Despite blended Scotch whisky maintaining its form as the backbone of the industry – even today, sales of blends amount to nearly 90 per cent of all Scotch whisky sales – the rise in popularity of single malts over the last few decades has led to a substantial increase in their share of the market albeit by value if not by volume. Whether intentional or incidental, marketing teams have done well to convince whisky consumers around the world that single malts are the better product.
As a result, regardless of the abiding analogy that the blend is the orchestra and the single malt the soloist, certain whisky consumers still have this preconceived notion that blended whisky – the product upon which Scotch as a commercial industry was built – is merely playing second fiddle.
In recent years, though, mindsets here in the UK have started to shift. With an abundance of single malts now on supermarket shelves, blended whisky is by no means the only gateway product to Scotch; it is as easy to jump on the first rung of the whisky ladder by way of an Aberlour 12 Years Old as it is a Dewar’s White Label – maybe even easier. And so, for the whisky enthusiast, having climbed a few rungs, looking for something new but nevertheless affordable, the previously overlooked world of blended whisky presents itself as one worth exploring.
Couple that with the current trend for whisky nostalgia and the boom of the secondary market, the relative affordability of bottles such as Ballantine’s and Bell’s from yesteryear can tempt devout single malt drinkers; piquing their curiosity enough to investigate their modern-day counterparts.
Whereas some brands hold up well under such scrutiny – Black Bottle, for instance, demonstrates how incremental differences over time can alter a blend’s flavour profile without detriment to quality – others are unfortunately not as successful.
Although single malts are still assessed by whisky producers on their suitability as components for blends, they are now far more valuable, especially if older, as bottlings in their own right. Together with the rise in popularity and, hence, value of bottlings of single grain whisky (again, especially if aged), the make-up of today’s blends has inevitably changed, and has had to change, significantly to adapt to these market trends: malt-to-grain ratios have been altered; individual elements are subject to different production methods; components are generally younger. Perhaps, as is the case with Highland Queen, a change in the brand’s ownership has meant that these components are now from entirely different distilleries.
So, does this mean that the quality of blended Scotch whisky has diminished over the years? In some cases, yes. But we should avoid tarring all brands with the same brush and jumping to the conclusion that these differences over time have led to an overall slip in standards. As Daniel explains, “Arguably, blends are the easiest to drink but they are still the hardest to make”.
Put simply, though, most blends are not designed for analysis and admiration; they are designed for straightforward drinking. It is, therefore, far easier for blends to break free from the chains of ritual and formality which remain clamped, admittedly a little looser these days, around the ankles of single malts. And so, just as the consumption habits of consumers in the mid 1800s fuelled the evolution of blended Scotch whisky – that is, a Scotch whisky which was ‘easier to drink’ – the tastes of today’s generation of whisky consumers are fuelling innovation and creativity within the category itself. As a result, whether ‘on the rocks’, with a mixer or in a cocktail, they can propose a less conservative and certainly more approachable experience for today’s whisky drinker.
Unshackled, blends can now demonstrate levels of imagination and originality – both in production methods as well as in retail and bar environments – which appeal to a new generation of whisky consumers. And with product knowledge instantly available right there, in the palms of their hands, these consumers are neither limited to what is available on their local supermarket’s shelves nor, indeed, to blended whisky from Scotland.
The rebirth in the Irish whiskey industry has not only brought about the construction of a number of new distilleries, it has also seen the launch of countless new brands hitting the shelves. Whilst some have been less than transparent about their sourced whiskey, others such as Louise McGuane, founder of The Chapel Gate Irish Whiskey Company, have never purported to be distillers. Instead, Louise flies the flag of transparency proclaiming that with their brand, J.J. Corry, they have brought back the lost art of Irish whiskey bonding and are, indeed, ‘all about the blend’.
Transparency is an important value for today’s whisky consumer; one which has recently been acknowledged by the Japanese whisky industry leading it to set up a working party, the aim of which is to formulate legislation for the category. This new legislation should be in place before the end of next year. With the demand for Japanese whisky reaching an unprecedented high, and stocks of mature Japanese whisky at an unequivocal low, without regulations stating what can actually be defined as Japanese whisky, Scotch, as well as whisky from other nations, is regularly imported in bulk to be used as components in Japanese blends. And whereas some, for example Chichibu, disclose their multinational composition, many others do not.
Japanese whisky producers are not alone in using Scotch whisky in their blends. From The Lakes Distillery in England with their flagship product The One to the World Whisky Blend from That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Scotch whisky features prominently and inspires whisky producers all around the world. The flexibility afforded to innovate and create blended whiskies which appeal to whisky drinkers cannot be underestimated.
With a huge library of flavours to choose from, Daniel Dyer says he would urge even the most die-hard of single malt drinkers to try a blend and remain as open minded as one would when trying a new single malt. “Just like single malts,” he adds, “there is a blend out there for every palate”.
Less prescriptive and, as a result, far more fun, blends appeal to those whisky drinkers who are looking to discover a new and distinctive flavour profile. In the words of John Glaser, whiskymaker at Compass Box, blends afford you the opportunity to try “a whisky that no single distillery can make”.