It's all in the blend

It's all in the blend

This month we ask three master blenders where the sector fits in in respect to the rest of the whisky market

People | 23 Oct 2004 | Issue 43 | By Dominic Roskrow

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The Panel
Jim Beveridge, technical specialist, whisky, for Diageo (JB)
Richard Paterson, master blender for Whyte & Mackay (RP)
John Ramsay, master blender for Edrington (JR)
Colin Scott, master blender for Chivas Brothers (CS)Q. In your view, do blends receive the respect they deserve?JB: No they do not! Blended Scotch built the industry we have today – cheap poor quality blends have in my view undermined the category and this in conjunction with the growth of single malts makes it difficult for high quality blends to be accepted.JB: But bearing in mind that most Scotch Whisky sold worldwide will be as blends, then yes, our consumers are clearly demonstrating their respect.CS: Absolutely – premium blends especially command great respect in many parts of the world, from Scotland to Asia. For example Royal Salute 50 year old was revered when it was launched last year – in Japan people queued overnight to pay one million Yen for just one bottle. And of course, standard blends are enjoyed in high volumes worldwide everyday.RP: That may be, but over the last 20 years I feel the reputation of blended whisky has been declining due to severe price discounting and competition from own label brands in the market. However premiums have still maintained their status particularly overseas.Q. Is the sector understood as well as it should be?JB: It’s not as well understood as say the malts sector, but I think this is a huge opportunity. The growth in knowledge of malts is a great platform from which to develop an understanding of blends.RP: There is always room for improvement. The consumer must at all times be educated to allow them to fully understand and appreciate the
complexities of blended whiskies.CS: People can enjoy Scotch whisky it without having a detailed knowledge of production differences, and more often than not, it will be a blend. And that is the strength of blended Scotch whisky in particular – each blend is a brand in its own right, and can represent great drinking or social experiences, and those are understood universally. Whilst it is true that not all people understand the differences between malt and blended whisky, that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying it.Q. What are the biggest obstacles it faces?JB: I am not sure about obstacles – there must be many; but the biggest challenge is competition from other drinks worldwide.CS: I’d say it’s confusion – sometimes people don’t fully understand the differences between blends and malts, and occasionally this can lead to misconceptions about quality.JB: And the message that blending is not a method of hiding poor quality but in the right hands, or noses, can be a holistic combination of what is best in Scotch.Q. Many blends have age statements, but should there be rules governing other aspects of content, such as the percentage of malts a blend contains?CS: No – age statements are very important on bottles and consumers look for them, especially in the premium sector. But malt and grain whisky both play important parts in a blend and it is important that the blender remains unrestricted to develop these roles.JB: I think the strictures of the Scotch whisky definition are sufficient guarantee of quality; mindful of the rigour with which the industry will pursue any risk of compromise! With this assurance of quality, what matters next is the flavour and taste of the blend. For this we are in the hands of the blender, its not necessary to look over his/her shoulder and inspect the recipe book; especially if we can only see a small part of it anyway. Its less about how it’s done, more about the final outcome; we decide on this.JR: Yes, quality is what matters – a high percentage of poor quality malt will give a poor quality blendRP: I agree. Personally I feel this would only cause more confusion for the consumer. At the end of the day it is not the percentage of malt, it is the individual component parts which makes the difference. This should still remain confidential to the company. The secret of blending must be maintained. Keep it simple.Q. Do vatted malts help people understand blends better and vice versa?JB: Yes. Vatting and blending is all about creating whisky expressions which are more than the output of a single distillery; whether it’s combining malts with malts or malts with grains.CS: I disagree – in reality vatted malt only has a presence in a few markets and generally can cause confusion, especially when they are predominately low priced versions. For the connoisseur, they can provide an interesting alternative to a single malt or a blend – Chivas Century of Malts, for instance, contained 100 malts including some that are no longer available.RP: There’s definitely still too much confusion in the market. We still have a long way to go to educate the public. Whisky Magazine, whisky festivals and malt tastings have helped but we still have a long way to go. We must get the definition right and stop internal fighting!JR: Certainly this is still an area of lack of knowledge. And following the Cardhu incident the suggestion that we should now use the phrase ‘blended malt’ for me will make it worse.Q. Outside your own products, which blends do you most respect and why?JR: Most standard blends from the main producers are of a good standard to be enjoyed – when travelling particularly in the Far East Johnnie Walker Black is a safe, consistent choice.RP: Yes, without question Johnnie Walker Black Label 12 year old – its outstanding quality remains consistently reliable throughout the world. It is truly a blend of distinction but more importantly a great ambassador for Scotland especially for Scotch whisky.JB: The blends I respect most are those which are distinctive and authentic; whether that’s to their heritage, their commitment to innovate or their appeal in the market.CS: You always respect the competition!Q. Often single malts and blends are portrayed as in competition with each other. Is that the case or can both sectors benefit each other against other spirit types?RP: Both have their own following and are leaders in their own field. However in recent years single malts have emerged as the top spirit. No other spirit can touch them despite their efforts.CS: I think they work together very easily – take Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet for instance, both big brands in the USA but very complementary. Blends and malts have different roles to play, can be enjoyed on different occasions and offer different taste experiences.JR: Historically most markets have grown up in blended and matured into malts like any fashion progresses – we should demonstrate the appropriateness of each in differing drinking occasions.Q. What sort of future do you predict for blends?JR: I would hope that as consumer knowledge increases that a return to blends of high quality – well matured in good quality casks, married to maximise flavour and texture, will be the route that the serious whisky connoisseur will pursue with the associated spin off that trendsetters can induceRP: Aged blends will emerge stronger in the future with more exciting innovative packaging but watch out for vatted malts/blended malts – this is where the real future lies which will not happen overnight! The drive has to come from everybody but we are half way there.CS: I think the future looks excellent, with whole new generations and new markets emerging to appreciate Scotch and in some places such as China, premium blended Scotch like Chivas – onwards and upwards!JB: Absolutely. There are many superb blends around which must have a great future to look forward to.
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