Since we launched our whisky sommelier service back in June 2016, I have had the chance to talk to many of our customers about their preferences for Scotch whisky. One of the things I have found the most interesting is the reaction when I ask someone what type of Scotch they usually drink. If it’s blended scotch they sometimes lower their voice and almost whisper that they actually quite like blended whisky, as if they were embarrassed to admit that to me.
Blended Scotch actually makes up about 90% of total global Scotch sales, and the art of blending whisky is a difficult process. One I feel is completely underrated by consumers. There is no shame in enjoying blended whisky.
There is no denying that blended Scotch whisky is suffering from an image problem either. In the period 2002-2015 sales of blended Scotch whisky were down by 10.6%. Blends are often seen as old fashioned, and inferior to single malts due to the inclusion of grain whisky. That coupled with the new minimum pricing laws proposed by the Scottish government, blended scotch could be hit even harder as producers may be forced to increase their prices as much as 20%. This would be a huge blow to the already declining sector.
In the UK Gin sales are set to exceed blended scotch sales for the first time by the year 2020. There was a time when Gin also went through a period of unpopularity, it too was seen as old fashioned and claimed the famous title ‘mothers ruin’. Thanks to the release of the rose and cucumber infused Hendricks Gin in 1999, the Gin renaissance was kick started and it is now sweeping across the UK. I feel that it is also important to mention that almost 70% of Gin is made in Scotland, and many of those distilleries are also producing whisky for future release.
Consumers now are more interested in premium or craft whiskies rather than budget blends. We have seen huge increase in high end or aged blends, and in the USA the premium blend market is up 13%. Another interesting trend is the increase in blended malt whiskies. These are blends made from one of more single malts with no grain whisky added. This style of blend seems to be proving popular with young whisky drinkers and bartenders for mixing.
There are actually three different categories of blended scotch defined by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).
Blended Scotch Whisky
A blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies.
Example – Dewars White Label
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
A blend of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.
Example – Johnnie Walker Green
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
A blend of Single Grain Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.
Example – Compass Box Hedonism
The main difference between the whiskies comes down to the type of cereal used and the method of distillation. Malt Whiskies are made with 100% malted barley during a pot still distillation, which gives a more pronounced malty flavor. Grain whiskies can be made with any other cereal (typically, wheat, corn or rye) and uses the continuous distillation method. This produces a high strength, lightly flavored whisky which is economical to produce. It is very light and smooth on the palette, making it an ideal ingredient in blended whisky. However the inclusion of the grain whisky appears to be the main reason that most people are turned off by blends.
I would like to point out at this point that Bourbon regulations state that the mash bill must contain at least 51% corn to be legally recognized as Bourbon Whiskey and typically contains a portion of either wheat or rye. Therefore the spirit which runs off the still in essence could be classed as a ‘grain whisky’ under the SWA regulations. So why is Bourbon seen as such a premium whisky which is currently seeing massive growth in the global whisky market, and Grain whisky is seen as an inferior product in comparison to its other whisky counterparts? Perhaps the secret is in the maturation process. Bourbon must be aged in fresh charred oak casks, which allow the spirit to take on all those lovely caramelized brown sugar, vanilla and woody notes. Traditionally Scotch whisky is aged in reused casks (usually Bourbon or Sherry), which result in a much milder impact on the whisky from the wood. Maybe further experimentation with cask maturation could help boost Scottish grain whisky further into the premium whisky category.
A History of Blended Scotch
Single Malt Whisky has never been quite as refined and prestigious as it is today. Often classified as too harsh or fiery, it was frequently snubbed by aristocracy in favor of French Brandy or Cognac. It wasn’t until around 1860 that the art of blending whisky was truly explored. It was pioneered by Andrew Usher who was a grocer from Edinburgh, who basically turned Scotch whisky into the worldwide export it is today. By blending the big cereal flavors of malt whisky, with the smooth light bodied grain whisky, he was able to create a whisky which could be enjoyed by the masses. Others followed his example and many names are still recognizable today, Johnnie Walker, John Dewar and the Chivas Brothers amongst others.
Blending whisky is not an easy process; imagine a perfumer creating the perfect scent by discovering the precise ratio of different unique aromas. The same is true for Blended Whisky; you are dealing with a variety of casks from multiple distilleries, each having their own unique flavor profile. It is the job of the master blender to marry these casks together to not only create the ‘perfect’ whisky, but to remain consistent in all future bottlings. There is a reason that 9 out of 10 bottles of Scotch consumed worldwide are Blended Whiskies, they are smoother and easier to drink and often much cheaper than their single malt cousins. If it was not for Blended Scotch whisky the Single Malt industry wouldn’t exist. Many distilleries produce whisky mainly for blended whisky and its only really been since 1960’s that the demand for Single Malt Whisky has grown.
So the next time you are thinking about trying something new, don’t be afraid to give a blended whisky a try. We have a great selection of all three categories and I am confident you will find something you love. Just like single malts blends have the same variety of flavors from sweet and smooth to smokey and full bodied.