GEEK ALERT – Some current facts about blends:
- Blends continue to dominate Scotch whisky, accounting for more than 90% of export volumes last year ; but single malts brought in more than 25% of export revenues, breaking through the £1bn mark for the first time.
- The French drink the most blended scotch, 12.6m cases vs 7 for the US. The UK is next at 5.2. Americans however drinks twice as much malt as the French.
- The top selling brand of blended scotch is of course Johnnie Walker, at over 21% (that’s 226m bottles in 2015 – 450 bottles a minute), with Balllantines and Chivas next at 7% & 5% respectively.
- Blends are typically made with up to 50 different spirits. Usually 60/40 or 70/30 grain to malt. Sometimes (e.g. Dewar’s) blenders will marry grains and malts separately before the final vatting.
- The grain can be maize or wheat, the big grain distillers usually switching to whatever is cheapest that year. But even if maize is more expensive it gives a bigger yield, and is easier and cheaper to process. Distillers say maize gives a more complex and sweeter spirit than wheat.
- The big seven grain distilleries together produced 350 million litres in 2014, a lot more than the 106 malt distilleries who produced 305 million litres between them. The big seven are: Girvan [Grants]; Cameronbridge [Diageo]; North British [Diageo & Edrington]; Strathclyde [Chivas]; Loch Lomond; Starlaw [French], and Invergordon [Whyte & Mackay].
The Wemyss family are blenders and bottlers who a couple of years ago built the Kingsbarns [Lowland] distillery. Their inaugural malt whisky release is due mid 2018. This blend is named after the 5th Earl of Wemyss, also known as Lord Elcho – an ancestor of the founders of Wemyss Malts. Born in 1721, Elcho was a stern supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie during the Jacobite uprising, stripped of lands and title and exiled after defeat at Culloden. This blend was first released in 2014 [according to the Lord Elcho website], though bloggers were reviewing this in the fall of 2012. Stephen Shand [Wemyss Marketing assistant], said he was contractually not allowed to reveal what goes into the Lord Elcho blend, but added that it’s not as simple as following a set recipe and that it might change from year to year as Wemyss attempt to achieve consistency. What we do know is its made up of 40/60% malt/grain, mostly from refill bourbon with some sherry and some smoke.
- N: Sweet inviting malt on Weetabix, sugared porridge, soft toffee raisins and burnt toast. After an hour a gentle sweet funk begins to emerge. Settles down sugary & oily, very much like a Linkwood single malt. Worth leaving it to open up in the glass as it improves a fair bit.
- T: It’s not timid exactly but there’s a gentle yet broad delivery like a tamed modern [2000-2005 vintaged] Balblair. This sweet-barley malt then treats the palate to a flood of delicious raisin, a little caramel and soft fruits. It’s confident for a 40% blend though thoroughly well trained with a clear cask mix of sherry & bourbon – the sherry hitting the palate before the bourbon. Furthermore there’s a little spice, more fudge, some lime and that raisin stream showing no signs of receding.
- F: Fairly short, mildly spirity Speyside finish that concludes with a little heather and hints of oily-smoky wood.
- C: A ‘table wine of whisky’, as perfectly coined by Bart. A blend that’s not too demanding, though it’s really well composed as it goes – and one that is remarkably Linkwood-esque. Maybe that’s why it cost £53, a price band with heavy competition as we shall see tonight.
Scores 80 points
A blend by Pernod Ricard comprising over 40 single malts & single grains, using a recipe ‘that has remained practically unchanged since it was first made in the 1930s’ – so ‘they’ say. There’s plenty of Glenburgie and Miltonduff in the main. It was Jim Murray’s World Whisky of the Year in 2011 and is currently selling for around £49 [Apr 2017].
- N: Plenty of aromatic Indian spices briefly on first opening before talc notes [Nick on great form], yeasty chocolate, some smoke and vanilla [of course]. Settles down as generally salty, chocolatey & fruity a while later.
- T: Quite a thin arrival though with a decent spread/coverage. As a blend using over 40 different components, inevitably it tastes rather generalised and yet it’s also rather moorish, offering the palate a sugary-dry toasted-ness with a chewy-chocolate tastiness – so job done really. It would appear that this Ballantine’s [batch at least], is reliant on a significant number of refill casks which helps to bring some breadth & colour complexity compared to the more modern style, wood driven blends [Dewar’s 18], and drives home that ‘practically unchanged’ older style.
- F: Short as it goes, on a chocolate-milky-maltiness with a rounded grain element – the grain giving firm yet unobtrusive support.
- C: Very nice from the start though it becomes rather more simple as it goes on. I’d say this was the most considered blend of the night though just outshone by the Dewar’s that followed.
Scores 83 points
Dewar’s is a blend by Bacardi SW, who own distilleries: Aberfeldy, Aultmore, Craigellachie, Royal Brackla, and Macduff. The Dewar’s 18yo is a blend that’s married in a vat for an extended period, hence the name ‘Double Aged’. Around £67 a bottle .
- N: Distinctively winey and far more single malt-like than the previous two blends, with a light distillate pong & salty/funkiness. The vanillas take more time to establish.
- T: Yes, no, not quite – up and down, bits of this, bits of that. Once settled however its a very tasty drinker indeed with an especially spongy chew. This appears to have a high-malt and sherry-rich content. Could be plenty of Aberfeldy & Aultmore in here.
- F: A little smoke now and a short finish overall.
- C: Simply delicious! The most modern in style of all the blends tonight with a clear emphasis on vibrant [vanilla] bourbon casks coupled with a driving single malt component. It’s a very convincing mix, far superior/in a different league to the 12yo WB that i tried at the Aberfeldy distillery last year blog.
Scores 84 points
Another blend from Pernod Ricard who currently own 14 distilleries, all in Speyside except for Scapa, and Strathclyde grain distillery.
Created by Colin Scott in 1997, a deconstruction tasting/masterclass of the Chivas Regal 18yo will take you through the recipe in parts. Using over 20 single malts & grains from various distilleries including Glenlivet, Aberlour, Strathisla, Tormore, Longmorn, Allt-a-Bhainne, Glenburgie, Glenugie, Miltonduff,….. the Chivas 18yo is driven by Strathisla & Longmorn single malt and Strathclyde grain.
Having recently tried the Chivas 12yo and found it ‘dull-as and hugely disappointing’ WB, my expectations for the 18yo were low but mind open.
- N: More fruity than the last three blends with a generally robust sherried=bourbon maltiness and additional notes of smelly socks.
- T: Nothing specific but it’s generally very tasty.
- F: Sweet aniseed, with a bitter note under-pinning the final throes.
- C: It’s tasty but it doesn’t quite ‘cut the mustard’ compared alongside the Ballantine’s and the even better Dewar’s. It’s the first of the night that’s most obviously ‘blend’ – grainy, soft & easy, which makes it very drinkable of course.
Scores 82 points
We couldn’t avoid a blend by Diageo now could we. First introduced in 2011 at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, the JW Platinum 18yo was launched internationally via travel retail in 2012. The latest relaunch [Mar ’17], now sees it available in general stores and retailers globally. The Platinum Label is the most recent addition to Diageo’s Johnnie Walker blended ‘colour’ range. Unlike Macallan however, it’s got a colour and an age statement. Created by master blender Dr Jim Beveridge WM, it’s made of ‘up to’ 18 different whiskies including Cardhu, Glen Elgin and Auchroisk in the main, Blair Athol and aged island malts. We should get excited by these aged blends, they are an historical trip round Scotland in a bottle, with this one retailing at around £69 [Apr ’17].
- N: A fruity & yeasty malt with nicely integrated yet clearly defined smoke – blended malted barley personified.
- T: It does tighten up initially, taking a while to loosen up. Now i know the main emphasis, the heart of this blend if you like is it’s Speyside malts yet it’s the Island malt[s] that has/have captured my attention today. This is so very Talisker-esque in it’s smokiness and sweet-savoury maltiness, and far better than my current Talisker 18 that’s for sure [I’m really struggling with a 2016 batch].
- F: Longest finish of the night and the first with a noteworthy mouthfeel. More peated-smoked barley with more Talisker character-style heather and dry vanilla all the way to the end.
- C: New & re-launched whisky tends to be of higher quality whilst the customer base is being established, and this is really good gear. I may even join that customer base and buy a bottle. It would really benefit from an abv hike though. It rather died in the glass after an hour – but then i guess it’s not necessarily intended for long periods of sipping, though there’s plenty to glean given all those components and all them years. A super blend for drinking and sipping and for getting trashed on. Best of the night for me, equal to the Dewar’s.
Scores 84 points
This is a bit different to what’s gone before, so a bit of a black sheep in the pack to finish, but a good one nevertheless.
William Grant ‘Ghosted Reserve’ 21yo  Selected release #2 [btl 372/4600 bts] 42.8% WB86.33
I had this in 2015 and found it most agreeable, score: 85. Aside from the history, it’s always worth re-trying the ‘Ghosted Reserves’ series because they come in batches – this being #2. So far i haven’t noticed any significant batch variations with the 21yo or the 26yo. I am still in awe at what’s in the bottle even if the grain ratio is rather high in content, yet also in quality. Currently around £100 [Apr ’17].
- N: First up is the fruit varnish, emulsion, cedar and linseed – all seeming to come from the elegant and convivial Dumbarton. Lime cubes detected just before my first sip.
- T: Bourbon notes abound, the Dumbarton driving, the malt assisting. This really works.
- F: Vanilla! We are firmly back to modern, wood-driven environment with plenty of active oak vanillin, skimmed milk, some key lime pie,… and plenty of straight corn whisky.
- C: You could think of this as Scottish bourbon given much of this is corn [maize] aged in corn [bourbon] barrels. The most un-blend blend of the night and the most contemporary yet made from some of the oldest whisky from closed distilleries.
Scores 85 points
The Ghosted reserve storms it votes wise, but it’s the Johnnie Walker and the Dewar’s that we’re the nicest of surprises.
Thanks to Nick and the Malt n Copper team.