Scotch blends: Whisky symbiosis

08 October, 2018

The rise of single malt scotch has dominated whisky conversations on the back of the craft explosion, but blended malts have just as interesting a story to tell, says Shay Waterworth


URCHIN CRABS IN THE Indonesian Ocean carry fire sea urchins on their back as a form of protection from predators while moving between coral reefs. In return for its security services, the urchin gets a free ride from one reef to another, without wasting energy. This is the sort of symbiotic relationship which single malt and blended scotch whisky have – a blend cannot exist without a variety of single malts, and many single malt distilleries make most of their money selling whisky for a blend.

But single malts have been elbowing their way into the scotch whisky category over the past 30 years, taking some of the market share away from blends. This is largely due to the diversity of different flavours on offer, from heavily peated Islay whiskies through to lighter Speyside ones. A lot of the momentum gathered by single malts has been connoisseur-led, but bartenders are increasingly playing a part. They like to be different and, having felt obliged to use the more mainstream blended scotch for so long, there has been a thirst for more unusual ‘craft’ whiskies, and single malts generally fit that description.

This rise of single malt scotch whisky has also been driven by experimentation such as Dr Bill Lumsden’s work with cask finishing at Glenmorangie, which has not only unlocked new opportunities in whisky, but in other spirits, such as rum. Despite this oasis of popularity, they’re still leagues behind blends internationally in terms of volumes. To highlight just how dominant the sales of blends are over single malts, only two of the 21 brands in the scotch section of this year’s Drinks International Millionaires’ Club were single malt brands. This long-riding success could make complacency tempting, but the reason top brands reach the pinnacle of their industry isn’t because they change nothing, but because they strive for improvement.

Dr Jim Beveridge joined Diageo in 1979 as a flavour chemist to investigate the origins of malt and grain flavour profiles. During his nearly 40 years with the company he has risen the ranks to master blender, looking after the Johnnie Walker range.

This role requires Beveridge to oversee more than 10 million barrels of whisky, which is more than there are people in Scotland.

Beveridge says: “Glenfiddich was leading the way for the single malt category back when I started with Diageo and it was definitely beginning to take off. Malts have obviously grown since then and I think they’re at a great advantage in that they come from a single source and often have amazing stories behind them. But what’s not understood for a lot of people is that there are more than 30 of these amazing stories within Johnnie Walker Black Label.

“I think if you were to fast forward from when I first joined to now, the traditions remain but the insights into the understanding of how the whisky is made is vastly improved. Nowadays everything is much more precise and done for a reason.”

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