Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Actual important research, carried out scientifically - The Standard Supermarket Blended Scotch Test


Concept
Having started my whisky love affair around 10 years ago with Aldi’s 8 year old Highland Black, a blend I consider to be a ‘standard supermarket blend’ (though it probably actually isn’t, given its declared 8 years), I have, as my knowledge of whisky and taste for it develops, for some time now held a curiosity about how good standard supermarket blends actually are. I hadn’t bought one since the last time I bought the Highland Black, as you generally only have to pay a couple of pounds more to get a basic entry level brand – Cutty Sark, Ballantine’s Finest, Dewar’s, Whyte and Mackay, Bell’s, Teachers, Grant’s, Johnnie Walker Red, and The Famous Grouse are all what I would call affordable – but that curiosity kept on niggling away at me. I was going to have to do something about it, something like getting a bottle of each standard supermarket blend in all at once and holding a tasting – even if it was just with myself.

Now, I didn’t want to be stuck with 3.6-4.2 litres of crap scotch when I was done, but the supermarkets have already thought of that – you can buy most of them in 35cl bottles, so while I wouldn’t normally buy a half size bottle without good reason, I decided to make that one of the experiment’s conditions of entry. Unfortunately, that prevents Highland Black from entering, but I can always get it to play the winner later on – assuming this experiment doesn’t put me off cheap blends for good.

I was actually thinking of doing this with all the genres of spirits, but while drinking a glass of standard Sainsburys white rum one day, I realised white rum, gin and vodka were all likely to be dull – and then I would be stuck with litre upon litre of crap spirits. On top of that, budget spirits brands tend to be around only 36-37.5% alcohol and that renders them fairly uninteresting for a start, but with whisky, you can’t even call it whisky unless it reaches the standard 40%. To paraphrase Jim Murray; don’t add water to your whisky, as in most cases that will bring it to below 40% ABV… and then it ain’t whisky no mo’. Something like that.

So anyway, finally we will know which supermarket has the best standard blended scotch. I’ll be contacting the winner to congratulate them on their prestigious achievement, and I’ll let you know if they respond.

Competition Rules

  1. It must be a standard blended scotch. Some supermarkets offer a super cheap expression – budget, no frills, value, everyday essentials (perhaps not every day… I’m not sure a supermarket would be allowed to suggest you drink scotch every day…) and the like – these are ineligible, as is any supermarket expression that is slightly above standard.
  2. It must state “bottled for [insert supermarket]” on the label.
  3. It must be available in a 35cl bottle (or smaller).
  4. Those are all the rules.

There was going to be a rule about not having to ask for the whisky at a counter, thus weeding out mini-markets and things that can’t be considered a supermarket. In the end though, I had to drop this rule because the Cooperative is a supermarket, it does have its own brand of blended scotch, and I had to ask for it from behind the counter in the Piccadilly Gardens branch.

Collection

Yes, I am a geek, but I am not geeky enough to visit all the supermarkets in one day in order to buy their standard blend. Nor did I want to spend around £50 on cheap scotch in one day. Instead, I figured I could just collect one whenever I was passing a supermarket, or happened to be popping in…

Time to start engineering “impromptu” trips to Tesco, Morrison’s, Asda, Sainsburys, Waitrose and Marks and Spencer. Aldi don’t do a half bottle, nor do Lidl, though they would have been able to enter if they did.

Tesco (Burnage) and Morrison’s were accomplished with no difficulty, since I go in Tesco fairly frequently anyway and we were passing the Morrison’s by Sheffield’s Parkway on the way to Phil’s one weekend.

A week or two later a leisurely Saturday afternoon turned into a trip to the big Asda (Hulme), and then a need to pick up lunch one Wednesday led to a stop at Sainsburys (Birchfields Road).  It wasn’t all plain sailing though.

I knew Waitrose would be tricky, since we don’t have many of those in the north. I heard Mrs Cake was heading to Wilmslow one weekend and enlisted her to pop in, even finding the product online in order to provide her with a picture and make sure she got the right one... only for her to change her plans and therefore scupper mine. That turned out to be the last I collected, having to call into the small one on Bridge Street after a Christmas party.

The same week Mrs Cake changed her plans with regard to Waitrose, a trip to the M&S in Trafford Centre proved fruitless. They didn’t have their standard blend in a 35cl bottle, and while they did have a 20cl of the 5 year old Kenmore variety I quickly decided that would be ineligible since it was one class above standard. I actually stood there for about 5 minutes, hoping I’d spot a 35cl standard blend if I looked hard enough, but in the end I had to admit defeat and wait until I could pop into the M&S in town – even managing to resist the temptation to buy the Kenmore just for the sake of it. Rules: sometimes they are good.

I finally had to exclude M&S altogether when I did make it to the big store in town, and they didn’t have a 35cl bottle. They do have it in 70cl, and I would really like to be able to compare it to all the others, but I’m sorry M&S, rules are rules so don’t go breakin em.

Pricing

More or less across the board, the blends were priced at a tempting and affordable £6.50 to £7. Asda, Tesco and Morrison’s inhabited the lower end of the scale, while Sainsburys consider themselves that 50p classier. Waitrose’s website states that theirs is £7, but that must be online and in the big stores, since I had to pay something like £7.35 (sorry, I forget exactly how much it was).

The real surprise though, was that I had to pay a ma-hoossive £8.35 for the Cooperative’s entry. At this stage I don’t know whether this is because I bought it from a small city centre store and whether it would have been cheaper say, in West Didsbury or whether it’s just that expensive. What I do know is that I don’t want to be collecting supermarket whiskies forever, so I just bought it anyway to hurry things along a little. What started out as a long term project to be completed whenever had quickly turned into an obsession as I clamoured to complete my collection and get the tasting underway. Time would tell whether it would be worth all the effort.

In total then, I spent £42.19 on 210cl of  standard supermarket blends.

Method

McKendrick's (Asda) vs Waitrose
So how would the test be carried out? I considered pouring all six into glasses at once and then just drinking them side by side, but I actually wanted a companion for this experiment. Enter David, fellow member of the Manchester Whisky Club, who was delighted to come over one Friday night and help out.

I would ideally have liked to have two rounds, three whiskies in each round with a winner being picked from each and facing each other in the final, but it turns out I only have 5 glencairn glasses. So instead, David came up with a winner stays on system, whereby we would each start with the same two samples, decide on a winner, and then compare it with the next sample until one was left standing at the end.

Before we could start the tasting though, let us consider another important factor, presentation.

Presentation

spirit wheel
I like that they all come in bottles of an identical size and shape. It means you can arrange them like this for interesting photographs. I actually like this bottle shape anyway, since it is clearly designed to fit snuggly into your jacket pocket, like a hip flask (though it isn’t shaped to fit your hip). If you see someone buying one of these, you just assume they’re going to drink it straight away, don’t you? Perhaps that’s why M&S don’t do one – they’re too classy for that kind of thing.

It is interesting to me to see the various similarities and differences. Both Tesco and Asda have gone for a traditional and professional look. Asda have actually gone so far as to name theirs McKendricks Whisky - lah-di-dah -  rather than just something generic like Blended Scotch or Select Reserve.

Sainsburys and Morrisons on the other hand, have gone for minimal fuss with a modern, uncluttered label, one depicting a distillery in a circular box and the other a thistle. Co-op have depicted a piper and included a silver medal from the IWSC (the only entry to do so), while Waitrose haven’t even bothered to include a generic Scottish image, but there you go.

I find it interesting that Asda and Tesco have specified that their product was aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels, since that’s a minimum requirement for calling it scotch whisky. So for whatever reason, the other supermarkets have chosen to eschew that information, presumably secure in the knowledge that their customers either know that already, or aren’t likely to be swayed by any lack of age statement and maturing information. I suppose if you’re buying an own brand blend, you’re not snooty about these things – since the only other option is to leave the supermarket and go to another one… not really worth it for the sake of an age statement.

Particularly amusing was that, when I searched for Asda’s standard blend on their website, it informed me that the 35cl bottle is frequently bought with Asda brown onions. Make of that what you will.

Colour

before...
This is weird. They are all exactly the same colour. There has to be caramel added, so presumably this represents an exact whisky colour profile that is considered to be most attractive to the consumer – though I can’t think why; I certainly don’t find it inspiring. This is whisky that is brown rather than an attractive pale gold or amber. One thing’s for sure, none of the supermarkets have decided to take a risk by being any different to any of the others. It makes you wonder whether the whisky is in fact the same. It will be a massive disappointment if that turns out to be the case.

Surprisingly, this uniformity doesn’t carry over into the glass. Yes, they are similar, but when we poured our first two samples (Asda and Waitrose), we noticed that the Waitrose was darker. Then, later we noticed that Tesco’s entry was closer to the Waitrose colour, but not as… shimmery.

Tasting

I had planned to break this next section down into categories of nose, palate and finish, but let’s be realistic; with all that booze floating about and only a very light tea consumed, we were starting to get hammered pretty quick and my notes became illegible and fragmented. I’ll just try and relate what I’ve got.

We started, as I said with Asda’s McKendrick’s and Waitrose. The nosing immediately revealed a startling difference. We liked Asda, but Waitrose gave a hit of nail varnish, caramel and molasses.

When we moved on to the tasting, we were immediately impressed with Asda. It is light and sweet, reminding me of the Ballantine’s Finest that I’d recently been enjoying. David said it had a ‘grittiness’ that he liked. I didn’t really understand and we had a brief discussion about how people seem to describe spirits they are trying for the first time as “smooth”, and how in a lot of cases I a) don’t know what they mean, and b) think they’re just making it up for something to say because smooth is considered good. David and I agreed we both like a degree of roughness to our spirits, a bit of burn.

Anyway, when it came to the Waitrose, we were both horrified. What the fuck is this? It’s minging. How dare they bottle this and pass it off as blended scotch? It reminded me very much of the Wall Street that I picked up in Vietnam. We concluded it had definitely been coloured with caramel spirit, and was devoid of any character or redeeming features. Waitrose, this is just awful.

So Asda was the clear (and unexpected) winner. We selected Tesco as the next contender, refilling our Asda glass, and swilling out the Waitrose one. I tried drinking the whole Waitrose sample, but it wasn’t nice, so I threw some of it down the sink. For the second round I poured smaller measures.

We noted that Tesco gave an impression of being artificially coloured on the nose, but it didn’t appear as shiny as Waitrose. When it came to tasting though, we concluded it was bad, though not quite as bad as the Waitrose had been.

Asda was victorious again, and would next face the Morrison’s offering. By this stage I was struggling to taste anything so we had to start sipping sparkling water in between samples to keep our tired palates awake.

Morrison’s proved to be fairly inoffensive on the nose, and on the palate a little harsh – but I liked that. It had a slightly dark flavour at the end, but while it was no match for Asda, it was actually quite pleasant.

Co-op was next up. As [easily] the most expensive of the competitors, you’d be hoping it would have a flavour profile to match. I’m going to give you direct quotes from my note book here:

I like the Co-op, & [sic] I’m not sure if it’s Asda beating… It was agreed that Vince Vaughn is a twat… Yesh [sic] Co-Op not as good”.

Not as good, but fairly good nonetheless.

Finally then, we have Sainsburys. David proclaimed that this sample was identical to Asda, but I maintained that Asda just has a little something extra, that I’m going to call the edge. There was just a note about the Sainsburys that didn’t sit quite right. Nevertheless, a decent effort.

Before we move on to the verdict, I’d just like to share one more note from my book in direct quotation:

...more or less after.
David is now unsure what he is drinking, while Neil is unsure of what went before.”

Yeah, we were pretty hammered and ready to start drinking the special stuff we’d been saving. David had brought an Amrut Fusion while the most special thing I had at the time was the Glen Scotia 16. It was about time we ordered some pizza also.

Verdict

When considering the verdict, you’ve got to ask yourself what was the purpose of all this anyway? Obviously I want to see which of the supermarkets has the best blended scotch, but to what purpose? I suppose I’m trying to use this as a benchmark. You see, it isn’t just blends that supermarkets produce their own versions of. There are also ultra-cheap blends, slightly more upmarket, even aged blends, single malts based on various of the distilling regions of Scotland then there are the different varieties of rum, brandy… so I’m wondering whether the quality of the standard blend might tell us something about all the other varieties of own brand alcohol. Sadly you know it won’t. I’ll ultimately have to try all the other varieties too. Since I’m destined to fail on that score, why don’t I break it down to the following questions, and see if that tells us anything:

Are these comparable in terms of quality to the cheap standard brands that they are emulating?

In some cases, yes. Asda, Morrison’s, Sainsburys and Co-op all supplied decent, even pleasant products. As I said, Asda seemed very similar to Ballantine’s, while a later tasting of Sainsburys brought to mind the standard Grant’s. They certainly aren’t to be sniffed at.

Would I buy any of these again?

I would definitely buy Asda’s again, without a doubt. The others listed as comparable above? Sure, if I only had £7, needed a bottle of scotch and only had access to one of those supermarkets. I would buy with confidence.

Is any one supermarket brand the daddy of them all?

Finally, yes. Asda confounded expectation, and is duly crowned the daddy of them all. Seriously, well done Asda and keep up the good work. All that remains is to give you the full list, in order of preference. Here you go:

  1. McKendrick’s by Asda
  2. Morrison’s Blended Scotch Whisky
  3. Sainsburys Blended Scotch
  4. Cooperative Blended Scotch
  5. Tesco Special Reserve
  6. Waitrose Blended Scotch

Thanks for joining me for this scientific experiment. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, found it useful, and that it has answered the question of whether supermarket blends are any good once and for all. Don’t worry, this isn’t the end by any stretch of the imagination. There are always more spirits to try, and David tells me he’d like to do the same thing with the super cheap supermarket blends, so I’ll be sure to let you know how that turns out.

See you again, then.

Postcript

While David and I agreed on the night, and while the results will stand as testament to that, in personal tastings since the Cooperative Blended Scotch has actually excelled, while Morrison’s, which placed 2nd, has failed to impress, so I would actually like to elevate the Co-operative Blended Scotch to 2nd, but that’s just for me. For the rest of you, take the ranking above.


Thanks, and see you next time.