Conversations with friends do at times broach the subject I fancy most – whisky, and on such moments I do tend to be a bit of a snobbish geek endlessly talking about the spirit or some interesting fact specific to the expression we would be sipping on – I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them would have their eyes rolling as I can talk and talk can bore! Nevertheless, I was posed by a mate on my choice of preference – Scottish blend or the maltier Single Malt. The question does seem pretty straightforward but got me pondering much deeper- which laid the building blocks to this week’s write up…
There’s been this long heated debate on where this balance tips over. I’ve noticed that most folks generally would take the plunge towards Single Malts. But why is it? Is this blind fan following, a show of masculinity, premiership, or is there really truth to this malt marriage? Better yet, are there more to blended whiskies than what meets the eye?
Numbers ironically indicate that blended whiskies are the preferred choice. They’re clear winners with Goliath like sales, close to 2.8 billion dollars shadowing their Scottish brothren clocking a little over 1.2 billion – still respectable! Volumes too outweigh the malts but in all fairness only 5-10% of what the distilleries produce go into single malts; the rest being shared amongst distilleries creating a multitude of blends.
No more an apples to apples comparison, aye?
When I first began my bout with the golden spirit my options were limited to blends as they were more cheaper and accessible. Within the limited budget of the young adult this seemed the most appropriate fit that accommodated most wallets. Single Malts were too far a reach – one reason perhaps why blends are given the boot especially when pockets grow larger and the average consumer appetite allows for larger mouthfuls.
For many, especially those who tend to dwell in the shallow waters of the vast whisky ocean, Single Malts hold cult status, symbolising luxury, status and wealth. And in geographies where the liquor commands high taxes and custom duties they remain a commodity to be had. Let’s admit it, movies and much of the media are biased, liquor stores too keep only a limited (and cheap) array of blends.
Funny thing is they evolved out of a need – an alternative with a smoother, palatable profile that wasn’t as harsh, convoluted or rough, common with Single Malts at the time. Grocers took to this need, and turned early alchemists incorporating produces from various distilleries blending them in a variety of proportions. Then, until now, blends have pretty much hogged much of the limelight, being very malleable allowing it to be consumed neat, as a highball or in a variety of cocktails.
Single Malts however have had a recent rise in sales compared to periods prior, a major reason being the strides made by master distillers in blending techniques and an improved comprehension of the science of wood and maturation. Distillers incorporate innovation and experimentation as part of their daily arsenal, ensuring there’s that little bit of an ‘epiphany moment’ every now and then.
Many whisky enthusiasts swear by their Malts as they believe it to be pure and minimally adulterated. And there is some truth to this, distilleries release malt spirits with varying strengths, some as low as 40% while others at cask strength – as high as 65%! This makes flavours more robust and true. But does not necessarily validate them to be kept high on a pedestal, purely a personal choice.
Let’s be honest, think ‘blend’ and you’ve spawned images of optimal to suboptimal blends that lie right at the bottom of the pecking order. We haven’t really given blends the opportunity they ever so deserve. Adding to their misery, they do not have the luxury of ‘premier pricing’; false impressions perhaps, as much of the public sees them to be economical and more focussed for mass production. Funny thing though is other than the exception of higher aged blends, people are accommodating to foot higher prices for vatted malts. Yes…somehow grain whiskies are to blame, nothing but the scum of the whisky world! Lol! But then you have the Chivas 18, Ballentine’s 17 and many grain blended expressions from the Compass Box stables all of which hold their ground quite well!
Turning tables, but are the distilleries themselves to blame? Is this not collateral damage – the trade off when pushing for higher volumes? Why don’t blenders instil similar techniques to their blends – higher proofs, varied oak maturation, that too when most distilleries that release these do have their own Single Malt expressions. Is it the fear of consumers not willing to pay the right price? Or is it the price to pay so as to not push their malts into the shadows. I will say however, that some master blenders and distilleries are beginning to see potential here and there are a few that are making it to the shelves.
To sum it all, unfortunately there isn’t a true winner here with the blame falling on both consumers and ‘naughty’ distillers! But before we really chose our sides, I think it’d be best that we “drink” (think) this one through!
PS: Many thanks to the those who shared their views..