I’m a single malt guy. As a matter of fact, I tried blended whisky early on in my drinking “career” and to be honest, if the world of whisky consisted only of blends, chances are excellent that The Scotch Blog would not exist today.
But there’s a new trend in blends, and the blends that are being introduced today are not your grandpappy’s blended Scotch. Companies like William Grant & Sons, Compass Box, and Easy Drinking Whisky are doing some very innovative things with blends and vatted malts.
Before we get too far into today’s article, I thought a short refresher course might be of use…
As you probably know, blended Scotch whisky is the proper name for a beverage created when a malt whisky (or, more likely, multiple malt whiskies) is combined with grain whiskies.
Malt whisky was, at one time, considered to be a “wild & fiery” drink, appropriate only for the highlander. In the 1800s, enterprising businessmen decided to tame the rich flavors of malt whisky for the more delicate palates of Europe. This was accomplished by mixing the stronger single malt with milder whiskies made from grains which had been distilled in a new type of still known as a continuous still.
This whisky, known as “blended Scotch,” became quite popular in the later 19th century, and was usually taken with ice and soda water – a custom which continues today.
-The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch
The skills required to make a blend are the same skills used to make a vatted malt – a vatted malt being a beverage created from mixing single malts from different distilleries. These whiskies have been called “Pure Malts” but the SWA would like to standardize on the term “Blended Malts,” though producers of these whiskies prefer simply “malt whisky.” We’ve previously run this topic into the ground, (See August 10, 12, 16) so it’s time to move on to the point.
Today, I’d like to discuss the Art of the Blend, and throw out the question of:
Does it takes more skill to create a great blend than it does to create a great single malt?
Now, I know this may not be a fair question, since as we all know from reading The Instant Expert’s Guide to Single Malt Scotch that almost all whiskies, single malt or otherwise, are the product of at least some blending (or vatting, or marrying – pick your term).
But I always like to hear what people think, so, I decided to ask some of the Scotch industry’s best to chime in with their opinions. I think you’ll find their answers interesting…
Company Founder & Blender, Compass Box Whisky
The way I look at this is that blending is blending is blending, whether you’re blending components for a single malt (different ages, different cask types, changes or mistakes in distillation process over time), or blending components for a vatted malt or blend.
I can tell you that it is harder to blend lighter style whiskies than heavy/peaty style whiskies. This is because differences between batches are much more evident in lighter style whiskies than heavier style whiskies. Eg., Asyla versus Peat Monster. Asyla is the most work to get right, (also the most rewarding for me).
Master Blender, William Grant & Sons
It takes different skills to create a blended whisky, whether a blend of grains and malts or just a number of malts, to creating a single malt. With a single malt you are working with different ages of that malt whisky and from different types of casks to create on one hand consistency and on the other hand clear taste differences in a product range.
With a blended whisky you trying to combine many malt and grain whiskies or just malt whiskies of similar ages together to achieve a balanced and consistent taste with a recognisable character.
David “Robbo” Robertson
Former Master Distiller, Macallan
Co-Founder, Jon, Mark and Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Company
Most single malts are a mix of casks and ages – and therefore flavours.
Key in any product recipe is combining flavours to ensure that there is balance, consistency and a showcasing of the flavours that you feel are most appropriate for your hooch.
In my experience, it is a tough shout putting together whiskies matured in Spanish Oak sherry casks because the diversity of aromas, flavours and colours is so much bigger than dealing with ex-US bourbon barrel matured whiskies.
For example colours for Spanish Oak sherries can range from 10 to 100, American Oak sherries 2 – 20, American Oak ex-bourbon 2 – 16. Whilst not directly linked to aroma and flavour, there is some correlation – i.e. sherry matured ex-Spanish Oak can have 5 – 10 times more flavour range.
This is sometimes helpful ’cause you can create a better balance with more complexity. Down side can be that nothing integrates and you get an mish-mash of flavours and nothing seems to work together.
This can also be the same for smoky whiskies – sometimes a burnt peat can dominate so you need to knock back that style (if you don’t want it) and use other flavour styles that create a blend/mix you like.
Older malts can be tricky because they can be overly woody and you do not normally have a large pool of casks from which to draw – reducing the flexibility.
Grain and malt is fairly straightforward where (as in singles) you can create a base style that you then overlay, finesse, and add to – to give certain "highlights".
In summary, I would say it takes the same amount of skill to create a great blend or a great single (or a great vatted malt for that matter…) – it will be interesting to hear what the others say…
Some people talk about orchestras and how you need a range of instruments to get a great sound, others talk pasta and sauce to get great flavour, some say the whole has to be greater than the sum of its parts – for me the best analogy is sight – if you can only see a limited range of colours (B&W vs. full colour) the experience lacks something. We are trying to create multi coloured malts that arrest all your senses – eyes, nose, tongue – ears is a step too far!
Dr. David Wishart
Author "Whisky Classified: Choosing Single Malts by Flavor"
The two roles are quite complementary. The master blender’s task is to reproduce the flavor profile of a classic blend exactly, whereas the malt master has complete creative freedom to challenge the taste buds with each new single malt creation. The former requires close attention to detail, rounding and smoothing the blend to replicate its classic formula, while the latter enjoys the extravagance of total artistic expression.
As always, I appreciate the participation from these guys. I’ve found that the people in the Scotch Whisky industry are generally among the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met and their passion and love for Scotch is apparent in the fact that they take time out of their busy work and travel schedules to answer my (sometimes inane) questions.