By Richard Thomas
With bourbon booming, the idea of pitching Scotch to appeal to either bourbon drinkers or people who might become bourbon drinkers is catching on. Pernod Ricard has already dabbled in this area with its limited release Barrelhound, but now they have gone one further with Ballantine’s Hard Fired.
That isn’t what the company itself is saying, not directly anyway, but leaning towards bourbon must be part of the point when Ballantine’s Master Blender Sandy Hyslop uses this kind of language, “Hard Fired showcases the natural and unique results that American oak and fire produce on Scotch whisky,” and then goes on to talk about carmelized wood sugars.
What they have done with Hard Fired is take an ex-bourbon barrel and give it a fresh charring. Paradoxically that both preps the barrel for what could be described as “used white oak aging.” Fresh charring doesn’t restore the wood sugars, but it does prep what remains for another round, while eliminating most of the influence that the old bourbon might have on the aging spirit as it soaks into the wood. Ironically, the result of such a process should be more bourbonized than what old, bourbon-soaked wood might have imparted.
The wood influence first shows up in the appearance, which is a light-to-middle amber that has more orange than copper and red in the mix.
The nose is soft and sweet with pears and butterscotch, seasoned with vanilla. On the palate, the whisky has a silky texture, and reminds me very much of some of the middle of the road American craft malts I have tried. No surprise there, as those are aged, either in part or in whole, in new white oak. The flavor brings malty honey, sweet apples and caramel together, like an understated caramel apple really, with a light current of barrel char. Not smoke as a Scotch drinker might think of it, but backyard charcoal barbecue barrel char. From there the finish leaves a light vanilla aftertaste, and winds down rapidly with little warmth.
Although the texture is light and silken, the flavors of Ballantine’s Hard Fired are quite durable, and I found it offered its most pleasant drinking on the rocks.
Ballantine’s Hard Fired is currently available only in France and Poland, but distribution will widen with time. I have seen it listed for around €32 ($36).