I’ve sat in on many a whisky discussion at many a fancy bar when the conversation suddenly turns ugly after one of the spirits lovers mentions she might like a blended scotch. The other imbibers always gasp in horror, as if someone just snapped their single malt right out of their hand. Frankly, this kind of predictable reaction has always made me skeptical.
So how did this snootiness come to be?
“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, a prolific whisky writer and author of a new book called Whisky: the Manual.
There are a few issues contributing to this perception, the first being that many people don’t understand the difference between blended scotch and single malts and what each brings to the table.
Comparing scotch blends with malts is like comparing apples and oranges. They are not supposed to be the same. A single malt is made with malted barley in pot stills at a single distillery. The goal is to achieve very distinctive flavors and nuances that exemplify a single distillery’s style. A blended scotch whisky is made by combining several single malts with wheat and/or corn whiskies in column stills. The goal is to create a smooth and versatile product that allows various styles of whisky to dance harmoniously together in a glass. In a blend, the grain is as important as the malt. It is the “glue that holds often flaky single malts together,” as Broom puts it. All of the whisky used in both types of scotch must be matured in Scotland and aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks.
Though single malt scotch sales are up 134 percent in the U.S. since 2002, with 1.7 million cases consumed last year, blended scotch sales still beat them by a long shot according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, making up more 80 percent of all scotch sold domestically with 7.8 million cases purchased a year. Blended scotch is also the majority of scotch sold worldwide, a fact partially attributed to its recent popularity in Asia and Latin America.
So what are American haters missing?
Pioneers like whisky broker Andrew Usher, wine merchant John Dewar, and high-end grocers the Chivas Brothers and John Walker, began experimenting with making scotch blends in the mid-19th century as a way to produce high volumes of hooch with consistent flavors, using a range of available whiskies in a region or distillery. Blended scotch became more widely distributed and exported.
“A master blender's job is to mix various whiskies together so that they taste the same every single time—and it ain't easy.”
Scotch blends were de rigeur for the majority of Americans until the late 1980s when single malts became globally known and appreciated after producers like Glenfiddich, Glen Grant, and Macallan had been pushing them for years. Because single malts were new to many people, offering individual character and personality, and because vodka was starting to capture more of the market share, blended scotch became unfashionable, Broom says. Producers selling Scotch blends slashed prices to compete, and, as a result, some consumers began to associate the cheap prices with a bad product. The idea that blends are just “diluted malts” was born and has contributed to its lasting image problem, Broom says.
“This is a fascinating debate that seems to get fiercer and in some ways a little more absurd every year,” Neil Ridley, author of Let Me Tell You About Whisky, says. “What surprises me are the number of drinkers who would consider themselves connoisseurs or enthusiasts, but who turn their noses up at a blend. It’s caveman behavior in my opinion.”
Experts hope this attitude will soon change among geeky enthusiasts as today’s whisky renaissance unfolds. After all, the skill required to produce a blended scotch is worth marveling at. A master blender’s job is to mix various whiskies together so that they taste the same every single time—and it ain’t easy. It requires art and skill no matter a brand’s size, particularly since some whiskies in the recipe may run out and become unavailable at any time.
The assumption that blended scotch is inferior to single malt scotch is rooted in “overt snobbery,” Annabel Meikle, a Scot who owns a whisky consultancy called The Whisky Belle, says.
“People are always looking to one up each other and have more knowledge than their peers,” adds Ewan Morgan, a master of whisky for Diageo, which sells 20 million cases of Johnnie Walker, a line of blended scotches, annually worldwide. The liquor conglomerate also produces the single malts Talisker and Oban. “There is perceived value in single malts because [consumers] see them as rarer. People gravitate to what’s more exclusive and what’s more limited.”
Morgan argues that because there are various high quality whiskies in a blend that could stand on their own, blended scotches today offer a wider range of flavors with the kind of balance and complexity that makes any spirit exceptional. People wouldn’t buy them if they weren’t good, right?
“If you take one step back, if you’ve got all these single malts you love and put them together, why is the result inferior? It should be better,” Broom adds, noting blended scotches by Ballantine’s, Monkey Shoulder, Cutty Sark, and Compass Box are among his favorites. Their lighter body makes them perfect for mixing in cocktails, too.
“Put it this way: single malts have their time and place. I have plenty at home and in my office. I’m drinking one now actually,” Ridley says. “But you wouldn’t wear a three piece tweed suit to a beach party, would you?” He adds, “Don’t be afraid of breaking any of the perceived rules and myths. Most of them are total guff, invented by people you wouldn’t want to share a drink with.”
In other words, don’t be a snob.