Modern Blended Scotch
Blended Scotch whisky has long been saddled with a reputation as something lesser than its big brother, single-malt Scotch. Until the early 19th century, malts were primarily sold in bulk to blenders and only sold as single malts in Great Britain. Then, in 1963, under the management of Sandy Grant Gordon (great-grandson of William Grant), Glenfiddich released its first single-malt whisky into the American marketplace. The rest, as they say, is history!
Despite blended Scotch’s popularity, single-malt whiskey clawed its way into consumers’ hearts (and wallets) over time, leaving blended whisky on the scrap heap of modern whisky consumption. Not that the industry doesn’t deserve some of the blame for Blended’s decline. The proliferation of low-cost, high-grain-percentage “store” and “bottom-shelf” (in other words, low quality) blends, the wildfire growth of whisky review sites (particularly across social media), and the success of pro-single-malt marketing, all combined to kill interest in blends.
Fortunately, many high-end, high-quality blends survived and even thrived. Established brands such as Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Buchanan’s, Chivas Regal, and Famous Grouse (to name just a few) continue to experience success due to their overall quality and higher malt content. Several newer brands, such as Monkey Shoulder, Compass Box, Sheep Dip, and Naked Malt, are becoming increasingly popular. One lesser-known brand, however, is redefining ‘Luxe Scotch by offering a library of blended Scotch aged 8 to 30 years.
The Isle of Skye label, part of the Ian MacLeod family, is another example of Scotch blending done right. If you follow my reviews, you know I’ve been impressed with several of its single-malt brands – Smokehead, Glengoyne, and Tamdhu come to mind. They’re also responsible for several well-regarded blends, including Sheep Dip, Pig’s Nose, and Lang’s. So, it makes sense that Isle of Skye would follow in those other nicely-apportioned footsteps! But there’s a little secret that might help explain the overall quality of Isle of Skye: it’s been around since 1933!
My friends at Colangelo & Partners (thanks, Collin) arranged for me to participate in a remote vertical tasting of six of Isle of Skye’s library of age-stated blends, including 8, 12, 18, 21, 25, and 30-year-olds. Given the price, but more importantly, the rarity of the older blends, I took a slow, methodical approach to the tasting. Embarking upon my standardized tasting regimen, I ensured I had sufficient quality water nearby (I typically use Walmart’s Great Value purified water), along with six identical Glencairn nosing glasses.
Let me preface the tasting notes by acknowledging that a common backbone/theme runs through these whiskies, making it evident that they have shared DNA. Tasting in this format, though, reveals fascinating impacts from extended aging. Across the line, these are well-executed and notably elegant whiskies, exhibiting classic Scotch characteristics typically associated with single malts. Their high malt component and the quality grain whiskies for blending are easily identifiable. Each reveals a muscular underpinning and a smooth and elegant finish. The rumor is that the blend leans heavily on Talisker, Skye’s oldest and most prolific distillery, combined with Speyside malts and grain whiskies. The Talisker would account for much of the muscularity and distant hint of smoke/peat, and the Speyside its elegance.
The 8-year-old punches far above its price class. Pouring a golden amber in the glass, the initial aromas focus on caramel, toffee, roasted pecans, plus distant whiffs of smoke and sherry. A few minutes in the glass reveals the sweeter notes, plus hints of fresh orange, honeysuckle, blueberry pie, and vanilla chews. The mouthfeel is oily and round, exhibiting that Talisker meaty chewiness. Initial flavors cluster around the sweet; caramel, vanilla, honey, heather, and candied nuts, followed by hints of winter spice, pine needles, and dried fruits. The finish is moderately long and quite soft, revealing cereal maltiness, canned pears, more toffee, and then, way in the back, a puff of smoke, moist earth, and some sherry barrel spice.
The 12-year-old maintains many of the same aromatic and flavor components with a little more finesse. I also detect a bit more spice and sherry influence. Additionally, I’d add notes of fresh lemons, crushed mint leaves, and allspice. The finish is soft and luxurious, with slightly more pronounced smoothness from the extra aging.
The 18-year-old exhibits more spice than the 8 or 12, plus hints of salt spray, nutmeg, and black pepper. It has more pronounced smoke and more notable cocoa and coffee. It finishes with an intensely warm but incredibly smooth fade. It received a Gold Medal in the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
With the 21-year-old, the benefits of extended aging begin to shine, its relative smoothness most evident on the nose and in the mouthfeel. This iteration is a little drier, with more dried fruit influence including pineapple, apricot, and banana chips. The initial sip shows some burnt sugar, marzipan, and a little more savory spice. The finish is quite long, revealing sweet citrus, cinnamon, nutmeg, oak, and a hint of smoke.
The 25-year-old is a study in spice, with forward allspice, ginger, and barrel spice all notable in the aroma. The first sip reveals a fresh fruitiness, like first-run apple juice and orange slices, backed by firm oak and earthiness. The malt is evident in the swallow, along with dried tropical fruit, peach cobbler, marzipan, and chocolate. A long, luxurious finish rounds out the sample.
Now, we get to the true treasure, the 30-year-old. Scotch in this age range is rare and typically out of grasp for us mere mortals. However, this whisky retails for just over $300, which is an absolute bargain especially given its age and the fact it won gold at both the 2023 International Wine & Spirit Competition and the 2023 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. It’s easy to understand why – it’s incredibly soft, smooth, and beautifully balanced. The nose opens with creamy vanilla, bit-of-honey candies, and sweet coconut, with a forward sherry spice and balsamic raisins. Sweet and round on the tongue, the initial sip explodes with toffee, tea biscuits, and freshly baked berry pie, backed by hints of dark chocolate, red chili, and rich malted cereal. The finish is incredible – silky, long, and redolent with treacle, Brach’s vanilla caramels, honeysuckle, and more raisins, courtesy of the sherry. You’ll know you’re sampling a well-aged and rare whisky!
Ian MacLeod certainly did things right with Isle of Skye. At the “affordable” end of the line, you’ll find tremendous value with the whiskies clocking in far above their price point. The 8-year-old is a true gem! Although these whiskies are tremendous values throughout the range, their quality is worthy of the best-stocked collections. As “every day” drams, these go toe-to-toe with any single malt, and if compared on an age-to-age basis, the Isle of Skye blows many single malts off the map! Of course, for those “stuck” on the imagined single-malt vs. blend controversy, you may need to leave your comfort zone. But if you’re willing, I assure you will not be disappointed!