I know a lot of whisky enthusiasts. And generally speaking, the life cycle of a whisky enthusiast seems to run a very predictable course: First, start as a cheerful, optimistic whisky drinker, lacking prejudice or judgement. Then, discover whisky nerdery, and be overcome by an almost irresistible moment of single malt snobbery. If one stays the course for long enough – and is honest with oneself – break through the snobbery into a new world of acceptance, understanding and nuance.
Bottom-shelf blends. It requires a firm sense of self-knowledge to evaluate bottom-shelf blends after coming out of the dark, dark times of whisky douchebaggery. But, for those of us who struggle with these sorts of issues, bottom-shelf blends can represent a truly humbling moment on our whisky journeys – a return to the blends that started it all, and (in all likelihood) a moment of surprising appreciation.
There’s not much to say about Ballantine’s Finest. A bottom-shelf blend alongside many other bottom-shelf blends, started by a company going on 200 years old. Likely exclusively bourbon matured and with many malt and grain influences. Let’s hit it:
Only the purest, finest E150a additive colouring.
Right, somewhere between “meh” and “ugh”, that’s for sure. Unlike any other whisky I’ve inhaled (for the sake of science!) this one truly does have a pong of cleaning fluid about it – an abrasive shock that screams “not for human consumption”. Isopropyl alcohol rather than lovingly distilled malt and grain whisky. Far beneath, you get some usual vapours – caramel, vanilla. Yawn.
Oh lordy. Sawdust, grapefruit peel. Pepper. A brief flash of some nice, chunky grain whisky – and then gone, much like my enthusiasm. Usually, successive sips are supposed to become a little easier, more interesting. Here, successive sips became a chore, a slightly queasy body-horror. As I type this, I find myself frowning at the glass, wondering if the liquid is able to penetrate the molecular structure of my nice Glencairn and somehow… taint it, like a curry-stained piece of Tupperware.
Bitter, bitter, bitter. And short. Also, unpleasant.
To be completely fair – Ballantine’s themselves describe Finest as ”perfect for mixing to start the night”. As in, this is simply not a whisky designed to be sipped.
Nope. I refuse. Nice try. There are a vast number of whiskies designed for mixing that I happily chug away neat, and plenty of single malts I’ll mix down (when nobody is looking). Ballantine’s Finest is just fairly miserable whisky – and bad ingredients in, bad cocktail out.
Next to my all-time favourite bottom-shelf blend – J&B – this can’t hold a candle, and I’d rather crack open a Johnnie Red, Black & White, Teacher’s or Scottish Leader than look in this direction.