Blended Scotch whisky needs more respect. Learn why

In the blend: blended Scotch whisky needs more respect. Learn why

Jack Robertiello

Single malt Scotch whiskies may get all the press, but it’s the blended Scotch whiskies that are the real workhorses of the Scotch business. Worldwide, blends have opened the way for single malts by making it easier for novice drinkers to find their way into the complex and enticing world of smoke, sea, heather, honey and wood in a glass.

Take a look at the numbers. Nationally, total Scotch volume gained just a touch–0.2%–in 2002, including both blends and single malts, according to Adams liquor Handbook 2003. The category was topped by Dewar’s, the top selling Scotch in the U.S., which posted a 1.0% gain to almost 1.4 million 9-liter cases. No single malt approaches anywhere near that volume; for example, The Glenlivet, the leading single malt now owned by Pernod Ricard USA, garnered a 5.3% gain in 2002 to grow to 200,000 cases nationally.

HISTORY LESSON

It wasn’t until the 1850s that Scotch distillers blended malt whiskies together with grain whiskies, thereby discovering a market among English consumers. With as many as 50 malts from the four major Scotch-producing regions making up between 20% and 50% of the mix, and the rest lighter and less-expensive grain whiskies, the resulting blended Scotch whisky is considered more accessible and mass-market.

But this doesn’t come about naturally. It’s the blender’s art which combines grain whiskies and single malts from the Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside and Islay, and turns them into distinct house styles.

Blended whisky’s popularity is based on the more accessible flavor profile and lower cost. Obviously in the US, though, blended Scotch whisky’s fight to hold onto its share of the market is a mixed bag; nearly all the lower-priced, US-bottled Scotches (Scotch may by be bottled anywhere, but only distilled in Scotland), like Clan MacGregor, Cluny and Inver House, are flat or fading. Among the 11 leading foreign-bottled Scotches which are in general the on-premise brands, three are down or flat, but others are showing respectable growth in either percentage or volume, and major brands are continuing to spend heavily on connecting with their linger consumers.

But in bars and restaurants, blended Scotch is considered a mature market, with bars dropping the number of blends they carry on the average back bar from the once stout six–Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker Red, Johnnie Walker Black, Chivas Regal, J&B and Cutty Sark–down to perhaps three or four.

So it might help to have a tale to tell about a few of the leading blended Scotches.

Dewar’s is the largest selling Scotch in the US, and since being in the hands of new owner Bacardi, the brand has added two new iterations: a 12-year-old and the just-introduced ultra premium Signature, meant to compete with Johnnie Walker Blue and Royal Salute at the top of the blended price range. Aberfeldy is the single malt at the heart of Dewar’s, as is North British grain. Dewar’s 12-year-old, introduced about three years ago, will be the focus of heavy marketing and advertising in the coming year, according to the company.

Schieffelin & Somerset’s Johnnie Walker Red Label is the world’s largest selling Scotch, although its sales have been steadily slipping in the US, and the blend contains as many as 35 malt and five grain whiskies. Malts in the recipe include Aberfeldy and Cardhu.

On the other hand, Red’s stablemate, Johnnie Walker Black Label, is the world’s largest selling de luxe blend and surging in the US, up more than 8% last year. The blend includes Port Dundas grain whisky and malts from Caol Ila and Talisker.

Chivas Regal, now in the Pernod Ricard portfolio, contains around 40% malt and up to 40 single malts, about four % of that coming from Strathisla single malt. In the US, Chivas 12-Year Old, 18-Year Old and Royal Salute are sold.

J&B Rare contains around 40 whiskies including the single malts Knockando and Tamdhu. Only one % of J & B Rare comes from the powerfully flavored Islay single malts, and like Cutty Sark, J&B was created for those looking for a lighter blended Scotch.

Cutty Sark is blended for UK owner Berry Brothers by the Edrington Group (owner of blended Scotch Famous Grouse, and single malts the Macallan and Highland Park) and is considered one of the lightest of the major blends. Cutty uses American oak for aging, and Tamdhu and Macallan are part of the mix. Skyy Spirits imports.

Grant’s isn’t William Grant and Sons leading selling blended Scotch in the US–Clan MacGregor is. But Grant’s is more likely to be found on-premise. Girvan grain whisky, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie single malts, all owned by the company, are at the core of Grant’s.

Famous Grouse is the largest selling blended whisky in Scotland and consists of more than 65% grain whiskies including North British and Cambus. Highland Park is a significant malt player in the blend.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Bev-AL Communications, Inc.

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