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.