...where distraction is the main attraction.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Taste Off!!! Isle of Skye 8yr vs. Johnnie Walker Black Label


It's a head-to-head between two Big Blends.

In the challenger's corner, with the beige label, owned by Ian MacLeod Distillers Limited:

Brand: Isle of Skye
Distilleries:  Talisker and Glenfarclas (or sherried Glenrothes)
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: minimum 8 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

Produced by the same folks who make Smokehead and Lang's, bottle single malts under the Chieftain's label, and run the great Glengoyne distillery, Isle of Skye 8 year old is a thick, rich blend that weighs in at 47% malt whisky / 53% grain whisky.  With there being only one active distillery on the actual Isle of Skye, the peppery and lightly peated portion of the malt clearly comes from Talisker.  But that element is balanced out by a big sherry-oak pop; either Glenfarclas or Glenrothes depending on the batch.  My whisky senses are telling me my bottle has some significant Glenfarclas in it.

As I continue to look for something to topple Johnnie Walker Black Label from its shelf, I matched the blends up side-by-side, first neatly, then as a whisky & soda.

Neat: 1.0 fluid ounces of whisky in Glencairn glasses.
Whisky & soda: 1.2 fluid ounces whisky, 2.0 fluid ounces club soda, and 7 small ice cubes in a tumbler
I chose this Old-Fashion route as it really puts the blend through the ringer: it's chilled with lots of water in a wide-mouthed glass.

Firstly, the Isle of Skye 8.

Maple syrup in color.  My notes say it has a "bright and cheerful nose".  How do I explain that?  It's full of sugary citrus (think orange zest and juice), tropical fruits, dry sherry, new sneakers, and burlap.  With time there's a hint of the ocean, as well as some maple syrup.  The palate holds a light peat, more vegetal than smoky.  It's buttery, malty, and quite sweet.  Brown sugar and citrus sit in the center, while everything is held in sherry parentheses.  It finishes sweetly as well.  There's a brief bitter moment, but there's mostly tropical fruit, a little peat, and sugar cookies.

The malt element holds out well.  It remains buttery and very sweet, with overripe sugary fruits.  A blanket of vanilla sits on top of it all.

In the champion's corner, representing Diageo (boo), wearing the black and gold label:

Ownership: Diageo (boo)
Distilleries: 40 in all, including Caol Ila and Talisker
Type: Scotch Blended Whisky
Age: minimum 12 years
Alcohol by Volume: 40%
Chill-filtered? Yes
Caramel Coloring? Yes

My considerable fondness for Black Label has been covered a number of times on this blog.  My gripes with Diageo have also been detailed plenty.  If I'm seriously going to do a Diageo boycott after they kill Green Label, I need to find a replacement for my favorite blend, thus these Taste Offs against other quality blends.

This Taste Off was educational as tasting the Isle of Skye alongside the Black Label really brought out the sherry side of the JWBL.  They both also have the single Skye malt in their makeup, but now I'm thinking there's more Caol Ila in Black Label than Talisker.

The color is golden caramel.  The nose holds sherried overripe tropical fruit, vanilla, toffee, and molasses.  Lots of molasses.  A wee puff of smoke.  The peat in the palate is heavier than the Skye's and smokier, while the texture is a little thinner (perhaps due to less malt?).  There's paper, pepper, espresso, soil, and a bunch of hearty vanilla (courtesy of American oak).  The finish is longer and peatier than Skye's.  Then there's vanilla-infused espresso and vanilla-infused black pepper.  My favorite part.

The peat smoke remains as does all the vanilla.  It's drier than its competitor, yet still carries some sweetness.  A bed of fresh grass and hay sits underneath.

After the Taste Off, I thought it was a good idea to finish off my Black Label bottle, figuring there was maybe a dram left.  There was more than a dram left.  It was a bad idea.  My first hangover on a work day this year.  :(

More to the point...

The Black Label had been open and less than half full for more than three months, while the Isle of Skye was opened about a month ago.  I think the Walker may have lost a touch of oomph via oxidation in that time, and its texture seemed a little thinner than usual.

The first couple of drinks out of the Skye bottle were packed with sherry to the point that I couldn't find the Talisker.  But over a few weeks and some breathing time, the whisky has revealed its island center.

While it is not a Black Label killer, it does beat the living daylights out of Famous Grouse.  It's thicker, maltier, more complex (oh, that word), and tastier.  Seriously, I'll never by the regular Grouse again.

If you're a sherry fan, then you may like this better than JWBL.  It may work well in cocktails too.  It's my second favorite mid-shelf Scotch whisky blend and something I would certainly consider buying a second time.  Their price range is very similar.  JW has the sexier bottle and it's easily found (though that doesn't count towards its ratings).

Ultimately, Black wins.  But it's closer than I had expected.

Did I not hear there's an Isle of Skye 12 year......?


Johnnie Walker Black Label's rating holds for now...

Availability - Everywhere!
Pricing - $25-$35
Rating - 88

Isle of Skye 8 year old:

Availability - Many liquor specialists
Pricing - $28-$32
Rating - 81 (note: since finishing the bottle, I have downgraded this few points)