Production

The best of blends

Is a passion for blends on the rise? Ian Wisniewski looks at what is being done to promote blended Scotch.
By Ian Wisniewski
It’s a strange position to be in. While blended Scotch accounts for around 90 per cent of the sales volume of Scotch whisky, malts have been far more dynamic, attaining a cult status with a devoted and incredibly knowledgeable following.So, what’s happening to promote interest in blends, and develop their appeal?“Apart from some packaging improvements, blends had seen little innovation for many years. However in the past couple of years, products like Asyla, and more independent blends have come onto the market in relatively small batches, creating a specialist niche. Innovation is a wee bit difficult if you’re doing a traditional blend, other than packaging or using different casks, so concentration on quality is the way blends should go forward,” says Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies.Meanwhile, Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange feels blends have reached a significant turning point.“More is now being written about blends, and three years ago when Cutty Sark 25 year old won Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best a lot of people were surprised a blend could beat a malt, and our stock flew out. Alot of people came back and said ‘Wow, I’m surprised a blend could taste that good’ and asked us which other blends we could recommend. I think a lot of people are going back to blends.” Whyte & Mackay’s Richard Paterson highlights another trend. “People are sticking to every day blends, and drinking single malts too, though I also see people moving towards longer-aged blends, with a higher malt content.“Promoting understanding of blended Scotch, blended malts and single malts is what it’s all about, and to feel and taste the differences. Scotch whisky can offer such a wide variety, and suit anyone’s taste.” One aspect of understanding blends is through information on the component whiskies, though protecting secret recipes places a natural limit on the level of disclosure.“Stating what the core malts are explains where the flavours come from, it’s an easy way to upgrade people from a blend to a malt,” says Sukhinder Singh.Keir Sword adds: “When dealing with consumers with knowledge of the malt whisky market, I think specifying malts used in a blend does help, however this may confuse less knowledgeable consumers, who are perhaps more typical of the average blend buyer.” Richard Paterson continues the theme: “What matters is how these individual malts interact with each other. Revealing the recipe may give some ideas but it’s certainly not the whole picture.” And then there’s the question of how this information is conveyed.“I’m not convinced the back of the pack is the best way to provide more information for consumers, there’s not much available space to play with.“There’s careful judgement about what is interesting and useful. Websites are a good medium to communicate,” says Gerry O’Donnell of The Famous Grouse.Whether to stipulate malts used in a blend raises the same question with grain whiskies. But as so few grain whiskies are bottled, and knowledge of them is far less than malts, how useful could this be?“The grain element has been largely ignored as few people knew much about them, but independent bottlers are beginning to bottle some older grain whiskies, showing that grain whisky can be fantastic in its own right,” says Keir Sword.Meanwhile, if the point of a blend is to offer a certain character, then perhaps brand messages should focus on that, rather than the recipe.“We communicate about our blends on many levels. At one level, we put due emphasis on style, an obvious example being the open, easily appreciated fruity, floral style of the Chivas Regal family,” says Martin Riley of Chivas Bros.“However we do communicate on a more detailed level sometimes, often in reaction to consumer’s questions. At this level we often give examples of the single malts we use, e.g.for the Chivas family we talk about Strathisla, Longmorn and The Glenlivet, in order to bring the style to life, rather than talk in abstract terms which can distance consumers,” adds Martin Riley.While malts have excelled at providing information on every aspect of production, the skill of the master blender in composing a blended Scotch is a complex story to convey.Interaction between whiskies, for example, is a fundamental aspect of blending. The fact that combining one malt with a grain whisky creates new flavours that don’t exist in either is a fascinating concept. And applying this concept to a recipe that includes various whiskies raises a number of questions. Which characteristics, and what percentage of the overall flavour of a blend is down to interaction? How many whiskies play a lead role, and how many play a supporting role?“While there is always a certain thirst for information, the role of blended Scotch is to appeal to and satisfy a vast global audience.Therefore it needs to strike a balance between too much information and a few key differentiating points on production, and in fact brand communication tends to talk about lifestyle rather than provenance.“However, ultimately the blender is an artist and it is the mystique of the artist, rather than a detailed modus operandi, that is the enduring take for consumers,” says Martin Riley.Another obvious distinction between malts and blends is that malt fans can deepen their relationship with malts by visiting various distilleries. While the equivalent opportunities for blends are hardly extensive, they can play a very valuable role.“As the brand’s spiritual home The Famous Grouse Experience has been a huge success in bringing consumers closer to the brand, it’s a great mix of information and entertainment. If you speak to consumers and watch their reaction you can see the impact and excitement,” says Gerry O’Donnell.Another aspect of a category’s status is collectability. While malts have a high-profile, high-spending group of collectors around the world, what’s the situation with blends?“There’s a small collector’s market for blends, there are very few limited editionblends,” says Sukhinder Singh.Meanwhile, the division between malt and blended Scotch drinkers is less rigid than it may appear.“Movement between blends and malts is driven by occasion, the group you’re with, places you go to. There’s some evidence that consumers have portfolios of whiskies in their drinks cupboards, so there’s overlap between blends and malts.“That’s going to get more interesting and fluid as blended malts start to come through more,” says Gerry O’Donnell.As long as people are willing to listen, blends have a great story to tell.“There are really important, interesting reasons to promote appreciation of blends,” says John Glaser of Compass Box “It’s about what you can do when grain whiskies play to their strengths, adding softness, sweetness and delicacy, and when you let malts play to their strengths, which is range and flavour.”