Why Should I Care About Blends?

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.

Conclusion

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.

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13 Comments

13 Responses to Why Should I Care About Blends?

  1. Jeff P says:

    90% of the world isn’t drinking just to get drunk. Get your head out of your ass.

    A huge portion of the world is price sensitive, meaning that we can’t routinely drop $150 on a bottle of booze. Some of us want to find decent whiskys at lower prices, and that usually means blends. $30 is a lot for most people to pay.

    Yeah, lower priced blends aren’t single malts. But not everybody is slugging them down to get slammed- in fact, I would wager that very few are. Most of the get slammed crowd is drinking vodka, crappy candy flavored liquors, Captain Morgan and Jack Daniels.

    How about the person reviewing whiskys on his blog tell us which blends are good? Honest reviews. You don’t even have to give them good ratings, just describe the character. For somebody dropping hundreds on a bottle, a few bottles of $10 and $20 whisky shouldn’t be a huge investment.

    But you probably won’t, since you’re apparently an arrogant prick. I found this post searching for reviews on blended scotches, because I care about taste and don’t particularly want to bankrupt myself. I only wish other whisky bloggers didn’t share your attitude.

    • Hi Jeff, I’m sorry that you have to use such language when starting a valid discussion about an important topic – this is the kind of dialogue that I think is very interesting, and useful for the industry as a whole. However, I don’t feel that I can have a reasonable conversation with someone who refers to me in those terms without having done any kind of research at all. If you’d looked back through my site, you’d see that I’ve already reviewed quite a few inexpensive blends – as well as inexpensive bourbons and world whiskies. I never spend more than $100 on a single bottle of whisky, although I review them when I can get a sample to taste. Had you spent any time at all looking at the site before lashing out in this manner, you’d have seen reviews for two kinds of Famous Grouse, Tullamore Dew, Chivas and Teacher’s, Jameson and Powers (I drink Jameson frequently, neat), as well as Jack Daniel’s, Rittenhouse Rye, Wild Turkey 101 (my go-to bourbon), Old Forester, and Bulleit.

      But you didn’t, because you’re a hotheaded Internet troll.

  2. Ryan says:

    Jeff P does have a good point if you read between the ranting, that there are plenty of people who like whisky but just don’t have the money to spend on single malts. However, I think that in general, these people are in the UK, where I read often about people drinking popular blends like Bell’s, Teacher’s, and Famous Grouse. In the US, bourbon is much more affordable so I think you get a large portion of those people end up drinking bourbon instead of blended scotch/irish, because bourbon is simply better whisky for the money than blends. Now, that doesn’t guarantee that you will like bourbon better, but it is better quality without the cheap-vodka harshness. That said, I am diligently going through all the $20-25 blends out there trying to find one that is really enjoyable, but honestly, they have all fallen below the “enjoyable” mark for me, so I will probably mostly stick to bourbon in the long run. That doesn’t mean some of them aren’t plenty drinkable, like Famous Grouse and Jameson’s.

    However, I don’t agree with Jeff P’s assumption that “very few” people drinking cheap blended scotch are just doing it to get drunk, as I guess that most of the blended scotch sales are on the shelf below Famous Grouse. I would hazard a guess that the small minority of blended scotch goes to sipping neat.

    • Ryan, Thanks for this very level-headed commentary. I agree with what you said, although I still have the same “difficulty” finding inexpensive bourbons that I consider enjoyable neat. I’m partial to some inexpensive ryes (Rittenhouse), and I like Knob Creek and Wild Turkey 101, but they still are less interesting to me than some $30 single malts.

      I think the point of my post stands. If you’re looking to spend, let’s say, $40 or less on a bottle of whisky. Your choices are: A decent but not excellent bourbon, any non-age-statement blended Scotch, or a very small handful of single malts (Laphroaig 10, maybe Macallan 12 if you find a good deal, The Balvenie DoubleWood, Speyburn 10, Finlaggan OR). Despite the repeated statements in the whisky criticism circles that blends “aren’t all bad”, they’re generally talking about well-aged blends like JW Blue, Ballantine’s 17, and the older Chivas line. Stuff way over $40. The rest is, in my experience, mostly not worth the (low) price of admission, thus making inexpensive single malts a relatively good bargain.

      I believe what Jeff P was trying to say, although hostilely, is that I should be addressing the percentage of the population who can’t afford to spend $30-$40 on a bottle of scotch to drink neat (although I maintain that a $30 single malt gets you more “drinks” than an equivalent purchase of decent beer or wine). Unfortunately, the high prices of single malts are not my doing, and frankly I’m writing this blog for people who are interested in under-$100 whiskies. If Jeff P does not fall into my target audience, then I invite him to read about whisky elsewhere.

      • Ryan says:

        First of all, yes let’s forget about Jeff P’s rant and what he thinks your blog should be, since your blog can be whatever you want it to be!

        I think I’m getting your point about the NAS blends: single malts in the same price category are better. And, I definitely get it. However, where you live does play a role. I live in Pennsylvania, with state-controlled liquor stores. The cheapest single-malt available to us from your list is $45. Even Glenlivet 12 is $35. So for me, I see a bigger dichotomy between blends and single malts because there isn’t much price overlap here.

        That said, I can honestly say that I would pour myself a glass of Johnnie Walker Black Label over some cheap single malts, like The Glenlivet 12. Of course, we have left the realm of NAS blends as JWBL is 12 years old. So there you have it: you say “tell us which ones,” and to that I say Johnnie Walker Black Label, but that is the only one I’ve found that can compete with single malts. The only other defense of blends I have is that they can be drinkable when you cannot find a good single malt in that price range.

  3. Carl says:

    Just to add to some respectful derision, and I am in means a well sampled expert, but I love the hell out of Black Bush. Until today I had only forayed into Irish blends, and while I’ve had a lot of good drinks, the Black Bush felt like it had something special going for it, even with that little corn-y tone. But the fact that I could identify the corn, and it evolved with some other flavors, I think it was a worthwhile buy. Not that my Jameson and Tullamore are not, but the Black Bush seemed more crafted and less industrial.

  4. Neil Cake says:

    Hey,

    I was just using your site to research a post on my own blog (Drink it How You Like it) investigating the correct way to drink scotch. Check it out if you’ve got time.

    I was just looking at some of your other posts too, and I wanted to say I appreciate your approach. Your site is unbiased and informative, so well done. I’m going to add it to the links section on my blog.

    Cheers!

  5. Juergen says:

    For the most part I have to agree with you when it comes to blended Scotch whiskies. There are only a few that stand out from the crowd; Ballantine’s, Teachers and Grant’s are decent enough for drinking neat. The biggest problem I have with blended Scotch is that most of them tend to be so sweet. With regards to Irish blends, I really have to disagree with you. Irish blends are a step up from blended Scotch in every aspect, no matter which brand. Take Jameson for example, this is a triple-distilled whiskey made from about 50% grain whiskey and 50% pure pot still whiskey and it’s just excellent. My reasoning as to why it is so good is that it is made at one single distillery. In other words, all of the whiskies are made specifically to make Jameson and in that, they have a far greater control on the outcome but not having to rely on so-so malts sourced from some lesser known distillery (like the Scotch blenders have to do). All whiskies in Jameson are tailor-made for that whisky alone and this shows in the quality and the excellent consistency of their bottlings. Believe me as I have drunk many a bottle of Jameson in my lifetime and I am still astound by this. It just beats the Scotch blends on every aspect.

  6. Eric says:

    My attitude toward blends is that they’re almost an entirely different category of drink fit for an entirely different purpose and that, with a few (pricey) exceptions, trying to compare them to single malts doesn’t make sense. Dewar’s White Label and Johnny Walker Black Label are not designed for a connoisseur’s deep dive into flavor exploration. They’re designed for you to toss an ice cube into them or mix them with something else at a party or a club where you’re more interested in socializing than thinking too much about your drink. I would say that they’re even superior for that purpose – a good single malt would be wasted on such an occasion.

    But trying to use a bottle of Johnny Walker as a substitute for a single malt in a setting where a single malt is called for just won’t work. It’s not designed for that. To me, defending cheap blends against single malts is like defending a hammer to people who need a screwdriver. People who like single malts are not just looking for any beverage with the word “Scotch” on the label.

    Among the many things I like about Ralfy.com and his Youtube reviews is that he grades blends on a separate scale from single malts because he understands that he’s not comparing apples to apples.

    • Good points, Eric, thanks. I don’t rate blends on a separate scale because I don’t consume them differently (although, as you say, they are not always meant for sipping in contemplative solitude). I can’t rate blends on their merit with ice or mixers because I dislike scotch on the rocks, scotch-and-water (really any dilution below 40%), and am not a cocktail drinker. Also, some blends (the recently-released Bank Note, for example) that are an excellent alternative to a pricey malt for sipping straight, and bring down the overall cost of my whisky addiction. *Those* are the blends I want to search out and review. Pity there are so few of them.

  7. Dalton M says:

    I am only just recently getting into drinking whisk(e)y and this blog has opened up my eyes into the world of scotch and other whiskies. I have been a religious reader of this blog lately, and I believe I have read every review and most of the articles available on the site in the past few days. I have finally decided that it is only right to make this post, thanking you, Scotch Noob, for doing what you do, taking the time to share not only your opinions, but effectively conveying the essence of what drinking scotch should be. You need to know that your voice is being heard, and your words are falling on eagerly accepting ears.

    Thank you, and keep doing what you’re doing!

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