I keep hearing two phrases around the whisky and whiskey community these days. One is “Blends can be excellent!” (Of course, one can also say “Fast Food can be excellent!” but it rarely is. That aside…) The other is “90-95% of the whisky sold internationally is in blends.”
The aim of these statements is to refocus attention on blends and away from Single Malts. The argument goes that “90% of the market is in blends, so there must be something interesting going on there!” and since many vocal whisky proponents have argued that some blends can be as good as (or better than) equivalently-priced Single Malts, the inferred conclusion is obvious: try blends!
As eloquent blogger Oliver Klimek notes in his recent article, the “harsh grain” flavor present in most entry-level blends (the ones on your local bar’s shelves) fade to nothing after 18 or so years of wood maturation. At this point, the refined flavors of the grain blend harmoniously with the malt character of the singles in the blend, yielding a masterful and elegant marriage of flavors. This is also why well-aged single grain whiskies such as the Irish Greenore are receiving a certain amount of fanfare – they have proven that with artisanal distilling and careful aging, single grain whiskies can be as good as malts.
This is all well and good, but I’ve yet to see a bar selling 18+ year old blends alongside the Johnnie Walker Black Label and the Chivas. My local spirits shop also stocks very few blends of that age alongside a 100+ selection of Single Malts.
My conclusion, also, has to be obvious: If only 10% of the market is in single malts, and 18+ aged blends are even harder (for me) to find, then there’s no way that any significant percentage of the remaining 90% is made up of those blends. Therefore, most of the world (up to 90% of the purchases) is drinking harsh, only-good-for-mixing, cheap, low-quality young blended whisky or whiskey. Why are they doing this? Ralfy at ralfy.com answered this very question: “To get pissed!”
“But most Irish whiskey is blended, isn’t it?”
Ok, so I love Redbreast 12 year. I think it’s far better than some 12-year-old Scotches, and also better than some similarly-priced single malts. As Oliver points out, if the Scots made “blended” whisky in pot stills and aged it appropriately, it could easily be as good. I don’t think this an argument for blends in general. There are only two Single Pot Still Irish Whiskeys (Redbreast and Green Spot). Blended Irish whiskeys, on the other hand, are generally on par, quality-wise, with Scotch blended whiskies when they are made with a significant component of column-still grain spirit (as opposed to “pure pot still”).
“But Compass Box…!”
Compass Box has done an amazing job bringing blends to the masses. They have an impressive lineup of bottlings that prove they know how to think outside of the box when it comes to Scotch. (Hah! Outside the box! Get it?) I still think the above arguments apply here, as most Compass Box bottlings are more expensive than the malts that they compare favorably against. Also, several award-winning Compass Box products are actually “Blended Scotch Malt Whisky”, or blends of all-Scottish malt whisky without any grain component. However, one can hardly use an all-malt product as a basis for arguing in favor of blends that contain grain. Apples and oranges. It should be no surprise to anyone that a blend of several high-quality single-malt whiskies yields a high-quality product.
It all comes down to taste. No matter what 90% of the world is drinking, and no matter how much age a blend takes to become drinkable, the statements “Blends can be excellent” or “Single Malts are usually the best” don’t mean much. The onus is on individual consumers to taste as many different whiskies as possible, with help from journalists and retailers (and not solely industry reps, who are inherently biased) to point them in the right direction.
I’m just sick of hearing people defend blends in general when I point out the weaknesses of a young grain-y blend. Sure, some blends can be excellent, but if you’re going to take that stance, tell us which ones! The statement should be “Expensive, well-aged blends can be excellent.” I’ll believe that.