Blend not bland: there's more to whisky than a single-malt
The relatively recent focus on single-malt whiskies all but smothered the art and craft involved in blending but, as Josie Butchart explains, there’s a new sophistication in the world of blended whisky.
If you are a whisky drinker who wants to cut a dash, the usual tactic is to order a single malt from a well-respected distillery. Bland blended whisky brands are simply for those who want to play safe and keep down the cost of a round. Well, perhaps that’s how it used to be.
It was blended whisky that first took Scotland’s national drink from rough raw spirit of Highland hillsides to an international market. The great boom in whisky in the late-19th and early-20th century was led by the famous brands – Ushers, Dewars, Cutty Sark, for example, blended whiskies all. It was the release of single malt whiskies in the last quarter of the 20th century that changed the status of blended whiskies. While some blends maintained their prestige, particularly in the export market – Johnnie Walker, Chivas and Dimple being classic examples – talking up single malts almost inevitably meant talking down blends. In recent years, however, another option has opened up for the adventurous whisky drinker.
Eight years ago, John Glaser left the security of a job with Johnnie Walker to set up his own boutique whisky blending company, Compass Box. ‘I saw an opportunity to do things with whisky that other companies weren’t doing: make it more approachable and create higher-quality blended whiskies,’ he says. ‘Our approach was seen as contemporary in a very staid business.’
If a blend is labelled a ‘vatted malt’ or ‘blended malt Scotch whisky’ it will be made entirely of single malt whisky; otherwise it’s likely to include cheaper and less individual grain whisky, typically at a ratio of around 60 per cent grain whisky to 40 per cent single malts.
Central to Glaser’s philosophy was the use of better quality and fresher oak barrels to mature his whiskies. ‘It was about trying to make the liquid more interesting,’ he says. ‘Multinationals had been driving down the cost of making whisky, so many blends had lost character because the quality of the oak casks being used had gone down – they were being used and re-used to save money.’
Glaser explains that around 60 per cent of the flavour – or nose – of a whisky comes from the oak barrels in which it is matured. ‘In a small way we have helped raise the profile of oak by using a much higher proportion of ‘first-fill’ barrels (those that have only been used once before) and experimenting with new oak.’
The result is a portfolio of unusual, high-end blended whiskies that range from the soft, fruity elegance of Asyla, which gets its sweetness from ageing a blend of lighter grain whiskies in first-fill American oak casks, to the big, bold flavours of Flaming Heart, a blend of malts aged in new French oak.
Quality blended whiskies are also at the heart of the Spencerfield Spirit Company, which was set up in 2005 by husband and wife team Alex Nicol and Jane Eastwood. They started by purchasing the existing blended brands Sheep Dip and Pig’s Nose from Whyte & Mackay. They then redesigned the packaging to give it a more contemporary look. Although they didn’t tinker too much with the style of the blend they began using a higher percentage of older whiskies in the mix and more first-fill oak casks for maturation.
According to Nicol, the main consumers of this new style of blended whisky are younger (in their 20s and 30s) and tend to be more confident and adventurous than the average whisky drinker. ‘You need a certain amount of confidence to ask for a whisky called Sheep Dip,’ he laughs.
In another sign of the new wave that these blended whiskies represent, most of Spencerfield’s marketing has been done through digital media or by simply giving people the chance to sample the whiskies at food and cultural events. ‘The whisky business has tended to alienate younger people by being so serious,’ he says. ‘Not being so snobby about the whole thing helps.’