Blends were once the leaders of the whisky world. So much so that the suggestion of a successful single malt was simply ludicrous.
But times have changed and the blend now shares its platform with a variety of Whisky categories, with most of the opinion that single malt is in fact the best kind of Scotch Whisky available.
Although single malts are the most talked about variety of Scotch Whisky, mainly due to status and the large prices they can demand, blends are still by far the biggest sellers with brands such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s appearing up in best sellers lists continuously.
“There is a paradigm that has been established over the past two decades in mature markets like Japan, the U.K., and the U.S. that malts are good and blends are bad. Which clearly is not true,” says Dave Broom, the prolific whisky writer and author of Whisky: the Manual.
There are also countless independent blenders producing some incredible drams. Douglas Laing, Whyte & Mackay and Gordon & MacPhail are all big names within the industry and have created award-winning blends alongside their single malt ranges.
What constitutes a blended Whisky?
A blend is exactly what it says on the tin. It is a mix of many different grains and malts from many different distilleries.
It is made up of grain and malt Whiskies, with the grain being used to bolster the flavour. While they do not give the blend depth themselves, they allow the malts to bounce off them, revealing the depths of the malts. They act as a softer background for the rich and complex malts to show themselves, rather than overpowering them with more and more malts.
Grain Whiskies may not be as intricate, but they act as a sort of sounding board for the malts to shout against, so they can be heard in all their glory.
They also make blends less pricey than their single malt counterparts as grain Whiskies are cheaper to produce since their ingredients are more readily available and not as dear as barley. The use of grain Whiskies also make blends an easy target for critics who regard them as cheap, but the grain actually contributes to the flavour by making it better, not worse. This is because it acts as a foundation, allowing the complexities of the malts to be accented against a softer background.
The job of Master Blender is no easy one
Blends differ from single malts mainly because they need to be tasted constantly throughout the blending process to ensure there is consistency and that the different Whiskies all work together.
They are the result of years of craftsmanship and dedication. A master blender does not simply wake up one day with a profound ability to create a cohesive and enjoyable liquid. From nosing the liquid to working out quantities of each different grain and malt to go into the blend, a master blender can take years, if not decades, to train.
Like a master distiller, they must have a good nose, to be able to work out all the different flavours and tasting notes that will contribute to the final product. Read the interview with Billy Leighton, Master Blender for Jameson and tens of other Whiskeys, to get a better idea of what the job is like.
This makes them time consuming to make and a lot of skill is needed. If anyone ever asks why distilling is called an art, it’s because creating blends requires creativity and ability.
What makes a good blended Whisky?
Consistency is a pretty big one here. Achieving consistency with single malts can be hard enough, but with blends the level of difficulty rises with the number of barrels.
Wooden casks are so easily influenced by their surroundings, including air and weather, that it can be hard to reproduce the same liquid every time. It is up to a master blender to go through every cask and ensure that each is consistent with the last. This can be harder for bigger brands, as they attempt to deal with huge global demand for the same liquid.
Bigger brands also face the threat of shortages. Since Whiskies need to be matured for a certain number of years, a sudden rise in demand can easily lead to a shortage. This is made even more complicated for blends, since liquids of varying ages are used, so each Whisky, no matter what the age must be fully mature, whether that be for 12 or 25 years, before it can be used in a blend.
This can therefore cause a shortage as blenders are waiting on certain Whiskies maturing. It means they must be careful about maintaining adequate levels of each different Whisky needed in a blend so the blend can still be made while more Whisky matures. These things can be overcome with some foresight and a damn good master blender.
SHEEP DIP BLENDED WHISKY – PHOTO: FACEBOOK/SHEEP DIP GREECESheep Dip blended Whisky – Photo: Facebook/Sheep Dip Greece
But it is not just big names that make great blends. Brands of blended Whisky like Compass Box, Monkey Shoulder, Pig’s Nose, Sheep Dip (notice a pattern there?) are some of the nice blends available.
Monkey Shoulder is owned by William Grant & Sons and is a combination of Grant’s three dufftown distilleries, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. It is an incredibly mellow dram with a creamy mouth feel. Even better, it is fantastic value for money. Compass Box is an independent brand that was started by John Glaser in 2000. This brand is in it for the product, with complete dedication to creating amazing blends.
Look around, you might just find your new favourite.