Blends are often maligned by whisky admirers who don't know better. I should know, because I used to be a maligner myself. Luckily, I got over my single-malt-is-superior complex, in part thanks to a happy afternoon spent imbibing some superb Compass Box blends at the Whisky Lounge Festival in Brighton earlier this year. Sceptics should remember that 92% of all whisky is blended. Most whisky drinkers drink blends, and for Whisky Squad #6, at least, we would join them...
Bailie Nicol Jarvie
40%. Eight-year-old. A blended Scotch whisky with a higher proportion of malt than most blends. Distilleries in the mix thought to include Caol Ila (unpeated), Ardbeg, North British and Glenmorangie, all blended with grain whisky.
Nose: Vanilla, honey, caramel.
Taste: Smooth, woody, sweetness, slight dryness, not too sweet.
I've had a bottle of this at home for a few months, and pull it out occasionally when a Scotch cocktail seems in order. Excellent value.
Compass Box Hedonism
43%. Average age 20 years. A 100% blended grain Scotch whisky, from Cameron Brig, Carsebridge and Cambus, aged in first-fill American oak casks.
Nose: Tropical, pine, cedar, Caramac chocolate, cherry, wood polish.
Taste: Sweet, chocolate, cherries, spicy, woody, toffee, with a long, dry finish.
From CB's Limited Release range, bottled only once or twice a year.
Ben Nevis, Adelphi Bottling
50.3% cask strength. 34-year-old (Distilled 1970, bottled 2005). Highland single cask blend.
Nose: Cola reduction, honey, rich, feet, solvent, Xmas tree (with a few drops of water you can add orange and fizzy sherbert).
Taste: Dry, tobacco, cigar, spicy, citrus, tannic.
This was an eccentric blend of new-make grain and new-make malt aged in the same cask for an awfully long time. There was nothing eccentric about the taste, though, which recalled an antique rye whiskey. Really quite rare, and refined, which goes some way to explaining the £130 price tag.
40%. Blended malt Scotch whisky (12-year-old Glen Moray with 25-year-old Ardbeg 1977).
Nose: Peat, pink grapefruit, banana, medicinal.
Taste: Almondy, burnt BBQ, salty.
Behind this whisky is a story of "a most serendipitous catastrophe" (cheers, Darren), which occurred when some Ardbeg 1977 was accidentally pumped into a vat still containing Glen Moray 12-year-old. The result was a blended malt Scotch whisky containing 20% Glen Moray and 80% Ardbeg. Lesser marketing machines may have cursed their luck; Ardbeg bottled the stuff and branded it as "the unforeseen but fortuitous union of two great single malts".
What struck me about blended whisky, following our evening of respectful indulgence, was that blending - done properly - makes perfect sense. Why trust nature to provide a perfect single cask, or confine a master distiller to mixing from his own limited stash, when you could let a knowledgeable whisky mixologist take a bit from here and a bit from there, before blending to perfection?
Thanks to Darren, the Whisky Guy, for not only leading yet another great tasting session but also providing some pretty handy printouts, which also contained the following useful definitions:
Single Malt Scotch Whisky
A Scotch Whisky produced from only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills.
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
A Scotch Whisky distilled at a single distillery but which, in addition to water and malted barley, may also be produced from whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals.
Blended Scotch Whisky
A combination of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies.
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
A blend of two or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies from different distilleries.
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
A blend of two or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies from different distilleries.
Finally, the Spooned Malt: Take a single malt whisky and add a teaspoon of a different whisky from another distillery, leaving you with a blend, which may no longer be described as a single malt from a named distillery. Such behaviour is apparently reassuring to distilleries when their wares are sold on to third parties.
Next time we've promised ourselves to keep things simple - you know, get some nice whisky in bottles and drink the stuff. No more definitions. Details on Whisky Squad #7 (October 7) to follow shortly, here.