When searching through the Irish blends, as I was certain that I had an Irish blend when I first nosed and tasted this sample, I found the brand Feckin Irish Whisky, and was certain Gal would have picked this one!

So I picked up a few points, certainly for the abv and possibly for identifying it as an Irish blend, and maintained my joint second position with @ardbaggie, but still trailing @mynameisgone by 10 points. With only three point scoring opportunities left for me I really needed to play my trump card out on one of them if I wanted to win the bottle of Asyla!

Day 9 provided by @steveprentice
Dram No.9
Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from everything else!)
Nose: Rich sherry notes, Oloroso, there's a rich sweetness with toffee and vanilla notes, spices and berry fruits and a grainy edge too
Palate: Again the sherry comes to the fore and it's well rounded, nutty, creamy, apples, spice
Finish: Rich and spicy, creamy, fruity
Verdict: Fabulous rich sherried nose
Empty Glass: Pine wood sawdust

My guesses:
  • ABV: 50%
  • Age: 12 Year Old
  • Type: Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Brand: Duncan Taylor
  • Expression: Black Bull
Reveal: The Antiquary 21 Year Old Blended Scotch Whisky, 43% abv. and another new Whisky Discovery, #379. This is an exclusive blend from Tomatin and combines fine Speyside and Highland malt with a splash of Islay and the fragrance of Lowland grains. All the whiskies used in this blend are at least 21 years old. So no points again this evening, disaster! Two close guesses from a couple of the blenders picking The Antiquary 12 Year Old as their guess, and others picked up points pushing me back into fourth.

Day 10 provided by @WhiskyMarks

Dram No.10
Colour: Dark Gold, at last something different!
Nose: Nail polish remover at first before settling to some lovely bourbon notes reminding me of both Buffalo Trace and Four Roses. There's the obvious vanilla notes, but it's thick and sweet. Green Bananas, baked pears, charred oak and even a slight briny note
Palate: Spicy oak notes, honey sweetness, buttered toast, green bananas,
Finish: Smooth and sweet, slight aniseed, fennel note, good length too, eventually drying with hazelnut and a faint smoky trace
Empty Glass: Smoky charcoal notes
Verdict: Would quite happily have this on my shelf

My guesses:
  •  ABV: 41% (82 Proof)
  •  Age: NAS
  • Type: American Blended Whisky
  •  Brand: Firestone & Robertson
  •  Expression: TX Blended Whiskey
Reveal: High West Campfire 41% and another new Whisky Discovery recording #380 in the liquid log, and certainly one of my favourite of the blends so far. I certainly didn't pick up the points I was hoping for and @mynameisgone increased his lead over everyone else with some canny guesses, though I remained in fourth equal place.

The High West Distillery of Utah craft Small batch spirits with the owner’s personal touch. Campfire came about during a trip to Islay when proprietor David Perkins was staying in the Bruichladdich distillery B&B. One of the desserts during their stay was ripe honeydew drizzled with a peated whisky syrup. The combination of melon and sweet smoke really worked, so David thought why not mix sweet bourbon and peat? 

So Campfire is a blend of a straight bourbon whiskey (75 percent corn, 20 percent rye, and 5 percent barley malt). A straight rye whiskey (95 percent rye and 5 percent barley malt) and a  blended malt Scotch whiskey (100% peated malted barley). The whiskies are all at least 5 years old.

Day 11 was my blind blend

Here is what the blind blenders thought of it:

@mynameisgone Nose: Chocolate, stewed plums, with a drop of water I get a slight sherberty note Palate: Lovely fruity taste, honey sweetness, a really rounded whisky, I could drink this as a daily dram Finish: Sweet lingering fruit, slightly spicy

@sjjgo Nose: Sherry, baked apples, seaweed(?), ghee Palate: Pine, sherry, pastry, biscuits Finish: Slightly bitter; hoppy, faded wine

@rodbodtoo Nose is a fine swirl of raisins / sherry / malt / smoke (a bit) the palate is thick & rich & sweetly fruity. Malty (like fruit loaf), sherried, woody, & burnt toffee / treacle  now I'm getting a real toffee flavour  Finish is long and uncannily like treacle

@ardbaggie Nose: Sherry fruit sweet stewed apples. Palate: creamy honey hints of sherry with some spicey wood

@dvdbloke Nose: Smoke. Tar. Vanilla. Some berry fruit. Jam. Palate: Watery mouth-feel. Biscuity malt. Berry fruits. Sweet creamy peat. Finish: Sweet peat. Drying cream

@ifotou Nose: Initially quite a large malty nose on this, with sweetness underlying it, the sweetness to me is quite lemony, there's a honey quality to this too. there's some underlying sherried fruit notes and some very nice fresh vanilla pods. Palate: a touch of smoke then it goes very malty, buttery/creamy mouthfeel and soft sherried fruits. Finish: way too easy to drink, easy going a lovely dram.

@DramStats  Nose: Vanilla and sweet smoke to start. Then juicy raisin and milk chocolate. Touch of pine in the background Sweet raisin and milk chocolate (milka style), sultana and clean uncomplicated fruity sherry. Palate: Sweet raisin and milk chocolate (milka style), sultana and clean uncomplicated fruity sherry. Finish: Just lovely fading sherry notes with no spice or oak. Bitter chocolate muscles in on a fruity fade.

@galg: Nose: A lot of butterscotch, vanilla and malt with some bits of citrus and fresh grass.sherry, thick stuff. Palate: malty and mouth watering with hints of smoke, tobacco, sweet sherry and butterscotch, getting dry. Finish: butterscotch and chocolate with a zingy pepper.

@steveprentice Gold gold gold and more gold. Lightly peated nose with other fruits coming forward after, and a fairly spirity alcohol smell. Very smooth on the palate with some oak and spice coming after a while of holding it on your tongue. A smokey.warming and slightly spiced finish of a pleasing medium length.

@WhiskyMarksSo, this one is very much screaming William Grant malt—Glenfiddich and
Balvenie—so, I'm going to guess that it's a Grant's Blended Whisky, probably the 12 year old version. Very fruity, with wafts of vanilla and honey that delight and a finish that warms with a touch of spice. I really like this one, it's easy to drink and has some wonderful notes that I love in the 15yo Glenfiddich.

@LRWhisky Initial notes of honey, rich raisins, damp grass and nutty pecan pie, creamy. Smooth palate, fruity, touch of smoke, peppery tang, rich and toffee-ish. Thins out in the finish but maintains creamy toffee sauce.

The reveal: The Wine Society 14 Year Old Special Blended Whisky 40% abv and this was a new Whisky Discovery for me too, #381
101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die
Scanned copy of my book with kind permission from Ian Buxton
Some great notes and guesses included; Hibiki 12 Year Old, Whyte & Mackay 13 Year Old, Whyte & Mackay 19 Year Old, Sheep Dip Amoroso Oloroso, Blue Hanger from Berry Bros & Rudd, Islay Mist, Bailey Nichol Jarvie 8 Year Old, Monkey Shoulder, Compass Box Asyla 

One of Ian Buxton's '101 Whiskies to try Before You Die' and one I particularly wanted to taste on my journey, so this 12 blends competition was the perfect opportunity to not only tick it off of my list, but to allow eleven others to tick it off of their list as well. 

I'd like to be able to tell you that I joined the wine society just to be able to get a bottle of this, but that would be a lie, I joined last year as I like a drop of wine, albeit less than I used to. They have a fabulous selection of wines and sherries (which has been another recent interest) and also have a number of whiskies on their books.

My blend choice limited point scoring opportunities, with only 40% abv points being scored, but the overall consensus was that this was very much enjoyed, but then it came highly recommended by Ian himself.

My notes will follow in a separate blog post for Whisky Discovery #381

Day 12 provided by @LRWhisky

Dram No.12
Colour: Gold (almost indistinguishable from most of the others)
Nose: Quite similar to Blend no.9 at first with bright sherry notes before turning more earthy and woody. There's some pepper lurking in the background and the smell of fresh pizza bread dough rising.
Palate: Spicy sherry notes, fruity, sweet toffee, faint wisp of scented smoke behind, green bananas
Finish: That wisp of scented smoke hangs on for a while then leaves drying tannins, hazelnut 
Empty Glass: Butterscotch
Verdict: Another that went oh so quick!

My guesses:
  • ABV: 43%
  • Age: 12 year Old
  • Type: Blended Scotch Whisky
  • Brand: Mackinlay
Reveal: Master of Malt 8 Year Old, from their secret bottlings series, 40% Another new Whisky Discovery at #382 on the Liquid Log, but no points at all with my guess. I changed my mind  a number of times before settling on my guess, but none of my choices were anyway near anyway.

We have a Winner!

With the final scores added up the runaway winner of the 12 Blends Challenge was @mynameisgone who scooped the Compass Box Asyla prize. My points tally remained static in the last few rounds and so finished in equal sixth place, trailing the leader by a massive 25 points!

The last 12 evenings have been an absolute blast and we're already talking about the next blind challenge! Not one duplicate amongst the twelve chosen, although two from the Johnnie Walker range featured. Of the twelve, nine were new discoveries and three of the twelve chosen feature in 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die, as does the competition's prize, Asyla from Compass Box.

My blend highlights have been Smokin' and Campfire and will be looking out for them as well as making sure I investigate The Tweeddale Blend too, but the fun and twitter banter over the last couple of weeks have been a great experience, I thank you gentlemen!

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