I am not a big blend drinker. I got started on single-malt Scotch and that has irrevocably spoiled me for anything distilled. That being said, some days the proverbial moths in the wallet might induce one to cut back on the single-malt budget and go in for something a little cheaper. Furthermore, sometimes one might receive a visitor from out of town, and after one waxes poetic for 20 minutes about the delights of single-malt Scotch, this visitor may have the gall to ask for a whisky-and-soda… on ICE.
The simple truth is that inexpensive blends make up some 90% of the Scotch market (and an even larger percent of the Irish whiskey market). While there are certainly some fine blends, definitely even a few that are better than your average single-malt, in general blends are popular because they are easy to drink, mix well, and are above all cheap. Today I explore two of the biggest names in blended Irish whiskey: Jameson and Powers Gold Label. Both are less than $20 US per 750ml bottle and are widely available in the US.
Jameson is cheap. By that I mean inexpensive, as this spirit is surprisingly complex, flavorful, and smooth for an $18 bottle of blended Irish whiskey. It is triple-distilled and is actually a blend comprised of pure (or single?!) pot still whiskey and a grain whiskey made from unmalted barley and other grains. The pure pot still component of the blend is also bottled alone and sold as Redbreast. Jameson is considered to be the world’s best-selling Irish whiskey.
The nose is sharp, but with hints of vanilla, grape skins, and filtered apple juice.
The attack is expectedly dry, but a few seconds on the tongue reveals cereally sweetness, citrus peel, and tropical fruits like banana and kiwi. There is a firm body, but no coat-your-mouth viscosity. The finish is short, but complete with the same floral and bitter-fruit notes from the aroma.
This is no single-malt Scotch, but it is a pleasant and very drinkable whiskey with unexpectedly bright, available flavors, a smooth mouthfeel, and no “cringe” in the aftertaste. A splash of water in the glass (but no ice!) improves the experience, and makes the flavors more apparent to both the nose and the tongue.
Powers Gold Label
Powers Gold Label is the best-selling Irish whiskey in its native Ireland. It retails slightly cheaper than Jameson in the US, at $16 a bottle. Like Jameson, it is blended whiskey, some combination of pure pot-still whiskey with column-still grain whiskey (allegedly 70% pure pot still to 30% grain).
The nose is mellow, with upfront buttery caramel and bright honeyed cereal. There is also a little fruit, like a bit of blackberry jam or cherry pie filling. There is also an overtone of shoe polish and something greasy, like machine oil. A splash of water opens up some herbal, grassy notes, but they are indistinct.
One the palate you get a wash of melted butter and shortbread, then quite a lot of dryness, which finally subsides with cinnamon, clove, toffee and green apple skins. The body is quite full, with a slightly oily quality. There is also a predominant dryness that is unfortunately similar to bottom-shelf vodka, which detracts from the sweet cereal and spice flavors. A splash of water cuts through the body, without adding much in terms of flavor, except perhaps a few hints of fruit blossoms or mown grass.
In terms of quality, Jameson wins by virtue of its smooth, crisp dryness against Powers’ rough edges. Powers, however, has more interesting and lip-smacking flavors. Both are excellent neat or with a splash of water, and I suppose in a pinch you could mix them for cocktails. They certainly both give The Glenlivet 12, the ubiquitous ‘inexpensive’ single-malt, a run for its money.