Blend Ambition

Blended Scotch whisky brands are releasing premium products in a bid for high-end supremacy

WORDS Laura Foster
May / June 2019
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The whiskies of Scotland have long been a favorite of discerning tipplers, with varying flavors dictated by the area in which they are made: rich and fruity in Speyside, on the country’s east coast; soft and smooth in the Lowlands of the south; smoky and peaty on the Hebridean isle of Islay. While single malts (originating from a single distillery) have long reigned supreme among collectors, blended brands (those deriving from multiple distilleries) are fighting back, creating ever-more-premium expressions in their bid for the luxe end of the market.

Recently, Johnnie Walker released its oldest whisky to date, the 50-year-old John Walker Masters’ Edition, a limited-edition (100-bottle) blend that comes in an angular black Baccarat crystal decanter—itself housed in a box made by N.E.J. Stevenson, cabinetmakers to Queen Elizabeth II—with a sticker price of $25,000.

“The whisky conversation is—or should be—about flavor. There are some really good single malts, but there are also genuinely incredible blended whiskies,” says Johnnie Walker master blender Jim Beveridge. “I tend to think about specific types of whisky as building blocks of flavor that could be combined to craft something truly special.”

Since the complex flavors of blends are a result of artful mixing, the choice of these so-called building blocks is vital. “The blends we make are drawn from amazing reserves of maturing Scotch, and use some of the finest single-malt and -grain whiskies in the world to find the right balance of flavors,” Beveridge says. “Often, it’s in bringing together different flavors, characters and textures that you begin to unlock hidden depths in all of the individual whiskies—and that’s the exciting bit.”

But what makes a blend superpremium? “For a lot of consumers, age is very important. People can relate to that,” says Sandy Hyslop, director of blending and inventory at Chivas Brothers, which owns the Royal Salute, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s blended whisky brands. “But more important is the quality of your distilling and cask. When you look at something like Royal Salute 21 Year Old, the influence of the cask on the final product’s flavor is over 50 percent—the flavor is coming from the cask it’s sat in for 21 years.”

John Glaser, a former Johnnie Walker employee who went on to create the Compass Box brand, believes that superpremium blends are often judged on “price and packaging, from an industry perspective,” adding, “They’re not always thinking as much about the liquid in the bottle.

“From a whisky enthusiast’s perspective,” Glaser continues, “it’s stuff that’s made in small quantities and is really good. It’s a compelling liquid. Very often they’ll look beyond the packaging and price.”

Blended whisky has also seen some exciting developments. Johnnie Walker’s Blue Label Ghost and Rare series, launched in 2017, includes whiskies from closed (or “ghost”) distilleries like the lionized Port Ellen and Brora. In 2016, Chivas Regal released its first blended malt, Ultis, allowing fans to explore the characteristics of the five distilleries in the blend. And Compass Box turned convention on its head by creating its Three Year Old Deluxe, which contains only 0.4 percent Clynelish three-year-old, which is mixed with Talisker and a much older Clynelish that makes up 90 percent of the recipe.

Luxe blended whisky isn’t a new development, however. Royal Salute was launched in 1953 to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. According to Hyslop, creating the blends for this brand is particularly challenging: “For the 38 Year Old, we’ll have a look at our inventory, draw 300 cask samples, and build the blend in miniature. Once you’ve put a blend together at 38 years old and it’s not right, you don’t have the stocks to put it right.” 

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