Blended malts: the most misunderstood of Scotch whisky categories. Or perhaps the most overlooked. The word ‘blended’ seemingly throwing folk off the scent of what can be a rewarding and/or great value for money whisky experience.
As an advocate for blended malts, the forthcoming tasting with the Quarter Gill Club should hopefully surprise and please a few palates. However, it’s a tasting which is actually quite difficult to plan the line up for as there are so many worthy candidates; it’s proving quite tricky to narrow it down to just five.
Will either of these two blended malt releases from Biggar and Leith make the line up? Well, that’s still to be decided…
These two Gladstone Axe expressions: American Oak and The Black Axe pay homage to William Gladstone, Chancellor of the Exchequer when the Spirits Act was signed in 1860 and Prime Minister of the UK from 1868 onwards. The founder of the company is Elwyn Gladstone, the aforementioned’s great-great-great grandson.
As a proud citizen of Leith, the name Gladstone has always been associated with the port as William’s father, Sir John Gladstone, was born there. That’s John Gladstone. The slave trader. Who owned several plantations in Jamaica and Guyana and who received the largest payment made to any recipient (£106,769 which equates to just over £10 million today) made by the Slave Compensation Commission after the Slavery Abolition and the Slave Compensation Acts were passed in 1833 and 1837 respectively.
Although William Gladstone was more critical of slavery later on in life and acknowledged that its abolition was a great achievement, his help early on to ensure his father obtained that reimbursement, together with the fact that much of his own wealth came from his father's plantations, shouldn’t be overlooked.
But that’s probably why a career in whisky marketing has never beckoned me. If your product is “bottled in an iconic bottle which tells the story of William Gladstone in a contemporary way”, it’s probably way better to focus on his axe wielding, tree felling pastimes that his earlier opposition to the immediate abolition of slavery.
And so, to the contents of this iconic bottle. There’s a little more transparency here than with most blended malts. We’re told that both expressions are a vatting (am I allowed to say that these days?) of 14 single malts from the Highlands and Islay with the Black Axe expression containing a higher proportion of Islay malts. The press release states that the American Oak expression is “aged and finished in American Oak bourbon barrels” - I’m not sure what that means. Finished in different American Oak bourbon barrels than it was aged in? Hopefully someone can let me know.
Both expressions have been bottled at 41% and retail for £32. Here are my thoughts:
Nose: notes of porridge with honey; hints of fresh nectarines appear after a while together with hints of sweety shop sweets such as cola cubes and foamy bananas; after a while in the glass, those nectarine notes develop more into tinned clementine notes; there's a hint of vanilla fudge in the background throughout.
Palate: first thoughts are Rich Tea biscuits with a hint of custard; after a while, there's a slight hint of ginger and those biscuity notes become more like toasted granola; this has quite a nice texture to it - thicker than usual mouthfeel at this abv; the finish isn't hugely long and there's a slight burn as you head in to it; this isn't too shabby at all for the price.
Nose: initial hints of dried dates; a note of cherry flavoured chocolate follows; a slight earthy note develops after a while and there's a hint of burnt toast throughout.
Palate: some very subtle peat notes come through from the outset; there's some vanilla fudge notes and the burnt toast note detected from nosing comes through after a while in the glass; other than that, not much else happening here.
Overall: if I had to chose between the two, the American Oak would be my preference. It does have a few rough edges but I think 32 quid is the right price for this; it would be fine as an 'everyday' sipper. Although The Black Axe is the same price, I didn't feel as though there was as much going on. At times, the whisky felt a bit forced to be honest although that cherry chocolate note was a pleasant surprise.
Both releases are widely available at a number of retailers (for info, the above links are commission links to Master of Malt). Many thanks to Zoe at MPR Communications for the samples.
In today's climate of influencers saying nothing but wonderfully gushing things about every whisky they review, it has been known for those who post anything which could be construed as even slightly critical to be 'struck off' the PR lists; banished to reviewing hell ;-) So, it was refreshing to find an email in my inbox from Elwyn Gladstone himself thanking me for my review and addressing a few points I had made. So, I feel that as he afforded me the courtesy of getting in touch, I'll take the time to post them here.
Re the slavery issue:
"...your points about Mr. Gladstone were fair and interesting. His humanitarian efforts, bringing attention to the world the Genocide of millions of Armenians by the Turks were interesting too. At his state funeral in Westminster Abbey, the Armenian flag was draped on his coffin - that is now at his library in Hawarden, North Wales. Similarly, his humanitarian efforts with the mistreatment of prisoners in Italy eventually led in part to the revolution there and the creation of the republic. The slavery issue can never be forgiven or overlooked of course."
Re the axe:
"Mr. Gladstone and his axes, seemed like an interesting story for a blend of malts... I have always thought blended malts bring the best of all worlds. I wanted to create something that was very reasonably priced (I think whisky prices have gone mad!!) - so people could discover and enjoy without breaking the bank - and create a bottle design that told a story and looked fairly modern, but also like it had been around."
Re the 'aged and finished in American Oak':
"To your specific point about American Oak - I apologize, that was explained badly. The whisky is not finished - it is, like other scotch, simply aged in Bourbon barrels. You are not allowed to say "Bourbon Barrels" by SWA, so I thought simply pointing out to the consumer that it was aged in American Oak Barrels was sort of interesting - pure and simple."
I genuinely think that getting in touch was a really decent thing for Elwyn to do - we definitely need more of this if we're to put unbiased whisky reviews back on to an even keel.
As readers of whisky blogs, and followers of whisky related social media accounts, we naturally align ourselves with those whose opinions we have come to respect - especially when that person is simply being honest. But we all know that whisky is subjective and we shouldn't overlook the fact that it is only one person's opinion. One, or both of these expressions, may well now feature in the Blended Malts blind tasting for the Quarter Gill Club - if only to quantify that last point.
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