Production

The Magnificent 7

Contributing Editor Neil Ridley looks back on some of the very best blended whiskies he has experienced
By Neil Ridley
As we all know, whisky has the extraordinary ability not only to inspire one's taste buds, but to also complete spectacular feats of agility and ingenuity. I don't mean this in the literal sense, but more in the sense that I know of no other spirit, which can help shape such a remarkable U-turn in opinion.

To put it mildly, nearly two decades ago, I had my first - and very nearly - my last brush with the spirit. After an incident at a party with an ill-advised bottle of supermarket blended whisky, I would become queasy at the merest sight of a whisky bottle wherever it was.

But time and taste are great healers and since that minor indiscretion, I have been fortunate enough to encounter some of the best whiskies, many of them blends, that have helped shape my palate into what it is today: still adventurous, never satisfied and always eager to experience something new.

This list of seven blends is not meant to be exhaustive. Nor is it in any particular order.

But what it does represent is probably seven of the most inspirational and memorable blends I can think of today to write a few choice words about.


Hibiki


12 Years Old
In relatively unconventional fashion, I'll start with something non-Scotch. I was first introduced to Japanese whisky back in 2003 and over a decade later, it still surprises me at how unique a spirit it really is. Hibiki 12 Years Old is arguably one of Suntory's most popular blends, for the sole reason that its soft, fruity character is as much at home in a cocktail, Mizuwari, Highball or on the rocks as it is neat, in a traditional nosing glass. It was probably the first whisky I had ever tried that resolutely felt like a break from the traditions that have tied the spirit up in knots for so many would-be devotees.

Nose: Immense fresh orchard fruit, white wine and vanilla all intermingle with zesty lemons and kiwi.

Palate: More fresh fruit notes (one suspects driven by the whisky's plum wine cask finish), soft creamy vanilla and a solid maltiness.

Favourite Serve: You really can't beat this simply poured over a freshly carved ice ball. But buy yourself an ice ball mould and leave the carving to the bartenders.


White Horse


Early 1980s bottle
This isn't the first time in Whisky Magazine that I have banged on about just how special this well-weathered blend used to be. Sadly, today's example really isn't the same liquid, which is a shame, as the name White Horse is surely long overdue a renaissance. In one way, perhaps it is, in that the number of 'vintage' bottles appearing on auction sites is growing all the time - and for very little money, when compared to single malts bottled in the same era. With the exception of the odd flat bottle I have picked up, 1980s White Horse offers up soft, fragrant smoke, creamy grain and rich sponge cake notes, that modern blends just can't seem to compete with.

Nose: Cream soda, aromatic cedar wood, hard caramel notes and underneath, creamy fudge sauce.

Palate: Much more of the same: creamy fudge, soft peat and a divine maltiness. Like opening a time capsule of flavours.

Favourite Serve: As old fashioned as this whisky intended - tumbler, full of ice, a generous measure, topped up with ginger ale.


Johnnie Walker


Gold Label 18 Years Old Centenary Edition
Surprisingly, a trip to Austin, Texas sealed this one for me, back in 2004. I was attending the annual South By South West music festival and on the flight over I read a glowing review of this gem in the Walker family of blends. Amazingly, Twin Liquor, just off 6th Street had one very dusty bottle nestling amongst the many Bourbons and ryes it stocked. The light waft of smoke, fresh orchard fruit notes and sweet, vanillafilled grain made me realise just why Johnnie Walker has endured the test of time.

Nose: Delicate and rich, with chopped green apple, nutty cereal, chocolate covered fudge and a slightly woody peat.

Palate: The peat is perfectly balanced - perhaps better than any other whisky I've tried, alongside vanilla custard and a return of the sliced orchard fruit/apples on the nose.

Favourite Serve: Straight up, in a nosing glass for this one. I defy any diehard malt enthusiast not to fall in love straight away with the aroma.


Compass Box


Spice Tree
If you like your blends rich, well rounded and a little exotic, then this is a perfect introduction. I've made no secret in the past that I think Compass Box founder John Glaser is a true maverick in every sense of the word: forward thinking and also not afraid to challenge convention. Spice Tree's innovative use of additional oak staves may have initially upset the Scotch Whisky Association, but its wonderful spicy, fruit-filled flavour profile delighted the consumers.

Nose: Bold notes of ginger, tannic red wine and cinnamon lead the way, with fatty vanilla notes.

Palate: The vanilla continues, alongside cloves, a slightly earthy spiciness, tobacco leaves and liquorice root.

Favourite Serve: Makes a sensational Old Fashioned. In fact, it holds its own in pretty much any classic whisky-based cocktail.


Cutty Sark


Prohibition
My soft spot for Cutty Sark goes back nearly a decade now. It was one of the very first blends that really stood out as being different: non-conformist and, like Compass Box, quite different in its approach, in that it didn't seem mired in the 'heather and weather' imagery that a lot of Scotch blends seem to have adopted. Prohibition builds on the legacy of the classic yellow labelled Original: light, with vanilla notes, plenty of citrus zest and a very creamy palate. One of the all-time great mixing whiskies.

Nose: Deliciously light grain notes, with lemon zest, white wine, vanilla and demerara sugar.

Palate: The clean grain notes are retained, alongside sweet butter candy, citrus fruit notes, some Bourbon maltiness and a hint of tropical fruit.

Favourite Serve: The citrus and creamy grain notes give a distinct freshness in a Whisky Sour.


Ballantine's


Christmas Reserve
I'll be honest in that I first encountered this whisky with some scepticism, due to its seasonal nature. However, one sip and everything made sense. As the name suggests, it is released in batches annually, with subtle differences in the flavour profile. But at its heart are pretty much everything one would associate with the festive period: rich Christmas cake, mulled wine spices, chocolate notes, candied orange and plum pudding. As seasonal pairings go, this nails it on pretty much every level. In fact, the only thing it is lacking is a hearty peel of sleigh bells and the Queen reading out her tasting notes after lunch.

Nose: As mentioned above - Christmas cake, pine needles, a hint of log fire smoke, chopped nuts and caramel.

Palate: Like a rerun at Christmas of Back To The Future - the palate pretty much repeats the nose note for note.

Favourite Serve: Neat, accompanied by a big slab of Christmas cake.


BlackBull


40 Years Old - Batch 2
I suppose my recent milestone birthday may have had an influence over this final choice when four years ago I bought two bottles on the spot: one lasted about a week on a trip to Islay and the other one has been sitting at the back of my cupboard gathering dust - until a few weeks ago. Made up from a 90:10 malt/grain blend (Bunnahabhain, The Glenlivet Tamdhu and Invergordon Grain) the balance is truly breathtaking: soft oak, delicate orchard fruit, floral wax and rich honey - the kind that only old whisky can bring to the table. A stunning way to usher in my 40th and well worth the wait.

Nose: Incredibly delicate - beautiful waxy honey, soft oak notes, vanilla, pears and a hint of spice; only old whiskies can pull this off.

Palate: Effortless complexity, more subtle oak, soft red fruit, a hint of orange zest and wonderfully lingering vanilla custard notes.

Favourite Serve: Neat, surrounded by the very best of friends.