Editor’s note: In 2014, this column is expanding its focus to occasionally look at spirits and beer too.
We’ve always talked about wine in this column. But one of the other interesting trends has been the growth in scotch whisky sales. The image of an old man drinking a single malt while smoking a cigar no longer holds true. In fact, consumption has been rising across both of the scotch whisky categories, blended and single malt.
A good introduction to scotch is trying blended whiskies first, as they tend to be more affordable. They are also the first scotch whiskies that neophytes usually try.
Blended whisky is the result of combining one or more (sometimes as many as 50) single-malt whiskies (made from 100 per cent malted grain such as barley or rye) with other grain whisky or typically a neutral-grain spirit. Blended scotch whisky is generally smoother and lighter, and more approachable than single malt, and, therefore, the perfect introduction to scotch whisky. Now the issue becomes how can you tell a good blend from one that is not so good, as prices range from affordable to very expensive. Nine out of 10 bottles are exported, with the U.S. being the world’s number one market.
Companies such as Johnnie Walker, George Ballantine, and the Chivas brothers were all originally 19th-century merchants who hit upon brands that are still popular today.
By law the whisky in the bottle must be at least three years old. If a blend displays an age statement then the whisky must be at least that old. So a product that says, “aged 12 years” must contain a whiskey at least 12 years age, but might contain older product as well. The point is that blended whiskies can be some of the best whiskies in the world.
According to NSLC sales, Nova Scotia’s popular scotch whisky is Johnnie Walker Red, followed by Famous Grouse, and Dewars. However, Nova Scotians love Canadian whisky too; Crown Royal sells more than any Scotch. In fact, Jameson’s Irish Whisky is also more popular here than in many other Canadian markets. I think the Halifax pub scene drives those numbers. Local mixologists are using more and more blended Scotch whisky for making creative cocktails outside of the typical scotch and soda. At the recent Imbibe Cocktail Show at the Casino in February I saw no fewer than eight fancy drinks made with blended whisky. The cocktail is a great way to introduce yourself to this category, and, in fact, most consumers start with blended whisky before working up to the typically more expensive single malts.
The NSLC has expanded its selection of blends over recent years and you can find virtually all price points. As with most things, you get what you pay for, so you need to experiment to decide what style suits you. In early March, the NSLC is hosting its annual Celebrate Whiskey event in Halifax. In recent years, this event has completely sold out.
Try blended scotch whisky straight up, with ice and/or water, or drink with your favourite mixes. Experiment and find out what you and your friends and family enjoy the most.
The under-$25 wine review
Two Oceans Sauvignon Blanc 2012, South Africa, $13.99, NSLC
Two Oceans has been in the market for many years and is popular, offering good value. This Sauvigon Blanc offers some delicious ripe pink grapefruit characters. The mouth feel is juicy and citrusy—a good balance between acidity and weight. A change from New Zealand’s mouth-puckering Sauvignon Blancs. Cook mussels in some of the same wine for a great combination. 88/100
Peninsula Ridge Merlot 2011, Niagra Peninsula, Ontario, VQA. NSLC, $17.99
As expected with the cooler Ontario climate combined with a wine under $20, this offers a lighter appearance in the glass. Bright cherry notes and a touch of bell pepper. Very pinot noir like in style, and not as round and plumy as you might expect a merlot to be. Earthy notes and few tannins. Chill for 20 minutes, serve with some local hard cheeses. 87/100