By Richard Thomas
Whiskey lovers have been blessed over the past couple of decades by the increasing diversity of spirits available on bar and liquor store shelves. I remember the 1980s as a time when Maker’s Mark was an exotic small batch, even in Kentucky. If you wanted a blended scotch, you were probably looking at J&B, Cutty Sark, and Johnnie Walker. Those were the last years before a consumer revolution began, with everything from toothpaste to whiskey catering to ever more diversified and niche-oriented customers.
A more recent example of the glorious experimentation fostered by this consumer revolution is the production of peaty blended scotch. The idea of making a blend that emphasizes peaty smoke flavors is a logical one, as many diehard scotch lovers prefer their whiskey smoky and woody, rather than sweet and floral. Probably the best-known release of the peaty blends is Johnnie Walker’s Double Black, which sadly leads some scotch fans to overlook what is arguably the original peaty article, The Black Grouse.
The Black Grouse is a marriage of The Famous Grouse with peated malt Islay whiskeys. The whiskey has no aging statement, and is bottled at 40% alcohol. The bottle is conventional, with a metal screw-cap and (unfortunately) an aerator.
In the glass, the whiskey has the same clear, orange-and-amber coloring as The Famous Grouse, belying the fuller body of the spirit (placed side-by-side, The Black Grouse is only slightly darker than its forebear). On the nose, The Black Grouse has a crisp woody scent, with noticeable threads of sweetness and peat smoke. That peat comes forward to share center stage with the oaky flavors on the palate, endowing the whiskey with a respectable, middling body. This is a silky scotch, and the underlying caramel sweetness gives it a little sophistication. The flavor lingers into spiciness, with a lengthy and peaty finish.
I tried this whiskey with a splash of water, and recommend drinking it neat. I found the water pushed the peaty flavors backwards until the finish, where the flavor became ashy. With results like that, putting a splash of water in undermines the whiskey’s virtues.
These qualities make The Black Grouse a gem for scotch lovers. Admittedly, this is not top shelf whiskey and won’t replace your favorite peaty single malt, but it isn’t meant to. Instead, The Black Grouse is the peaty scotch you can sip freely without feeling a bite in your wallet.
Addendum by S.D. Peters
The Whiskey Reviewer has made no secret that it enjoys the “Grouse” family of blended scotch, and my experience with The Black Grouse is no exception to the rule. What surprises me most is that for a whiskey named for a black bird, the color in the glass is awfully close to my orange tabby cat… who would undoubtedly enjoy a meal of Black Grouse (the bird) as much as I enjoy a drought of Black Grouse (the blended Scotch).
Lest anyone be put-off by that color comparison, however, my cat’s a good guy, if sometimes noisy, and the whiskey is a good whiskey, if a bit nosey. For lovers of peaty scotch, like me, that’s not at all a bad thing; in fact, it’s what recommends this particular blended Scotch to those who might otherwise scoff at blends.
There’s a whiff of kindling tinder on the nose, weaving a scent of berry through the smoke. That mildly sweet smokiness, thick and peaty, is the first sensation on the tongue, with a trace of heather in its medium body, and a trailing finish that ends in a refreshing mineral spring with a peaty infusion.
The Black Grouse is an affordable blended Scotch that deserves a regular place on the shelves with your favorite single malts. It’s a fine sipping Scotch.
The Black Grouse should retail for £18 in the UK, and about 22€ to 25€ in Europe, depending on local taxes. In the United States, expect to see it for between $28 and $30. Prices like that ought to make The Black Grouse very attractive for peat-lovers in search of a bargain.
The Black Grouse won gold at the International Spirits Challenge in 2010 and 2011, as well as a gold and “Best in Class” at the 2009 International Wine and Spirits Competition. Jim Murray named it the best new blended scotch in the 2008 edition of the Whisky Bible.