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I love blended whisky

Henry is writing a celebratory book of alcohol and the often surprising British origins of various spirits and wines throughout history. Here he muses about whisky distilling and drinking

Henry Jeffreys Empire of Booze

When one reads about whisky it is invariably single malts that get all the attention. Whisky writers go into raptures at the latest ultra-peaty monsters from Ardbeg or Laphroaig. Malts like these are drinks that make you go ‘wow!’ or ‘how much?’ when increasingly I want one that makes me go ‘mmmmmm.’ For this one needs a blend.

Blended whiskies are by far the biggest part of the global Scotch whisky market making up 92% of sales. Many famous distilleries were founded specifically to provide whisky for these blends. Nowadays most distilleries are owned by drinks giants in order to provide a consistent supply of whisky for their blends i.e. Strathisla is owned by Chivas Regal and provides the backbone to their whiskies. So without the blends most single malts would not exist. Pioneered by Glenfiddich, single malts were only bottled and marketed separately in the 1960s.

Many British people are a bit sniffy about blends but for most of modern whisky’s history blends were whisky. Blends were created by grocers and merchants in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London in order to sell whisky to Lowland Scots and Englishman. The single distillery whiskies were thought much too uncouth for anything but Highland palates (some might say they still are.) Different blends were created for different parts of the country, peatier for Glasgow, lighter for London.

Until the late 19th century, whisky was very much a British phenomenon, drunk in the British Isles and around the Empire. Two disasters, one natural and one manmade, made it go global. The first one was the devastation of European vineyards by phylloxera. This tiny louse from America ate away at vine roots and slowly killed them. It spread from a greenhouse in England to France where it obliterated grape-growing in Bordeaux and from there the rest of Europe. This crisis presented an opportunity for whisky producers. They were soon selling vast quantities of whisky to the great brandy-drinking nations, Spain, Holland and France. France is still the second biggest export market for Scotch after the US.

It was in the US where the manmade disaster happened: I’m talking, of course, about Prohibition. Before 1919 most whisky drunk in the US would have been American, with the 18th Amendment, canny Scots saw an opportunity. Exports to Canada and the Caribbean went through the roof. The whisky was then smuggled into the US through intermediaries. It was a boom time in Scotland. Special lighter blends were created for the American market such as Cutty Sark created by the wine merchants Berry Bros and J&B created by their rivals across St. James’s street, Justerini & Brooks. After prohibition was repealed, blended Scotch consolidated it’s dominant in the US and went on to conquer the rest of the world. In the Far East, Russia, Brazil and the US – blended Scotch is still king.

The best blends contain a high percentage of quality malts. Big brands do not mean bad whisky. The good ones are of astonishingly high quality containing some old rare malts. Marrying whiskies as disparate as Macallan and Highland Park into a harmonious blend is a difficult business. That is exactly what the master blender does at Famous Grouse – Scotland’s bestselling whisky. The best analogy for blended whiskies would be a Grand Marque champagne such as Bollinger non-vintage. At Bollinger they have to blend wines from different years, different grapes and different vineyards into an unchanging product. They are not going for big strange flavours but something elegant, luxurious and distinctly Bollinger. The house style is all; just the same with Scotch.

There’s an episode of Curb your Enthusiasm where Larry David’s wife Cheryl buys Larry’s agent Jeff Green a bottle of whisky to thank him for getting her a part in the Vagina Monologues. And what was the whisky? – Johnnie Walker Blue Label of course. Brands such as these are a currency understood around the world and the quality has never been better. Next time you’re in a bar, don’t be a single-malt anorak, go for blend.

Henry Jeffreys is writing a history of Britain told through alcohol, Unbound Empire of Booze . Unbound is crowdfunding the book which tells the tale of the often surprising British origins of various spirits and wines throughout history. A wine expert, Henry is the wine columnist for The Lady magazine, has his own blog (World of Booze Blog) and was a founding member of the London Review of Breakfasts website. This book promises to be a funny and heartfelt look at the British legacy of alcohol, and will explain how a nation came to be an empire of booze.

28 April 2014