Blended whisky is most often considered a poor relation to single malts. And when you consider that 90 per cent of whisky sold is in this category, much of it of questionable quality and with no restraints on the age (above the legal minimum of three years) of the whisky nor on its malt content, then perhaps this should come as no surprise.Bland blends clog up supermarket and liquor store shelves across the world, and many bottles in their dispute of smoothness have dispensed with the need for taste altogether.But at its best blended whisky is every bit as challenging and attractive as all but the very best malts. Indeed, the very best blends are founded on weighty and aged quality whisky, and the blender’s skill is to add to that very high base camp and take the drink in to the sublime.Even relatively inexpensive blends from the bigger companies are creditable examples of a different but legitimate style of whisky. Not necessarily better, not necessarily worse. Just different.Below Ian Buxton explores whisky’s final frontier and the world of super premium blends. And on page 23, we provide a definitive AZ of the world’s best blends.Shock! £60 or more for a bottle of blend. Horror! Whisky served straight from the freezer. Nightmare! Whisky with exotic fruits – the world of super-premium blends is quite an alarming place for whisky traditionalists.But they’re fighting a rearguard action. The world is embracing these luxury blends with gusto – except, it seems, in the United Kingdom where drinkers don’t quite get it. So what is a ‘super-premium’ blend exactly, and exactly why is it a style you should consider?They may seem just self-indulgence but super-premiums are the highest expression of the blender’s art: a huge commitment of investment, time and blending skill using the rarest of whiskies to produce the house’s ultimate flagship. Typically these products are at least 18 years old and ritzily packaged, though naturally their proprietors insist it’s all about taste.Well, we’ll turn to that in a moment, but first: what about that packaging? Special bottles, silk ribbons, wax seals, gold embossing and beautifully crafted cartons – every cliché from the designer’s book is pressed into service to dress these whiskies.It’s my pet theory that, in part at least, this has put off the British consumer. The English are suspicious of too much ostentation and Scots just want to pay for whisky, thank you very much.However, if you look below the surface, there are some very agreeable surprises. These are Scotches that are about more than just show, however glamorous the packaging.A great deal of work has gone into creating these products which, as Alex Carnie, managing director of J & W Hardie, producers of The Antiquary 21 year old reminds us: “by definition must be smoother and more balanced, as well as finer tasting than a ‘normal’ high quality
blend, to justify the premium price.”His competitors agree.For as Martin Riley of Chivas, owners of Ballantines 17 year old, Chivas Regal 18 year old and Royal Salute 21 year old, claims: “It’s all about taste. Super-premium blends offer the ultimate taste experience – the breadth and variety of the whole orchestra, rather than the solo instrument that is single malt”.So, who is drinking these wonderful blends, and why? Though largely invisible in the UK market, super-premiums are incredibly important to the industry in markets such as the USA, Asia and global tax free.Asia is particularly influential. There the market is driven by prestige and image, with gift-giving and business entertaining hugely significant. By buying the best, so the thinking goes, you show respect to your guests and signify your mutual status.The result: on-trade pricing of £250 a bottle and up, with several bottles regularly consumed by groups of businessmen in an evening.In societies where age is still equated with wisdom, and respected accordingly, age statements on the bottle provide an easy discriminator of quality and a mark of status. Scotch whisky in particular is also seen as cosmopolitan, sophisticated and international and thus appeals to drinkers who want to stand out in a stylish way.The happy outcome is rapidly growing, and very profitable, sales for the distillers. In Japan, for example, where overall whisk(e)y sales have fallen for five years in a row high-end brands are recording strong growth. In China, Korea and Taiwan the story is similar as new found affluence and the liberalisation of once restricted markets opens new sales opportunities.Leading brands are responding to this challenge with new styles, innovative expressions and aggressive re-launches. Dewar’s, for example, revitalised after its 1998 acquisition by Bacardi, has recently launched an 18 year old Founder’s Reserve and an even more exclusive, though non-aged, Signature blend.With the USA its main target Signature retails at $200 (£110) and up.Both are characterised by the restrained elegance of their packaging – stylish without being showy – but Dewar’s master blender Tom Aitken prefers to emphasise the range of whiskies that goes into the blend.“To add to its intricacy, I’ve selected the finest and rarest malts from every distilling region of Scotland to create a full bodied flavour that allows the discerning palate to discover something new every time Signature is tasted,” he says.As is traditional with Dewar’s its Aberfeldy single malt (a 27 year old in this case) is at the heart of this blend – tasting its rich, mellow tones, I began to understand why the company holds back the majority of this Perthshire single malt exclusively for blending.Dewar’s decision to concentrate on the US market emphasises another point about the super-premium sector very few of these brands command global distribution.It’s partly about stocks, of course. There is a strictly limited supply of aged whisky and more and more of it is being demanded for single malt bottlings.However, that’s not the whole story. Some brands have built up strong regional followings, based on years of market exposure.Take Portugal, for example. One of the most stylish of gifts there is Martins 20 year old or, if you really wanted to impress, its 30 year old big brother. Martins, from the Glenmorangie stable, is Portugal’s leading super-premium, yet virtually unknown outside the Iberian Peninsula.Rich and creamy at 20 years old, Martins develops a depth and grandeur in the older version that’s a hallmark of these prestige blends. As a group they’re incredibly smooth and silky, rolling over your tongue like a particularly refined chocolate.These are seductive, mature spirits that reward exploration and contemplation – like a favourite writer, you can return to them time after time and yet find something new and satisfying in a passage you thought familiar.So here’s the biggest difference with single malt. Whereas any given single malt glories in its idiosyncratic character and distinctiveness, the archetypal super-premium blend is a team player, combining the smokiness of one, sherry character of another and honey sweetness of a third.At its best, it’s an expert guided tour round Scotland’s finest drams captured in a single bottle, with all the rugged bits ironed out and the spiky personalities brought to heel. A finely engineered Bentley, if you will, contrasted with a temperamental TVR.Others experiment with cask finishing. Grants offers a deluxe range finished in bourbon, sherry and port wood casks, culminating in a super-premium 25 year old blend that’s complex, long lasting and sonorous. Nothing intrudes on the delivery of deep, rolling flavours that resemble a smooth jazz ensemble in mellow, late night mood.All of these brands use a considerable number of grain and malt whiskies to make up the final blend. Typically, however, whisky iconoclast John Glaser of Compass Box used just one of each to create his new Double Single for the Craigellachie Hotel.The result is a delight: creamy vanilla flavours from the Cambus grain enrobing a robust single malt like a fine Belgian chocolate, with its mysterious centre wrapped in a silky milk outer layer. However, with just 600 bottles available, it’s a strictly limited treat.But I’ve left one brand to last. So far as super-premiums are concerned, Johnnie Walker is the elephant in the room.All its competitors look with envy upon its global presence, massive sales and enviable product line-up: the de-luxe Black Label provides the perfect jumping off point for drinkers ready to explore super-premium styles, with the reassurance of a famous brand name.Naturally, the 18 year old Gold Label is their first move. Leaning heavily on Clynelish, Cardhu and Talisker it’s an indulgent, rich and creamy blend that notably omits the strong smokiness evident in its younger brothers.Diageo’s Andy Gaunt, from the Reserve Brands Group, recommends trying it straight from the freezer with some rich chocolates or in a range of sweeter cocktails, such as a Manhattan. It may seem like heresy, but it really seems to work.With Blue Label, Johnnie Walker has the confidence to omit any age statement, simply asking “where did we get this idea that older automatically means better?”With Blue, it argues, the smoothness and velvety texture can only be achieved by using very aged whiskies, but younger whiskies add vibrant flavours. Consequently, Blue is blended when the blender deems the components ready, not when they reach a predetermined age.So, if you’ve never tried a super-premium now might just be the time to start. Journey to the final frontier of whisky drinking and see what really excites blenders and discerning drinkers round the world. You have nothing to lose but your prejudices! Ten of the best
The Antiquary – 21 Years Old: Rich, fruity and warming with hints of peat and sherry.Johnnie Walker Gold Label – 18 Years Old: Fragrant, subtle and honeyed. Try it ice cold with rich Belgian chocolate, even serve from the freezer. Yes, really.Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Non Age: Designed to resemble a 19th Century blend, it’s dry and smoky with fruit and spices in its depths and a peaty finish.Compass Box Double Single – Non Age: Rich, sweet and silky it’s dominated by the vanilla in the grain, with the malt storming through on the finish.Dewar’s Founder’s Reserve – 18 Years Old: The heather sweetness of the house style is evident, but overall a mature and harmonious blend.Dewar’s Signature – Non Age: fruity and mellow, with sultanas, raisins, apples and the Aberfeldy heather-honey to the fore. Sophisticated, well-balanced and confident.Martins – 20 Years Old: Pale gold colour with a vanilla nose and initial burst of flavour. Along, consistent finish.Martins – 30 Years Old: Extra depth, colour, richness and flavour. A creamy, mouth-filling dram with hints of caramelised fruit and dry nuts.Wm Grants Cask Selection – 18 Years Old: The port wood finish delivers an assertive wine nose and rich colour. Full flavoured and mouth filling.Wm Grants – 25 Years Old Blend: A heady, perfumed nose and rich dark colour give way to fruit cake, mature citrus notes and liquorice.