Expanding the Niche

Expanding the Niche

The art of creating something a little different

Production | 05 Feb 2014 | Issue 117 | By Gavin Smith

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Blends account for more than 90 per cent of all Scotch whisky sales, and a handful of brands account for a similar percentage of the total blended sector. The marketing and distribution clout required to elbow a place at the top table of Scotch whisky exports means that the Grants, the Johnnie Walkers, the Chivas Regals, the Ballantines and the J&Bs are always going to dominate.

This does, however, leave a significant amount of 'niche' territory available, and as there has been a slow but welcome realisation among a growing number of whisky aficionados that malt whisky is by no means automatically 'better' than blended whisky, so several enterprising companies have developed blends to occupy the expanding niche.

These are 'small batch' blends, created to appeal to consumers who want something just that bit different, and the example of this sub-genre to have received most media coverage is Compass Box Great King Street Artist's Blend, launched in 2011. Great King Street majors in the use of quality grain spirit, a high percentage of malt, excellent casks, natural colour, no chill-filtration and presentation at 43%. Unlike most of the larger companies creating blends, Compass Box is happy to share details of the component whiskies and casks, noting that Great King Street contains 45 per cent Lowland grain whisky, 45 per cent two different Northern Highland single malts and nine per cent Speyside single malt.

When it comes to maturation, Compass Box specifies that it has used 66 per cent first-fill American oak barrels, eight per cent first-fill sherry butts, and 26 per cent 'new French oak finish, ' in the form of barrels with toasted oak heads. No ordinary blend, by any means!

"I would say that Great King Street is our boldest 'creation' to date," says Compass Box founder John Glaser. "This is the product I wanted to create 12 years ago when I started the company - versatile, approachable and inherently great quality blended Scotch whisky. In other words, blended Scotch whisky for malt whisky geeks and people who generally seek out the good stuff. " The same desire to create - or in this case recreate - a 'small batch' blended Scotch full of character and integrity led Alisdair Day to develop his Tweeddale Blend after acquiring the cellar book of his great-grandfather Richard Day, who had blended Scotch whisky at Coldstream in the Scottish Borders.

As Alisdair Day explains: "My aim was recreate one of my great grandfather's blended whiskies, and once I had established which whiskies I may be able to purchase, I then researched market trends for specialist Scotch whiskies; for example non-chill-filtered and with natural colour." Day notes that: "My great-grandfather used sherry or rum to colour his blends, which gave me a dilemma, and I made the decision to use colour in batches 1 and 2 as I wanted the blend to be as authentic as possible." Batch 1 of The Tweeddale Blend - at 10 years of age and 46% ABV - appeared in May 2010, and as with John Glaser, Alisdair Day is happy to deconstruct aspects of its composition. In batch 1 just nine casks were used; a 10-year-old single grain single grain whisky and eight single malt whiskies, ranging from 10 years old to 21 years old, emanating from the Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside and Islay.

Batch 3 hit the shelves earlier this year, and Alisdair Day says that: "For batch 3 I have gone for natural colour, based on the feedback that I have received from the first two batches. In batch three the same single grain is 18 years old from sherry butts. Seven of the malts are from the same casks as batches 1 and 2, but a year older (13 to 21 years old). The core malt is 14 years old from different casks." Batch 4 is due to appear soon, and Day says that "This will be a 14 Years Old, and will use a different grain to previous versions, while the 'core' will be slightly peated by comparison with the earlier batches." So just who does Day see as the typical customer for his Tweeddale Blend, which sells for just over the £30 mark? "My most important customer understands world whiskies and all the attributes that makes a quality whisky," he declares. "Therefore it would be more likely to be an alternative for the single malt drinker who has a real interest and passion for whisky or an experienced blend drinker who is looking for something a little bit special." While just one variant of Tweeddale is usually available, apart from inevitable overlaps of batches, Duncan Taylor & Co Ltd has established a permanent range of three expressions of its Black Bull blend, along with occasional special releases as well.

The Huntly-based company is an old hand when it comes to offering independent bottlings of single malt across a variety of different ranges, but back in 2008 owner Euan Shand and his team decided it was time to create a 'house' blend with a difference.

They took the name Black Bull, which had first been used in the 1860s, and created Black Bull 40 Years Old, which is still the premier expression of the brand, now in its fourth iteration. Black Bull 40 Years Old features a malt to grain ratio of 90:10 and is bottled at 50% ABV.

The core range also now extends to a 30 and 12 Years Old, both notable for their high malt contents and 50% ABV bottling strengths, while there are regular Special Reserve small-batch bottlings, and 21 Years Old and some no-age-statement expressions are due to appear soon.

According to Andrew Shand, Brand Manager and Ambassador for Black Bull, "The variety and depth of the Black Bull range allows us to give an offering to suit many different tastes, demographics and purposes. We see our blends as comparable to malt whiskies, and more flavoursome, in quite a few cases, than a lot of single malts on the market. So we do try to trade up blend drinkers who are used to drinking the standard market offering and are looking for something different, and many malt drinkers who may think the price vs. quality of their current favourite malt isn't quite worth it anymore. We will try to trade them over to our blend, which we feel hits the price vs. quality balance exceptionally well." Duncan Taylor is also responsible for the Smokin' blend, launched early this year, and the company declares that it "…pays homage to the legendary old, heavy smoky blends of yesteryear. It comprises a proportion of peated Speyside and Islay malt whiskies, along with malt whiskies from the Highlands and Lowland grain.

"Smokin' is a new spin on an old style of whisky," explains Andrew Shand. "We have set out to create a blend that harks back to the styles of whiskies of the Prohibition era, smooth but with a smoky edge. Another influence on the creation and development of Smokin' is the interest in speakeasy style bars and cocktails and mixology. We see Smokin' as the bartender's friend, easy to mix with, adding a great dimension to any cocktail, but being quite a dynamic blend, Smokin' is also great neat." Another established independent bottler to get in on the niche premium blend act is Wemyss Malts, whose Lord Elcho 15 Years Old was launched last year. It is named after an ancestor of company founder William Wemyss.

According to PR & marketing manager Karen Stewart, "Blends are the type of Scotch that most people will be familiar with, and that is the main reason for Wemyss launching a 'small batch' blend. "We didn't have a blend in our portfolio of premium malt whiskies and felt that there was an opportunity to offer whisky drinkers a more exclusive blend. It has a high malt content, with an emphasis on sherry casks.

"While some of our more established European markets have shown interest in Lord Elcho, France, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands, Denmark, UK, our main expectation is that we will have more demand from some of our newer markets who are just starting with us - Mexico, Russia and China. " The growth of 'small-batch' premium blends gives the blended Scotch whisky sector even more ammunition when it comes to making the case that in order to drink really fine and individualistic whisky you do not just have to choose single malts.
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