The Birth of Blended Scotch

Watering HoleI was at one of my favorite watering holes, one that I had convinced to carry one of my all-time favorite single malt Scotches: The Dalmore King Alexander III. I waited in anxious anticipation of the first sublime sip of this delightful dram. I brought it to my lips and . . . something was off. I couldn’t taste the dried fruits, the plum, the playful flavors I was so in love with.

What was wrong? I hadn’t had anything particularly pungent to eat, and that had been hours ago in any case. I thought maybe the glass hadn’t been thoroughly rinsed. An aftertaste of soap, maybe? I had the bartender give another glass a detailed cleaning and tried again. Same results. Well, maybe it was me. Upon returning home, I pulled out my personal bottle and, ahhhhhh, that’s the stuff. So what happened?

The truth of the matter is no two bottles of whiskey are ever truly the same. In fact, the historical lack of consistency from bottle to bottle is what gave rise to the mighty global whisky juggernaut known as Johnnie Walker! So how does my off-bottle of The Dalmore contribute to the rise of one of the world’s first truly global brands of any kind? Glad you asked!

Let’s start with the basic building block of Scotch: the grains. Scotch can be made with malted barley, corn, wheat, or other gains, but it is made with just a single type of grain in addition to malted barley. This is different than the American method of mixing grains willy-nilly before fermenting. If a whisky from a single distillery is made entirely from malted barley, it is a “single malt.” If it is made from anything else, it is a “single grain.” Keep in mind that the term “single” is in reference to a single distillery. Single grain Scotch may contain multiple types of grain.

Single malts were pretty much it in 1800’s Scotland. Unfortunately, just like me, people noticed that consistency from bottle to bottle was iffy. The variation back then was particularly drastic, however.

Little Johnnie Walker was dismayed by this horrible state of affairs and vowed to make a lot of money a better whisky. At the time, Mr. Walker was having a go of it mixing teas, so he thought, why not whisky? He took all these single malts and blended them together to create a new whisky. By blending he could even out the variations so that each of his bottles would taste the same. Or at least very similar.

Scotch Categories

Today blends come in three varieties as defined by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). The largest (judged by sales) is just “blended.” In addition to the single malts, these blends also contain grain whiskies to one degree or another. Johnnie Walker Red Label has 30 different whiskies in its blend. There’s also a smaller blend category called “blended malt.” This is actually a relatively new category, having only been recognized in 2009 (Not to say people hadn’t been making it before then, though). These whiskies are blends of only single malts from different distillers. No grain whisky allowed. Some popular examples include Glenfidddich, The Dalmore, and The Macallan.

The third blend category is “blended grain,” which, as you might expect, is a mixing of single grain whiskies from different distillers. Compass Box has a blended grain expression called “Hedonism.” Add it all up and you have a total of five categories of Scotch as shown in the chart above produced by the SWA.

The main goal of blends is consistency in taste. Anywhere in the world, from a bottle bought today or ten years ago, it will taste the same. That’s the goal, anyway. Johnnie Walker proudly proclaims on its top shelf Blue Label, “Guaranteed the Same Quality Throughout the World.”

Blenders blending
Blenders blending

Blended Scotch Whisky is the biggest selling whiskey category worldwide, and Johnnie Walker leads the pack by a large margin. Other notable Scotch blends are Chivas Regal, J&B, Cutty Sark, Dewar’s, and Famous Grouse.