- Scotch Whisky - A Primer from Vintage Direct
What is Blending?
Over the last few decades, a growing number of distilleries have begun marketing a portion of the whisky they distill for consumption as Single Malt whisky. But by far the greater part of their production remains reserved for the world famous blended Scotch whiskies.
By definition, a blended whisky contains both Single Malt and Grain whisky in varying proportions and ages from different distilleries. For example, a typical blend might contain between 15 and 40 different Single Malt whiskies as well as Grain whiskies. Even the cheapest blended whiskies usually contain at least 5% of Single Malt although more commonly Malt content will range from anywhere between 10% - 40%.
Blending whisky, (which in no sense equates to dilution), is a considerable art acquired only after years of experience. Because every distillery's Single Malt whisky has a character of its own and, just as people of different temperaments are often incompatible, so some whiskies will not happily marry. The Malts and Grain whiskies must therefore be chosen to complement and enhance their respective flavours.
In the blending process, Grain whiskies can be thought of as the 'neutral canvas' background, while the Single Malts are the colour's in the blender's palate: The world famous Johnnie Walker Black Label Blended Whisky, for example, is made up of of forty malts and grain whiskies. Island and Islay malts deliver spice, richness and lingering peat. Speyside malts make an important contribution to the depth of taste, bringing smoky malt, fruitiness, apple freshness and rich sherry characters; While at the heart of the blend lies Cardhu 12 Year Old, an outstanding malt from Speyside, which imparts silkiness.
If the primary aim of the blender is to produce a whisky of a definite and recognisable character, the second challenge is to achieve consistency. That is to say, the blend shouldn't vary from a standard which followers of the brand will have come to expect over the years. In order to achieve this consistency, the blender must firstly decide when the different Single Malt whiskies are ready to be used in the blend. Some will be ready at five years of age, others may require twelve or fifteen years in barrel. Before placing an order, a blender also needs to estimate the volume demand for the blend for some time into the future.
Once purchased, the malt whiskies are brought from the warehouse where they have been maturing to the blending establishment, where they're mixed together in a blending vat. They're usually returned to cask and left to 'marry' for a period of months to improve flavour before bottling. Some companies prefer to vat their Malts and Grains separately and only bring the two together before bottling. This process of combining Malt with Malt or Grain with Grain is known as 'vatting'. At every stage of the process, the blender's role is to re-evaluate and monitor the quality of every component destined for the blend.
Whisky produced by mixing together two or more malt whiskies (usually up to a maximum of six) from two or more different distilleries is known as Vatted Malt Whisky. These days 'Vatted Malts' like those pictured above are being marketed with some rather quirky labels, but in the hands of master blender, the results can be as exciting as any good Single Malt. Pig's nose in the centre actually contains a small proportion of grain whisky from Invergordon, so technically it's classified as a 'Blended Scotch'.
When was blending introduced?
Blending was pioneered by Andrew Usher inEdinburgh in the early 1860's, so it's still a relatively recent practice. It was only after it became common that a taste for Scotch Whisky spread first toEngland and then throughout the world. The reason for its success was that Pot Still Single Malt Whisky was inclined to be too strongly flavoured for everyday drinking, especially by people in sedentary occupations and warm climates. By combining Malt Whisky with Grain Whisky, the demand for a whisky that is milder in flavour and more suited to a broad international customer base was met. The Cutty Sark blend was one of the originators of this new style, specifically created to suit the American palate which prefers a lighter taste. The most notable influence in Cutty Sark is from the inclusion of young Speyside malts. The whisky is clean and fresh on the palate with hints of sweetness and a clean, crisp finish.
What is the percentage of Malt and Grain Whiskies in blended Scotch Whisky?
No brand owner is willing to reveal the proportions of the different whiskies used in their blends. What'smore, there are no fixed rules, rather, the blender determines the proportion according to the character he or she is seeking for the brand as described above. Some brands such as The Famous Grouse have capitalised on the surging popularity of Single Malts by marketing their house blends as containing a considerably higher proportion of Single Malt than others on the market.
What is a deluxe blended Scotch Whisky?
No formal rules have been laid down as to what constitutes a 'deluxe' Scotch - how old it should be overall or how much malt it should contain. Generally speaking, a deluxe Scotch is a blend which contains a higher proportion of carefully selected older and, therefore, more expensive whiskies. Some blenders see the putting together of a deluxe blend as the supreme expression of their skills.
What does the age statement mean on a blended Scotch Whisky?
When there is an age statement on a bottle of blended whisky, it does not refer to the average age of the whiskies in that blend. Rather, the law requires that when the age is declared on a label, it must refer to the youngest whisky in the blend. For example, if a blend is described as an eight year old, the youngest whisky in that blend must have been matured for at least eight years even though there might be a significant amount of much older material in the bottle.
Famous Blended Scotch Brands
Bell's Scotch Whisky - Blair Athol Distillery in Pitlochry is spiritual home to Bell's Scotch Whisky, having been acquired by Arthur Bell in 1933.
Cutty Sark Scotch Whisky - This famous Berry Brothers & Rudd Limited brand is said to have Glenrothes Single malt whisky at its heart.
Chivas Regal Scotch Whisky - Strathisla Distillery is recognised as the foundation to the famous Chivas Regal Blend. Key Chivas regal Scotch Whisky expressions include:
Chivas Regal 12 years old
Chivas Regal 18 years old
Dewar's Scotch Whisky - The United states leading Scotch Whisky blend.
Key Dewar's Scotch Whisky expressions are:
Dewar's White Label
Dewar's 12 Year Old
The Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky -
Key Famous Grouse Scotch Whisky expressions:
The Famous Grouse
The Famous Grouse 12 years old
The Famous Grouse 18 years old
Johnnie Walker Scotch whisky - Famed for its striding man logo. Key Johnnie Walker Scotch Whisky expressions:
Johnnie Walker Red Label
Johnnie Walker Black Label
Johnnie Walker Green Label
Johnnie Walker Blue Label
A Note on Whisky Liqueurs
Some blenders used to describe their products as 'liqueur whisky', intending to convey a sense of sophistication and giving a 'digestif' quality to the product. This term now has no real meaning and is falling out of use. 'Whisky Liqueur' has an altogether different meaning. Deriving from the French liquor,the word now refers to a flavoured spirit, usually sweet, which can be based on any grain alcohol, though we only look at liqueurs which are based on whisky. The flavouring agent in the drink, which can be herbs, flowers, fruit, seeds or roots, is introduced to the spirit base by re-distillation, infusion or maceration. By implication, a liqueur is of high quality, to be savoured rather than hastily gulped. Scotland, Ireland and The United States all produce whisky-based liqueurs, a number of which are internationally known by their names and the romantic stories attached to their creation.
Famous Whisky Liqueurs:
Glenfiddich Malt Whisky Liqueur