News

All a matter of taste

Pip Hills has compiled a directory comparing the taste profile of some leading malts and blends – and has reached some startling conclusions. Here he explains
By Pip Hills
If your only source of information was the pages of this magazine, you might think that most folk who drink whisky drink malts, not blended whiskies. If your source was overheard conversations, you would get the same message.It’s not uncommon to hear people in upmarket bars comparing malts, but it’s a long time since you heard disputes about the virtues of rival blends. It used to be common enough – in Scottish pubs at any rate – but no longer.Blended whiskies seem to have dropped out of sight and connoisseurs of whisky these days never seem to drink anything but malts. This is odd when you think that that nine out of 10 bottles
of Scotch sold around the world contain blended whisky.It’s a fair bet that most of the people reading this simply assume that malt whiskies are generally superior in flavour to blends. The argument runs that since blends are a mixture of malt whisky,
which is tasty, with grain whisky, which is not so tasty, a single malt must be nicer than a blend.I know this proposition well, having advanced it long ago, at a time when few folk had even heard of malt whisky. At that time it was a lot more fun to make such an argument than it is now, for it
was new and in some quarters considered offensive. It was also more likely to be true than it would be today, for the quality of blended whiskies has improved enormously over the last few decades. So is the proposition true today? And how are we to
know whether it is or not? Is it fair to judge both kinds of whisky by the same criteria?Taking the last first: blenders often say that one of the main aims in blending is to produce an integration of flavours, so that it will be difficult to identify any particular aroma within an experience which is, overall, uniquely pleasurable.One doesn’t hear that said so much nowadays, probably because the analysis of flavour is accepted – in whisky as in wine tasting – as the only technique that provides useable information. I must admit I used to think that the stuff about integration was just waffle. I’m sure a lot of it was, but there is a kernel of truth.If we accept that the presence of one flavour affects our perception of another, it follows that where a lot of flavours are present, the sensation we experience is likely to be a compound, rather than just a sum. It also follows that the separation of flavours will be rather difficult.The big problem with uniquely integrated flavours is that there isn’t much you can say about them. If the taste of a whisky really is unique, and the integration is complete, it follows logically that there is nothing you can compare it with.The chink in the armour, though, is as regards the completeness of the integration of flavours. It is much more difficult to analyse a good blend than a malt, but with practice it is possible.Three years ago I asked the owners of four of the best noses in the whisky industry if they would taste some whiskies for me.Jim McEwan, David Robertson, David Stewart and Richard Paterson very kindly agreed, and tasted more than 300 samples, blind, and in different random orders. Each whisky was rated, on a scale of zero to 10, for the presence of the 15 sorts of flavour which characterise all Scotch whiskies.The figures were analysed statistically by Frances Jack of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute and the results for each whisky displayed in the form of a barchart – a flavour profile – whose columns represent the different flavours. Mainstream Publishing very kindly agreed to publish the work as The Scotch Whisky Directory, which with any luck will be in the shops as this edition of Whisky Magazine appears.The findings make very interesting reading as regards the comparison of malt with blended whiskies, for they show exactly what flavours are to be found, and in what degree.The nosers are sufficiently expert and discriminating to prise apart any integration and identify the flavours of any blend. The most flavoursome of whiskies are without doubt malts taken from
single, very fine and active casks. Adelphi, Signatory and some of the other private bottlers demonstrate this very clearly – for example, a Signatory bottling of Glenlivet shown on page 48.Very few whiskies approach such high levels of flavour, but that doesn’t make them lesser potations. What matters as much as the levels of flavour, is the distribution of flavours. Those at the
beginning of the profile are the ones which are always nice; those in the middle may be nice or not, depending on how strong they are and also on the predilections of the drinker. The flavours at the end of the profile are almost always nasty if at appreciable levels and unmasked by other flavours.A good 10 year old malt will have high bars at the start, lower ones in the middle and very low ones at the end. Glenmorangie (page 48) provides a benchmark. That is just a spectacularly good whisky and in the United Kingdom, it sells for about £24.It has to be said that few 10 year old malts measure up to this standard and some fall well below it, as in the next example shown on page 48 – a widely-advertised malt – which has pretty poor levels of flavour in any department. For decency’s sake I won’t give its name. There are a good many others not much better, but reckoned to be top-quality malts.A well-flavoured blend, on the other hand, such as The Famous Grouse, provides a very respectable profile, indicative of a sufficiency of pleasing flavours, plenty of interest and nothing at all nasty.Two things are noticeable in the Directory flavour profiles: firstly that there are lots of unpretentious blends with profiles comparable to that of the Grouse and secondly that there are plenty malts which don’t measure up to them. Indeed, there are several very cheap blends which are every bit as flavoursome as some malts which cost five times as much.So perhaps those of us who were weaned on the idea that the only whiskies likely to be of any interest, are malt whiskies, ought to think again. This is a cause for rejoicing rather than despondency:
the world of whisky is a lot bigger and has the potential for morepleasure than a lot of folk have realised. If you are a malt whisky buff, and would like to extend your experience and your pleasure without spending a fortune, forget the absurdly-expensive specially-bottled malts and look at some of the
commoner blended whiskies. Left, for instance, is the Flavour Profile of Chivas’ Brothers Something Special. It’s not dear and it really is special.