The problem with most affordable (cheap?) blended scotch comes from the utterly boring base flavour. While single malt scotch is made strictly from malted barley, blended scotch is mixed with distilled corn and possibly wheat. The result is a cheaper drink, with a dull vanilla flavour that's common among many brands in the $30 range.
With the introduction of Three Ships at the LCBO, I may have found my "cheap" drink. It's not a scotch, but it is a South African distilled whisky that has been blended with whisky from an unmentioned distillery in Scotland. The blend of Scotch whisky with South African whisky is no gimmick. There's a light smokiness present here that no-doubt comes from Scotland.
The whisky has been aged at minimum of 5 years. While that's young for a Scottish whisky, in South Africa the climate is significantly warmer. This hastens the chemical process of whisky maturation compared to the cold climate of Scotland where aging is near dormant during the cold winters. Faster isn't always better. Different components (water, alcohol, etc..) evaporate at different rates and the wood is less challenged by warmer climate, but in the case of this blended whisky, the results are fantastic.
I've put this drink up against many single malt and blended scotches of double the value in a blind taste test, and this whisky enters the category of 'Not quite as good as these others, but damn it's good!' At half the price for nearly as good of a product, this drink is an easy favourite. The praise from my blind tasting with friends is not unique. Three Ships has been earning many awards internationally including praise from Jim Murray of The Whisky Bible.
Three Ships Whisky has a history going back to 1850 when Captain James Segwick landed in South Africa. By 1859 he started a company in his name that provided liquor and tobacco to the area. In 1886, he purchased the distillery in Wellington South Africa located about an hour outside of Cape Town. The distillery has since been upgraded, and currently there are over 70,000 casks of whisky maturing.
As mentioned, Three Ships 5 Year Old Blended Whisky is a blend of Scotch and South African whiskies in combination of malted barley and grain whisky, which could be wheat or corn. While the distillery is vague on the details, we can assume that the slight peatiness comes from Scotland. It's nice to see this drink bottled at 43% ABV. For me, when a distillery bottles at a higher alcohol content, often they're demonstrating their faith in the strength of flavour of their product. While 40% ABV is the minimum for whisky, too many distilleries see this as the default alcohol content.
The nose starts with mildly charred wood for peat, with the brightness of a freshly peeled orange, and some raisin-like sweetness. If you wait long enough, you'll get shoe polish notes.
On the palate, the flavour hits immediately with sweet notes of caramelized orange peel and a touch of vanilla. Just as you think you'll settle down for a normal blended whisky, nice levels of oaky spice ramp up. There's an almond fattiness to this drink, and while the complexity builds up, the charred wood smokiness settles down through the middle and fades nicely into the finish. The finish is a combination of peat, spice, and dark chocolate. If there's any complaint, it's the bitter notes that come out the longer you wait.
By many standards, Three Ships whisky is not going to be as good as blends double the price, but it's quite possibly close enough that you won't care. The LCBO has a limited supply of Three Ships Whisky. I recommend stocking up.