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Great Scotch!

What's old is new in Scotland, where malt masters are proving their traditional spirit is still evolving with exciting new expressions that are pushing the envelope in the whisky world
Jack Bettridge
Posted: December 1, 2006

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Even if you don't happen to believe that the term pure malt posed a dire threat to single malts, it is hard not to see the logic of the second rule. Cardhu is not only a brand, but a distillery. Naming a whisky after a distillery carries a clear implication that the whisky comes from it.

"We very much hope there will be clarity," says the SWA's Evans. But some say that while the decision cleared up the confusion over Cardhu, it didn't do much to help the cause of the blended whisky formerly known as vatted malt. Evans counters that the nomenclature was arrived at by the membership of the SWA, all of whom are distillers, blenders or brand owners. "Vatted was seen as pejorative. That was the view of people who were making and marketing Scotch whisky."

Glaser, who makes blended and blended malt whiskies, as well as a very rare grain whisky, disagrees: "Blended is death. It is a tainted word. People in the industry like me think [the new terminology is] a bad idea. What was really the driver? If it was to clarify then they failed. If it was to elevate single-malt whisky, then they succeeded."

But a more basic question is: "why is it bad to blend?" The short answer is that it isn't. Blending is an art that is necessary to almost all brown spirit production from whisky to brandy to rum. In the very basic sense of the verb—to mix together—single-malt whiskies are blended. In the interest of consistency, bottlers mingle spirits from different barrels at different ages to create the end result. The youngest whisky in the mix is reflected in the age statement on the bottle. Without such blending each bottle would reflect the different tastes and maturation rates particular to each barrel. Instead, much care is taken to make sure you don't taste a difference from bottle to bottle. (The exceptions are special products such as The Balvenie Single Barrel, which comes from carefully selected barrels, but cannot guarantee total consistency beyond a basic taste profile from cask to cask.)

HAPPY BLENDING
So then why, if you are going to blend malts from different barrels, would it be so horrible to blend malts from different distilleries? Well, it wouldn't. The problem lies more in the name. Blends of any kind are considered cheap for a number of reasons. The first is a general image problem fueled by snobbery for singles malts and the typically lower cost of blended Scotch. It also doesn't help that blends in America and Canada are by definition less artisanal. In the United States, neutral grain spirits can be added to the mix. In Canada, a blended whisky can be distilled at high proofs that rob natural flavor.

Misconceptions aside, whisky drinkers in the know will likely point to the grain whisky in blended Scotch when they slam it. It is distinguished as grain because most of its mash bill is not barley, but wheat, corn, rye or oats. Grain whiskies are not made in the cunning little still houses in the glen that we've come to think of when we romanticize Scotch whisky, but in large industrial affairs with column stills that continuously churn out spirit to blend with malts. The process is cheaper, but is grain whisky automatically inferior?

Not necessarily is the answer implied in the new super-aged blended Scotches that have hit the market in recent years. Two years ago, Chivas Regal introduced its 18-year-old to complement the standard 12-year-old Chivas. (The company also makes the 21-year-old Royal Salute.) Not long before, Dewar's had introduced its Signature hyperpremium to go with the standard brand and its relatively new 12-year-old. Johnnie Walker, one of the pioneers of premium Scotch, populates the upper strata of blends with its 18-year-old Gold Label and the hyperpremium Blue Label, which makes no age statement but distinguishes itself with the number of high quality malts in the mix.

The consensus seems to be that, just as with malt whisky, long aging of grain whisky is worthwhile (the stated age on the bottle defines the youngest age of the whisky within). The proof is in the blends, which are all laudable and sometimes exquisite. Craig Johnson, brand director of Chivas Regal, says, "Grain is not bad. Grain is how whisky is made all around the world. The problem is that blends dropped the ball a bit about educating people."

He points out that each product—single malt and blend—has a different objective: malts are about the place and character and blends are about the art. "Single malts are like the soloists and the blends are the orchestra," he says. "It costs more to put together an orchestra."

An important component to that ensemble is the grain whisky, which helps the blend to meld together and also brings cake icing notes. The refrain about the band or the team making up a blend is familiar, but Glaser of Compass Box is such a fan of grain whisky that he bottles it by itself.

"It's the most underestimated, unappreciated whisky in the world," says Glaser. "Good grain whisky can really make malt whisky sexy. It's the feminine alter ego of malt whisky." The problem as he sees it is that grain whiskies made for cheaper blends are often aged in bad casks.

Not only are manufacturers elevating their blends, but they are making the logical connections to the single malts of which they are made. Dewar's parent, Bacardi, recently introduced Aberfeldy, the core constituent of the blend, to America for the first time and is making no bones about what it is.

"A lot of companies hide the connection between the single malt and the blend," says Ewan Gunn, the Dewar's brand ambassador in the United States. "We're very proud of both the Aberfeldy and the Dewar's brand, and we see no shame in associating the two."

The Aberfeldy distillery was established in 1898 to feed the needs of Dewar's, which was a global success story almost from its inception, owing to clever and innovative marketing techniques. Gunn says it's only now that the company has had enough whisky to pour much of it into its two single-malt releases, a 12- and a 21-year-old.

Chivas Regal and Johnnie Walker have also been fairly candid about their sources of malts. In the former case, the cores are Strathisla and Longmorn. In the latter case, some of the malts are made available in its the Classic Malts Selection, which includes Talisker, Oban, Lagavullin, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore and Glenkinchie. (The Selection recently added a Distillers Edition, which comprises double-matured versions of those whiskies using Sherry and Port casks.) Knowing the core malts can make for a very interesting taste experiment for both blended and single-malt drinkers. In the case of these better blends, it's easy to discern how the malts contribute, and often you can understand how the blending has created an important complement to the components.

It is blended whisky that most probably made the malt explosion of recent years possible. Blends can certainly be credited with subsidizing lesser malts that might have gone silent through the years were it not for their sales to blends. Moreover, it was blends, with their more accessible taste profiles, that made Scotch whisky universally popular before drinkers discovered the idiosyncrasies of malts.

Cox, of The Macallan, says that the frenetic horse trading between distilleries and blenders has become something of a thing of the past, however. So much can be sold as single malts that whisky not earmarked for a blend when it was put in the cask doesn't much exist. The Macallan has systematically dropped its contracts as they lapsed with blenders that are not a part of the Edrington Group of which it and Highland Park are members. "We only have a finite amount of stock and a small percentage of it is available for blends," says Cox. "Contracts with third-party blenders are no longer renewed."

The Macallan, of course, is at the forefront of the other great trend in Scotch whisky: the craze for super-aged trophy bottles often found only through auctions. In this era of whisky shortages, any barrels that may somehow get lost in the warehouse can easily find a home as part of a limited release that proudly crows its age.

The Macallan was one of the first to prove that whiskies aged for unheard of lengths like 50 years could be sold for thousands of dollars a bottle. Its first releases of such whisky began in 1983 and the brand felt very comfortable that that market was developing. But Cox also admits a bit of luck. In the 1960s, when Glenfiddich brought forth single malt, the people who ran The Macallan decided the future lay in those properties and therefore the company now enjoys a good stock of very old whisky. The rare and fine brands of The Macallan not only sell themselves, but help to sell the distillery's younger expressions as they draw attention to them.

Other brands are finding a market in that rare ether as well. Glenfiddich recently auctioned a bottle from 1937 for $20,000 and Bowmore typically puts out one or more expressions at above 30 years of age once a year. Why don't more do it? First, they'd have to have been prescient enough to lay down enough whisky for the purpose decades ago. Second, not every whisky is capable of attaining such age. Whisky runs the risk of becoming too tannin with age and an old barrel can self-destruct. What's more, a barrel is constantly losing volume and much of that is in alcohol content. If a spirit's proof drops below 80 (40 percent), it can no longer be defined as Scotch whisky, and then you have nothing unless you meld it with younger, stronger whiskies, but that would defeat the purpose.

Still, whiskies that reach that kind of age in good shape are ethereal, almost Cognac-like drams that have replaced peatiness—even in Islay—with flavors of Christmas pudding and ambrosia.

Highland Park has put out a number of single-cask issues that are uncut from barrel strength, not chill-filtered, very idiosyncratic and hard to find. Most of its whiskies are not worthy of such treatment, says Anderson. "It's a hell of a difficult job to forecast what a whisky is going to be like in decades to come. I don't even know what I'm doing next week," he says with a laugh. "If I knew, I would make nothing but single malts. But I don't. It's just a black art."


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