Blended Malt Scotch Whiskies, a k a Vatted Malts and Pure Malts, are 2005’s trendiest whiskies.

Scotch Whisky Definitions

The Scotch Whisky Association is an industry-funded watchdog council headquartered in Edinburgh that serves several functions: It represents Scotch whisky producers in the halls of Parliament and with the British Government; it acts as the public face of this 600-year-old industry, dealing with the media when major industry-wide news breaks; and it works with other agencies, including press and tourism, at home and abroad to tell the story of Scotch whisky to the world.

In June 2004, the SWA backed a proposition that would, in the near future, create a new set of category definitions for the distinct types of Scotch whisky. The new definitions, if adopted by the industry, will read as follows:

· Single Malt Scotch Whisky: A Scotch whisky distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals and by batch distillation in pot stills. (For instance, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, The Macallan, Glenmorangie, Glenfarclas.)
· Single Grain Scotch Whisky: A Scotch whisky distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley with or without whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals that does not comply with the definition of single malt Scotch whisky. (Invergordon 7-Year-Old.)
· Blended Scotch Whisky: A blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies. (Cutty Sark, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker Red or Black, White Horse.)
· Blended Malt Scotch Whisky (aka Vatted Malts, Pure Malts): A blend of single malt Scotch whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery. (Compass Box Eleuthera, Johnnie Walker Green Label, The Famous Grouse 10-Year-Old Malt Whisky, Michel Couvreur Unfiltered 12-Year-Old, Original Sheep Dip.)
· Blended Grain Scotch Whisky: A blend of single grain Scotch whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery. (Compass Box Hedonism.)
The buzz about Scotch whisky in early 2005 is that there’s a new variety arriving at a liquor store near you. This emerging Scotch whisky hybrid is a theme variation that may compel some old-time blended and single malt Scotch whisky drinkers to do a double take. The heavy inside betting by blue-chip drinks companies like Diageo, small concerns like Compass Box Delicious Whisky and U.S. importers such as Remy Amerique is that once consumers understand this whisky category’s virtues and raison d’être, its main brands will become key market players.

So what is this hybrid all about? Scotch whisky is either of the blended whisky or single malt whisky variety. Single malt Scotches are the racy, small batch, 100-percent barley malt whiskies produced at one distillery in potbellied kettles, the copper boiling contraptions that are referred to as pot stills. Single malts, like those from The Glenlivet, The Macallan, Glenmorangie, The Balvenie, Dalmore and Lagavulin malt distilleries, are the acknowledged thoroughbreds of the Scotch whisky category, growing more and more popular in North America every year.

By stark contrast, blended Scotches (think brands such as Dewar’s 12, Chivas Regal, White Horse, Johnnie Walker Red Label and J&B Rare) are comprised of both single malt and grain whiskies. They are combinations of idiosyncratic single malt whiskies and big-production, light-bodied whiskies made from corn or wheat and distilled in industrial-looking column stills. Some blended Scotches are made from mixing together single malt and grain whiskies.

What, then, could possibly be new and different in an industry that’s at least 600 years old? Enter the Scotch whisky story of 2005 and, possibly, 2006: vatted malts, a k a pure malts and soon to be officially known as blended malt Scotch whisky (BMSW). Neither blended Scotch nor single malt Scotch, BMSWs are marriages of two or more single malts from different distilleries. In his book Whisk(e)y (Abbeville Press, 1997), author Stefan Gabányi writes, “Vatting is a technical process by which various whiskies are mixed together in a tub or vat. Combining different single malts is older, historically, than blending…and at one time it was perfectly common to produce a mixture for home consumption.” Gabányi’s assertion is correct. The creation of BMSWs, in fact, did occur prior to the invention of blended Scotches. Mid-19th century Scottish whisky merchants, most notably Andrew Usher, were experimenting with combining single malts at least a decade before the rise of blended Scotch. The meteoric ascension of blended Scotch, though, overshadowed BMSWs by the 1880s. BMSWs have always been available, even if they existed in obscurity up until late 2004.

Attracting a new audience

The re-introduction of this Scotch whisky category makes perfect sense as so-called brown spirits regain popularity. Sales of single malt Scotch were up 5.4 percent in the U.S. in 2004, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States; sales of Bourbon whiskey, America’s native spirit, rose 3.5 percent; and Canadian whisky grew by 1.7 percent. The trend in consumer buying habits is edging toward the high end in all distilled spirits categories. Moreover, the pursuit of top-notch products can breed elitism. The last decade has witnessed the evolution of the “single malt snob” as increasing numbers of single malt mavens take connoisseurship too far.

Richard Nichols, the vice president of marketing of Scotch whisky for Diageo, the world’s largest drinks company, knows that there are growing numbers of non-connoisseur consumers who are becoming intrigued with the lore of Scotch whisky. “Blended malt Scotch whiskies are not aimed at existing drinkers of single malts. Indeed, they are intended for consumers who are interested in premium Scotch, but who find the ‘snobbishness’ that can surround single malts off-putting…and are looking for something that is more accessible,” says Nichols of Johnnie Walker Green Label, his company’s aggressively marketed and newly released to the U.S. BMSW.

John Glaser, the American-born founder of Compass Box Delicious Whisky Ltd of London, England, is a major and vocal proponent of BMSWs (though he prefers to employ the customary term “vatted malts”). He currently markets two BMSWs, Eleuthera and The Peat Monster, under the Compass Box label. “There is no functional reason why the blending of two or more malt whiskies from different distilleries cannot be as good or better than malt whisky from a single distillery,” he says. “In fact, it’s easy to argue that it can be better because blending whiskies from different distilleries allows you the potential to make a more balanced, a more complex, a more complete whisky. This is the same principle behind blending wines of different grape varieties or from different vineyards.”

Glaser’s salient point regarding wine blending should sounds familiar to consumers who enjoy both fine wine and fine whisky. Like better wines, higher-quality Scotch whiskies often evoke their place of origin, making for distinctive imbibing. But since they are concoctions of two or more single malts, do BMSWs necessarily reflect an originating source? To put this issue another way: Should BMSWs highlight the qualities of one core malt, or should they be seamless whiskies with no defining personality?

“Blending a malt whisky gives you the option, subject to stocks available to you, to produce a variety of products: some regionally focused, others based on particular taste propositions that require the use of whiskies from a number of traditional regions,” says Nichols. As it turns out, Diageo’s elegant Johnnie Walker Green Label possesses a lovely, integrated sensory profile in which the lead malts are not obvious to the senses of smell or taste.

Glaser has a different viewpoint. “My philosophy about whisky blending is to start with a lead component and build around it. With Eleuthera, my goal was to create a smoky whisky that was richer, more balanced and more drinkable than other smoky whiskies. For The Peat Monster, I wanted a much smokier and peatier profile to please those who like this style.” True to his formulas and vision, Glaser’s Compass Box Eleuthera is indeed a lithe and approachable BMSW while the feral The Peat Monster offers more intensity in its degree of smokiness and peatiness.

Other Scotch whisky suppliers view BMSWs in yet a different way, as a sort of bridge to single malts rather than as an alternative to malts. Daniel Goodwin, brand manager for The Famous Grouse, says: “We wish to provide a smooth, easy-drinking introduction to the malt category, which will continue the trusted style and quality of The Famous Grouse that consumers have come to expect.” The single malts of the Highland Park and Macallan distilleries serve as the foundation for this eminently pleasing BMSW. With superior credentials like that, it would be hard to make a bad vatted malt.

Consumer taste is always a work in progress. Bended malt Scotch whiskies are right for the market now because they offer world-class whisky in a way that is simultaneously contemporary and exciting. “Our ultimate goal is to spread the joys of Scotch whisky to more people in the world,” Glaser explains, “and I believe that we are achieving this by making whiskies that appeal to the evolving tastes of people today.”

The proof is always in the sampling. From my perspective as a spirits critic, the BMSWs have already carved out a well-deserved place in the pantheon of Scotch whisky.

Published on March 1, 2005

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