B is for Blends! Part two of our series showcasing what we do at the Inverurie Whisky Shop. During these blogs we will be educating, introducing and highlighting different parts of the business, the people within and of course, the products we sell.
This may come as a shock to a lot of our customers, but around 97.5% of all the whiskies in our shop are a blend. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this is the same for the vast majority of whisky shops in the world.
I say this despite having a large number of whisky on our shelves that are Single Cask. These too, are likely to be blended whiskies.
Let me explain….
Scotch whisky is broken down into different categories. The most popular two, are Blended Scotch and Single Malt. The others are Single Grain, Blended Malt and Blended Grain. There is also the extremely rare Single Blend.
Each one of these, with the exception of some Single Casks, will be a vatting of different casks, blended together to create the whisky that goes into your bottle.
Now that doesn’t mean that the 97.5% of whisky blends we sell are Blended Scotch, or as is popular opinion today, inferior whiskies. It is simply not well known that a Single Malt can be, and most likely will be, a marriage of casks.
To keep things even simpler when explaining this, lets call a Single whisky a marriage and a Blended whisky a blend. This should help to differentiate the two styles.
Hopefully I haven’t lost you all yet!
A Single whisky (Malt or Grain) comes solely from a Single Distillery. The process of creating the whiskies from these distilleries involves marrying different casks together to create the flavour profile required, and the quantity needed to sell.
A Blended whisky comes from different distilleries, owned or traded for by the owners of brands such as Bells, Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker amongst many others.
Even Single Cask whisky, although a Single Malt, will likely have been a marriage of casks re-racked into ‘finishing’ casks for a certain period. The term Single Cask simply means that the whisky has been decanted into the bottle from one vessel. This isn’t a new thing, though you may think it given the recent bad publicity surrounding the ‘revelation’.
Hopefully that will have cleared up some confusion. During this article though, I want to look at Blends, both Blended Scotch and Blended Malts, and clear up any idea that they are inferior whiskies to Single Malts, which seems to be the common misconception of the day.
In a nutshell, if blends were to cease globally tomorrow, the whisky industry would likely collapse by the end of the month. So many whiskies rely so heavily on the blended industry for the vast majority of their stock sales. They don’t often talk about it, a) because blends aren’t cool; and b) when you visit a malt distillery they want you to focus on the malt sale. This is their brand and when you take a bottle home to show off where you have been, Cardhu says Cardhu better than Johnnie Walker does. That’s probably a bad example because the guys at Cardhu are very good and very open about Johnnie Walker, being the spiritual home.
A Blended Scotch is a combination of Malt Whisky and Grain Whisky. Usually the Grain will come from a single distillery, whereas the Malted Whisky will be provided by a number of different distilleries. The art was created many years ago and was the largest single step by Scotlands whisky industry to creating the global phenomenon we currently enjoy today.
Imagine a Master Blender at a single distillery, working with the same core spirit day in-day out and creating a consistent 12, 15, 18 year old using casks they have selected, nosed and tasted since their filling. To create an exact carbon copy under these conditions is a highly skilled and almost impossible job.
Now take away that consistency, take away that core spirit, the ability to know the whisky since it was just a new make spirit. Now take away the fact that your distillery cannot provide the same casks as it did last year and you have to get casks from another, completely unique distillery instead. Now we are talking impossibility.
Before the art of blending, Scotch Whisky lagged behind Irish Whiskey, so much so that the Irish instilled the differential ‘e’ in their labels to avoid confusion between the quality of the two products. The reason for this was consistency. Irish whisky was mellower due to the triple distillation process, but also mass produced in factories producing the same spirit time and time again. There were fewer distilleries and therefore fewer differences in taste.
In Scotland, as today, there were many, many more distilleries each producing their own spirit. In Scotland this difference was something to be proud of, a style to your own brand, and something that is highly sought after today. Unfortunately on a global scale, in the early 1800’s, the name MacAllan meant no more or less than Glengarioch or Lagavulin to a man in Brazil or France. They weren’t able to communicate the brand style through facebook, emails or tv advertising. Nobody new that when they picked up a bottle of Scotch whisky that it would be 100% different to the last bottle, due to a lack of advertising and branding. Therefore Scotch was avoided because the consumer had no faith in what was in the bottle.
Then, in 1831, the opportunity for change and progress was presented, funnily enough, by an Irishman. Aeneus Coffey worked as an Exciseman in Ireland and so had plenty experience inspecting Alembic Copper Pot stills and he used this experience to design the Coffey (now regarded as the Column) Still.
A more energy and volume effective design allowed spirit to be produced much cheaper and consistently than pot still distillation. The Irish distillers, however rejected the product that came from the still and disregarded it as ‘not the Irish way’.
Not to be deterred, Aeneus took his invention to Scotland and struck liquid gold. The produce of the Coffey Still was a made from a mixed grain mash and could reach up to 94% ABV. Whisky from a copper still was produced from more expensive malted barley by, and only reached 70% ABV. Blending these two whiskies together, Scots producers were able to create consistent whisky on a much larger scale and with a softer, more delicate and approachable flavour.
Spearheaded by Andrew Usher, of Usher & Co Edinburgh, the art of blending took off. Others joined in the trend and became household names in their own right. John Crabbie, William Sanderson, Matthew Gloag, Arthur Bell and of course, Johnnie Walker. Pioneers not just of whisky blending but of the art of the entrepreneur, marketed Scotch across the globe.
This new, consistent and softer whisky appealed to drinkers worldwide and so, along with a host of timely economic factors, Scotch took the lead in the best whisky makers categories. It also gave the Single Malt market a huge boost in local sales. They now no longer had to deal with international trade. Their market was right on the doorstep, and people outwith Scotland would know very little about them.
It broke down the barriers of Scotch being harsh, rough and too hot to handle. This was the Highlander whisky, the Single Malts that were drunk illicitly, straight from the still and untrustworthy. Indeed the Highland/Lowland line was drawn to define and outlaw the ‘rough stuff’ into English markets in favour of the Lowlands lighter style.
And so it was for the next 150 years or so. Blended Scotch ruled the world, leading the way in marketing, advertising, product innovation, television adverts and sponsorship contracts.
So why, then, is it so frowned upon now. Does it all of a sudden lack character, quality, style, individuality? If you look at a global scale then not at all. Blended Scotch still accounts for around 85-90% of all Scotch sales. In key markets however, that trend is changing, and has been for a few decades.
40% ABV Blends, sold en masse and cheaply at supermarkets are overlooked by a new wave of ‘Connoisseurs’, looking for the finest Single Malts to enjoy with their friends. While I love a Single Malt, and probably prefer the experience, there is absolutely no need for snobbery, especially when the blended market is as vast, inquisitive and experimental (if not more so) than the Single Malt market.
It is a problem that the industry has created for itself. It set the Single Malt on a pedestal back in the 1960’s as the premium whisky, only the richest could afford it and everyone else drank blends. Now though, the working class can afford great malt cheaper, so where does that leave the blends?
We’ve heard it all – down the sink, give it to friends when they visit, give it to Tam because he puts ice in it, or worse – cola, use it in a cocktail and don’t waste “good” whisky in that Rob Roy. Where that is an argument for another day, it is certainly a real slap in the face of what I regard the toughest job in whisky – the blending.
The relatively new practice of Blended Malts is a stepping stone between Blended Scotch and Single Malt, in that it removes the grain. Seen as a ‘step up’ in quality with not too much of a step up in price. Blended Malts are usually brilliant whisky, however the consumer only sees the word ‘Blend’.
It is a travesty. One of the most annoying phrases when working in the shop is “They only drink Single Malt”. It is right up there with “I only drink Cask Strength, or I won’t drink anything under 15 years old”. It is pure blinkered snobbery. Imagine going through life only drinking Freshly Ground Coffee, or Ceylon hand picked tea. How many restaurants and coffee shops would you miss out on, hotels, airport lounges, friends houses and family fly cups? It’s pure madness in my opinion. That said, the only losers are those unwilling to take the plunge because there are some absolutely belting blends out there just waiting for people to take a punt on them.
Without rabbiting on too long, and I fear I may have done that already, I want to showcase the wonderful world of Blends, and Blended Malts. From the Single Cask(yes there are single cask blends too!) to the Teaspooned Malts to the good old fashioned Blended Scotch. Here’s a rundown of some of my favourite blends.
Adelphi’s Private Stock Blend “The Dancing Mannie”
A relatively new whisky to me, having taken advice from Russell who works in the shop. A classic grain/malt blended whisky with a sherry influence. It is apparently Charles Macleans everyday sipper so if it’s good enough for him! And at a bargain £23 there really is no reason not to try it!
A Blended Malt consisting of just three Speyside Whiskies. I read somewhere that Monkey Shoulder is the most commonly asked for blend by name and it’s easy to see why. A classic Speyside whisky that is as easy on the palate as it is on the pocket.
Little Brown Dog’s Wee Mongrel
A 20 year old Single Cask. A Single Cask in this form will have been filled with malted new make from a host of distilleries, usually under a single company’s ownership. I defy anyone to suggest that this beautiful dram is an inferior product to any single malt whisky on the market. A simply devine dram.
A new release from Angus & Dundee Distillers, blending Speyside and Islay whiskies to create a sweet, aromatic and maritime whisky. A real treat for those looking to get into Islay, but are afraid of the big, medicinal notes.
A stunning Islay whisky that sits in the Blended Malt category. Known as a ‘teaspooned’ whisky, this is a cask of Laphroaig. It is a well known ‘secret’ that when an Independent Bottler buys a cask from Laphroaig, they cannot name is as such. The distillery therefore puts a teaspoon of another whisky into the cask so that it then becomes a ‘Blend’. It is unknown whether the teaspooning actually ever takes place in every ‘teaspooned’ whisky. The Williamson name is an homage to Betty Williamson who ran the distillery in the 1960’s and was a pioneer of single malt whisky.
We finish off with the unusually named Pig’s Nose, from Ian MacLeod Distillers. IMD own both Glengoyne and Tamdhu whiskies so it is a safe bet that these are used in the recipe. It is combined with a creamy grain whisky and aged in bourbon casks to creat a complex and interesting dram at a great price.
Next week we will be looking at the third letter in our A-Z, ‘C’. Any thoughts on what it may be?
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