Production

Trying to blend in

What is wrong with American blended whiskey? Maligned and misunderstood, American blends may be due for revival by Charles K. Cowdery
By Charles K Cowdery
A ‘term of art’ is a word or phrase that has special meaning in a particular context. In whiskey lexicon, ‘blend’ is such a word. While it can refer to a mixture of likes (a blend of single malts, for example), it more often refers to a combination that includes a more neutral base whiskey which gives the drink a milder flavour and, not coincidentally, a lower production cost.

In this, as in most things whisky, the Scots, Irish, Canadians and Japanese are in one camp and the United States is in another. All of their blends are all-whisky, whereas virtually all American blends contain grain neutral spirits (GNS), ie vodka.

A seemingly-related difference is market perception. In most of the world, blends dominate and range from low status to high. In the USA, straight whiskey dominates and American blends are universally considered cheap and shoddy, even by the people who make them.

Why is this? Most people will answer, “All that damn GNS.”

Yet it’s not that simple. The ‘whisky’ which forms the base of a typical Scottish, Irish, Canadian or Japanese blend leaves the still almost as neutral as GNS. Ninety-five percent alcohol is neutral, but anything less is whisky. The whisky intended for blends is distilled as close to that line as possible. The difference in refinement is on the order of one per cent.

The real difference is not distillation proof, it is aging.

In Scotland et.al., that base whisky is aged for a minimum of three years. GNS is not aged. The GNS content in an American blend can be up to 80 per cent.

“Aged grain whisky is different from neutral spirits,” says Chris Morris, master distiller at Brown-Forman. “Three years in a barrel definitely has an effect.”

Morris’s company is the only major, broad-portfolio American producer that sells no blends. “American blends reek of neutral spirits,” he says.

Why are American blends so debased?Can or should they be better?

Most observers say no. “The American industry has written off blends,” says Morris, a refrain echoed by many. “It’s strictly a price category.”

Bernie Lubbers, one of the Beam Global ‘whiskey professors,’ agrees.

“I don’t see us or anyone else coming up with a new blend,” he says. “It’s hard enough to get people onto the bourbon trail. We’re not going to accomplish that by confusing people.”

In 2008, the American blended whiskey segment grew for the first time in nearly 40 years, though only slightly. Could a revival be in the works?

Mark Brown, president of Sazerac, says thinks so.

“We believe that there is a market for upscale or deluxe American Blended Whiskeys,” he says. Sazerac has some new, premium blend profiles in the works that he believes will compete outside of the current value-oriented American blends segment.

Sazerac’s current blends include Kentucky Gentleman, Old Thompson, Fleischmann’s Preferred, and Imperial.

Beam Global has Beam’s 8 Star and Kessler. Heaven Hill has Kentucky Deluxe, Philadelphia, Gukenheimer, Hallers and Wilson.

The number one brand of American Blended Whiskey is Seagram’s 7 Crown, a Diageo product.

Do most whiskey drinkers understand the difference between straights and blends?Probably not. Does it matter?

Gillian Cook, a Diageo public relations executive, says people don’t buy categories, they buy trusted brands.

“The American Whiskey category includes many strong brands, Seagram’s 7 Crown among them. Consumers simply buy the brands they love and don’t distinguish between blends and straights.”

As the leader, Seagram’s 7 sets the standard for other American blends. Diageo recently upped its neutral spirits content from 66 to 75 per cent. (By law, GNS content must be disclosed on the product’s label.)

An example of selling brands, not categories, is Diageo’s new Seagram’s 7 Crown Dark Honey. Categorically, it is neither blend nor straight but, rather, a flavoured whiskey. As such, it is loaded with sugar and just 35.5 per cent alcohol. Though tasty, it is more like a liqueur than a whiskey.

Jeremiah Weed is another Diageo brand that cuts across several categories, including flavored whiskey, blended whiskey, liqueur, and flavored vodka.

American blends weren’t always this way.

“After Prohibition, there were lots of rough whiskeys,” recalls Dave Scheurich, general manager at Brown-Forman’s Woodford Reserve Distillery. “Master blenders could make something acceptable out of them.” When fully-aged straights became more available, blends faded except at the lowest price points. “Today, there is no real artistry to it”.

Jim Rutledge, master distiller at Four Roses, also remembers when American blends were much better than they are now.

“Blended whiskies once had prestige in the American market, but when the distilleries started adding too much GNS and reduced the proofs to the minimum 80 proof (40% ABV) the status of the blends went south,” says Rutledge. “When blends were in their prime in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, many were ‘A’ blends, with 100 per cent whiskey, no GNS.” Even the ‘B’ blends of that era, which contained some GNS, had much less of it.

The only way to revitalise American blends is to move away from cheapness and go back to artistry and product quality.

Larry Kass, director of corporate communications for Heaven Hill, sees innovation coming from the blended straight bourbon segment, products such as Heaven Hill’s Parker’s Heritage Collection Golden Anniversary, which blend together different ages of straight bourbon.

“It is ironic that when we talk about a straight bourbon blend like our Evan Williams, or even Golden Anniversary, we are loathe to use the terms ‘blended’ or ‘blending,’” says Kass. “Instead we opt for other expressions with less baggage, such as ‘married’ or ‘commingled.’”

Another possible source for better American blends is micro-distilleries, which know they have to innovate to find a niche.

David Perkins, of High West Distillery in Utah, has been successful with his Rendezvous Rye, a blend of two different rye whiskeys; and Bourrye, a blend of bourbon and rye. He didn’t distill any of the component whiskeys himself and that bothered him at first.

“I didn’t want to buy it because I didn’t make it, but blending was a way to make it mine,” says Perkins.

The designations ‘blended whiskey’ and ‘straight whiskey’ exist because of a battle royal that occurred after passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. At issue was the right to use the word ‘whiskey’ itself. The initial ruling was that blends had to be labeled ‘imitation whiskey,’ but their makers were much too powerful to let that stand.

Blends were popular then and became popular again after Prohibition as a way to stretch limited straight whiskey stocks. History repeated itself after World War II. As straight whiskey recovered, blends lost market share. Straights surpassed blends in the early 60s. Now straights outsell blends almost three to one.

Today, growing demand for American whiskey is again pressuring supply and blends could again help stretch limited stocks. Instead of using GNS, American producers could go back to making light whiskey, which can be distilled to just shy of neutrality and aged in plentiful, inexpensive used barrels.

Light whiskey could then be used to create mild-flavoured and inexpensive all-whiskey blends that would be acceptable for export, where the demand for American whiskey is strongest.

This is likely to be the first time Whisky Magazine has run a feature story on American blends, but it may not be the last.