As everyone with a bit of whisky knowledge knows, ‘No one drinks blended whisky these days’. Well, no one apart from the people who account for 85 per cent of global whisky sales. What is true is that, over the years, as single malts gained cult status, the gleaming reputation of (most) blended Scotch has somewhat faded. This, despite the fact that – as anyone who has ever tried a whisky blending masterclass will tell you – the delicacy required to get blending right is difficult beyond measure.
It’s one thing to make a decent entry-level blend. But to take long-aged whiskies which are already of immense quality and combine them into something greater than the sum of their parts takes incredible judgement and skill. That is one of the reasons (others are more budget-related!) that two premium blends from big drinks groups dominate the market: Johnnie Walker (from Diageo) and Chivas Regal (from Pernod Ricard). But now there is a new player – and not produced by a plucky little independent, but by a company with the clout to shake up the shelves.
Ardray (£60) is a new premium blended whisky from Beam Suntory, the owner of single malts including Laphroaig and Bowmore single malts. Beam Suntory also has a Venn diagram overlap with Edrington, which means access to liquids from The Macallan, The Glenrothes and Highland Park. Add to that its joint venture with Diageo at the North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, and it has all the building blocks for a great blend – from fruity, floral Speyside malts to a spectrum of peat smoke from Islay and Orkney.
The name cleverly sounds like a place in Scotland but was invented – apparently meaning “towards the light”, its roots are in Gaelic (“Ard”, meaning “high”) and, presumably, the Madonna hit Ray of Light.
The blending has been clearly influenced by the Suntory team, who have mastered the art with Japanese blends such as the Hibiki range. Beam Suntory’s chief blender for Scotch, Calum Fraser, and his advisers in Japan focused on combining just a few whiskies (rumoured to be aged up to 20 years), but explored hundreds of different blends before settling on the final version. He operates a Solera system (the spirits equivalent of a sourdough mother) to set off each batch, then makes tiny adjustments (of as little as 0.1%) to the ratios of the newly added liquids to account for the slight differences in cask character.
The result is a blended whisky that deserves respect from the ‘I only drink single malt’ crowd. Of course, it mixes well in cocktails, but stands alone too. Bottled at 48% ABV and non-chill-filtered, it can be drunk neat, with a dash of water, over ice or… ‘off the rocks’. Brummell has a healthy scepticism for ‘perfect serves’ – they are often a bit of marketing nonsense – but this one actually works. Put ice in a julep strainer (or a small sieve) over the glass and slowly pour the whisky over it into your glass. It dilutes just a tiny amount, releasing more spice and smokiness, but also brings it down to proper room temperature (as opposed to 21st-century room temperature, over 20C), making it even smoother.
Brummell’s tasting notes:
On the nose: starts with bright fresh notes – lime juice and clementine, with Mediterranean herbal notes of lemon balm and oregano. There’s also a hint of distant burning heather – just enough to make you check the horizon, rather than call the fire brigade.
On the palate: it’s a truly unctuous crème brûlée – rich, mouth-coating and packed with real vanilla. With plums stewed with star anise. Floral notes drift up from the back of your palate into the back of your nose.
The finish: it’s mellow and well balanced between sweet smoothness and dry spices, with white pepper.