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Ballantines Bites Back

by Gavin D Smith, 01/07

Despite its elusiveness in the UK market, Ballantine's remains the best-selling Scotch whisky in Europe and the number three Scotch whisky in the world, with annual sales of 5.3 million nine-litre cases. In other words, two bottles are sold every second.

Ballantine's was one of the assets acquired by Pernod Ricard from Allied Domecq last year, and under Pernod's Scotch whisky subsidiary Chivas Brothers, a great deal of work is being done to bolster the image and potential of the brand.

One problem which has to be addressed is that, as Ballantine's Brand Director Peter Moore explains, "Ballantine's Finest, which accounts for 89 per cent of the blend's overall volumes, has come to be perceived as an "entry level" brand."

Chivas clearly faces a considerable marketing challenge, aimed at persuading consumers that the Ballantine's range offers quality, style and an impeccable heritage.

Glenburgie distillery near Forres on Speyside provides one of the key single malt components in the Ballantine's blend, and Chivas Brothers has invested 480,000 in expanding Glenburgie's capacity by adding a new pair of stills. This increases potential output by 50 per cent to 4.2 million litres per year, making Glenburgie the third largest distillery in the Chivas portfolio.

Under the Allied regime, core Ballantine's blend distilleries such as Glenburgie and Miltonduff had been augmented by Ardmore, but when the Allied whisky business was broken up, Ardmore was sold to Beam Global Spirits & Wine Inc, leaving Ballantine's new owners potentially short of malt spirit for the brand, hence the expansion at Glenburgie.

   Prior to Glenburgie's change of ownership, the distillery had previously been totally rebuilt in 2003/04 by Allied. Chivas' Group distilleries Manager Alan Winchester says "The reason the old distillery, which had been founded in 1829, was rebuilt was that it needed so much money spending on it, it just wasn't worth the investment. But Allied wanted to keep the make, so they rebuilt it from scratch, and they put the existing stills and the old malt mill into the new distillery."

In addition to expanding Gleburgie distillery, Chivas has also recently completed the creation of trade visitor facilities, which centre on the Old Customs House, one of the few original elements of the distillery to survive the Allied reconstruction.

At the same time, Chivas' nearby Miltonduff distillery has also seen Ballantine's-related trade visitor facilities being developed in the old maltings, and Chivas' northern operations headquarters has been transferred from Strathisla to Miltonduff, one of the largest distilleries in the Chivas' portfolio.

According to Peter Moore, "Ballantine's is one of the world's great Scotch brands and a priority for Chivas Brothers. The first elements of our programme to revitalise Ballantine's have involved increasing the capacity of Glenburgie to ensure we can support our future plans for the brand.

"The additional relocation and investment in our trade visitor facilities brings the brand back to its Speyside roots, providing us with the perfect platform to illustrate the Ballantine's story."

That story began back in 1827, when George Ballantine opened his first grocery business, having been born near Edinburgh and taken up an apprenticeship as a shopkeeper at the age of 13. Following the completion of his five year apprenticeship, Ballantine set up his own business, ultimately running profitable outlets in both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

A contemporary of the 'father of blending,' Andrew Usher, Ballantine experimented with vatting single malts, and his sons followed on by developing the origins of the blend we know today. George Ballantine was also an early convert to the importance of choosing good wood in which to mature spirit, and, unusually for the time, he laid down whiskies for considerable periods. As early as1927, Ballantine's were offering 17 and 30-year-old expressions. By that date the company was also using American White Oak for maturation purposes, giving the blend its characteristic creamy, vanilla notes.

As part of the revitalisation of Ballantine's, Sandy Hyslop has recently been appointed Master Blender for the brand. Remarkably, he is only the fifth Master blender in the whisky's 175 year history. Hyslop's career in the Scotch whisky industry began in Dundee in 1983, and nine years later he embarked on an apprenticeship under Ballantine's then Master Blender, Jack Goudy, finally working as part of the blending team at Ballantine's headquarters in Dumbarton. He succeeds Robert Hicks, who was the brand's Master Blender from 1994 until the Allied dispersal last year.

Hyslop says "I'm proud to be the next Master Blender responsible for upholding the heritage and traditions associated with the range. In order to be a blender you have to be passionate about Scotch whisky, and need to see the entire cycle from the distilled spirit to the final blend. You need to devote careful attention to ageing whisky, which for Ballantine's can mean monitoring of aged malt whiskies that are up to 35 years old."

The Ballantine's line up of blends is one of the most comprehensive in the world, and consists of Finest, 12, 17, 21 and 30-year-old expressions. There is a definite 'family resemblance' right through the range, with key characteristics being elegance, sweetness, softness and balance. Finest is soft, sweet and comparatively light in character, lively, but with a satisfying element of complexity, offering apple, vanilla and a floral finish.

The 12-year-old is less exuberant, but is richer, creamier and fruitier, with a lovely toffee and honeyed sweetness. The 17-year-old expression differs considerably in character from Finest and the 12-year-old, in that while quite floral on the nose, it is significantly oakier on the palate, with peat, grain and sweet spiciness following through. The 21-year-old Ballantine's is big bodied, rich, fruity, very sweet and decidedly luscious, while the 30-year-old veteran of the line up retains an amazing amount of life for its age, with a luxurious, velvety texture, honey and vanilla on the notably lively palate, leading into a discreet yet lengthy finish.


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