The Art of Blending

I love Scotch whisky, and when I refer to Scotch, it’€™s not necessarily single malts. I remember my grandparents purchasing a bottle of Chivas Royal Salute, in its blue Spode bottle, and handling it with reverence. Its age statement of 21 years celebrated the Coronation of the Queen of England, and the accompanying 21-gun salute. It was, and is, special.

I teach about distilled spirits, and I’€™m dismayed by the knee-jerk reaction that comes when I say ‘€œScotch’€ and my students say, ‘€œI love single malts.’€ The students may not even know what a ‘€œsingle malt’€ is, but they’€™re sure that it’€™s what they want. So I never teach a class on Scotch whisky without including a blend. I pour a very light single malt and a rich blend, and I present them blind. The students all assume that the glass with the fuller flavored liquid is the single malt ‘€“ and they’€™re surprised when it’€™s not.

Scotch blends sell well, but the category has been sleepy until recently. The only way that different levels of a brand could be displayed was with age statements (which are different from vintage dates.) A Scotch blend could be 8 years old, and go up to 40 or even 50 years of age.

I was pleased when I recently got two press releases about favorite Scotch blends that are now being updated and invigorated with stronger, spicier flavors. This is looking like a trend. Johnnie Walker Black 12 Years Old, a favorite of mine, is now joined by Johnnie Walker Double Black, a limited-edition release. I used to show the 18- year Gold in my classes, but after a visit to Scotland, where a master blender told me that the 12- year Black was every blender’€™s model for almost every blend in Scotland, I switched to showing the Black. Small wonder, since it has more than 40 different whiskies, each aged for 12 years, including both single malts and grain whiskies. The Johnnie Walker Double Black has more spice and smoke, but still finishes with a classic lingering sweetness.

The second press release was for Compass Box, another Scotch that I like to teach with since the company produces a Vatted Grain whisky (‘€œHedonism’€), a Vatted Malt whisky (‘€œEleuthera’€) and the Compass Box Blended Scotch Whisky (‘€œAsyla’€), a blend of these blends. They demonstrate Scotch whisky’€™s complexity. Meanwhile, Compass Box has enlarged its blended Scotch line with the introduction of Great King Street ‘€“ a series of blends made up of individually selected casks from different distillers. The first of these is ‘€œArtist’€™s Blend,’€ which has 50% malt whiskies aged in both new American oak, plus barrels with new French oak heads, and some sherry barrels.

Further, at a recent tasting, I came across an old favorite, Famous Grouse, which I had always found gentle, and with a slight sweetness that balanced its smoke. There I discovered Black Grouse, a new blend with an increase of malts from Islay. The ramped-up smoke and spice gives the Famous Grouse a totally different character, particularly with some malts aged in bourbon casks, and others aged in sherry casks.

At this same tasting, I found Douglas XO ‘€“ a Premium Blended Scotch Whisky with notes of spice cake and apples. It is rich and very appealing. Next to it was Campbeltown Loch Blended Scotch Whisky, which is actually flavored with cloves, cinnamon, chocolate, apricots and malt whiskies.

Going down the ranks of venerable Scotch blends: Cutty Sark, J & B, Dewar’€™s, Clan McGregor, Passport, Antiquary, Ballantine, Buchanan’€™s, Haig & Haig, Teacher’€™s and lots more – with so many different ages, different woods, and different elements in their blends – it should be remembered that these are the Scotch whiskies that convinced the public to drink Scotch in the first place.

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