Follow you nose
Over the years I have gained fondness for many types of spirits, beers, wines etc. Often times I have also held prejudice against a given libation due to general persona and well frankly a lack of information or experience with it. I had it with Vodka and California wines until I was forced to stretch beyond my comfort zone and well, palates change. I used to hate spinach when I was growing up. Mostly because it was the mushy, make you gag, canned sort but there is nothing like fresh spinach. Much of my experiences with Vodka have been in simple, boring cocktails and new world wines were the cheap, cloyingly sweet and flabby reds or overly oaked whites. But over the years I have come to realize that one simple experience should not type cast an entire category. This brings me to Scotch whisky, the point of this blog and my next tasting event.
My 1st experience with Scotch was not a pleasant one. When my friends said they were going to drink some fine single malts on a cool and crisp early fall evening I jumped at the offer as it seemed like a perfect night for alfresco drinking. I also had no idea what to expect. Somewhere in my head I was thinking “Scotch and butterscotch must be similar.” Well, needless to say I did not enjoy it.
Then over the years due to the fact that I work in the restaurant industry I was constantly exposed to new spirits and flavors. One night when I was a bartender I must have served 100 Johnny Walker Black and cokes for a young group of College internationals. It seemed like a waist to me as it was a top shelf brand but if they liked it I guess that’s all that mattered. At the end of the shift I just needed to have some Johnny Black. I had it on the rocks and I didn’t mind it, in fact I was mildly enjoying it. Over the years my love for Scotch whisky has grown and for me it is the standard that I sometimes foolishly judge all whisky. But as my love and understanding for fine single malts grew there was one category that I ignored. Oddly enough it was the 1st whisky I enjoyed. That was the complex, subtle elegance of a great blended Scotch whisky.
So lets do a bit of defining her. A Single Malt Scotch is a whisky that has been distilled in a pot still which gives a rich, heady aroma that is comprised of 100% malted barley coming from a single distillery hence The Macallan 12 yr Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky. This is 100% malted barley from the Macallan distillery. A Blended Malt Whisky or “Vatted” Scotch is a blend of 100% malted barley whiskys coming from two or more distilleries. In short if I took some Macallan and blended that with, oh lets say Glenlivet I would have a “Vatted” Scotch. The next category is Blended Scotch Whisky (no Malt on the label). This is a blend of a grain spirit (corn or wheat) that has been distilled through a continuous still making a softer and purer spirit much in the same way vodka is distilled. Then that whisky ,whether it be Cutty-Sark, Dwars or Johnny Black is blended with a selection of single malt whiskys to create a softer, easier and more subdued spirit.
There is a silly notion that only great Scotch whiskys come from a single distillery. Hog Wash. The Macallan would not exist if it were not for blended whiskys. Look at it this way. 95% of all Scotches sold are blends. That means that as a distiller, once 95% of your production is of age it is sold immediately. This also means the ONLY product you have left is 5% of your production. This is gravy folks, pure profit. In fact Scotch whisky and the great The Macallan would never be savored if it were not for brands like Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse and Johnny Walker. Why you ask? Well lets take a trip back to the 1850’s:
During the 19th and early 20th century the British government controlled the market for Bordeaux, Oporto, Jerez (Sherry), Armagnac and Cognac. What up’d the ante was when British parliament passed a law allowing what many grocery store owners like John Dewar or Johnny Walker already knew. That there is no perfect whisky and so blending a touch of Macallan’s rich headiness and Auchentoshan’s subtle elegance with a note of Glenrothes’s honeyed aroma and drop or two of Ledaig’s salty edge can make a fantastic dram and in 1853 it became legal to sell these blended malt whiskys.
Right around this time several distillers started playing with Aeneas Coffey’s continuous still which was making that subtle and light spirit. They soon realized that adding this light grain whisky to the richer, robust malted whisky made for a pleasant expression of flavors. But in the end mans foolish idea that he can outsmart nature changed everything in Scotland for the better. In the 1870’s some ridiculous French botanist though it would be a great idea to bring from the new world (actually around Colorado) some grape vines to plant next to Frances greatest vineyards. What the French didn’t know was that there was a louse which we now call Phylloxera making their living on the root stocks of these vines. What happened next changed everything. The European native vine vinifera could not withstand this louse and soon they almost all began to die. Now, what does this have to do with whisky and blended Scotch,? Well, the British had really taken a shine to these lighter blended whiskys because they were forced to. Once the Cognac region of France or Jerez region of Spain could no longer supply an expanding empire its vises they had to look elsewhere. This would become a boom time for Scottish distillers. In fact our beloved Macallan did not bottle their own whisky until the 1970s’. Up until that time it was only for blends. The Gorgeous and delicate Glenlivet can not survive with out blended Scotches. In fact just about every single malt you enjoy is a blend. It is rare to find a single cask or barrel Scotch. A master blended working for a distillery will blend several barrels trying to reach a common style form year to year. Take the Dalmore 12 year for example. Richard Patterson (not to be confused with Roger Patterson of the old Bigfoot fame) needs to make sure that the Dalmore 12 year is always the same. He will take nuances of different proprietary barrels and blend them together. The youngest of these barrels that he uses can be no less than 12 years old.
Johnny Walker Black is one of the best selling whiskys in the world and it is a blend of whiskys. Each one being unique. Each one is terroir based and speaks of its water source, climate, specific barley selection, malting process, distillation technique, barrel cooperage and storage location. The grain whisky (corn and wheat in the continuous still) comprises about 50% of that bottle but there are roughly 40 to 50 other whiskys blended into the mix. Some of those distilleries are long gone and the last of the barrels have run dry. What to do? Follow your nose, it always knows. They figure out the nuances and subtleties of other whiskys and blend until they strike gold.
What these Grocers back in the 1850’s realized was that the intense, heady richness of a Dalmore was not what the general population wanted or understood. This also made it possible for the every-man to enjoy a delicious and complex dram. You just take all the nuances of what you like and add in a bulk of good but less expensive ingredients and you’ve got butter… butterscotch
I began playing around with my own “grocers blend” like Johnny Walker and John Dewar did back 100 years ago. It is a fun way to think of Scotch Whisky and shed off some of the silly stereo types I have given Blended Scotches. When I started making a blend of malt whiskys I thought that this could be a fun experience for other to partake in. On Tuesday the 17th of June I will be holding a blending class and challenge in Saloon. Each guest will get a pour of my house blend as well as samples of each of the five whiskys I used to create it.
As a group we will taste each, come up with a conclusion as to what each scotch is and then blend them until they come up to the closest pour of our “grocers blend.” Of course you can also just enjoy the whiskys and make your own creation but the dram that I feel is closest to mine will also get a prize and who after all doesn’t like prizes?