Ballantine’s is the world’s second best-selling Scotch whisky (Johnnie Walker holding the top spot for many a year). Established in 1827 by George Ballantine, the blend is comprised of 50 single malts, and four grain whiskies, but draws its flavour profile primarily from Speysiders Glenburgie and Miltonduff. Currently owned by big boy Pernod Ricard, the core range of expressions is quite broad, covering NAS’s ‘Finest’ and ‘Limited’ and then extending from 12 years of age all the way to 40 with a fair few pit stops on the way.
The 21 year old sits in the middle of the core aged range of Ballantine’s expressions and was introduced in 1993. Recent bottlings have all been produced at 40% ABV (including the current ‘Signature Oak Edition’), but older versions were delivered a touch higher at 43%. We’re taking at one of the 43%ers in the form of the 21 year old ‘Very Old Scotch Whisky’ produced in the late 1990’s. The Very Old 21 year old is bottled in a blue ceramic decanter produced by the famous Wade Ceramics who have operated from the UK pottery capital of Stoke-on-Trent since 1867. The Wade decanter edition was produced in two sizes – 70cl and 50cl. Whilst long since departed, you’ll still occasionally see both versions for sale at auction – and being a blend, and not a single malt, they can often be acquired at very reasonable prices
Nose: Delicate but nonetheless expressive this starts with sweet orange segments, honey, marmalades and preserves. There’s a gentle smoke here which is slightly mineral in nature and is reinforced by a heavy citrus tang that runs across the entire nose. Old wood and polish are delivered throughout (they’re less prevalent in more modern versions of this whisky) and are supported by some sharp spicing – cloves in particular, but also ginger and salt. A few drops of water brings out the underlying smokiness of the whisky further (though it’s still a subtle constituent rather than a driving force) and heightens the levels of salinity.
Taste: Rich and slightly oily. Toffee and caramel commence proceedings and are married very nicely with oranges, citrus peels and a scattering of fresh berries. Spicing is much more perceptible now, and favours the bitter side of things. It delivering cloves, nutmeg and a salty tang. Bitterness is balanced by a large dollop of honey, slightly heathery, but sweet enough to offset some of the heady spices. Smoke is still present, but appears as cask char rather than anything overtly phenolic. The addition of water (it doesn’t take too much, so be particularly sparing) adds a lovely salted caramel flavour as well as general creaminess.
Finish: Quite long with berry sweetness tempered by some prickly bitter spicing.
This edition of Ballantine’s 21 year old really benefits from its additional 3% ABV. The alcohol uplift helps deliver a viscous well-weighted mouthfeel, as well as ensuring a good definition of fruits, sugars and spices. The blend overall is exceedingly well-balanced as well as being highly drinkable with plenty of aromas and flavours that ably represent a classic style. Worth bookmarking on auction sites – you might well find this for cheaper than the current 21 year old offering – and if you do, it’s totally worth a punt.