Why Blended Whisky Is So Important For Maltheads

by Oliver Klimek on July 5, 2012

This is a final pondering about the Malt Maniacs’ rendezvous with Diageo in June. Actually it is about the whisky industry as a whole, not only Diageo; but it is especially here where it gets very obvious. I usually don’t act as an amplifier for industry messages, but here I am happy to do this. The Diageo people we met specifically addressed this point, and I think it is important to point out since it is a fact often overlooked.

I am a member of a group called ‘Malt Maniacs’ which itself is part of a global community of people who devote a significant part of their lives to the appreciation of whisky in general, but Scotch single malt whisky in particular. The almost infinite variety the single malts have to offer is the driving force behind this enthusiasm. Whiskies from over 100 working and closed distilleries of different vintages, ages and cask types are more than enough to supply a lifetime’s worth of dramming pleasure.

But we would never have this incredible choice of single malt whisky without blends!

There are thousands of malt whisky enthusiasts all over the word, whisky festivals are crowded with them. But still we are only a tiny fraction of the people who drink whisky on this planet. Even the casual drinkers of single malts outnumber us by far. 90 percent of the global sales of Scotch whisky are blends. And as we can safely assume that the average malt content in a blend will be 30% or more, we can easily see that the bulk of malt whisky ends up in blends and not in single malt bottles.

Most, if not all, distilleries whose single malts we love today have produced mainly for blends in the past. Only since the single malt boom started in the late 20th century things have begun to change a little so we now have some distilleries that produce entirely for the single malt market. But the global demand for single malt whisky would never ever be enough to keep the 90+ distilleries in production that are active in Scotland today.

And malt geekdom in its most severe form, the hunt for single cask whisky from independent bottlers is directly dependent on blended whisky, as the cask trade between brokers and blenders is a major source for independent bottlers.

It could seem that we ‘maltheads’ are part of a whisky elite, but in fact we are largely irrelevant for the whisky market. 99.x% of the whisky is drunk by people who don’t do silly things like sniffing on a glass for a quarter of an hour before taking the first sip or using a pipette to drizzle a few drops of water into the glass. They simply drink and enjoy it, neat or with water, with ice, mixed with cola or ginger ale or green tea.

It is a bit of an irony in fact. Blended whisky was invented because malt whisky used to be of dubious quality in the early 19th century. This is why it finally conquered the world. Today, things have changed. It is not the quality anymore that drives the demand for blends. Now it is mainly the price, with the old reputation of the traditional brands like Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker acting as amplifier.

Most of the blend business is done on a pricing level below or around the entry level single malts. You don’t even have to look at the emerging markets, even in the ‘developed world’ most people don’t want to spend 25 Euro or more for a bottle of booze. In the supermarket you can get 20 litres of high quality Bavarian beer for that, 5 bottles of okay-ish wine or 10 bottles of plonk. Let’s face it, this is how most people think. But a blend going for half of that is in the ‘affordable’ territory for most people who don’t mind a dram every now and then.

Malt and blend, you can’t have one without the other. No, as maltheads we don’t have to rush out and buy blends now. But instead of sneering at the ‘uneducated’ blend drinkers let’s be happy that we can enjoy the by-products of their purchase decisions.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Oleksandr July 5, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Brilliant article!

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bloedbabbler July 5, 2012 at 1:50 pm

Wahre Worte gelassen ausgesprochen.
Allerdings habe ich auch nie verstanden, wieso man als Malzkopp seinen Horizont freiwillig so beschneidet und alle Blends meidet.

Ich liebe das ganze Spektrum ob Bourbon, Blended Malts, Blended Whisky, Whiskeys oder was es noch an Untergruppen geben mag.
Der Single Malt ist da (nur) eine (selbstverständlich extrem wichtige) Art des Genusses, aber nicht die Einzige.
Whisk(e)y ist imho ein stark stimmungsabhängiges Vergnügen, mich nur einem Speysider oder einem Islay Raucher hinzugeben, wäre ebenso unsinnig, wie einen Bogen um (gute) Blends zu machen.
Hanky Bannister und Konsorten mal außen vorgelassen. ;-)

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Tim F July 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm

If all malt snobs were to read this there might be a little less of the absurd, deluded sense of arrogance and entitlement that makes so many whisky blogs / fora completely unreadable for me. In the scale of things we nerds matter not a jot.

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Angus July 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm

@Tim: I agree with you that there is an epidemic of snobbery amongst the booze nerderati but I don’t think that just because we don’t matter to the financial leviathon of the blends and mass consumption markets that we don’t matter at all. The flip side to the snobbery coin is that there are a lot of us who remain passionate, inquisitive, social and joyous about whisky and other drinks. I’ve been guilty of the kinds of arrogance crimes you speak of on my blog from time to time but I like to think that it balances out in the long run. I’m sure we all know how easy it is to get caught up in the infantesimal details of single malts and old bottles. Posts like this do serve as timely reminders to those of us in the murkier shades of geekdom to get our heads out of the clouds from time to time. Well done Oliver.

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Diego Sandrin July 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm

True story, and enlightening to say the least, there are many microworlds in this WORLD of Whisky, and often one doesn’t know much about the other (i.e. collectors-singlemalt “openthatbottle” heads- distilleries and their workers) so Blends is another territory all together, myself when I was a “semi ROckStar” in the US got totally addicted to Black Label and coke (the drink) and still love one from time to time, the other day a client from Scotland came into the shop and i offered him a Bowmore 1971 CS from Sestante, good stuff, he bluntly told me he doesnt drink SIngle Malts, only blends, he is one of the biggest collectors in Scotland (!). On a recent purchase of a collection of old old blends (20s to 50s) many bottles had a low level and we opened them to see how whisky was in those days, the only difference between some of those and today’s greatest Single Malts was the short finish in my opinion, the rest was super super stuff, I still have a Famous Grouse bottled in the 50’s that on the nose cannot be told apart from a 70’s Macallan. Its a big world this one of Whisky and I’m glad it has many rooms to explore, dark ones, big ones and they all take us to the same exit where there’s a sign that says “its joost wheski fur C…sake!!!”

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Jay Kro July 5, 2012 at 3:19 pm

You hit the nail right on the head. We malt heads owe a debt of gratitude to the casual blend drinker. Without their sustained support of the industry there would be none to produce single malts. And, let’s not forget, there are some phenomenal blends out there ready to be explored. Good article, and something that has needed to be said for some time.

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Tim F July 5, 2012 at 3:29 pm

Angus, did you mean infinitesimal or infantile? ;)

And just because we are passionate or committed to whisky doesn’t mean that we do or don’t matter at all except in a broader sense eg to our families and loved ones, who are after all far more important than anything we may get our knickers in a twist about on the net.

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WhiskyBrother Marc July 5, 2012 at 4:41 pm

Excellent point Oliver, and rightly published. I think many of us malt heads who engage online start developing a skewed perspective that we are abundant in numbers. But, as you’ve pointed out, we are by far the tiny minority and approaching insignificance. No need for us to have an inflated sense of purpose and snobbery. Let’s drink to enjoy, and enjoy what we drink, and let that be that :) Slainte.

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Angus July 5, 2012 at 5:10 pm

@ Tim: I think I collided somewhere in the middle :) Too much whisky I suppose. Or not enough…

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Magnus July 5, 2012 at 5:46 pm

So long as the whisky you are drinking is Scottish you cannot go far wrong.

The bar in my grandfather’s house opened at 10pm each night – 4 generous measures of Famous Grouse were consumed before he went to bed just after 11. He kept perfect health and died peacefully in his sleep aged 87.

Both blends and malts have their place in any drinker’s cabinet and neither are to be scoffed at.

I’m guessing you guys are mostly located in the States? If you ever come to Edinburgh get your bones to the Scottish Malt Whisky Society ( http://www.smws.co.uk/ ) who are bottling some great stuff at the moment in small batches.

This is my first time on this site – I am looking forward to looking around.

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Nick Sikorski July 5, 2012 at 9:23 pm

Not dure I can suite agree, I’m afraid. You see, I’ve always resented the argument put forward by the big brands, i.e. that without blends there would be no single malts. That’s just rubbish! To start with, historically, many of the oldest distilleries were originally set up to make just plain old whisky, and while they weren’t making single malt the way we know it today, neither were they making it for blending purposes. If most of the production of most distilleries goes into blends, it is the result of a conscious decision. Full stop. If Kilchoman multiplied by 100 it’s current peoduction and sent 95% into blends and then, 25, 50 or 100 years down the line told everyone that they should be grateful to blends for the 5% left i er to drink as single malt, I would like to think that most people would see the irony in their argument. With a very few exceptions, whisky in Scotland is an industry. And that means producing volume. In order to sell volume. And in order to ensure that you can produce and sell increasing quaantites, you have to create demand. While the price factor is undeniably important, you have to admit that people in emerging markets down really come looking for Scotch: they buy Scotch because they have been led to believe by international marketing departments and life-style gurus that it is a desirable product. The factthat is actually drinkable is only an added extra for many drinkzrs of Scotch throughout the world. As far as I am concerned, the creation and marketing of blendes Scotch had nothing to do with the need to made malt taste better, but a lot to do wih the desire to produce more and to make more money, quicker and easier. After all, in Cognac a “blend” is not a mix of grape brandy with potato spirit it’s just a blend of grape brandy from different chateaux. Most alcohols which have preserved their original base ingredients and are faithful to a specific terroir and to a specific method of production have done so because they either consciously rejected or never thought to consider the possibilities of going industrial and taking over the world (French bouilleurs de cru, producers of Cognac Armagnac, Italian Grappa etc. don’t blend different alcohols of different origins and yet they still exist). The genius of Scots like Walker resides in the fact that they did. And the beauty of distilleries like Kilchoman, Bruichladdich and Chichibu in the fact that they reject that possibility and concentrate almost entirely on single malts.

So I refuse to believe that a modern distillery needs to send 95% of its production to blends just to ensure that 5% remains a single malt. They could just as well make the 5% and not make the 95% (again, like Kilchomand, Bruichladdich etc.). Except that they want to. And they to make the money that goes with it…

Anyway, I’ll stop ranting ir you’ll run out of blog ;)

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Oliver Klimek July 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm

Ah, finally a bit of controversy. I was already wondering… ;)

Nowhere did I state “without blends there would be no single malts”. That would mean painting the picture all black and white. But without blends there would be less distilleres, and I think you can’t deny that. And without blends there would be far less independent bottlings, probably there wouldn’t be any independent bottlers at all since all distilleries would bottle their own single malts. Definitely there would be much less variety. And single malts are too expensive for such high volumes. And if there were no blends, do you really think they would sell their malts cheap enough to sell 90 million cases per year?

Neither did I write that a distillery NEEDS to work for blends, I mentioned the fact that now there are single malt only distilleries. But unless all 90-something distilleries cut down their production to 500,000 l per year or even less I see no way of all of them surviving.

The original reason for the introduction of blends is actually secondary. Could well be that the ‘bad quality’ of ancient malts was just a myth invented to increase blend sales. We are living today, and today it’s all about the money and everyone knows that.

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Oliver Klimek July 5, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Just a little followup to my last comment:

If single malts were more profitable than blends, I am positively sure the big distillers (names are exchangeable) would have concentrated on them. But blends have the better profit margin, so they concentrate on those. Good single malt profit margins can only be achieved with super duper ‘premium’ bottles which only have a very small market. The small guys stick to malts either because of ‘ideology’ or because they are simply too small to set up a profitable blend business which of course works best if you own everyting yourself.

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Nicholas Sikorski July 6, 2012 at 12:00 am

Controversy is my middle name, Oliver ;) It keeps things interesting..!

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Craig McGill July 6, 2012 at 2:02 am

Surely at the end of the day all that matters is the TASTE? If you enjoy a blend, brilliant. If you enjoy a malt, fantastic. There’s so many nice whiskies that I’d rather try them and make my own mind up than be dictated by something as simple as “it’s a blend or a malt”.

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Paul Dejong July 6, 2012 at 8:55 am

Great post, Oliver, and I agree entirely…
Nicholas rubs against the grain somewhat, although he does have a point.
However, i would like some clarification on this strange line: “As far as I am concerned, the creation and marketing of blendes Scotch had nothing to do with the need to made malt taste better, but a lot to do wih the desire to produce more and to make more money, quicker and easier. After all, in Cognac a “blend” is not a mix of grape brandy with potato spirit it’s just a blend of grape brandy from different chateaux.”
I read into this, that he compares cognac or brandy to blend, and stating that blends are different from cognac because they mix grain with potato-spirit?
Mixing different grape-sorts or mixing different grain-sorts is largely the same… and as far as i know, whisky is still made from grain (be it barley or rye, or wheat or maize…largely the same family) therefore comercial blends are entirely comparable to commercial cognac’s or brandy’s?
Or do i misunderstand something here?

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kallaskander July 6, 2012 at 10:16 am

Hi there,

the times they are a’changing…

when doing tastings two or three years ago I told the audience the same. Malts are the aroma giving part of blended whisky and they make only 3-5% of the world Scotch whisky market.
If it was not for blends some more malt distilleries would have been closed between 1983 and 1994 and many malts we can enjoy today ar still around because they contribute to blended whiskies. The single malts many distilleries bottle are an afterthought and make only 1 or 2% of their yearly production and some are not bottled by their owners as a single malt at all.

Today I tell the audience that single malt makes 10% of the world Scotch whisky market. That is a new official figure by the SWA if I remember right.
And there are distilleries like Glenrothes or Glenfarclas and some more who bottle up to 50% of their output as single malt today.
There are some who do not sell barrels of their whisky to blenders, others probably give away barrels only within the network of their parent company.

So the way single malts are seen handled and dealt with has changed. Their importance within the whisky market has changed and even if they are still only 10% of the 3.5 billion Pounds the Scotch whisky industry generated in 2011 that still is a princely sum that gives the single malt sector a standing of its own.

But of course the fact remains that single malts are the more expensive part of the blending industry and the boom time growth we can read about in the papers every day is motivated by the demand for single malts for blending.
On the other hand the likes of Macallan Ardbeg Glenmorangie…. is that for blending alone?

Greetings
kallaskander

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Jeffrey July 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Let us all not forget, SINGLE MALTS ARE BLENDS, unless they are single cask single malts.

Cheers,

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Scott Single Malt July 8, 2012 at 10:21 pm

Really enjoyed your blog. I suppose opinion is divided on the blends and single malts. Of course there’s a big difference between, say, Famous Grouse and a nice 12-yr-old Bowmore. But there are some great blends out there.

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aw July 11, 2012 at 11:05 am

I drank a boring blend for years before discovering single malts. How I wish a malthead had sneered at me – openly, to my face – years and years ago.

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Peter T August 19, 2012 at 8:07 am

We all started out as whisky virgins at one point or another. It’s just that some of us continued to travel a bit further down that whisky road until we hit our ideal point of interest. Others are quite happy staying behind and enjoying their ways. Who are we to judge?

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