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American Blended Whisky – Exploring Terra Incognita

by Oliver Klimek on August 24, 2014

The United States of America are currently suffering an unprecedented bourbon and craft whisky craze. But there is a type of American whisky that is almost unkown here in Europe: American blends.

The global reputation of Scotch whisky has been founded on blends that could be cheaply produced in large quantities. But Americans have kept their blends for themselves. Here it is bourbon which is the main product for export, and big brands like Jim Beam and Jack Daniel’s are just as well-known around the globe as Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal.

But there is a big difference between Scottish and American blended whiskies. Scotch blends are made from various grain and malt whiskies that all have matured in oak casks for at least three years. American blends on the other hand are a mixture of typically 70%+ neutral grain spirit (which is also sold on its own in incarnations like Everclear) and regular American whisky. Most likely this is also the reason why American blends have not been able to compete with Scotch on the global whisky market.

Today most American whisky is “straight” which means it has been matured for at least two years in fresh charred oak barrels, bourbon and rye being the most popular types. American blends only have a small share of the US whisky market today, but in earlier decades blends were the dominating whisky type.

Because of the production method American blended whisky is very cheap and has always been bottom shelf material. Some brands are quite old nevertheless and appear to have a loyal following.

Joshua Feldman, a New Jersey based whisky fanatic who runs the Coopered Tot whisky blog, was kind enough to send me some whisky samples that included four different US blends from both current and “dusty” bottlings. Here is how they taste like:

seven-and-seven-1974Seagram’s 7 – Current bottling – 40%

Colour: Dark amber
Nose: Spirity, some vanilla and vague oak notes, caramel, hints of cinnamon and pepper.
Palate: Vanilla and caramel, hints of dissolved gummy bears, mild spices, very sweet.
Finish: Medium long, sweet and spirity.
Overall: Apart from being much too sweet, almost like a liqueur, the taste is not exactly unpleasant but there really is not much worth noting in there.

Rating: 48/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your Money $$$$$

 

l-9qiuclepy6dx1lWilson – Current bottling – 40%

Colour: Bright amber
Nose: Spirity, some vanilla and vague oak notes, caramel, hints of cinnamon and pepper (virtually the same as the Seagram’s 7)
Palate: Vanilla and caramel dominate again, the slight fruitiness appears more natural, stronger wood spice with a hint of pepper.
Finish: Medium long, slightly dry and slightly spicy.
Overall: This is not quite as sweet as Seagram’s 7 and a little spicier which makes it slightly less unenjoyable.

Rating: 52/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your money $$$$$

 

l-ycc139glbhrfimFleischmann’s Preferred 90 – Early 1990s bottling – 45%

Colour: Bright amber
Nose: Spirity, some vanilla and vague oak notes, caramel, hints of cinnamon and pepper (virtually the same as the Wilson)
Palate: Very sweet, even more than the Seagram’s, vanilla and caramel as expected. Not much else.
Finish: Rather short and sweet.
Overall: Under a layer of sticky sweetness we find…. nothing.

 

Rating: 43/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your money $$$$$

imperial-whiskey-e28093-the-imp-next-door-1975Imperial – Late 1980s bottling – 40%

Colour: Medium amber
Nose: Not quite as spirity as the others but with the same vanilla and vague oak notes, orange zest, hints of cinnamon and pepper
Palate: Yet again vanilla and caramel, but with a definite touch of orange zest. The spices are well balanced, mild with a minimal peppery sting
Finish: Medium long, fruity and slightly spicy.
Overall: This definitely is the winner of the pack. It tastes actually quite nice despite the high grain spirit content, which hints to a high quality base whisky

Rating: 65/100 – Price Tag $$$$$ – Value for your money $$$$$

Summary

Even though they consist mostly of neutral spirit, the whisky DNA is well noticeable in all four blends. The Imperial shows that it is actually possible to make an ok-ish whisky with this blending method, but generally blandness and sweetness is it what appears to define this category.

Yet in a way this comparison did not do the whiskies justice because I tasted them neat. They are not meant to be drunk neat, and in advertising they are almost universally shown as old-fashioneds, highballs or on the rocks.

So as the Wilson sample was very generous I decided to try it on the rocks as well. I can see that despite its blandness this type of whisky has its place in the market, as an utterly unoffensive alcoholic refresher on hot days for people who really only desire just a hint of taste.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Feldman August 24, 2014 at 1:50 pm

Bingo! As usual, you nailed the flavor profiles. American blended whisky mixed with soda and ice in a highball makes a sort of “whiskey-beer” which is light and refreshing. This appealed to the same American gastronomy that preferred Wonder Bread to local bakery granary bread, canned coffee to fresh roasted, and light pale American psedo-pilsner beer to any of the fuller flavored beers Americans drank pre-Prohibition. Why were American mid-century tastes so bland? I suspect it had to do with a desire for conformity and social belonging. Large numbers of immigrants were assimilating and rising economically from immigrant ghettos. Regimentation in WWII extended to coffee-klatch and Elk’s club social organizations in the newly-born suburbia. A new culinary tradition was ready made in the canned food and RTE K-rations of the military and the new industrialized agribusiness/supermarket economy that had just replaced small downtown local markets and inner-city immigrant ghetto food stores which catered to the now-unfashionable immigrant foods of the old country (typically Italy and Russia/Poland in that era). The bland homogenized food palate that resulted was a cultural culinary “pidgeon” language, keyed for broad acceptance, low (democratic) cost for a unionized lower middle class continent-spanning behemoth. Blended whiskey of the GNS loaded American fashion is a perfect expression of this aesthetic. As Chuck Cowdery notes in “Bourbon Strange”, ‘most of the people still drinking Seven and Seven are the same people who were drinking it in 1975’.

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Josh Feldman August 24, 2014 at 2:05 pm

I’d also add that the culinary renaissance that has brought tastes for stronger flavored foods to America (and also, Canada and England and much of the West) over the past quarter century – as marked by the rise of Starbuck’s coffee, nouvelle cuisine, authentic Italian style food (as epitomized by Marcella Hazan’s cookbooks) and hot sauce – has also engendered the new American whiskey boom. Like all these new epicurean trends, the emphasis is on full flavor and authentic roots. So the new whiskey boom is all about the rich flavors favored in earlier eras. In America that means straight bourbon – the older and richer the better. Blended American whiskeys have nothing to say to this new palate, which explains their loss in popularity and market share. To which I say “good riddance”.

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Thom January 22, 2015 at 4:18 am

Great summary – although there is something to be said for the light, airy taste of an American Blended whisky on a hot summer day in a highball glass with lots of ice and a splash of soda or ginger ale. Very refreshing.

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