Monday 04 April, 2016

The Future Belongs To Blended Scotch Whisky. There I said it.

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For the past 50 years or so since William Grant introduced Glenfiddich, the first marketed single malt Scotch whisky, “single malts” have dominated the dialogue about serious whisky appreciation worldwide, not-so-subtly pushing blended whiskies to a second-class category that has not always been warranted. But, owing probably to the popularity and thus growing scarcity of […]




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For the past 50 years or so since William Grant introduced Glenfiddich, the first marketed single malt Scotch whisky, “single malts” have dominated the dialogue about serious whisky appreciation worldwide, not-so-subtly pushing blended whiskies to a second-class category that has not always been warranted.

But, owing probably to the popularity and thus growing scarcity of age statement single malts, the blended category is receiving renewed attention and respect, and this brown spirits lover couldn’t be more happy. After all, single malts are being subject to more and more manipulation anyway (different barrel finishes, different filtering techiques, different aging environments, etc. etc.), beginning to test the argument of where that category begins and ends.

Blended Scotch whisky—which is the traditional method of finishing the product—seeks to combine qualities from a variety of sources and ages (both malt and grain) for the most consistent, highest quality expression. At least in theory, that’s a stronger statement of quality than saying “well this is the best we could do with this age limit, or this recipe, from this one pre-determined source.”

There’s a corollary to Champagne: whereas vintages may be held in higher esteem by drinkers/critics (often because of their scarcity and pricing as much as the actual product), but chefs du cave are generally prouder of their “non vintage” blends—because that is where their artistry actually shines.

Three blended Scotch whiskies I got to enjoy recently have convinced me this is a category that deserves serious attention, and more to the point, enjoyment.

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Just over a year ago, Cutty Sark introduced a “Prohibition Edition,” paying tribute to the origins of the brand’s name—the clipper ship captained by smuggler William McCoy (who inspired the catchphrase “The Real McCoy”)—that brought genuine Scotch to the US during the dry era. Yellow label Cutty Sark was a solid bar standard for decades before single malts edged it out, but this new bottling, 100 proof strong, in a black throwback-designed bottle with a cork stopper, is something on another level. The bottle emphasizes “massive notes of cracked black pepper and toffee with hints of vanilla,” while I got a nose of butterscotch and iodine, followed by a mouth (over ice) of soft peat, oak, cream soda and white pepper. Ice or a little water would be my strong recommendation for its best presentation—mixologists have been making lots of cocktails with it as they do with every new product, but with this, I think it’s a distraction. 50% abv. Retails around $29.99

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Clearly emphasizing its packaging, Black Bottle is a blend from Gordon Graham with an even more evocative carrier that instantly caught my attention the first time I saw it at Brooklyn’s Leyenda. Reintroduced in 2013 but claiming a “secret family” recipe that dates to the company’s 1879 origins, Black Bottle is the kind of product that you want to love and pursue with passion just for the romance that the design promises. The nose offers caramel and brown sugar, with a sour woody, and even slightly tinny element. On the mouth, oak, some peat, and lots of tobacco, black pepper and cinnamon dominate with less sweetness. 40% abv. Retails around $21.99

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Lastly, I was offered a sample of Usquaebach ‘old rare,’ another family blend with roots dating back to the 1700s, packaged in a classic style porcelain crock & cork stopper predating the use of glass. That’s a cute touch but the gimmickry can tend to even underserve the product itself. Said to be made from 41 single malts and two Highland grain whiskies aged in sherry oak hogshead casks in Glasgow, Usquaebach (simply the original Gaelic word that morphed into “whisky”) has a nose of wet wood, chocolate, salt and iodine giving way to a mouth of peat, white and green pepper, toffee, coffee and spun sugar. It is undoubtedly complex and compelling. 43% abv. SRP is $115.00

While Usquaebach was nice, it didn’t quite rise to the level that one might expect at that price point. By contrast, Black Bottle sadly underwhelmed me, although for the price, it wouldn’t be a bad cocktail whisky. Cutty Sark Prohibition turned out to be a surprise favorite that grew on me, definitely a value in its price category. I hope it sticks around, as it will help to re-legitimize blended Scotch whisky for a generation somewhat hooked on single malts.

 

 


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