When one reads about whisky it is invariably single malts that get all the attention. Whisky writers go into raptures at the latest ultra-peaty monsters from Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Malts like these are drinks that make you go ‘wow!’ or ‘how much?’ when increasingly I want one that makes me go ‘mmmmmm.’ For this one needs a blend.
Blended whiskies are by far the biggest part of the global Scotch whisky market making up 92% of sales. Many famous distilleries were founded specifically to provide whisky for these blends. Nowadays most distilleries are owned by drinks giants in order to provide a consistent supply of whisky for their blends i.e. Strathisla is owned by Chivas Regal and provides the backbone to their whiskies. So without the blends most single malts would not exist. Pioneered by Glenfiddich, single malts were only bottled and marketed separately in the 1960s. Previously the flavours were thought to be too strong to drink on their own.
Many still are. The ultra-peaty monsters that get some enthusiasts so excited are not elegant drinks. They are impressive but are they enjoyable? Many new drinkers go straight onto these bruisers thinking that bold obvious flavours are what whisky is all about. For something a bit more restrained, a bit more, well, moreish, I would suggest that they learn to appreciate a good blend.
The best blends contain a high percentage of quality malts. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. The good ones are of astonishingly high quality containing some old rare malts. Marrying whiskies as disparate as Macallan and Highland Park into a harmonious blend is a difficult business. That is exactly what the master blender does at Famous Grouse – Scotland’s bestselling whisky. The best analogy for blended whiskies would be a Grand Marque champagne such as Bollinger non-vintage. At Bollinger they have to blend wines from different years, different grapes and different vineyards into an unchanging product. They are not going for big strange flavours but something elegant, luxurious and distinctly Bollinger. The house style is all; just the same with Scotch.
Many British people are a bit sniffy about blends but we are a negligible part of the global Scotch trade. In the Far East, Russia, Brazil and the US – the big brands are king. Last year blended whiskies clawed market shares back from the single malts who had been the growth area previously. I spoke to Ian Buxton former marketing director at Glenmorangie and author of the best-selling of 101 Whiskies to Try Before you Die and he said that there was a resurgence of interest in the blended whisky: “Premium blends, such as The Famous Grouse, Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker, keep whisky’s flame alive right round the world.”
Blended whiskies, however, are not only about the big brands. Independent bottlers such as Compass Box have sprung up to take advantage of the riches available to them in Scotland. They do not own any distilleries instead they buy in whiskies and marry them in various blends. What could be more fun than producing your own blended whiskies? I tried their Spice Tree recently – it contains malts such as Bruichladdich and Loch Lomond – and loved its strong spicy flavours. Funky blends like this appeal to younger people as the big brands have a rather staid image.
There’s an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm where Larry David’s wife Cheryl buys Larry’s agent Jeff Green a bottle of whisky to thank him for getting her a part in the Vagina Monologues. And what was the whisky? – Johnnie Walker Blue Label of course. Brands such as these are a currency understood around the world and the quality has never been better.
My favourite blends:
Famous Grouse, yes Famous Grouse. The whisky available in every high street shop in the world. My Nanny drank a few glasses of this a night and she lived to be 94. It’s very dry, smoky and enormously drinkable. You can really smell the sherry of the Macallan in this blend. (£12-15 70cl)
Chivas Regal 18 year old. The perfect late night session whisky. There is quite a lot of sweetness but hints of orange, lemon and some smoky notes. It’s rich, smooth and utterly delicious (from about £45).
Johnnie Walker Blue Label. This blend has been maligned by some whisky bloggers saying that you cannot taste the rare whiskies of which it is made. This is rather missing the point. Blue Label is an aristocratic drop that does not shout about its provenance. It merely hints at it. There’s so much going on here but the flavours are ethereal. Lovers of clunky malts will hate it. It reminds me of Dom Perignon champagne in that it is all restraint. Truly a thing of beauty as it should be for the price. (from around £130)
A longer version of this article appeared in Quintessentially Magazine.