In most drinks, purity equals perfection. Our favourite coffees are single-origin, and we like our vodka from distilleries that have been in the same location for 300 years. But there are some products for which a blend can be as good, if not better, than its individual parts. Nothing highlights this better than Scotch whisky.
In the world of Scotch, single malts have long enjoyed a hallowed reputation and preference over blended whisky. Often, this is because the drink’s place of distillation is known, whereas a blend has single malts and grain whisky from many different stills.
Dave Broom is one of Scotland’s leading whisky experts, and literally wrote the book about it. Broom believes that comparing single malts and blends is a mistake. In Sydney recently to judge the 2015 World Class finals, the affable Glaswegian says, “There are so many accepted blended products. For example, champagne, perfume and cigars. Why does it matter with whisky?” Broom says it shouldn’t. “There is no right or wrong, only different.”
There are two main historical events that Broom highlights as creating the drink we know today. The first happened in 1823, when the law outlawing whisky distillation in Scotland was relaxed. “All those Highlands distillers that had been illicit became licit,” says Broom. Although distillers were now allowed to produce a much greater volume of spirit, quality was erratic.
Enter the humble neighbourhood grocer, who, in 19th-century Scotland, blended many of the products they sold. For example, tea from China or Japan might be blended for a more consistent flavour. Distillers applied this knowledge to whisky and began to produce a product that was enthusiastically adopted by Scottish drinkers.
Just as important in the history of Scotch was the accidental introduction to continental Europe of a grape vines-killing aphid. At the same time as Scotland was embracing its blends, the most popular drink in London was cognac, a grape-based spirit from the French town of the same name. When the aphid decimated Cognac’s vineyards, the drink became scarce. It’s here that Scottish grocers again proved their ingenuity. Recognising the London market preferred to drink its spirit mixed with soda, grocers changed the flavours of their blends to suit dilution. The resultant drams were to the taste of the London scene and the now famous Scotch Highball was invented.
Such events showed the shopkeepers they were able to take a variety of products and create unique blends to suit different occasions. Thus a variety of blends were produced to appeal to the different tastes in London, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Australia, which was among the first overseas markets to import blended Scotch.
Recently, Broadsheet was lucky enough to sit in on one of Broom’s Beauty of the Blends workshops. During a tasting of the Johnnie Walker blends range, Broom discussed the different times when each might be consumed, for example, matching Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve with ice-cold water on a warm day.
Of all the insights we gained from Broom’s workshop, the one that sticks with us is the way he highlighted how Johnnie Walker’s house style is retained throughout the brand’s distinctly different blends. “Its like Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez,” Broom suggests. “They don’t look like each other, but they both look like Martin Sheen. If you get what I mean.”