Monday, June 8, 2015

Famous Grouse vs. Black Grouse vs. Snow Grouse

Snow Grouse: blended grain Scotch, 40%, $25
Famous Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $22
Black Grouse: blended Scotch, 40%, $26

I generally lack any interest whatsoever in buying bottles of whisky when I’m under the duress of an acute hangover. Returning from an adventure in Montreal recently, I stopped at the Duty Free store for no reason other than to use the rest room before crossing the border. When confronted with shelves of whisky bottles though, some of which might not be available elsewhere, I can’t help but look.

While there were a few interesting oddities and tempting Travel Retail exclusives, I was actually enticed by something rather mundane; a trio of Famous Grouse miniatures. Included was their eponymous flagship offering as well as its more heavily peated variant and their blended grain whisky. For just $10 (the prices listed above are typical for 750 ml), how could I pass them up?

The Famous Grouse blend was introduced in 1896 by a long established Perth grocer who had been blending whisky since 1860. Originally called the Grouse Brand blend, it was renamed to the Famous Grouse in 1905. The company was sold to Highland Distillers in 1970 and by 1980 the Famous Grouse had become the best selling whisky in Scotland. Distribution outside of the UK started in the 1980’s, leading to further growth. Today the brand is owned by the Edrington Group, which also has five single malt distilleries in its portfolio (Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes, Glenturret and Tamdhu).

Looking at worldwide annual case sales for 2013, which is the last year info is available for, the Famous Grouse is the sixth best selling Scotch, at 3.3 million cases. It leads Dewar’s, which is at 3.0 million and follows J&B (3.8 mil), William Grant’s (4.7 mil), Chivas Regal (4.9 mil), Ballantine’s (5.9 mil) and Johnnie Walker (20.1 mil). Just to add some perspective, the best selling North American whiskey is Jack Daniel’s at 11.5 million cases, and the best selling single malts are Glenfiddich at 1.1 million and Glenlivet at 1.0 million. Remember, these are worldwide figures, and different brands have their strengths in different locations. If you’re thinking, “Ballantine’s? I don’t know a single person who drinks Ballantine’s!”, keep in mind that a lot of their sales growth could be in paces like Asia, South America, India, etc.

I’m going to start off with the Snow Grouse. This is a blended grain Scotch, meaning it is a mix of grain whiskies from more than one distillery. While this style, as well as single grain Scotch, is even rarer than blended malt Scotch, it is not completely unheard of. Scottish grain whisky is usually made from either corn or wheat and distilled in a column still to a very high alcohol level, often approaching the (less than) 94.8% abv limit that defines whisky in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the EU.

In spite of the light style that is produced by being highly distilled, there are some respectable single grain and blended grain Scotches out there. They have usually been aged slowly for a very long time in casks which were previously used quite heavily, taking away their ability to over oak the gentle spirit. That’s not what this is. The label advises to “serve from the freezer”, something which I refuse to do on principal. The colder a beverage is served, the more its flavors are masked. I’m guessing that this whisky is relatively young.

I wouldn’t call the aromas off-putting, but they are unusual. There are some pleasant grain notes, but it’s also a bit metallic and industrial. The aromatics seem oddly hollow at times. It is surprisingly full-bodied (I’ve read that it becomes downright viscous when fully chilled). Like the nose, I find the flavors on the palate to be a strange mix of good and bad. Some pleasant vanilla and spice driven oak notes stand out. Those are sharply contrasted by some chemical-like hints and unbalanced fruit (maybe banana). Warming spice notes on the finish are overshadowed by its youthful, immature character. I was actually expecting much worse based on some of the reviews I had scanned. Chilling it probably would be an improvement, but I’m of the school of thought that if you have to chill a spirit to make it palatable, you should probably just drink something else.

On to the flagship Famous Grouse:
The aromas are subtle and complex, a bit of earthiness, a whiff of peat and slightly sweet maltiness are all well-integrated. It’s fairly assertive on the palate (for a blend), with mild peat notes tying everything together nicely. It also shows good complexity, with the aromas from the nose reflecting on the palate. The finish is full and lengthy. Comparing it to some know quantities, I’d say that it lacks the elegance of Chivas Regal, but still stands head and shoulders above Dewar’s.

And finally, the more heavily peated Black Grouse:
The increased peat is obvious on the nose, but with more of a damp-leaves and clay-like earthiness quality. The aromatic profile is quite different than that of the Famous Grouse, but equally complex. A bit of malty sweetness shows up-front before the phenolic character comes to the fore. This is no Islay single malt, but the healthy dose of peat does grow and expand as it moves through the mid palate and into the early finish. The peat carries the finish quite a bit further here, though it does seem to go slightly out of balance at the very end, with a grassy undertone left to stand alone as the smoke fades. While quite drinkable on its own, this shouldn’t be overlooked by the progenitors of craft cocktails.

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