Simply misunderstood

Simply misunderstood

Dave Broom sticks up for the overlooked 'oddball' of the whisky world, with some expert help

Production | 16 Aug 2002 | Issue 25 | By Dave Broom

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It was halfway through the tasting for the last issue that it struck me that no-one really understands what a vatted malt is: it’s the poor relation of the whisky industry, not quite a blend, not quite a malt either. Vatted malts are so … marginal. The idea – a ‘blend’ of single malts – is simple enough but as Richard Paterson claims, few consumers know what a vatted malt is meant to be like. “The consumer is confused as to what they are and the style isn’t given the credit it should,” he says. “The fact they are not a single doesn’t mean they are inferior. They have complexity, they’re just a different style. The Corriemhor should be judged in the same way as a malt.”John Ramsay takes a similar line. “They’re not well understood by the majority,” he says adding – as any blender would – that a mix of malts should be and in many cases is better than single malt, age for age, as the blender has a broader base to draw from. “They suffer from a lack of provenance in the minds of those who understand the concept like yourself.” Well, that’s me told, but I take his point. Do we just pay lip-service to them? Allow them to sit, slightly awkwardly, off to one side? Vatted malts are like the kid who doesn’t join in at school, the oddball who is too much trouble to include in your games yet when you take time to talk to him ends up being your best friend. For years it was possible to ignore vatted malts, yet recently the category has seen a mini-revival thanks to brands such as Johnnie Walker Pure Malt, Grouse Vintage Malt, The Corriemhor and now John Glaser’s left-field take on the concept, which includes not just a vatted malt (Eleuthera) but vatted grain (Hedonism). The fact that you voted the latter your joint favourite whisky last year shows there must be some life in this oddball category.However, the fact remains that vatted malts aren’t considered on a par with singles. Glaser’s brands ask why this should be the case. “Blending whiskies from different distilleries provides you with a platform for creativity,” he argues. “You can make new styles and create new combinations of flavours that you simply can’t find in single whiskies and it is these new styles of whiskies I want to create. I get these ideas for types of whiskies that I think will taste absolutely delicious and I have to try to make them. I suppose it’s what it’s like when a chef goes to someone else’s restaurant and tastes a dish that gives him an idea for something else.”We’ve arrived in a strange place. Somehow, in the world of whisky when you mix different high-quality things together the result isn’t considered to be more complex, but less. Why is that? “Some people, especially malt-drinkers, still hear the word ‘blend’ and they fall back on the old misperceptions of what a blend is and say ‘I don’t drink blends’.’’ says Glaser with a note of despair. “It bugs me to hear people say this. Give that malt-drinker a glass of Johnnie Walker Gold Label without telling them what it is and it will change their life, not to mention changing their perception of what a blended whisky can be.” I’m with him on that.Right enough, it can’t be that difficult making a vatted malt. Surely all you need is a recipe for a blend and then forget to put the grain in. As Peggy Lee might have said: is that all there is to a vatted malt? “No!” says Jim Beveridge.“It’s totally different. A blend is about putting a less complex grain with complex malts. It is a way to make malts more accessible and tell you things about the malt that you hadn’t seen before. Vatted malts are totally different because you are using similar types of material – those complex malts. Vatted malts, therefore, are about combining different levels of complexity to create different flavour combinations, but the end result is still a malt and not a blend!”OK, if that is the case, then does this level of complexity impact on what styles of malt you can and cannot use? “It’s just a different ball game,” says Beveridge. “It’s not the same as making a blend, that’s for certain. Both are about creating a new flavour profile, but come from different approaches. A vatted malt is more about equivalent levels of complexity. The job is to combine those different characters and give them a different dimension.” So is it more of a challenge to put together a vatting of malts without having the mellowing / ameliorating effects of grain? For Glaser it depends on the style you’re trying to make. “On the whole, I think it’s more challenging to put together a blend of malts and grains than it is to assemble a vatted malt. This is because blends of malts and grains tend to be, but don’t have to be, lighter styles of whisky that can accommodate drinking several glasses in succession.”“It’s as hard or as easy as blended whiskies once you have a style in mind,” says Ramsay. “Depending on the marketing proposition, a vatted malt can be easier than a single malt as you only have a finite quantity of any one single but you might be able to substitute one malt for another in a vatted malt’s make-up.”Don’t think that this means the new vatted brands are somehow less complex than a single malt. “Making a vatted malt is about producing a whisky with a dimension you wouldn’t get with a single malt,” says Beveridge. “Walker has a signature style and it draws from a blending heritage. We’ve created a vatted malt that sticks to that heritage. That doesn’t mean that we simply take all the ‘Walker malts’ – whatever that means – and say I’ll have a bit of this and a little of that. The process starts with having a flavour profile which fits into the Walker family and then finding the malts to fit that flavour profile. Flavour comes first.”Paterson comes at it from much the same angle. “A vatted malt is a mix of single malts, but it can be two, three or 43. The vital element is that it should have individuality and be given time to marry, allowing more complex flavours to appear. Life would be pretty boring if all I had to work with was a light, fragrant malt like Tamnavulin. Vatting allows me to give me a new dimension with extra richness.”Few of us would argue with that reasoning. The trouble is that things aren't quite that simple. Vatted malts aren’t exclusively at the top end of the market, they encompass everything from supermarket own-labels, through low-priced ‘introductory’ brands to this premium new wave. Last issue’s tasting showed that while the best examples (Walker Pure Malt, Eleuthera and I’d include Grouse and Corriemhor) do have this level of complexity and balance there are many vatted malts which are one-dimensional and, perhaps because they haven’t spent a period of time marrying together, lack balance. The price may be good, but the delivery is lacking. Some vatted malts may be more complex than many single malts, but not all are. Nothing in whisky is clear-cut.That said, the arrival of the top-end vatted malts suggests that this forgotten, misunderstood maverick of a category could yet be given a new lease of life. “There is a role for them,” says Paterson. “Single malt will always win the day but variety is the spice of life. Vatted malts are good value, they’re drinks to sit back and relax with and enjoy.”John Glaser, however, has bigger ideas for vatted malts. “Whisky drinkers love choice,” he says. “Using blending as a platform for creativity in creating new styles of malt whiskies opens up millions of new possibilities. I have this idea about taking the range concept behind UDV’s Classic Malts and making a range of blended (vatted, whatever!) malts, each with a very different style from the other, each a complex beauty in its own right with layers and layers of flavour. I know it sounds crazy. As if we didn't have enough choice in malt whisky already. But I can’t help dreaming …”
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