NUMBER TWO — for some people, it sounds like a curse. The spare not the heir. The mistress not the wife. We always frame it as a sad story, that it means always missing the top spot by just a hair’s breadth. With that thought, we discount all the steps that make something Number Two (instead of three, four, or 12).
Ballantine’s currently stands as the number two best selling whisky brand in the world, with a 2020 sales and results report by Pernod Ricard recording organic sales of 7.2 million cases, down 8% year on year. Asked what it felt like to be No. 2, Tony Atayde, Marketing Head for Pernod Ricard Philippines, said, “It makes me feel hungry. When you’re No. 1, there’s no way to go but down. We’re coming to get you.” And no matter, they’re No. 1 in Europe, anyway.
BusinessWorld attended a virtual tasting of Ballantine’s Finest, its most famous blend, late last month. The blend is made with over 40 single malts and grains, prominent among these the Glenburgie, Glentaucher, and Miltonduff.
Ballantine’s was founded in the 1800s — its founder, grocer George Ballantine, Sr., pioneered whisky aging. “George Ballantine was always aging whisky a lot longer than was needed,” said Hamish Houliston, Chivas Regal ambassador (both brands are owned by spirits giant Pernod Ricard). His contemporaries sold whisky young (and usually harsh); but Mr. Ballantine only sold his whiskies when they had mellowed with age. His efforts got his product a Royal Warrant from Queen Victoria in 1895 (George Ballantine, Jr. was at the helm at that point). While the family had sold the firm by the 1920s, the company itself was awarded a coat-of-arms, which the bottles still bear.
Mr. Houliston told a lot of funny stories about the brand during the virtual tasting: its peculiar rectangular bottle was created in the 1920s for easier smuggling in suitcases during the Prohibition Era. Another dotty brand practice is its Scotch watch: a gaggle of geese — guard geese — that they first began to use in 1959 to guard their warehouse. “There was a man in the warehouse who was a very big fan of birdwatching. He suggested that we keep the geese at the warehouse to protect the finest whisky in the land. The geese did a great job. Very noisy,” Mr. Houliston noted.
Aside from Queen Victoria, another great fan of the whisky was US President John F. Kennedy. This was noted by Mr. Houliston, quoting from Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, one of the books of the multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor. During visits to Johnson’s ranch, President Kennedy would have a supply of Poland water and Ballantine’s nearby.
Mr. Houliston bade us to pour a glass, but even if the brand had such a pedigree, it was loosey-goosey (pardon the pun) with its approach. Of course, the relaxation was with a reason. “Feel free to add some water,” he said. Whisky snobs might turn their noses up at this, but Mr. Houliston said their master blender drinks it at levels of half-scotch and half-water. “If you’re in a garden on a sunny day, and you’re trying to smell a flower, you have to get really close down to it. But after it rains, everything’s opened up, and you can smell [everything]. The flavor’s just a bit elongated,” he said. The scent had some smoke, grass, and some wildflowers thrown in; all in a rush — like drinking in a landscape from the window of a train chugging down the countryside.
The taste notes were composed a bit like an oriental perfume: think orange peel, vanilla, notes of rough honey, some pepper, and even a bit of marzipan. It reminded me of the smell of Guerlain’s L’Heure Bleue perfume, and this must be what the smell tasted like. I was tempted to rub some on my wrists. There’s a lingering heat that tastes mild at first but intensifies the longer it stays in your mouth.
To add to the relaxed attitude of the afternoon, Mr. Houliston mixed up a cocktail of cola and Ballantine’s finest. “Enjoy it however you like,” he said. “Not everybody wants to drink whisky neat or on the rocks,” added Pernod Ricard Philippines Managing Director John O’Sullivan. Alluding to the brand slogan “Stay True,” he said, “I think we’re just being open and staying true. Drink it any way you want to drink it.”
It’s got a coat-of-arms, it does what it wants, and it has a rich Scottish heritage, and had transatlantic fun with the Americans. It’s practically having an aristocrat sit in your liquor cabinet — even if he is number two.
Ballantine’s Finest is available in S&R Membership Shopping stores for a suggested retail price of P599. For online orders, check out Boozy.ph, which retails Ballantine’s Finest at P699. It is also available in leading supermarkets like Puregold, Robinsons, Rustans, Metro Gaisano, Landmark, and Landers. — Joseph L. Garcia