Scotch: Blends versus Single Malts

 

Are single malts inherently better than blends? This is a question I hear all the time and my immediate assumption is always, “yes they are.” However, I used to believe “water is the most important component of whisky,” and “age equals quality.” Now the message seems to be, “a majority of the flavor comes from the wood” and “age is irrelevant.” In short, the contradictory messages permeating the whisky industry leave me skeptical and unwilling to simply accept the inherent superiority of single malts over blends. Considering the subjective nature of the “quality” of flavor, the answer to the above question becomes even foggier.

There are two distinct ways to produce Scotch whisky. One method produces “grain whisky” and the other produces “single malt whisky.” The two most important differences between these two methods are the grain type and the still type. A distillery can produce grain whisky using any cereal grain. The definition of single malt requires the distillery to use malted barley. Grain whisky is produced in a column still and single malt is produced in a pot still. The latter difference, column versus pot still, is the one I want to focus on.

Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. Therefore, to produce whisky, distillers take a beer of roughly 8% alcohol by volume and heat the beer to a temperature where the alcohol turns to vapor but the water doesn’t. By collecting and condensing the alcoholic vapors the distiller greatly increases the concentration of alcohol (up to roughly 65-70% alcohol by volume). The column still produces pure alcohol (ethanol) efficiently. Conversely, the pot still is slower, less cost effective and tends to capture more fusil oils, aldehydes, esters and other “imperfect” alcoholic compounds called “congeners,” or simply, “the good stuff.” These congeners, particularly when they interact with wood and oxygen, increase the flavorful compounds in the whisky.

Blended scotch, such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label, can contain both grain whisky and single malt, while single malt whisky, not surprisingly, only contains single malt. This would seem to be a point in favor of single malt. However, greater diversity of flavor does not necessarily mean better flavor. For example, my girlfriend loves Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food. I am not a hooligan and prefer Häagen-Dazs vanilla. Which has more flavors? Probably the Phish Food, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is better.

Even if we believe higher malt content translates directly to higher quality, there are multiple types of blends, including “blended malt whisky” — scotch produced by blending a variety of single malts together. Meanwhile, the “single” in single malt whisky refers to a single distillery not an individual cask. In fact, most single malt whisky is a blend of casks of whisky from the same distillery.

So is there anything inherently better in the production of single malt bottlings compared to blended malt bottlings? I honestly don’t know…

Factoring in value further complicates the broader question. Aeneas Coffey invented the column still in the 1820s because it was much more cost effective. Business savvy Scotsmen quickly discovered they could blend much cheaper grain whiskies with big meaty single malts to produce a very balanced, good tasting and affordable whisky. The adoption of column stills and the advent of blended whisky is one of the main reasons Scotch whisky rapidly overtook Irish whisky in the mid-19th century. Single malt really became a serious whisky category in the last 35 years. It was previously seen as a drink for the esoteric and the snooty.

In the 1970s and 80s, the broader whiskey category underwent a grim downturn. Many of the privately owned distilleries were consolidated under rather large liquor conglomerates, leaving big spirits companies with aging stocks of increasingly high-cost single malt. Fortunately, a premium spirits market started to bud and eventually blossom. People began spending more money on higher quality products and age-stated single malt satiated the growing demand beautifully. It was more expensive to produce, it had provenance and it had great depth of flavor.

Simultaneously, the consumer’s palate changed and has continued to change. The whisky drinker previously favored smooth, clean, easy-to-drink whisky. “Smooth” is now the great, ambiguous and ultimately underhanded compliment for a whisky. We want big, brash, peaty sherry-bombs. Of course, what came first the peaty chicken or the marketing egg? Who is leading whom, the marketer or the consumer?

And let’s also consider the following: how come one of scotch’s counterparts, Japanese whisky, doesn’t suffer the same stigma surrounding blended scotch? When is the last time you heard someone say, “I don’t drink Hibiki, it’s a blend?” Additionally, honestly answer yourself this question – given five scotches do you think you could separate the blends from the single malts?

It appears I am arguing that blends are just as good as single malts and that we are all fools for worshipping and paying more for single malts. Truthfully, I still love and prefer single malts and I think they are better. We don’t drink whisky blind or in a vacuum. The provenance and context of a whisky matter. For a majority of blends, you don’t know how it was made, where it is was made, who made it or what it is in it. Your frame of reference for enjoying the whisky is quite narrow. Conversely, with single malt you know all of the above and you can familiarize yourself with the distilleries’ underlying signatures. Every Mortlach you have, reminds you of other Mortlachs. There is context. Some blends, like Compass Box, certainly have context, but for the most part the origin and the contents of blended bottles of whisky are unknown and seriously… what the hell would I do with that? Just drink it? Lame.