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.

The American Future: Single Malt

Zach pulling single malt samples with distiller Marco

Bourbon’s renaissance began in the early 2000’s, and 2010 marked the beginning of the rye resurrection. So what about this next decade? Will it be American single malt?

In 2000, roughly 50 U.S. distilleries made bourbon or rye. Now it is closer to 1,500 distilleries. Coupled with the rush to increase capacity at the historic distilleries, we can expect a glut of high-quality, “traditional” American whiskey hitting the market in the coming years. The available space for American whiskey entrepreneurs (who rely heavily on novelty and differentiation) is skewed heavily towards the single malt category.

The timing is perfect. The international single malt category changed dramatically over the last decade. Single malt is no longer seen as exclusively a product of Scotland. Excellent, internationally recognized single malt is now produced in Taiwan, India, Wales, Australia, France, Israel and Japan. More importantly, the shortage in aged scotch and Japanese whisky is forcing a corresponding shift in the marketing of those two categories. The steady, booming “age equals quality” mantra is now an antiquated buzz, greatly easing the pressure off of young distilleries as they bring product to market. They are no longer forced to contend with inexpensive 10 – 15 year old whiskies.

Meanwhile, Westland, Balcones, Stranahan’s, Tuthilltown and Boston Harbor Distillery (among others) are creating momentum for American single malt, helping establish the infrastructure for the entire category. Soon we will see “American Single Malt” in stores and on bar menus. International spirits competitions such as the World Whiskies Awards and the International Whisky Competition already have a “Best American Single Malt” category.

The United States grows its own barley, has its own peat and has excellent cooperages. From a climate standpoint, the United States possesses immense regional diversity, endowing the United States with the opportunity for equally immense stylistic breadth. Furthermore, compared to bourbon, the category is substantially less restrictive. So… while we don’t have the history yet, the category will blossom in this coming decade.

Small Batch Limited Edition with Brent Elliott

This past April, Zach and I visited Brent Elliott, master distiller of Four Roses. I asked Brent about the Small Batch Limited Edition (SBLE) and the process of making the limited release whiskeys. It was incredibly eye opening. The Four Roses Small Batch Limited Edition is my perennial favorite limited release bourbon and I’ve always wondered how exactly Brent makes it.

I had a lot of questions for him. How do you sift through so many barrels of aging whiskey? How do you know when it is ready? Where do you even begin? The following is a synopsis of the process itself along with some insights into what they were trying to accomplish with previous releases and what they have in store for us this year.

Small Batch Limited Edition Nick Taylor and Brent Elliott in the Lab

Setting Aside the Good Stuff

To understand how Brent’s team selects the right barrels of whiskey for SBLE, it is important to grasp how Four Roses lays down whiskey on a day-to-day basis.

Four Roses has a high-rye mashbill and a medium-rye mashbill (35% rye and 20% rye, respectively) and five different yeast strains (V, K, O, Q & F) that combined allow for 10 distinct recipes, all made at the same distillery. Four Roses rotates which recipe they are producing and barreling every day, laying the whiskey down in batches. They put the barrels of each batch in the same location within the warehouse. While no two barrels of bourbon are the same, Four Roses controls for the recipe, the distillation run and location of the batch within the warehouse, allowing the barrels in each batch to have consistent, distinct qualities.

As the quality control team samples the whiskey over the years, they mark superb batches to be reserved for SBLE. It is a brilliant way of sorting and managing thousands and thousands of barrels. Really, the process of making SBLE starts years before they begin working on the concept or the blend itself.

Where to Begin

On a conceptual level, Brent and his team look to innovate and divert from previous expressions while retaining the signature mellow, balanced and rich aspects of Four Roses bourbon. The 125th Anniversary Edition, released in 2013, was the exception to the rule. Brent explained, “We generally try to do something different every year, but in 2012, it was so well-received, we decided to make 2013 similar to 2012 because people were bummed they didn’t get it. So we used some of the same batch. We were looking for the rich and spicy V and K yeast flavors, really looking for balance, elegance and no dominant characteristics.”

Not only did Four Roses create a similar blend, they also nearly tripled the production from 2012 to 2013, increasing from a 4,200-bottle release to a 12,000-bottle release. They’ve since stayed around that production level.

Finding the Right Batches

In a given year, 20 to 25 different batches of barrels are ready to be blended into SBLE. The quality control team pulls samples from each batch, and Brent and his team select 6 to 10 of the ripest batches from which to work. Brent spends several weeks getting intimately familiar with each selected batch before picking the batch or pair of batches that will act as the foundational piece of the blend.

Picking a Direction

Once Brent finds a superb batch, he considers how he can fill in the blend around the foundational piece. This is the most impressive aspect of the entire process. This part of the process reveals and takes advantage of the master distiller’s experience and ability. It requires the highest level of creativity, intuition and familiarity with the whiskeys and how blending different recipes will manifest certain flavor combinations. It is like watching a composer create and orchestrate a symphony. He must understand how all the different pieces fit together around a common theme in order to produce a masterpiece.

Brent usually has four or five different directions he can take the whiskey, so he and his team experiment and make initial test blends in search of the right path. For example, Brent explained that in the 2016 release, “We found a great OESO and a great OBSV and both had such nice fruit. It was really something we had never tried before. We pretty much never had any success with V and O character, never done it at all. I knew it would be one where everyone would like it but it was a little more polarizing. I felt like anyone who liked the strong fruit flavor was going to absolutely love it.”

Iteration after Iteration

Once Brent and his team pick a direction, it becomes a process of refinement and iteration. They must get the right combination and ratio of barrels from each recipe. This process varies greatly from year to year. The 2015 only required 15 test blends. Brent told me, “It was one of those great moments where it just spoke to us.” Conversely, the 2014 was not nearly as cooperative. They cycled through roughly 80 test blends before settling on a final product, almost missing their deadline.

The Future

Four Roses will release two special editions this year. While the regular 2017 release will not be a huge deviation from previous releases, the Al Young 50th Anniversary Edition (which should come out this month) went in a whole new direction. Brent told me, “Al was adamant to go out on a limb and try something different. He wanted to use some older barrels. We found some barrels from 1994 that are very good. We tried throwing in some of those and some F’s. Some F’s get to 13 years and get raspberry and aged fruit. This one has some real unique, nuanced aged-fruit character. I couldn’t be happier with it.”

Conclusion

The most intriguing aspect has to be the amalgamation of the creative and intuitive components of the process with the scientific, almost regimental, components. Brent explained how he has learned over the years to trust the process in order to allow himself to be creative with the whiskeys at hand. It illustrates that whiskey making is just as much a scientific process as it is an elusive art form. It makes tasting the SBLE all the more exciting. I cannot wait for this year’s releases.

Why I buy Independently Bottled Single Malts on Auction Sites… to drink.

If you ever go onto a wine and spirits auction website and look at the single malt scotches you may notice an interesting trend – official bottlings (OBs) sell for much more than independent bottlings (IBs). The reason is very simple, people believe that distilleries will only sell their “reject” casks to independent bottling companies. While this assumption is false, at face value it makes sense. Why would a distillery sell a great cask of whisky to an independent bottler? The answer to that question is hidden in the nature of the blending industry.

When visiting distilleries in Scotland, I noticed a trend. Almost all of the distilleries were casking whisky at 63.5%ABV or 127 proof. I would ask why and the tour guide or distillery manager would say, “whisky ages the best at 63.5%.” This was the answer no matter the peating level, the still size, the number of distillations, etc. This seemed strange and eventually I discovered the truth. When big blending houses need whisky from a distillery belonging to a different company, they don’t buy the whisky, they trade for it and they do so in huge parcels. If Dewars wants 500 casks of Linkwood and Johnnie Walker wants 500 casks of Craigellachie, they trade casks. The taxes are simplified because they were all casked at the same ABV.

When they make these trades there is too much whisky to sample. The blenders are not picking and choosing which whiskies to sell nor are they picking which whiskies to keep. It is a very simple transaction. But now Dewars has 500 casks of Linkwood. As blenders they aren’t necessarily looking for exceptional whisky. They are looking for a consistent flavor profile for their blends. Because of the natural variation in flavors imparted by the oak cask, any number of those Linkwood casks may not fit the profile they need for their blend. So they could have 50, 100 or even 150 casks of whisky without the necessary flavor for Dewars. So Dewars sells these casks to a “barrel broker.”

This is where the independent bottlers come in. They go directly to the barrel broker and they buy the best casks available. Sometimes they recask the whisky, sometimes they lay it down and age it longer and sometimes they take it right to market. The IBs are looking for unique and exceptional casks of whisky, while the blenders are looking for a consistent building block for their labels. As such, independent bottlers often produce better Mortlachs, Linkwoods, Caol Ilas and so on than the distilleries where those whiskies were made. In fact, the best Glenlivet I ever had was the Signatory Cask Strength Glenlivet 1981 32yr.

I still prefer to go with IBs that I trust, such as Gordon & MacPhail, Duncan Taylor, Signatory or AD Rattray, among others, but if I am buying a Port Ellen or a Brora I’d rather pay hundreds than thousands for a whisky that will usually drink just as well if not better than the OB.