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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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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.

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