By Gavin Smith

A Case for Blends

Gavin D. Smith is a regular contributor to Whisky Magazine and the author of more than a dozen books about whisky, along with several on beer and Scottish history. He is also contributing editor of www.whiskypages.com. He lives in the Scottish Borders and drinks malts and blends with equal enthusiasm
A few weeks ago I visited the remnants of Kennetpans distillery, situated near Kincardine and close to the banks of the River Forth. Kennetpans operated for a century, from around 1720, and in 1733 it was Scotland’s biggest distillery in terms of output. Today, £1 million is required to stablise and preserve the historic ruins, owned by local businessman Bryan Frew and his wife, Fiona.

In an ideal world, Kennetpans would be preserved just like one of Scotland’s ancient castles, for its significance to the heritage of Scotch whisky is immense. Kennetpans was one of several large-scale distilleries owned by the inter-married Stein and Haig families, who were central players in the industrialisation of the Scotch whisky industry and pioneers of the production of grain spirit, which ultimately led to the development of blended whisky. The Haigs were to become synonymous with one of the most famous blended whisky brands of them all.

However, raising the cash required for Kennetpans looks like being an extremely uphill task, as prevailing attitudes towards the distillery reflect our perception of the unromanticised side of Scotch whisky, and especially blended Scotch. We do not seem to be very engaged by its genesis, its heritage or its provenance. Why waste time on blended whisky when the world is full of wonderful single malts to explore?

Well, perhaps because the most skilfully crafted blends give many single malts a run for their money in terms of character and complexity and because around 90 per cent of all Scotch whisky consumed globally is blended.

It is because of blends that Scotland has a whisky industry, rather than a whisky cottage industry, with all the benefits of employment, income, investment and global status that implies. The leading brands have made Scotland known to people in every corner of the world.

There is a danger that we have become so precious about single malts that we have lost sight of the fact that blended Scotch whisky is one of the country’s great success stories and one of its proudest commercial achievements.

During the second half of the 19th century, once the art of blending malt and grain spirit together had been perfected, it was blended Scotch that took the world by storm. Malt whisky was deemed to be harsh and inconsistent. Fine for a grouse moor, but hardly suitable for the drawing room, my dear.

Blends are not simply a stepping stone into malts for consumers. They are individual works of art, and particularly in aged/premium formats, are becoming increasingly appreciated in international markets.

Blended Scotch whisky is not second-class whisky. Far too many intelligent consumers with discerning palates have been coerced into believing that only single malts are The Real Thing. Were it not for the on-going global success story of blended whisky we would undoubtedly not have the wide range of single malts currently available for our appreciation. Do you imagine that Diageo would continue to operate 29 malt distilleries if Johnnie Walker blends had not sold the best part of 14 million cases during 2009?

The company claims to have spent £600 million in Scotland during the past six years. Would it have done that simply to support its Cardhu and Talisker single malt brands? Of course not.

Ultimately, we need the local, hand-crafted, small-batch approach to Scotch whisky, but we also need large-scale distilleries, turning out major quantities of consistent malt spirit, primarily for blending. Big is not necessarily bad, and the Scotch whisky industry must be the broadest church possible.

Let me leave you with a quote by one of the pioneers of blending, who laid the foundations for what is now the best-selling blended Scotch whisky brand in the UK. According to Arthur Bell: “Several fine whiskies blended together please the palates of a greater number of people than one whisky unmixed.”