Now a little bit of disclosure...
While I did drink the American whiskies at the event, I took these two pours to go. I was facing an extended drive home. Sobriety was something I held in higher esteem than immediate dusty dramming. Having my two little samples bottles here also allowed me to focus on the whiskies in what has become my regular tasting nook. Last night I put on some crackly Django Reinhardt in honor of when these whiskies were distilled, then some particularly silly Sinatra for when the booze was bottled. It was a good evening.
In these two reviews, I'm going to be mentioning a "funk". This is a funk similar to that of my dusty Johnnie Walker Black bottle, though the JW has a higher funk content. What is the funk? It's a dank, moist, dirty note that I think is a combination of old damp sherry casks, paxarette, and old bottle effect. While it can be found on the palate, it hits bigger on the nose. And so far, it's been specific to old Scotch whisky -- haven't found it yet in bourbons -- so it may have something to do with the malt itself.
I find it very difficult to compare dusty Scotch with contemporary Scotch. The processes that lead to the liquid have changed so much. Barley types have changed, as have the yeast strains. Maltings were once small and localized, the barley more often dried by peat smoke. The loss of direct-fired stills may have changed the texture; and I've heard some secondhand stories that this change in still heating has resulted in molecular changes as well. More malt was used in the blends. Subtract today's chillfiltration and e150a colorant, then replace it with the paxarette additive. The cask structure was often different, since actual former European oak sherry casks were easier to come by in earlier decades. Blend recipes have changed per expenses, palates, and available product. Heck, many distilleries within the blends have vanished. Then there's that funk.
Old and new, it's all whisky. But things have changed, as Dylan once said.
First came the Ambassador:
|I did have to doctor up this photo so these words were legible:|
"Federal law forbids sale or re-use of this bottle"
Ambassador appears to have been around as early as the 1900s. The brand has since passed from hand to hand, from Bloch Brothers Distillers Ltd to Taylor & Ferguson Ltd to Royal Wine Corp. There seemed to have been about a half dozen different importers as well. Their last US hurrah was in the 1990s, and one can still find a handle of NAS Ambassador for $20 or so. The 25yo was selling in the $60ish range during its final go 'round. Fancy stuff!
But let's take a look at the label. Check this out:
I found a couple of photos of Ambassador 25 bottles from the 1970s and only Scapa is named. The aforementioned Bloch Brothers who blended Ambassador when this bottle was filled, also owned Glen Scotia and Scapa at the time. By the '70s, they'd sold both distilleries and the blend. It appears as if when Taylor & Ferguson took over the Ambassador brand, they were able to keep Scapa in the recipe, but not Glen Scotia.
How about the whisky itself...
The color was a deep gold. The nose started with a piney peat, seaweed, pencil lead, and "the funk". Here it's a dank, metallic, chocolate, moldy sherried funk. Fresh stone fruit notes brightened it all up. Maybe some peach taffy too. With some more breathing time toasted grains, caramel, figs, and oak pulp developed. The texture was surprisingly a little thin. The palate held more smoke than peat. Think cigarette smoke and burnt wood. Unsmoked tobacco too, actually. Cocoa powder and baking chocolate bitterness. Felt like there's quite a bit of mild grassy caramelly grain whisky in the recipe. Lots of smoke remained in the finish, as did the bitter cocoa. In fact, the tougher parts hung around the longest with just a little caramel in there to soften things up.
Then there was the Ballantine's:
Unlike the Ambassador brand, Ballantine's is still alive and well today. It is the second bestselling blend in the world, following only Johnnie Walker. It was founded by George Ballantine in the mid nineteenth century. The Ballantine family sold it to Barclay & McKinlay in the 1910s. They in turn sold it to Hiram Walker after the end of Prohibition. Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts was sold to Allied Lyons in 1987, which then became part of Allied Domecq a few years later. Finally, in 2005 Ballantine's went to Pernod Ricard in the purchase of Allied Domecq.
The 30 year old blend entered the market in 1930 and it is still bottled today (with a slight price increase). The distillers mentioned twice on this bottle's labels were located in Glasgow and Dumbarton. Around the turn of the century there were at least seven distilleries in Glasgow, many of which produced grain whisky. Today only one distillery exists on the outskirts of Glasgow, Auchentoshan. As for Dumbarton, a number of Lowland distilleries once existed nearby. In 1938, Dumbarton grain distillery was built by Hiram Walker, but its whisky would not have made it into this bottle. So it's possible that many of the distilleries in this particular 30 year old's recipe no longer exist. And if many of the components did come from Glasgow and Dumbarton, that means much of the whisky was from the Lowlands. Of course, it's also possible that Ballantine's main offices were in Glasgow and Dumbarton......as they are today. Let us now depart from speculation and commence with the drinking.
The color was darker than that of the Ambassador, with some red hues around the edges. The nose was calmer. Less peat in play, though it's still there. The funk was quieter with less of a sherry character. Some fresh apples, old rum, and early morning body odor in there. Sweetened grapefruit juice, vanilla, maple syrup. It got more sugary with time, more caramels and dessert wines. The texture was thicker than the Ambassador's. The palate was very straightforward. Tangy peat, burnt wood, and LOTS of tart grapefruit. The grapefruit kept going and going and going. A little generic vanilla in the back. Just a little sweetness, but mostly tart and tang. The grapefruit continued into the finish, both the tart and the tang. Then followed dark chocolate, smoked vanilla bean pods, peat smoke residue, and a restaurant's smoking section (remember those?).
It's difficult to quantify these oldies as I have very little frame of reference. While the Ballantine's felt more substantial in the mouth, it actually became very one note (grapefruit!). While the thinness and graininess of the Ambassador weren't points in its favor, it made for a more interesting drink. The peating was more substantial, the fruit notes were nice, and I liked the bitterness. Yet with its seemingly higher malt content, denser character, bold sherry wallop, and funkadelic fun, my '70s Johnnie Walker Black Label would be my selection over these two......if in some fantasy world I was offered the choice of the three bottles. But I would never trade away this amazing opportunity to experience whiskey history. Many thank yous to Chris and Michael of the Southern California Whiskey Club!
Ambassador 25 year old (bottled late '40s - early '50s)
Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 84
Ballantine's 30 year old (bottled 1954-1964)
Availability - ???
Pricing - ???
Rating - 84
(Sources: http://www.whisky.com/forum/showthread.php?t=76, http://booze-blog.blogspot.com/2010/03/ambassador-deluxe-scotch.html, http://www.lionswhisky.com, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2006-03-19/features/0603190483_1_zeller-schwarze-katz-wine-cabernet, http://www.ballantines.com/, http://www.whisky.com/brands/ballantines.html, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gooderham_and_Worts_Distillery, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allied_Domecq, http://www.maltwhiskyyearbook.com/)