Jim Murray's current favourite
Ballantine's is a multi award winning range of blended whiskies. The range consists of the best selling Finest, two 12 years old (one blend and one vatted malt), this 17 years old and two older versions - a 21 and 30 years old. The range is amongst the best selling whiskies in the world and is currently in third place for volume sales, behind only Johnnie Walker and J&B. This 17 years old was first released in 1930, making it the oldest premium aged whisky still on the market. The blend of over 50 single malt and grain whiskies has remained largely unchanged for 80 years and remains a closely guarded secret. It has just been awarded the best score of any whisky in the new Jim Murray Whisky Bible 2011 (97.5 in his own unique whisky marking system). The current bottling is at 43% ABV and should cost around £40 a bottle from specialist retailers.
Ballantine's whisky was first produced in 1869 by a Edinburgh grocer named George Ballantine. He had expanded his grocery business in to the area of wines and spirits, before deciding to start blending his own whiskies. The whisky business was booming at the time and many people began producing their own blends during this period, including names such as William Teacher and Arthur Bell. Ballantine's whisky became very popular very quickly and he recruited his two sons, Archibald and George Jnr, in to the business. He set up George Ballantine & Sons Ltd and by the time George Snr. died aged 83 in 1891, the company owned further production premises in Glasgow and were exporting their whiskies around the world. His sons sold the company in 1919.
Massive growth potential
The Canadian drinks firm Hiram Walker took control in the 1930s and immediately purchased two Speyside single malt distilleries - Glenburgie and Miltonduff - as well as building the Dumbarton grain distillery to help with consistency of production. At the time of construction, Dumbarton was the largest whisky distillery in Europe. Between the mid 1960s and mid 1980s, Ballantine's grew in popularity throughout Europe and around the world. This popularity has been maintained today. In 2005, the Ballantine's brand became part of the large multi-national drinks company Pernod Ricard, who remain the current owners.
Our tasting notes
The colour of Ballantine's 17 years old is a bright gold and the nose is very pleasant with a comforting feel. Initially, there are plenty of vanilla, honey and cereal grain notes and the combination is softening and promising. Through these come some fresher characteristics - some zingy lemon zest, sharp green fruits like apples and especially grapes (almost reminiscent of vermouth) and dried grass (think of hay). These are almost instantly softened by further notes of toffee, dried fruits (imagine sultanas) and the tiniest lick of sulphury coal smoke. On the palate, this is so soft and creamy that its richness seems to coat the inside of your mouth. The distinct cereal grains are first up again and they are quickly joined by the vanilla, honey and toffee. Then come some soft dried fruits (think of sultanas and apple), a hint of citrus (imagine candied lemon and orange peels) and some wood spiciness (think of cinnamon and nutmeg especially). The finish is again very soft and rounded with plenty of cereals, vanilla and toffee. There are also the wood spices and a hint of that coal smoke from the nose right at the end, which gives some bitterness and further balance to the future.
What's the verdict?
This is one of the softest that we have sampled for a long time. This would make it ideal for a beginner being introduced to whisky, although it has enough complexity and balance to keep the whisky enthusiast interested too. It is very easy drinking, well constructed and well priced considering the age of the whiskies involved in the blend (in blended whisky, the age stated is the age of the youngest that is present in the blend. Therefore, here the youngest whisky is 17 years old but it will also include older whiskies). A lovely dram. Whether you agree with Jim Murray that it is the best whisky of the year, only you can decide!