The case for blended Scotch whisky

An expert defends the overlooked art of mixing malts

By CLAY RISEN

It’s been a long time since blended Scotch was cool. In 2008, Scotland exported roughly 840 million bottles of it; in 2017 the number was basically the same, even as single malt exports exploded over the same period, from 71.8 million bottles to 122 million bottles, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

That’s a shame. Because while there’s obviously no lack of bland, cheap blended Scotch, there are also some astounding bottles, whiskies that stand up to the best single malts. It’s time connoisseurs take note.

Compass Box enlightenment, a blended malt scotch whisky
(Source: Compass Box Whisky)

A “single malt” is a whisky made with malted barley in a pot still at a single distillery: Think Laphroaig, the Balvenie, the Macallan. They’re considered the purest expression of a distillery’s prowess and character.

A “blended whisky” is a combination of single malts, often cut with “grain whisky”. Usually made from corn in an industrial-style column still, grain whisky is often lighter and younger than a single malt and gives blends their smoother texture. It also makes them cheaper and, according to your bombastic, whisky-drinking friends, pure swill.

In the mid-19th century, that wasn’t the case; single malt whisky was considered too potent for most Brits, who were used to knocking back port, rum and claret, aka Bordeaux.

Scotch only took off when some enterprising Scots had the bright idea to mix those thick, fiery malts with mild, low-alcohol grain whisky. The blend was born, and so were vast fortunes: The Dewars, the Ballantines, the Chivas brothers and, of course, the Walkers.

But money doesn’t equal respect. In 1920, bon vivant George Saintsbury wrote in his classic “Notes on a Cellar-Book”: “I have never cared, and do not to this day care, much for the advertised blends, which, for this or that reason the public likes, or thinks it likes.”

Decades later, RJS McDowall called them “an industrial spirit, made out of molasses or sawdust” in his seminal “The Whiskies of Scotland”.

Still, until the 1960s, most whisky was produced exclusively to be blended. For all but the most determined, single malts weren’t an option — they simply weren’t retailed. Yet as whisky geekery grew, Glenfiddich, now one of the world’s best-selling single malts, saw an opportunity. An early ad claimed, “Sit for a Glenfiddich — you may never stand for a blend again.” Consumers, drawn by the cachet and the appeal of bolder flavours, agreed and blended Scotch began to lose its lustre.

Glenfiddich was one of the first distilleries to retail single-malt to the masses.

Edinburgh’s Wemyss Malts creates intensely flavoured blends with names such as the spice King, heavy with peat, and the Hive, redolent of honey and flowers

Today, that trend is starting to reverse as discerning drinkers discover high-quality, small-batch blends. While overall exports of blended Scotch held steady over the last decade, their value grew from £2.4 billion (RM12.96 billion) in 2008 to £3 billion in 2017, a sign that global consumers are shifting to more expensive options.

In just the past year, US demand for so-called super premium blends rose 11.8%, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

This bump is a reaction to excellence. Blending, done right, is one of the world’s great arts. Like a chef, a world-class blender first conceives of a complex flavour profile, then draws on dozens of single malts and grain whiskies, in exacting proportions, to achieve it.

That’s what happens at Compass Box, a London-based blending house founded by American expat John Glaser. With names including the Peat Monster and the Spice Tree, Glaser’s whiskies flip conventional wisdom on its head. Instead of mixing malts to reach a bland median, he uses the art of blending to push the limits of the category.

Best of all, Compass Box makes whiskies at every price point, from the US$39 (RM161.46) Great King Street Glasgow blend to the US$261 cheekily named “This is not a luxury Whisky”, a blend of grain whisky and single malts from Caol Ila and Glen Ord.

Edinburgh’s Wemyss Malts likewise creates intensely flavoured blends with names such as the Spice King, heavy with peat, and the Hive, redolent of honey and flowers.

The Lost Distillery, in Cumnock, Scotland, mixes modern-day single malts to re-create whiskies from famous, long-dead distilleries. But a great blend doesn’t have to be particularly innovative: Black Bull, which was first made in 1864, offers a single rich and slightly smoky flavour profile across a range of ages and prices.

The Johnnie Walker brand makes some exceptional blends, especially on the top shelf (Pic courtesy of Udit Kulshrestha)

And while some whisky fans would never be caught with a dram of Johnnie Walker in hand, the brand, owned by Diageo plc, makes some exceptional blends, especially on the top shelf. This year, it released Ghost and Rare, a US$400 blend optimising its limited stocks of whiskies from storied, but defunct distilleries such as Brora.

So, next time you’re at the liquor store looking for a whisky, pause before you reach for the Glenfiddich. Try out a blend. You may never stand for a single malt again. — Bloomberg

  • Clay Risen is the author of ‘Single Malt: 
A Guide to the Whiskies of Scotland’ 
(Oct 16; Quercus, US$30).