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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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A third category of whisky combines single-malt whiskies from different distilleries, but doesn't include grain whiskies. Until recently they were known as vatted malts or pure malts, and depending on the number of constituent malts could be called double or triple malts. They enjoy a long tradition that dates back to at least the nineteenth century, when the term "vatted malt" was first used. Essentially, malts from various stills are chosen with the intent of creating a whisky that is more complex than the product of each distillery. Some of Scotland's most exquisite expressions have arisen out of such skillful mingling of malts. Vatted malts have only recently made a stand in the United States, with the traditional blenders Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker introducing them. But in Britain, it has been customary to create limited-edition vatted malts to celebrate events such as royal weddings and the anniversaries of its rulers. Not too shabby, eh?

If vatted malts have an image problem, it stems from a name that rings none too elegant and that few understand. A vat sounds like something you do your laundry in, and even as I type this into my computer, the spell-checker keeps reminding me that vatted is not a verb in its dictionary. So it's easy to understand why whiskies like Johnnie Walker Green began proclaiming themselves pure malts rather than vatted. Pure in that sense meant the spirit was purely a malt product, that is, no grain whisky was added. It is something like designating that a sweater is pure wool—the wool may have come from different sheep, but the term pure tells us that no cotton or polyester was twisted in with it. But pure also confers a mark of quality.

Which is why some cried foul when Cardhu, a former single malt, defected to the pure malt side in 2003. At the time, the spirits giant Diageo, which makes Johnnie Walker, was faced with shortages of Cardhu, which it offers as a single malt and as one of the components in its blends. The Speyside single malt had boomed in sales in only two or three years, particularly in Spain, France and Portugal. The problem was that Cardhu is most widely sold as a 12-year-old malt and no one had foreseen such demand a dozen years ago. The solution, it was decided, was to reintroduce it as a vatted malt, mingling Cardhu with other malts produced in the region. What Diageo did not do was draw much attention to the change. The bottle and label remained largely the same, with the word pure substituted for the word single before the word malt.

Diageo pointed out that it was trying to deal with unprecedented demand and that it had used the term pure because it was more easily understood by the speakers of Romance languages who defined the demand. Still, the company worked with the SWA to change its labeling and started a program to educate the public to the nature of its product. Nevertheless, the damage was done, and Diageo switched the product back to single malt. (Before purists claim victory, they might consider that because of continuing shortages, Cardhu is now no longer available in some markets, including the United States.)

With Cardhu returned to relative normalcy, SWA decided that a naming convention was needed to clarify that a pure malt wasn't a single malt. It came up with regulations that will compel whisky labels to refer to products once known as pure or vatted malts as blended-malt Scotch whisky. Another requirement is that whisky named for a specific distillery must arise exclusively from that distillery. That means that the Diageo product could not be called Cardhu blended-malt Scotch whisky even had the company kept the product.

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.)

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.

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