Taking blended Scotches seriously is difficult for today's single-malt snobs. Here's why it's time to revisit the whiskies that drive the Scotch whisky industry.
I've sniffed and savored my way through well over 5,000 distilled spirits of all varieties over the last 15 years, and my hands-down choice for the world's most complex distillates are Scotch whiskies, both the single malts and the blended whiskies. Scotch whisky's range of aromas, textures and flavors is the broadest and most profound of all spirits. What's more, no world-class spirit, save for Cognac, is more closely associated with its country of origin than Scotch whisky. This is because no other libations, except for some VSOP- and most XO-level Cognacs from France, reflect their native environments with more accuracy. Scotch whisky embodies Scotland's water, grain, earth, air and people—in liquid form.
I have single malt-loving friends who take issue with my idea that drinking blended Scotch is, in many cases, as thought-provoking as consuming single malts. I understand their contention, but I also disagree with it. I'll explain why a bit later. First, some Scotch whisky basics that will help you understand how and why blended Scotches were developed.
Scotch whisky making began in the late Middle Ages as a cottage industry in Scotland's rugged highlands, islands and river valleys. For Scotland's rural laborers, the warming elixir helped them ward off the country's unforgiving climate. Some of the earliest distillers probably also traded their whisky for other goods or services.
Made from the commonplace elemental trio of grain, water and yeast, Scotch whisky is—on the surface at least—an uncomplicated concoction. The barley, corn and wheat grains are grown, harvested, allowed to partially germinate and then are dried and steeped in water, which creates a mash. The mash, a benign liquid entity, is next inoculated with active yeast. Soon after, the voracious yeast cells break down the mash's innate sugars, creating alcohol in the tumultuous biochemical orgy that is fermentation. The soupy, low-alcohol (7 to 11 percent), wet sand-colored liquid result, referred to by the Scots as "wash," smells and tastes remarkably like beer, which it is, technically.
The wash is then distilled to a level of 70 to 72 percent alcohol (140 to 144 proof). The distilling materials are either the old-fashioned, labor-intensive, copper pot stills that produce spirits in small batches or the more modern stainless-steel, continuously operating Coffey stills. (The latter were invented in the 1820s.) This perfumey, potent new spirit is pumped into used oak barrels (which had formerly contained either Bourbon or Sherry).
After a legal minimum of three years in oak casks (though the majority of Scotch whiskies age for longer periods), the raw spirit transforms itself into the pale amber-hued libation known as Scotch whisky. The whisky is most commonly reduced down to a more palatable strength of around 40 to 43 percent alcohol, and is then bottled and shipped to roughly 200 countries around the world.
Accounting for a mere 3 or 4 percent of Scotland's total annual whisky output, single-malt Scotches are the idiosyncratic, intensely flavored Scotches made from malted barley in onion-shaped pot stills at individual distilleries. Blended Scotches are the meticulously crafted mixtures of low-volume, high-concentration single malts (which are 100-percent barley malt) and high-volume, low-intensity grain whiskies made from corn or wheat and distilled in Coffey stills. By nature, grain whiskies are lighter and more homogeneous than single malts. The resulting blended Scotches are usually more approachable whiskies that are designed to appeal to the worldwide market.
But before you dismiss all blended Scotches as uniform and pedestrian, as many contemporary single malt aficionados do, please note that more than a few rival and sometimes flat-out defeat many single malts at their own game—delivering complex drinking satisfaction on a world-class level.
Why Blended Scotch?
Before the introduction of the continuous still in the 1820s, all Scotches were single malts, distilled in crude copper pot stills in the wilds of Aberdeenshire and on the blustery islands off Scotland's craggy western and northern coasts. Frequently requiring a whip and a chair for control purposes, these Scotches were frequently perceived as being too feral. Recognizing the public's desire for more quaffable whisky from Scotland, two enterprising merchants, Andrew Usher and John Walker, began bottling blends of grain whiskies and single malts.
Public acceptance was gradual. But the eventual wide-reaching success of Usher and Walker decades later encouraged merchants such as Justerini and Brooks (J&B), John Dewar (Dewar's), the Chivas Brothers (Chivas) and Berry Brothers (Cutty Sark) to establish their own blended Scotch whisky brands.
|Through colonial expansion in the mid- to late-19th century, the commercial influence of the British Empire automatically secured the introduction of blended Scotch to most of the world's key ports of call. Within half a century, blended Scotch had become the universal spirit of choice. Scotland's malt distilleries were operating at full capacity, but devoting the lion's share of single-malt production to maintaining blended Scotch inventories. Single-malt production, on its minute scale, could never supply the international demands for Scotch whisky. It was the oceans of grain whisky—the core whiskies of blended Scotch—that made the amber libations of Scotland a global phenomenon.|
In the U.S. marketplace, such blended Scotches as Cutty Sark, Johnnie Walker Red, J&B Rare, and Dewar's White Label became household names and liquor cabinet staples in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s, blended Scotch started to go the way of cars with fins, vinyl furniture and Herb Alpert records. Consumer dollars were chasing wine and vodka throughout the Reagan Era. Ironically, by the late 1980s, it was not blended Scotch but single-malt Scotch, Scotland's original whiskies, that caught fire in America's bars and restaurants as drinkers began to move up-market.
While Scotland's distillers are delighted with the surging worldwide popularity of single malts, they privately wring their hands at blended Scotches' decline. The concern is merited. The fact is that for a century and a half, blended Scotches have been the industry's cash cow—the sales of blended Scotch allow the single-malt distilleries to keep operating.
Giving Blends Their Due
In the public's eye, single malts are Scotch whisky's thoroughbreds, while blended Scotches are the plow horses. But to many of Scotland's seasoned whisky men the differences aren't that pronounced. For all of the fanfare concerning the singular personalities of single malts, the art of whisky-making in Scotland centers just as much around the blends as it does the single malts. I've been writing about Scotch since 1989, and every whisky man I've talked to has told me emphatically that it's much harder to create a blended whisky than it is to make a single malt. The cast of disparate characters that comprises even an average blended Scotch is vast compared to that of a single malt.
So why is it that many contemporary Scotch drinkers think that blended Scotches are inferior? For one thing, it's the unavoidable use of the term "blended," which implies "less than pure" or "homogenized" or "lacking in pedigree." What the overwhelming majority of single-malt snobs doesn't realize is that all single malts, unless they are designated as single-barrel bottlings, are themselves blends. The Macallan 12 Year Old, for example, is a blend of 100-percent barley-malt whiskies from the Macallan Distillery, with the youngest whisky aged at least twelve years. Most single malts do possess unique characteristics, to be sure, but they aren't necessarily more complex than blended Scotches.
What a handful of high-rent blended Scotches do offer is a voluminous range of complex textures, aromas and flavors that compete with and even sometimes best some single malts. I've come to think of the better blended Scotches as tapestries of Scotland's finest malts. Older, meatier, superpremium blended Scotches, such as Johnnie Walker Gold 18 Year Old or Chivas 18 Year Old, furnish every bit as much character and sensory gratification as single malts do.
So while I, too, am still thrilled to the marrow about the lushness of Speyside single malts and the smoky brininess of those from Islay, I take just as much pleasure in pouring a Johnnie Walker Gold. More than just a case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," the blended Scotch versus single malt controversy is really "the truth shall set you free."