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What is blended Scotch whisky? 

Blended whiskies like Johnnie Walker or Famous Grouse make up something like 90% of global Scotch whisky sales. But unlike single malts, they don’t really get the attention they deserve. So we thought it would be a good idea to devote an article to explaining exactly what blends are, how they evolved, and why they can be so good. 

What is blended Scotch whisky?

Simply put blended Scotch whisky combines malt whisky with grain whisky. You can also buy blended malt whiskies which are made up of multiple malts from different distilleries and blended grains. 

Johnnie Walker Black Label – a global icon

What is malt whisky?

Malt Scotch whisky is made only from malted barley and must be distilled in traditional pot stills. It was traditionally made by farmers in the Highlands of Scotland. It has long been the most-prized kind of Scotch whisky with people seeking out the finest malts even when most of them were illegal in the late 18th and early 19th century. Whiskies like Glenlivet acquired mythical status. With the 1823 Excise Act, the laws around distillation were liberalised and many distillers, like George Smith at Glenlivet, went legit. But the trouble with malts is that they were in short supply and quality wasn’t always consistent.

What is grain whisky?

In the Lowland region another kind of whisky had developed which was made on a more industrial scale by vast distilleries like Kilbagie in Fife. Much of the spirit would have been sent south to London to be turned into gin. It didn’t have the best reputation, Robbie Burns described it as “most rascally liquor.” He much preferred the characterful Highland malt whiskies. With the development of continuous distillation with first the Stein and later the Coffey still large quantities of cheap alcohol could be made from cereals such as barley, wheat, maize, oats and rye – whatever came to hand.

The Famous Grouse has come a long way from this Perth-based grocery

How did blended whisky develop?

Blended whisky has its roots in the 19th century when shopkeepers like John Walker in Kilmarnock or Matthew Gloag (above) in Perth wanted a consistent product to sell so they combined characterful malt whiskies from all over the Highlands with cheaper grain whiskies from the Lowlands. They would also have sold sherry, Port and rum and discovered that whisky stored in used barrels developed a wonderful flavour. The other thing they discovered is that though grain whisky might not have a huge amount of flavour on its own, it acts as an emulsifier bringing disparate spirits together, and providing a backbone of sweetness to a whisky. Though the fact that grain whisky made blends cheaper was also a huge factor.

While popular in Scotland, uncut malt whisky was thought much too forceful for peely wally English palates so blenders developed lighter whiskies specifically to appeal to non-Scots. These were made to be drunk with soda water in an early version of the Highball. Here the Scotch industry was aided by phylloxera, a louse that destroyed vineyards and casued a shortage of brandy which at the time was the most popular spirit with the affluent in England. Blenders like Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker, and Bell’s seized the opportunity and made a concerted attack on the English market pushing out the heavier Irish whiskey which until then had dominated.

J&B and America, a special relationship

Different styles of blends

Different styles of blended whisky developed based on geography. On the west coast of Scotland blenders like Johnnie Walker used heavier Campbeltown and Islay whiskies whereas Perth companies like Bell’s and Dewar’s made lighter whiskies using Speyside whiskies brought down on the new railway which opened in 1863.

Such was the growth in blended whisky that blenders began buying up malt distilleries (John Walker & Sons acquired Cardhu in 1893) and investing in new ones. In fact, without blended whisky most of today’s malt distilleries would not exist. In 1877 a group of grain distillers got together to form the Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) and developed the vast Cameronbridge grain distillery in Fife. 

Many malt distillers didn’t approve of this new blended whisky, claiming that it was not whisky at all. But in 1909 a Royal Commission ruled that in order to be classified as Scotch whisky, it had to be made in Scotland, matured in barrels, and could be a blend of grain and malt spirits which is more or less how Scotch whisky is defined to this day. Blended whisky had won and would go on to conquer the world.

It was helped by Prohibition in America which put the domestic whiskey distillers out of business. London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks developed their own blends specifically for the lucrative American market, Cutty Sark and J&B respectively. 

Blends saw their market share decline somewhat with the development of single malts in the 1960 and 1970s but for the vast majority of customers today, Scotch whisky is still blended whisky. The industry has kept the category lively with the development of luxury blends such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label which are particularly popular on the Asian market. At the other end of the scale, there has been a revival in small scale blenders like Compass Box in recent years producing blended whiskies with all the personality of single malts.

Stephanie Macleod, master blender at Dewar’s

How do whisky blenders work?

Whisky blenders like Emma Walker at Johnnie Walker or Stephanie Macloed at John Dewar & Sons have a tricky job: keeping their flagship blends which are made in huge quantities consistent. Whisky can vary considerably from cask to cask, and vital components might prove hard to come by especially as companies like Diageo, which owns Johnnie Walker, buy in outside whisky to use in their blends. As well as making sure each batch is as identical as possible, blenders have to work years or even decades ahead, making sure there will be enough mature whisky to maintain the quality of blends like Johnnie Walker Black Label. And woe betide you if you mess with someone’s favourite. 

So don’t be snobbish about blended whiskies. The best blends contain a high percentage of quality aged malts. And blending several malts with some lighter grain spirit can enhance a whisky’s depth of flavour. There’s no reason why a blend shouldn’t be as complex or stimulating as a single malt and with their harmonious flavour profiles, they tend to be much more versatile in cocktails. If you’re making a Highball, Old Fashioned, Rob Roy or Whisky Sour, reach for a blended Scotch whisky.

The post What is blended Scotch whisky?  appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

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