By Richard Thomas
Last night my wife and I were entertaining a friend of her’s in a South African steakhouse, and I chose to wash down that superb meal with whiskey. Our guest eagerly joined me. Here in Portugal, whiskey is listed simply as “new whiskey” and “old whiskey” on the drinks list, so if you are choosey about what you want like I am, you need to ask what labels they have. As it turned out, the restaurant had a bottle of South African stuff, Bell’s, so we just had to try it.
As I discovered in doing my homework, however, Bell’s isn’t actually a South African whiskey. Although it is a major whiskey label in South Africa (so much so the label has a separate South African website), Bell’s is a blended scotch distilled in Perth, Blair Athol, Inchgower, Dufftown and other places.
Bell’s Extra Special comes in a fairly typical clear glass bottle with a pleasing, old fashioned label and a metal screw-off cap. The whiskey has a light, golden wheat color, is aged for eight years, and has an alcohol content of 40%.
I found the nose to be light and airy, so the scent of the whiskey was rather weak (some might call that “subtle,” but I don’t like to use that word for anything I need to chase). It was grainy and spicy. On the palate, the scotch was light and sweet, with a spicy bite and a hint of peat smoke. The spicy bite continued down through the finish.
I always think that a sweet, light whiskey like Bell’s is a great choice for the non-whiskey lover, but not necessarily for the aficionado. The qualities that make it so approachable for someone who doesn’t know whiskey makes a scotch like Bell’s rather ordinary for the initiated, even for a bottle on the bargain shelf.
Bell’s is a popular, reasonably priced blended scotch in the UK and South Africa. In the United States, you can find retailers selling Bell’s Extra Special Old Scotch Whiskey (the company also has a premium label, so don’t confuse the two) for $25 a bottle.