...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

NOT Single Malt Report: Two Haig blends from the 1970s

Long before I served as David Beckham's eyebrow double for a certain perfume bottle grain whisky, Haig & Haig was known for its regular blended whisky under names like Pinch (or Dimple), Five Star, and Gold Label.  "Don't be vague / Ask for Haig" was their quippy slogan.

As per whisky lore, Robert Haig got himself in trouble back in the 17th century for distilling on the Sunday sabbath.  Two centuries later, John Haig was partly responsible for the building of the Cameron Bridge distillery (which was a bit smaller back in the 1820s than its 21st century 100-million-liter version).  In 1877, Cameron Bridge was amongst the distilleries that combined to created Distiller's Company Limited (DCL).  John Haig's own brand of blends was bought by DCL forty-two years later.  In 1986, DCL was bought out by Guinness in a series of fraudulent transactions, creating United Distillers.  United Distillers combined with Grand Metropolitan to create Diageo in 1997.  So it's fair to say that Diageo's existence is entirely the fault of the Haig family, right?

On the same dusty hunt that resulted in my '82 Canadian Club find, I discovered an old 4/5 quart (757mL) bottle of Haig Blended Whisky.  I could tell from across the counter that it was pre-1980 with its imperial volume measurement and proof alcohol measurement.  Once I brought it I spied 72 and 297 on the inside of the label.  297th day of 1972 perhaps?

It was a fun discovery, one that I thought was very unique.  But then a month later I found a store that had at least a half case of 4/5 pint (or 378.5mL) bottles.  So I bought one of those to open before getting into the 4/5 quart bottle. And interestingly, that one also had a '72' printed behind its label.  I don't have a clear pic of that number, but here's the bottle:

At the time of this whisky's bottling for the USA, Haig Gold Label was on the shelves in Europe.  Gold Label has a very similar label, except that it has the words "Gold Label" in a gold font on the label.  My bottles do not have those words.  Also around this time there was a similarly labelled Haig & Haig Five Star blended whisky.  Though my bottles have five little stars on their upper labels, they don't have the words "Five Star" anywhere on them.  Meanwhile the Five Star whisky's label had ten stars on it.  But anyway, no "Gold Label" and no "Five Star".  So my whiskies are just Haig Blended Scotch Whisky.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the midst of my flurry of questionable purchases, my whisky buddy Cobo sent me a sample of actual Haig Gold Label (from Europe) from the 1970s (thank you, Cobo!).  His whisky bottle had the correct dumpy shape, brown glass, and real "Gold Label" description on it:

Here's his sample bottle along with what remains of my 4/5 pint bottle:

I smell a Taste Off coming...

...but first one more note.

I opened my 4/5pint bottle the very night I brought it home.  My experience with dusty scotch told me to let the whisky air out before drinking, so I poured it into a flat tumbler (rather than a Glencairn) and let it sit for ten minutes.  Then I sniffed.

Garbage.  Hot garbage was all I could smell.  I sipped it cautiously (for Science and all that).  Not terrible, mostly drinkable.

I left it in the glass for another ten minutes.  Not much change.  Then another ten minutes.  At that point it had been breathing for a half an hour.  Now the nose had shed its feculent fur (shitty shell?) and the whisky could be better studied.

Okay, time to get the Taste Off on and see if things have improved over the past four months:


HAIG BLENDED WHISKY - US, 1972 - 4/5 pint bottle, 86ºproof (43%abv)
Nose - Rotten greens, expired milk, old greasy pizza box.  Roasted brussels sprouts.  After a couple moments, it gets grassier and sugarier.  Struck matches and prunes tell of some sort of sherry cask action.
Palate - Only a hint of the nose's rottenness, reading as a slight vinegar sourness.  A nice oily texture.  There's a surprising spicy nip, with pepper biting at the back of my throat.  Burnt bread, cream, and plums.
Finish - Decent length.  Pepper sauce meets sherry vinegar, followed by a bit of sweetness.

HAIG GOLD LABEL BLENDED WHISKY - Europe, 1970s - 43%abv
Nose - Clean as a whistle.  Gentle floral notes float through seaside air.  A candy shop in the summer.  Clementines, hay, and a hint of peat moss.
Palate - Oily texture on this one too.  It leads with caramel candies, sugar cookies, and brown sugar.  That's followed by a little bit of salt, peppery spice, and a hint of bitters.
Finish - Mellower than its partner.  Sugar, spice, salt, honey, and toffee.

Comments:  My Haig has an ugly nose.  :o(  Meanwhile the rich Gold Label impresses immediately.


Nose - The old dirty cardboard pizza box remains, but most of the other rotten notes have departed.  In their place is mint extract, black licorice, and orange pulp.  It's a little herbal and bready.  The prune note grows with additional time.
Palate - Instantly creamy and sweet, with orange pulp, caramel, and whipped cream.  Walnut, horseradish, and (maybe?) a whiff of peat.  The pepper note is mostly gone, replaced by something tarter.  There's also a lingering floral soap note.
Finish - A little tongue drying and tart.  The pepper returns here as a honey pepper sauce.

Nose - Peat moss and dusty furniture.  Orange lollipops, mango, and salted caramels.  It freshens up with more air, think cucumber and green grass.
Palate - Malty, sweet, and spicy.  It's a solid piece, so it takes a moment suss out its parts.  Brown sugar, toasty grains, toasty oak, citrus candies, and maybe a little bit of earthy molasses.
Finish - Still spicy and a little floral.  It's grown sweeter, think brown sugar and lemon candies.

Comments:  My Haig saves a little face, just a little.  Meanwhile, the Gold Label becomes even more drinkable.

I'll lead with the good news.  The Gold Label is one of the better blended scotches I've had.  Something about it is reminiscent of Nikka's current Whisky From the Barrel.  Both are well made with a good balance of different whiskies from different casks while remaining malty and tasty.  The Nikka is more intense and complex, but it's also 51.4%abv.  I wish today's blends could be as solid as this old Gold Label is at 43%abv.

The same can't be said about my Haig.  Its intensity happens in the wrong direction.  While it improves with lots of air, the nose always hampers it.  The palate is what kept me going with this bottle as it doesn't totally suck, functioning as a whisky I can sip and forget.

While the bottle's 42 year storage may have been responsible for the problems, the liquor store I bought it from had no windows so damage from heat is a little less likely than at most stores and damage from light nearly impossible.  It's possible that this could have been Haig's cheapest whisky at the time of its production and its lower quality elements do not fare well over time.  One thing's for certain, it bears little resemblance to their Gold Label.

Availability - Some random corner liquor store
Pricing - my 4/5pint bottle was all of $6.99
Rating - 73 (without lots of breathing time, it would be closer to a 65)

Availability - Maybe the occasional auction
Pricing - ???
Rating - 88


  1. I have a feeling the Gold Label may be a different expression/blend from the plain Haig (like JW Red Label to Black Label). From a marketing and logistics standpoint, it makes little sense to re-label the same whisky blend for different markets.

    That said, the plain Haig sounds like it was merely okay on the palate.

    1. Yeah, I agree. I think the plain Haig was their bottom(est) shelf blend. Even without the rotten notes, it's nothing like the Gold Label. It is weird that the plain Haig has five stars on its label while the Five Star Haig (which was also sold in the US in the '70s) has ten stars on its label. The plain Haig's palate wasn't bad; I mean, I made it all the way through the bottle without tossing any down the sink. Its texture was the best part actually, possibly due to a lack of filtration.