You learned how to taste Scotch whisky. You learned the different regions where whisky comes from, and in turn learned about the different varieties of Scotch whisky. So far in Part 1 and Part 2 we have only really gone over single malt whisky. What about those other varieties of whisky known as blends?
Well, by definition it’s simple enough. A blended whisky is the result of mixing different brands and varieties of Scotch to create a single taste profile. Within the category of blended whisky exists sub-categories, all with their own set of guidelines and methods of preparations. Basically for Scotch whisky there are 3 types of blends:
- Blended malt Scotch, which is a blend of 2 or more single malt Scotch whiskies made from only malt at a single distillery
- Blended grain Scotch, which is a blend of 2 or some single grain whiskies made from various grain and barely at a single distillery.
- Blended Scotch, made of one or more single malts mixed with one or more grain whisky varieties.
The differences are subtle, but they each impart their own flavor and quality to the blended product. The question remains though – why blend Scotch whisky? Simply put it boils (or distills) itself down to economics. It is easier to maintain a consistent flavor profile through blending and adding grain whisky to the mix tends to make it cheaper to produce. The most popular whiskies in the world are blended Scotch: Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, Dewar’s. They also happen to run on the less expensive side of the Scotch world, and are sometimes seen as inferior even though they all contain certain amounts of single malt whiskies that connoisseurs hold in high regard. Almost all distilleries set aside a majority of their casks for use in vatting, which is the process in which whiskies of various origin are blended by a master blender. There are few brands – Oban is one of them – that don’t appear to some degree in one of the many blends produced in Scotland.
When you consider the amount of science and knowledge that needs to go into becoming a master blender and creating a specific flavor profile it’s a mystery as to why anyone would consider blends to be a lesser product. True, some of the most popular blends don’t have the most interesting or complex taste, but isn’t that a great place for the beginner to start? If you are truly looking to start sampling Scotch and investigating its various subtle tastes, a cheaper variety of whisky with a consistent flavor, aroma, and output may be a better place to start than an expensive, single barrel specialty offering of a single malt. Those tend to skew in taste from barrel to barrel and from one batch to the next, making it difficult for a beginner to grasp the specific taste of Scotch.
I personally started my fascination with whisky by first sampling Johnnie Walker Black from my dad’s collection of booze. This is a fine place to start.
Johnnie Walker Black or Black Label as it’s commonly referred to, is a blended Scotch containing a number – up to 30 or more – varieties of malt and grain whiskies. Some of the known components of it are Cardhu 12, Talisker, Caol Ila, and Lagavulin. Along with the various other whiskies used in the blending process, the master blenders of this variety of whisky have created a solid, if not incredibly interesting product. Aside from its sort of overly reddish color, most likely due to caramel after-coloring, this is a light bodied whisky with only a hint of smoke. The fact that Lagavulin and Caol Ila are present in here does lend itself to a peatier profile, but overall this is easy on the nose, the tongue, and doesn’t have too much of an afterburn. In other words, this is a whisky made for mass appeal and a mass market. But, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have distinct flavors of its own. Anytime I’m presented the option of having a Johnnie Black I try to inspect it for what it is and have found that it has some vanilla and bread flavors in addition to the sort of bitter, tried and true alcohol flavors imparted in it through the inclusion of grain whisky. If you are looking for a bargain entry level Scotch this is going to be your go to.
The interesting thing about Johnnie Walker is that they range in expressions, noted by their label color, all with varying tastes. The most common you’ll find out there are (and basically ranging from cheapest to most expensive) Red, Black, Double Black, Green, and Gold label. One of their most expensive blends Blue Label is a complex variety that is supposedly blended in the style of 19th-Century blends.
Still, at the sort of price range we are talking about, you’re more likely to find this variety of Scotch used in making cocktails or enjoyed mixed heavily with water and/or ice. Not too many serious whisky drinkers are going to spend an hour poring over the complexities of Johnnie Walker Red. None of this is necessarily wrong, but what about blends that you can enjoy the same as a single malt? Well, more rare, and maybe more complex than a blended Scotch is a blended malt.
Blended malt whiskies are a little more on the rare side as it sort of defeats the purpose of mixing together for consistency and economics. Cheaper made grain whisky isn’t used in these and there tend to be less varieties used to make one single blend brand. The output of this variety tends to be on the more exclusive side, mainly due to cost. One currently popular brand of blended malt you’ll see is Monkey Shoulder. This blend contains whiskies from Dufftown (Speyside): Glennfiddich, and one of my personal favorites, The Balvenie. Because of this it sometimes has characteristics similar to that of Speyside whisky. Another great one to try, and my personal recommendation is Compass Box. They do some experimental blending, such as their super secret blend of Islay whiskies, The Peat Monster. This is a blend featuring some of the best of Islay’s typical peaty, smoky malt flavors. Slightly medicinal and slightly floral. This is actually a pretty highly regarded blended whisky. In fact Compass Box is known for their interesting and award winning blends including Whiskey Advocate’s Blended Malt Of The Year 2012, Great King Street. I would seek these out if you’re looking to taste a blend with interesting character and excellent flavor, but one that doesn’t break the bank. Even these highly regarded whiskies clock in at about $50 USD a bottle. Even good ol’ Johnnie Walker has specialty blended malt expressions that range in price from “expensive” to “out of this world“
Overall, I would recommend trying out blends first before deciding if Scotch is for you. They are usually on the affordable end of things and provide you with an experience that has been well thought out by the master blenders behind the various Scotch whisky blends out there. If you find one you enjoy, I would suggest doing a little research and finding out what various whiskies were incorporated in it, and try something along the same flavor profile.