Blended And Grain Whisky – Are You Missing Out?
Blended and grain whiskies have historically been regarded as inferior to single malt whisky. Unfortunately, this category is often subject to gross generalisation, as many people form negative opinions based solely on experiences with brands such as Bells or Teachers, without exploring other options. However, if they had sampled premium blends like Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker, or Royal Salute, their perception might be different.
As someone from the wine trade, I am a strong advocate for blends. Some of the world’s finest wines come from regions such as Bordeaux, Champagne, and the Rhone, which often rely on blending to achieve their complexity and balance. This fact is often lost on many whisky drinkers. Of course, it’s true that there is a lot of blended whisky out there that is not worth drinking, even as a last resort at a friend’s party (perhaps it’s time to find better friends in that case). Nevertheless, there are excellent examples available, even some that are outstanding. Fortunately, as more people discover the unique and intricate flavours of high-end blended whisky, perceptions are starting to shift.
Before I make some recommendations, I should give some background into blends and grain whisky. It can look complicated, but blended whisky combines two or more malt or grain whiskies that have been distilled separately. The resulting blend is then aged in oak casks for a period of time to create a unique flavour profile. The art of blending whisky lies in finding the right combination of whiskies to create a product that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Single malt is made from 100% malted barley and is produced at a single distillery in a pot still. It is aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years and is bottled at a minimum of 40% alc. They are known for their complex and rich flavours, which are influenced by the type of barley used, arguably the water source, and the quality and type of barrels used.
Grain whisky is made from grains other than malted barley, such as wheat, corn, or rye, and is distilled in a continuous column still. This produces a lighter and more neutral spirit than pot still distillation. It is typically aged for a shorter period of time than single malt, and is often used as a base spirit in blended whisky. It can however age exceptionally well, as you will read shortly.
Blended whisky, on the other hand, is made by combining two or more different types of whiskies, often from separate distilleries. These might be either single malt or grain whiskies.
Blended whisky is often seen as a more accessible, approachable and affordable form of whisky. It is typically less intense than single-malt, making it more appealing to those who are new to whisky or who prefer a milder taste. This accessibility has helped to make blended whisky more popular. Brands like Johnnie Walker have really helped bring people into the fold and introduced them to the category by taking them on a journey through their red-to-blue labels. The later in occasional rare releases containing whisky from now-closed and iconic distilleries.
Blended and grain are being embraced by the craft whisky movement. Many distilleries, and in particular the smaller ones are now experimenting with blending different whiskies or using grain to create unique flavour profiles. This experimentation has led to a wide range of new and interesting whiskies that simply excite. Take for example Bruichladdich and Arbikie, both in Scotland, releasing a Rye, alongside the Oxford Artisan Distillery in England. Rye has long been commonplace in North America though, especially in Indiana which has over 30 distilleries producing it. I am very interested to see how many more Scottish distilleries start to incorporate it into their portfolio.
It is also versatile in terms of how it can be consumed. While many people prefer to drink it neat or with a drop of water, it can also be used in cocktails and mixed drinks. The milder flavour profile makes it a popular choice for cocktails such as the whisky sour, old-fashioned, and Manhattan.
Loch Lomond is embracing this with the release of its Noble Rebel range. Three whiskies have been released in colourful bottles, appealing to a new market. They feel contemporary and can be enjoyed by themselves or as the base of a cocktail. This a welcome addition to their range with people often making purchases based on the label or bottle. They taste good too!
Noble Rebel – Orchard Outburst – £40. A light aroma of toffee apple on the nose followed by orchard fruits and orange on the palate complemented by honey and malt. Quite a light whisky that would be a perfect introduction to malt whisky. Interestingly it was fermented with Chardonnay wine yeast.
Noble Rebel – Hazelnut Harmony – £40. I was looking forward to this being a lover of hazelnuts and they did show thorough, mostly on the palate. The warmness of vanilla and some poached pear were also apparent. There was definitely an orchard vibe making this a nice summer dram.
Noble Rebel – Smoke – £40. An appealing smokiness initially with red fruits lingering beneath on the nose. On the palate it is has a lovely meatiness to it with a hint of sweetness that balances well. Think along the lines of a BBQ’ed venison steak with a lovely char and served with a creamy and peppery sauce. It works well and is my preference of the three Noble Rebel whiskies.
Those looking for more complexity should look towards Compass Box Whisky. The company was founded in 2000 by John Glaser, who had previously worked for large whisky companies such as Diageo and The Macallan. Glaser wanted to create a range of blended whiskies that were innovative, complex, and unique. The resulting blends have won numerous awards and accolades and have helped to redefine what is possible with blended whisky. I tasted two of their expressions recently:-
Compass Box – Flaming Heart – £125. The Flaming Heart has been made with whisky from Laphroaig, Caol Ila and Talisker, alongside 5-year-old Highland malt coming from French oak. It has a beautiful richness to it, almost meaty which I love. It reminds me of the juices at the bottom of a pan you have roasted a joint of beef in. Add in some maple syrup-like sweetness and it makes for a delicious dram.
Compass Box – Ultramarine – £299. The Ultramarine by contrast contains whisky from Caol Ila and Glendullan distilleries; aged grains from the Cameronbridge and Girvan distilleries, as well as a medley of pre-blended stocks. It is inspired by bottles from the late ‘80s and ‘90s. It shows beautiful finesse and depth. Multi-dimensional, it packs a flavour that unravels in the mouth. Hints of raisins and black treacle come to the fore and then stay, with underlying notes of apple pie and stem ginger. It is a whisky you can take your time over, the length is so long.
At the luxury end of the market you have companies such as the House of Hazelwood producing quite extraordinary whisky from barrels they have owned for decades. These showcase exactly what can be achieved with at least one single grain expression indistinguishable from a single malt after such a long maturation. These whiskies are really quite extraordinary and spellbinding. Every time I taste one I am astonished at how complex and brilliant they are, and future releases are something to look forward to. These are bottles that should be opened, shared and discussed with friends as they are so unique.
You can read a previous feature I wrote on the House of Hazelwood here.
The Spirit of Scotland, 46-Year-Old Blended Scotch – The Legacy Collection – £1200. This is surprisingly light in colour with the nose immediately indicating this is a mature whisky – it smells of maturity with a slight hint of old leather chairs and smoke. On the nose I get a nuttiness consisting of toasted hazelnuts and almonds, reminding me of a fine frangipane. The grain element of this comes through on the palate which I enjoy. It displayed hints of apple crumble and custard but with orange peel added to lift the flavour. The mouthfeel was lovely and dare I say smooth.
The Tops, 33-Year-Old Blended Malt Scotch – The Legacy Collection – £1450. A rich amontillado colour, my first thoughts were of a pecan pie on the nose. It took me to an American Diner, albeit a very upmarket one! The pecan pie gives way to dark stewed stone fruit such as damsons and plums. It is a lot drier on the palate than I had anticipated with a wonderful spiciness running through packing a nice punch. It is a whisky that would be the perfect accompaniment to a cigar and fine conversation.
The Long Marriage, 56-Year-Old Blended Scotch – The Charles Gordon Collection – £4000. Deep brown in colour and positively sherry-like, this 56-year-old shows a very luxurious nose. In fact, it could almost be passed off as mature Oloroso sherry with hints of liquorice, such is the sherry influence. When whisky is this old, wood can very much be the dominating character, with any fruit notes, dispersed many years previously. Here they exist in harmony. The palate is powerful with vanilla, baking spices, dark chocolate, ginger and cloves all present, creating a whisky of great complexity.
The Cask Trails, 1968 Single Grain Scotch – The Charles Gordon Collection – £3800. An incredible colour reminiscent of a deeply polished dark mahogany table. The nose is decadent and has an explosion of flavour. If you bring to the forefront of your mind how you would imagine a Christmas pudding, dosed with cognac and laid down for five years, would taste like, you have an indication of how this smells. Just wonderful and maybe in my top 5 ever. The Palate is a triumph being dry, complex and very intriguing given it was aged in Spanish oak. Could I tell that this was grain whisky and not a single malt? I am not entirely sure and will have to come back to taste it blind. It has everything you would expect from dried fruits to toffee, via an espresso.
The Lowlander, 36-Year-Old Blended Scotch – The Legacy Collection – £950. The lightness of colour suggests that this has been aged in older bourbon barrels. Lemon curd immediately came to mind on my first nose of this whisky. This gave way to hints of vanilla with a slight underlying elderflower note. The palate is refined with vanilla, citrus and tobacco.
The Lost Estate, 43-Year Old Blended Grain Scotch – The Legacy Collection – £1200. A lighter colour with a pronounced grain nose with meaty undertones that have been glazed with citrus. Rather subdued on the palate initially, but then opens up after 10 minutes to show flavours of hay, baking spices (in particular cinnamon) and citrus.
A Breath Of Fresh Air, 37-Year-Old Blended Grain Scotch – The Legacy Collection – £1450. The grain shows through on the nose alongside beautiful hints of a lemon meringue pie. The palate appears stronger than its 46.4% abv which is a lovely surprise. I found the flavours of one of the nation’s favourite puddings to continue through to the palate but accompanied by fresh vanilla. The finish is surprisingly dry but pleasant.
The Unknown, 44-Year-Old Blended Scotch – The Charles Gordon Collection – £3000. Distilled in 1978 and blended in 1989, this then had an extensive secondary maturation for a further 33 years in a single refill butt. The nose was reminiscent of tropical fruits and even pear drops. The palate was relatively delicate and nuanced, but with a delightful spice and gorgeous butterscotch flavours.
Blended At Birth, 1965 Blended Scotch – The Charles Gordon Collection – £4500. A piece of history, this whisky comprises grain and malt whisky being blended together at birth. This is a practice sadly now outlawed by the Scotch Whisky Association. A shame, but it does make this bottle exceptionally rare, not only with there being 192 bottles in existence but in its style. It has a beautiful nose of boiled sweets, vanilla, raisins and reduced juices from roast beef. The palate is dry with a freshness (maybe coming from some mint tones) to it. It has a variety of flavours coming through on the palate that benefits from extraordinary length. This is a complex whisky that deserves contemplation and nurturing. An outstanding bottle.
In conclusion, blended and grain whiskies can be complex and sophisticated, offering a wide range of flavour profiles and versatility. While they have often been seen as inferior to single-malt, this perception is changing as more people discover the unique and interesting blends that are available. I highly recommend you start adding these quite fabulous bottles to your drinks cabinet and explore all they have to offer.