The “go-go” 80s was a critical era in the history of spirits in the U.S., especially scotch. Newly minted Wall-Streeters, new jack Madison Avenue sharps, and a nation of next-generation, profoundly entrepreneurial business owners were seeking a new language of business practices, cuisine, connoisseurship, attitude, fashion, and yes, bar-calls, to separate themselves from the Dewar’s/Chivas/Johnnie Walker-drinking old school boys’ club members of prior eras.
I am by no means saying that single malt scotch was unheard of in the U.S. then. Certainly, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich, among the first single malt makers to promote the product outside of Scotland, were amply available for the out-of-the-box whisky cognoscenti for two decades or so prior to the 1980s. But I recall having to make trips to more than a few Manhattan liquor stores in the late 1980s to secure a bottle of the now-ubiquitous Glenmorangie as a butt-kiss gift for my CEO.
Full enjoyment of the best single malt can best be achieved with a degree of knowledge. At its worst, the whole thing can get a little precious, n’est-ce pas? (I am as guilty as anyone in this respect.) Blended scotch, however, just comes with some pretty simple instructions: “Drink me. If you like me, drink more of me.” And that rule was followed enthusiastically, through the mid-century Mad Men era especially.
If this is to be a defense of blended scotch, I’ll start with my strongest argument. And that is this: The scotch-and-soda. I put it to you that there is no purer, simpler, and when the mood hits, more perfect drink in the galaxy. And as an unorthodox spirits fan, I’ve attempted many, many versions of this drink with single malts, and they are just not right. Some are better than others, but if you plunk, say, a Macallan-and-soda and a Dewars-and-soda down in front of me, I know which glass I’m grabbing (and, once refreshed, I might pivot to an unadulterated dram of the Macallan).
If for no other reason, the scotch-and-soda legitimizes blended scotch’s existence. But there are a multitude of perfectly good reasons why the generations before yours leaned into this spirit, and they are the same perfectly good reasons why you should, too. It’s not a question of either/or, it’s a question of when and what.
Let’s not split hairs here: Even today, blended scotch comprises 90% of whisky production in Scotland. And while single malts have certainly made a mark, and continue to do so, blends still represent about 80% of worldwide scotch sales. While a few blended malt scotches (Johnnie Walker Green ($55) is a notable example) marry together only multiple single malts from different distillers (many Japanese blended whiskies use the same approach), most blended scotch employs multiple malt whiskies from different distilleries blended with additional aged non-barley grain spirits.
Simple economics and volume gave birth to the blending of scotch, to be sure. The original “commercial” distillers of the 17th and 18th century were generally still monks and farmers, who brought their wares to local grocers and wine dealers to sell to the public out of the casks. Production was small-scale, irregular, and inconsistent to say the least. Even before any realistic export possibilities, and before anybody even conceived of “branding,” some of these retailers (with surnames like Ballatine, Chivas, and Walker) began creating house blends to not only ensure predictable availability and volume, but also consistent flavor and quality. Let’s not forget the end of that sentence.
Most spirit historians credit a man named Andrew Usher II with perfecting scotch blending. Usher’s father had begun hand-blending scotch around 1840, but Andrew-the-younger elevated the process with an eye to flavor. His efforts led to the Usher operation essentially buying out the entire production of Glenlivet at the time and producing a very popular blended (or in those days, “vatted”) scotch. When scotch first made its way to our shores, it was, of course, in the form of blends. And for many generations of Americans, “scotch” meant blended scotch, pure and simple.
The Heart of the Matter
While the addition of less-expensive grain spirits does produce a more-accessible product, it also lends a lighter, smoother body to the end result. And that impacts the flavor profile. As scotch blending became as much an art form as an economic necessity, blenders had more and more choices from which to concoct their spirits. In its most favorable light, you can think of blends as a creation born from a kind of “farmers’ market” of both local and more far-flung malts, each with its own distinct flavors and qualities. Still, most good blends claim a “heart” to their product; a single outstanding malt whiskey that supports the often complex build-up to a final blended scotch. And by understanding that “heart,” you can better appreciate the blend.
Johnnie Walker: In all it many colors, Johnnie Walker cannot be ignored. It is, by all reports, the best-selling scotch of any stripe globally, with the company claiming that a bottle is sold every six seconds around the world. While all scotch blenders are extremely cagey about their ingredients and processes (you may never find out the real percentage of malts to grain spirits in a blend, for example), the folks at Walker are particularly guarded about their “secrets.” But let’s take a look at Johnnie Walker Blue ($200), their most premium offering. While it’s not purely official, Blue’s heart is claimed by many experts to be distilled at the Royal Lochnagar facility, an Aberdeenshire distiller in the Highlands, 140 miles away from John Walker’s original shop and the brand’s current base in Kilmarnock, south of Glasgow. Royal Lochnagar’s malt is unpeated, with a distinct creaminess on the tongue and a lighter, more floral profile than some bolder Highland malts. While a quaff of Blue also evidences some smokiness, probably from an additional Islay malt of some kind, the qualities of the heart malt fold nicely into the light sweetness of the grain spirits used to produce a universally appealing, yet sophisticated, blend almost anyone will enjoy.
Dewar’s: Founded in 1846, this ubiquitous scotch blender also has it own set of laudable boasts. Its White Label ($25) product claims the spot as the U.S.’s most popular scotch; some may look to the famous story of Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie sending casks of Dewar’s to the presidential inaugurations of both James Garfield and Benjamin Harrison as the birth of that domestic popularity. Dewar’s is also one of the most complex blends you’ll come across, with as many as 40 malts finding their way into the mix. The brand outright owns several distilleries that produce the lion’s share of the end product, but it is the Dewar’s-owned (and, in fact, Dewar’s- founded) Aberfeldy Distillery that constitutes the blend’s unmistakable heart malts. Located on the southern extremis of the Highlands, the whisky here benefits from the purity of its Pitilie Burn water source (which flows into the River Tay) and evidences an earthy sweetness of honey and nuts, with a distinct woody note. Those tastes ring through in the blend, even with the abundant number of additional malts and grain spirits, which add a smooth touch of spiciness, as well.
Chivas Regal: The majority of Chivas products tout an age specification on the bottle. That age, of course, represents the youngest malt used in the mix. As such, for blended whiskies aged 12 years or more, Chivas Regal 12 ($25) is the market leader outside the U.S. Chivas makes a malt-only blend, Chivas Regal Ultis ($150), as well as some after-blending special-casking expressions, but the brand has made a name for itself with expertly crafted blends of finely aged malts (its youngest malt ingredient being a 10-year-old; blended scotches only require a 3-year aging of malts). And like its well-known heart malt, the Speyside-located product of the Strathisla Distillery, Chivas’ appeal is focused on a perfect balance. Speyside is home to the most concentrated density of distillers in Scotland, which all lay claim to the River Spey as their water source, and an uncannily appealing marriage of smokey/sweet flavors produced in exacting proportion in their malts. Strathisla, the oldest working distillery in the Highlands, is in lock-step with its colleagues in the region. Chivas purchased the then-named Miltown Distillery in 1950, and the Keith, Scotland-facility now also serves as the home of the Chivas brand, as well. The Chivas family hails from Ellon, closer to the East Coast of Scotland, and operated their original retail efforts in nearby Aberdeen.
The Famous Grouse: We include this lesser-known blend because, while it is widely available in the States, it happens to be Scotland’s best-selling scotch, period. Which ought to tell you a thing or two. Matthew Gloag operated a noted wine-selling operation in Perth, Scotland, and was, in fact, invited to supply wine to Queen Victoria’s royal banquet when she visited the area in 1842. Matthew’s son William began creating blended whisky around 1875, and The Grouse, renamed the Famous Grouse, was invented by his nephew Matthew in 1896. The Glenturret distillery, a candidate for one of Scotland’s oldest whisky operations (its origins are shrouded as its first operators were essentially bootleggers seeking to avoid royal taxes), lays claim to the popular blend’s heart malt. Produced just north of Creiff in the south central Highlands, Glenturret is a traditional Highland malt that stills enjoys a “farm-style” distillery tradition, with an abundance of locality to its flavor. But it is this element of locality, and often far-flung locality, that produces the Grouse’s popular appeal. While not officially confirmed, many say that big-swingers like the Speyside Macallan, and Highland Park, produced in the Orkey Islands off Scotland’s Northern coast, figure prominently into the Famous Grouse’s profile. This presents a uncanny “something for everyone” tongue to the blend, and represents the pinnacle of a that kind of farmers’ market approach that hallmarks the best of blended scotches.