5 Things I’ve Learned About…Blended Scotch Whiskey

The September 2011 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine is out, and it includes (among other things) my review column on Blended Scotch Whiskey.  You can pick up a copy at the newsstand, or view it in digital format on Zinio.  Here’s what I learned:

1. We hear constantly about single malt Scotches, but not much about blends. Some of them are pretty darn good. (of course, some not so much.)

2. What is blended Scotch?  The Scotch Whisky Association provides downright draconian guidelines. For starters, It comes from Scotland.  Yes, this seems obvious, but I think it bears noting that the “blend” doesn’t mean whiskey from other countries can be blended in there. It’s all Scotch whisky (the Scots drop the ‘e’), and it must be distilled and aged in Scotland. However — it may be bottled in other countries.

3.  (aka “2a”) There’s at least one Single Malt Scotch in blended Scotches. The pesky SWA has more to mandate here: Blended Scotch mixes together one or more Single Malt Scotches, often with one or more Single Grain Scotches. For this tasting, blends ranged up to 40 different whiskies in a single bottle (that was Johnny Walker Black Label). A blend that contains only Single Malts is called a Blended Malt Scotch Whisky.

4. (aka “2b”) Wait, so now I have to figure out the difference between Single Malt and Single Grain Scotches? Damn you, SWA. Fine:

–Malt whiskey is made from malted barley (grain that’s been germinated or sprouted), and is distilled in old-fashioned pot stills, considered an essential part of the whisky’s flavor and character.

–By comparison, grain whisky, which mixes together malted barley with unmalted grains (primarily corn), is distilled in a continuous still – a more efficient technology than old-school pot stills, but many experts say the resulting liquor is correspondingly less flavorful.

(*Screeching to a halt*)  You know what?  I’m changing my “what I learned” points here:

3. (Revised) The Scotch Whisky Association is a pain in the butt.

4. (Revised)  It’s a good thing that I have a copy of Gaz Regan’s “Bartender’s Bible” to help clarify the finer points of Scotch nuisance appreciation.

5. Where was I before that peevish digression? Right. Bartenders are understandably reluctant to mix rare Single Malts into cocktails. But they are less skittish about mixing more readily available –and often more affordable– blended Scotches into classic drinks like the Blood and Sand or the Bobby Burns.

…Or to create original new cocktails. In fact, at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic in May, bartender Jason Asher created the Northshore Cocktail for my “Whiskey is the New Black” seminar, made with Peat Monster from Compass Box. It turned out to be a lovely, smoky riff on the tiki genre. Here’s the recipe. Enjoy, and be sure to to curse, I mean toast, the SWA when you drink.

Northshore Cocktail

By Jason Asher

1/2 ounce Hum liqueur

3/4 ounce Monin almond or orgeat syrup

1/2 ounce lime juice

3/4 ounce Peat Monster whiskey

Serve on rocks, garnish w/ lemon peel

How did they get the spice in my whiskey?

Photo courtesy of tienvijftien on Flickr

First, it was spiced schnapps, and then spiced rum. Now, I’m seeing a handful of spiced whiskeys trickling on to the market. I blogged about one of them, Fireball Whiskey, a few weeks back…and it’s turned out to be one of the most popular search terms on this site recently. (who knew?) And lately, I’ve been hearing rumblings about Revelstoke spiced whiskey, though I’ve not yet sampled it.

But guess what? Not every spirit needs to rely on artificial flavorings for spice. Recently, I attended an event hosted by Compass Box, a brand noted for its blended Scotches and stylish packaging. Although the party was to celebrate the rollout of the smoky/sweet Flaming Heart product, the newest addition to the family, it was the other brothers & sisters that captured my attention. The Spice Tree, as the name suggests, has bold cardamom, ginger and vanilla notes, while the rich Hedonism whiskey won me over with its lingering cinnamon and toffee finish.

(I think I shocked the U.S. Brand Ambassador, the charmingly named Robin Robinson, when I was able to accurately pick out the exact spices for each bottling. “Good palate,” he said approvingly.  He didn’t know that I have bags of spices in my desk drawer.)

So if nothing is added to the Scotch, how do they get the spices in there?  Robinson says it’s all about choosing barrels with the right wood (the Spice Tree blend is first aged in American oak, followed by a rest in heavy-toasted new French oak barrels), and aging it for the right period of time (for Spice Tree, that’s somewhere betwen 10 and 12 years). 

I don’t consider myself a whiskey expert, although I’m learning fast. And one of the things I’ve learned is I prefer delicate and spicy whiskies to smoky/”peaty” versions. But I seem to be in the minority:  smoky Scotches in particular seem to be all the rage now. I asked John Glaser, the Compass Box whiskymake, why people love the smoky stuff.

“It hits you over the head with flavor,” he explained. “But it’s an acquired taste. I use the analogy of hot sauce — once you get used to it, everything else will be boring forever more. Once you get there you don’t go back.”