Whisky Myths Smashed #2
Blends are poorer quality than Malts
While continuing on my iconoclastic mission to rid the world of whisky misconceptions, I have a confession or two. While I do not have a priest on hand to take note of my misdemeanours, I’m typing this in my ship’s bunk with the curtain drawn which is almost as good as any confessional box.
Whilst not the most serious of errors to make, it is one view that I shared that may misguide others in their personal whisky journeys and may have taken them away from the enlightenment of a truly good dram. The skeleton has rattled in the closet long enough.
How many of us have turned our noses up at the offer of a blended whisky? Do we see it as the gut rot of the seasoned alcoholic who will take anything that’s cheap, or the drink of somebody who knows next to nothing about whisky. I have to hold my hand up and say that I’m the sort of person who used to think both of those things. I’d snigger at the people drowning it in water, suffocating it with ice and obliterating it with a mixer. In my mind, a blend was for getting blitzed cheaply, for people who knew nothing about whisky / didn’t care, or for ‘medicinal’ purposes in a hot toddy. It was almost like I had a hipster attitude long before the phrase was coined, although now being in my 40’s, fashion unconscious plus completely unable to grow a beard precludes me from ever being called a hipster.
Well, forgive me Father as I knew not what I was doing and have sinned.
It is a complete myth that Blended Whisky is a poorer quality product. While there may be blends in the market place that would be an equal to industrial strength paint stripper, there are many that are not.
Blended whisky became a popular alternative to single malts, as by the early 19th century, single malt whisky was still wildly inconsistent in quality. Grain whisky was smoother, and the invention of the Coffey Still allowed continuous distillation of grain whisky, which is quicker than the pot still method of making it in batches.
The practice of blending Scotch Malt with grain whisky was prohibited until 1860, and Andrew Usher of Edinburgh soon took advantage. By mixing different brands and types of whisky, it was easier to obtain a smoother, more drinkable product. Blended whisky became very popular and was being shipped all over the world. Possibly the most famous blended whisky in the world – Johnnie Walker, was produced in Kilmarnock, and the new railways appearing over the country made it easy to deliver his produce to Glasgow. John Walker had been blending malts and grains seperately in his grocery business for years, but had no brand as such because the blends were bespoke at customer request. However it was his son, Alexander Walker that was the main force behind the brand With Glasgow being a major port, this allowed Walker to export across the world via the Clyde.
Johnnie Walker whisky was ahead of the game in a couple of more ways- the square bottles allowed better packing to reduce breakage in transit, plus more bottles could be fitted in a crate. The diagonal label allowed more writing on the label than would be able to placed on a horizontal label. It is still currently the most popular blended whisky brand in the world with 21.7% of the global market in 2017. Ballintines came second with 8.1%.
Blended whisky took off, especially in the 1880’s when the Phylloxera plague decimated the vineyards of France, putting a halt on wine and cognac production, allowing whisky to take its place. Believe it or not, to illustrate how popular whisky is in France, over the past three years, France is by far the largest market for Scotch Blended whisky, and second only the USA for single malt*. Hopefully this will not change with the impact of Brexit.
So in the tail end of the 19th century, many distilleries were getting built to capitalise on the rapid growth of blends and the sudden increased demand from the continent. Disaster hit in 1899 with the collapse of the blending company called Pattinson Ltd (of Leith, Edinburgh). This company was a major bottler and blender of Scotch whisky. All of a sudden the distilleries had nobody to sell their whisky to. Many people who had invested in whisky as a way to make money lots their fortunes and in plenty of cases affected the investment in the new distilleries. A swathe of distilleries were closed, some only a couple of years old, never to open again. The industry was slow to rebuild, but there was a further two blows to come within 30 years – First World War and Prohibition in the US. The Great Depression then the Second World War also limited sales. After the Second World War, restrictions in place to secure cereal crops for food limited the amount of grain for whisky. It didn’t matter, as a war weary world didn’t have much money for such luxuries anyway.
Things started picking up in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s after wartime austerity had disappeared and people were becoming more affluent. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s to early 1990’s that Single Malts started re-emerging as premium brands, which helped create brand snobbery and the down the nose peering at blend drinkers.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. There is only two blended whiskies I know exactly what malts are in them – Monkey Shoulder and Collectivim XXVIII (A Diageo special release in 2017 which contains whisky from each of their 28 Scottish malt distilleries.)
Diageo owned Johnnie Walker has 5 core ranges – Red, Black, Green, Gold (Reserve) and Blue. This is in the range of expensiveness but Blue contains the oldest whiskies in the range and is a decent dram. Some of the whisky in JW is around 30 years old, with the Red still containing a majority of whisky around the 10 year old mark. Ballintines is to become a premium blend of Pernod Ricard. Dewars (Bacardi) has a good range of blended editions. Compass Box are an independent bottler and have some very unusual releases. This isn’t an exhaustive list, and there are plenty of other premium blends. At the other end of the scale are Famous Grouse, Bells, Black Bottle along with a complete myriad of other blends.
Are they all rubbish? No, definitely not. I am so glad I had my epiphany about blended whisky as I would have been missing out. Think about it – there might be some very respectable whiskies in these blends, and it is worth bearing in mind that as 90% of Scotch whisky is sold as a blend, that’s a lot of good whiskies. Personally, I find that despite a low bottling strength, I prefer modern blends like Monkey Shoulder and Copper Dog, both made with whisky cocktails in mind, but equally delicious with nothing but the glass they are served in. My maxim at Scotty’s Drams, as with many other whisky bloggers is that the perfect whisky is the one you like and enjoy drinking in whatever style. However, I still hanker after the notion that the only use for an ice blade isn’t for breaking up ice to place in your drink; it’s for burying in the head of those who think it’s acceptable to place it in a decent single malt. Perhaps I should insert a LOL at the end of that to soften the sentiment, but I’m not sure it would work.
However, that isn’t my worst confession. For this I have to plunge into the deepest, darkest recess of my soul to bring it to the surface. Given the tasty whisky I have and have tried, it’s almost impossible for this cathartic release to come out, but now may be the time to lay it to rest.
I rather like Famous Grouse.
There. Said it. And as my sanity is questioned and my soul screams like a million banshees out on the spree in Aberdeen’s Union Street, I’ll just sign off here.