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Single malts come from a single distillery and are distilled entirely from malted barley, while blended scotch combines malt whisky, either a single malt or many, with grain whisky.

Blends are for those seeking mild drinks

Mar 23, 2018 5:50 AM

New York

MY parents did not drink much, but they maintained a full liquor cabinet.

Not surprisingly, the array of spirits fascinated me. I remember the red velvet-covered bottle of cherry heering, the coffee-scented Kahlua and the herbal Dubonnet that my father liked. But what most impressed me was the Scotch whisky, and the famous, evocative names like Cutty Sark, Dewar's and Chivas Regal.

Later on, as I started to work and came to understand that bars were an essential companion to the newspaper business, I saw how people adopted specific brands of scotch as their own, drinking solely J & B or Ballantine's. Personally, I preferred beer.

Those names do not mean as much today, at least to those who are drawn to whisky by the flavours rather than the brand connotations. Any discussion of Scotch whisky nowadays is dominated by the single malts, which hardly existed as a category back when I was stealthily sniffing from the bottles in my parents' cabinet.

When we think of Scotch whisky today, it's to compare, say, the smoky, complex malts of Islay with the fruity, spicy malts of the Highlands. The blended scotches of yore seem like such an afterthought that it's a bit of a surprise to learn that they still vastly outsell single malts - although their proportion of the scotch market has dwindled since 1990, the first year for which statistics differentiating between single malts and blends are available.

Largely out of curiosity, the spirits panel recently tasted through 20 bottles of blended scotch in an effort to see what they offered. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant of The New York Times and I were joined by two drinks writers, David Wondrich and Robert Simonson.

First, some definitions. All Scotch whisky must be made in Scotland. Single malts come from a single distillery and are distilled entirely from malted barley. Malting simply means soaking the barley until it germinates, which releases enzymes that convert starches to fermentable sugars. The germination is stopped by heating the barley - sometimes over peat fires, which impart a smoky aroma.

Blended scotch combines malt whisky, either a single malt or many, with grain whisky. The whiskies must be aged at least three years in oak barrels, and if a bottle carries an age statement, like "8 Years Old", it means that the youngest whisky in the blend is that old.

While the malt components are the crucial elements, the grain whisky is not just a neutral spirit, like vodka. It, too, takes on character as it ages.

One other important scotch category exists: blended malt whisky, a combination of two or more single malts. These whiskies, which used to be called vatted malts, can be wonderful and complex. But they differ from blended scotch as they do not contain any grain whisky.

It's tempting to think of blended scotch as diluted malt whisky. There may be some truth to that, but it's not the whole story. In his excellent guide The World Atlas Of Whisky, Dave Broom asserts that in good blended scotches, grain whisky coaxes out the complexities of a malt by emphasising secondary characteristics that might otherwise be hidden.

"Malts are about intensity of character," he wrote. "Single-malt bottlings are about maximising this singularity. Blends are about creating a totality."

We all found a lot to like among these blended scotches. I was drawn to their mildness and restraint. It was easy to see how they would satisfy people who prefer whisky that is not as aggressive as many single malts. Nonetheless, we preferred the whiskies that had assertive malt characters, with creamy textures and lingering flavours.

The differences among many of them were small and incremental. David said he was expecting more variation among them, and recalled that years ago, blended scotches were maltier and peatier. Robert felt that, as producers are able to blend any whiskies they want, they might have missed an opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

"But they are making these whiskeys for an audience," he said, "so they are obliged to satisfy."

Our No 1 bottle was Buchanan's Master, which seemed to epitomise the category: smoky but not too smoky, rich and creamy but not too much so, more complete package than singular distinctiveness.

No 2 was Teacher's Highland Cream, which had a pleasant smokiness and an attractive oily texture. It was also our best value.

Teacher's was on the cusp of what the trade refers to as value and premium brands, the lower end of the price spectrum and the categories of scotch that are declining the fastest. Any growth in blended scotch, the Distilled Spirits Council said, is coming among high-end premium and especially super premium, the most expensive categories. Super premium includes brands like Johnnie Walker Blue Label.

The ever-popular Johnnie Walker Black Label, however, a high-end premium brand, was our No 3 bottle. It was creamy, complex and among the smoothest of the whiskies, which may be because it was one of only three bottles in our tasting to carry an age statement, 12 years.

I'm not sure any of us were convinced enough by the tasting to trade in distinctive single malts for mild blends. "It's not an exciting group," David said. "They're for drinkers who do not want to be challenged." NYTIMES