By Richard Thomas
VAT 69 is one of those classic scotch labels that has fallen into relative obscurity in modern times. If most Americans are aware of VAT 69 today (the scotch enjoys a higher profile in Europe), it is probably because Capt. Lewis Nixon of Band of Brothers fame swore by the stuff, a biographical note highlighted in the HBO series.
Nixon’s love of VAT 69 points directly to how popular it once was. Much like Canadian Club, VAT 69 used to be one of the most popular whiskeys in America, and certainly one of the most popular imports. This was so much the case that the 1939 graduating class of Princeton dubbed themselves the “VAT ’39s.” Both the scotch and its advertisements appeared in countless films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and readers with sharp memories might recall that The Shining’s protagonist, Jack Torrance, had a fondness for VAT 69. Ernest Shackleton even took some with him to Antarctica. Nowadays, it occupies the bargain shelf at the supermarket or liquor store.
VAT 69 is the creation of William Sanderson and Son. As the story goes, William Sanderson was encouraged by his son to get into the blended whiskey business. He prepared 100 different blends and barreled them, and in 1882 invited some experts to sample them. The consensus was that cask No. 69 was the best, and thus VAT 69 was born. In 1884, the Sandersons bought Glengarioch Distillery and started making VAT 69 in earnest.
VAT 69 is a blend of roughly 40 different malt and grain whiskeys. For most consumers, about one-third of the scotch blend is malt whiskey, but the British domestic version is slightly different and contains a little more of the malt. VAT 69 used to be bottled in old port bottles, but today it comes in a simple green glass bottle with a metal screw cap. The scotch is bottled at 40% alcohol.
VAT 69 is a simple, pleasant blended scotch, utterly lacking in complexity, but with its own virtues nonetheless. The scotch enjoys a mid-gold color in the glass, and the nose is syrupy sweet, with crisp woody notes. On the palate, the syrupy all-spice flavored sweetness retreats into the background, partially replaced by peat smoke and tannin-rich woody flavors. The finish isn’t very long, but it is smoky and warm.
In my book, the key redeeming characteristic of VAT 69 is the price. I can buy it for 8 euros here in Portugal. In the United States, $20 seems to be the more the norm, but it gets cheaper in bulk, and I have seen 1.75-liter bottles of VAT 69 priced for as little as $30 before. This stuff is undeniably bargain basement stuff, but it is arguably one of the best whiskeys in that low-end category.