So then, supermarket own-brand 12yo Islay single malt whisky...
OK, so this is not just any supermarket own brand 12yo Islay Single Malt, this is Marks and Spencer etc etc… But still, what’s going on here?
In my experience, supermarket own-brand whisky is usually just cheap (and nasty) blends. Stuff that meets the bare minimum requirement to be called whisky and then is served up in plain label bottles that look as if they have been issued by a totalitarian state of a dystopian future. Having tried Sainsburys value whisky once (and never again) I assumed they buy up spirit from a range of distilleries, mix it together and put it out without any real concern for taste, consistency or reputation.
But recently I’ve noticed a number of own brand single-malt whiskies cropping up. The main supermarket chains seem to be doing them, typically offering ranges split geographically (Islay, Speyside, Highland etc). And they all seem to be over 10 years old too. In theory it should be good stuff.
The thing that intrigues me the most is that the distilleries are anonymous – it’s not like supermarkets are acting like independent bottlers such as Gordon and McPhail. And obviously they aren’t building their own distilleries. But on this M&S bottle there is no indication of which distillery it has come from. In order for it to be classed as Single Malt what’s in the bottle must be just from one distillery (although it can be from a variety of casks of the stated age or older). So it’s an interesting one. OK interesting might be pushing it but it's intriguing to consider that distilleries, usually very keen to protect their brand are also anonymously putting these on to the market.
Anyway, what’s it like? I can only talk about this one from Marks and Spencer but I’ve said previously that seemingly there’s no such thing as bad single malt and that still seems to hold true here. It’s got a nice dark colour and a sweet, ash smell to it. It’s quite smooth and smoky. Not the longest finish in the world. It reminded me of a darker coloured Benromach (it’s not – that’s a Speyside albeit a peaty one). It’s certainly drinkable and I don’t know if I’d be able to pick it out as the poor cousin in a line-up. It’s decent, it’s solid, I have no complaints.
Would I buy it? To be honest I’m not sure. It’s relatively cheap at £29 and it’s a decent quality so I’d have no problem enjoying a dram of it. I’m not sure I could bring myself to proudly serve it to guest though – pure snobbery I’m sure, but as a whole it’s lacking a bit of love. I want to try out whisky from different distilleries not a generic Highland or Islay malt bought up by the big supermarket chains on the lowest margin possible.
You could argue that the whisky should speak for itself, but I’d counter the own brand stuff probably has less character as it tries for wider appeal – and surely it can’t be the best stuff the distilleries flog off to the likes of Tesco can it?
Maybe if you worked out which distillery it was (which I suppose wouldn’t be too difficult given the small number on Islay) and this was few pounds cheaper than their standard bottling you could console yourself with the thought you were getting it cheaper than the branded stuff. A bit like buying a SEAT because it’s got a VW engine in it.
Then again if the distillery is anonymous then surely the supermarket can change supplier when they like.
Overall I would say this would be good for people looking to move into the world of single malt, it’s definitely a step up from a bog standard blend for not too much more cash. This stuff is £29 but I notice that Tesco Islay Single Malt is less than £20 (how can that be? - and it has won awards too). But personally I like a bit more personality with my whisky both in the glass and on the bottle.