Bell's is a blended whisky and has been the UK's biggest selling whisky since the 1970s. The availability of Bell's is widespread and it can be found in every pub, bar, supermarket and corner shop in the land. It represents a massive success story that started in a convenience store in the Scottish town of Perth. In 1825, Arthur Bell was a shopkeeper and he started experimenting by mixing different single malts together, believing that by doing so he would please more palates. Coupled with the boom in the whisky blending industry at the time, Bell's whisky started to gain many fans. Arthur's sons, Arthur Kinmond Bell and Robert Duff Bell joined the expanding empire and Arthur Bell & Sons was born. By the early 1900s, they were buying or building their own distilleries in order to fuel the increasing demand for the Bell's blended whisky.
The UK's number one
The Bell's brand is currently owned by Diageo, one of the world's largest drinks corporations. Bell's became the UK's best selling whisky in 1978 and has held that spot ever since, despite increasingly close competition from The Famous Grouse range. In 2008, a staggering 18.7% of all whisky purchased in the UK was Bell's *. Bell's is bottled at 40% ABV and should cost around £15 a bottle (although it can be found as low as £10 when on promotion at supermarkets).
What's in it?
The blend contains a complex mix of 40 different single malt and grain whiskies and these have been matured for a minimum of eight years in oak casks (the age stated on a blended whisky such as this one, is the age of the youngest whisky that is included in the blend). Single malt whisky from the Blair Athol distillery forms the core of the blend and it is there that you can visit the Bell's Whisky Experience. Blair Athol is located in the town of Pitlochry in the central Highlands. Other single malts known to be included are from Dufftown and Inchgower distilleries in the Speyside region, Glenkinchie from the Lowlands and Caol Ila from the western isle of Islay.
Our tasting notes
Bell's has a golden colour with a touch of amber and the nose that is initially a little harsh, before settling down slightly. The nose begins with a whiff of alcohol spirit and some distinct cereal grain (think of the husks especially) and grassy notes (imagine dried grasses or hay). After come some softer aromas - caramel, sweet brown sugar, dried fruits (think of sultanas and apple) and a hint of ashy bonfire smoke. On the palate, the whisky feels thin and watery and that initial alcohol spirit is present again and offers a warm burn. Once this dies, the softer notes are allowed to express themselves - this is very grainy (imagine those cereal husks again and maybe oatmeal) and very grassy (those dried grasses and hay again) to begin with before some caramel, toffee, honey, nuts (think of almonds), dried fruits (sultanas especially) and soft smoke come through. The finish is on the short side and starts with the sweet cereals, dried fruit and caramel, before becoming very dry and woody at the end. Again, these characteristics are backed up with some obvious alcohol spirit.
What's the verdict?
When you consider that it contains 40 different whiskies, then it seems, surprisingly, to lack the expected complexity. In fact, this is quite a simple, safe and easy to drink whisky - this is therefore what makes it so popular and appealing to a large diverse range of palates (Arthur Bell was right!), especially when adding in the price factor. Bell's is primarily marketed as a mixer and it would be good at that job by supplying sweetness and that obvious alcoholic kick to a long drink or cocktail. As far a being a sipping whisky is concerned, this is pleasant enough but lacks the complexity to hold your interest for more than a couple of mouthfuls.
* Source - Euromonitor International Report 2009