One of the reasons I like New Wave music was that a lot of those bands weren't overreaching. As evidence of why that's a good thing, just imagine the horrors we'd have had to deal with if Duran Duran woke up one day and said, "You know, we should sound more like Rush."
For the record, I like Rush. I own Rush CDs. But I can only listen to them for a few songs at a time. Not everything needs to be thirteen minutes long with pauses for crazy drum fills and constant time signature switch-ups. So to get to the point, Ballentine's 12 is the taste equivalent of Duran Duran trying to write a Rush song.
I'll get around to Ballantine's Finest one of these days: the entry-level, non-age stated offering in the Ballentine's lineup. It's perfectly fine for what it is: a one-two punch of vanilla and caramel that costs $17 a jug. Continuing the metaphor, it's Girls on Film in liquid form. It isn't flawless, but it's enjoyable, and it's not something I think most would quickly tire of. We usually have some in the house as a resident "give no shits" bottle.
Ballentine's 12 is extremely different from its kid brother—perhaps self-consciously different to justify the higher asking price. To my palate, there's a real attempt here to "dress up" the creamy sweetness of blended scotch with a judicious use of peat and dried fruit. It seems like the blenders are introducing complexity for complexity's sake. As a result, we end up with a motley crew of flavors I don't think work well together. Something reminiscent, for example, of Motley Crue trying to write ballads.
First, the fruit. Ballantine's 12 has some interesting citrus and peach aromas on the nose that let you know this component exists in the glass. And indeed, Ballantine's 12 contains a lot more fruit than does Finest, and the fruit that shows up is juicy in its presentation. In the finish, there's a bit of ripe strawberry I very much liked.
But then there's the smoke. You know it's coming, but what's surprising is how quickly it shoves the fruit out of the way to take center stage. The problem I have here—and it's a problem I have with a lot of non-Islay peated whiskies—is that the peat really isn't that interesting. There's a bit of ash and smoke, but none of the seaweed, shellfish, or wood that makes a good Islay interesting. To my mind, the peat here is made even less interesting when it becomes a distraction to the other nuances.
As further evidence of why this bugs me: have you had smoked fruit? Have you ever been tempted to throw a couple nectarine and strawberry slices on the BBQ alongside your marinated flank steak and give them a good char? I didn't think so. It's something that can be done, but with scotch producers, I wonder if it should be done. The blackberries in something like the Benriach Solstice are strong enough to weather a peat storm. Here? The fresh citrus and orchard fruit just rolls over. In the finish, the peat continues to steer the ship with a bitter presentation of coffee dregs.
At the end of the day, I think the advice I'd give an aspiring "up-market" blend would be this: know your strengths and double down on them. Complexity only works when the depth comes across as complimentary, not confused. Ballantine's 12, though not awful, is a product where the perceived step up is actually a step down.