In the world of whisky, the single malt gets all the glory. However, the success of recently released old and rare whisky blends — whether from malt or grain or both — proves that other categories of Scotch whisky deserve attention as well.
As 90 per cent of the whisky sold across the world is blended, the category has earned the reputation of being cheaper and of lesser quality. But before distilleries started marketing a unique house style, and single malt gained its present status, every distillery contributed to one or even many of the main blended brands. Most still do.
Nathaniel Ganapathi, better known as Nate Gana, a Japanese-Malaysian whisky consultant in Vancouver, says dismissing all blends is a mistake.
“There are some amazing blends out there, especially with a brand like Johnnie Walker, whose parent company Diageo owns so many incredible distilleries (Caol Ila and old Port Ellen, for example) that go into its blends,” he says. “Blue Label Ghost & Rare is on par with, if not better than, a significant percentage of single malts available today.”
There is a lot of ambiguity in Scotch whisky terminology, so let us clarify: single malt is made at one distillery only using malted barley while single grain whisky is created at one distillery using other grains rather than malted barley. Blended malt whisky is a combination of single malts from various distilleries, while blended grain whisky uses grain whiskies from different distilleries. Lastly, blended whisky combines malt whisky and grain whisky.
The master blender decides how many single malts and grains to use, from which distilleries, and in what proportions. Selecting which cask the blend should go into and how long it should stay there are equally important. Producing the perfect blend is as much an art as it is a science, and requires an excellent palate and memory, years of experience, and an understanding of each distillery’s individual style. Also required is an uncanny sense of intuition regarding how blended flavours will marry over time, hopefully creating a symphony rather than cacophony of tastes.
The diversity of options in Scotch whisky, along with the delicious potential for old and rare blends, is brilliantly reflected in the new collections from House of Hazelwood, which releases an on-going series of small-batch bottlings from the Gordon family’s private collection. The Gordons own William Grant & Sons, which produces a range of spirits including Hendrick’s Gin and much-loved Glenfiddich and Balvenie single malts. Furthermore, the family owns the largest inventory of long-aged Scotch anywhere in the world.
Jonathan Gibson, Marketing Director at House of Hazelwood, describes the company’s malt, grain and blended whiskies as glorious. “The scale, breadth and depth of the stock of liquids is unrivalled, and it is not restricted to a single style, category or age statement.”
Rare Scotch whiskeys like the 1963 blend A Singular Blend — 74 bottles of which were released in October 2022 — are included in the collections. An unprecedented blend at this age, it is composed of malt and grain Scotch whiskies produced at the same Highland distillery in the same year, then matured for 58 years in American oak.
Another highlight is The First Drop, which captured the very first liquid produced off the stills at the new Girvan grain whisky distillery in 1964. The 71 bottles of this sold out within weeks.
“The stocks of what was, until now, a private inventory of aged whisky were built up through the generations on a parcel-by-parcel basis — the consequence at times of an experimental mindset, at times of casks held back to see how they developed, and at times because the stocks in question were of obvious historical significance, for example, the first drops of whisky that ran off the stills at Girvan,” says Gibson.
“Much of this happened during periods when greatly aged Scotch was neither fashionable nor in demand, showing remarkable prescience and perhaps an instinct for what would come in the years ahead.”
Aged Scotch is most certainly in demand now, especially in Asia, with auction records for rare aged whisky smashed and whisky brands reporting strong growth. Taiwan, China, Singapore and South Korea are booming markets for many Scotch brands, including Royal Salute, the blended Scotch that starts at 21 years old.
Mathieu Deslandes, marketing director at Royal Salute, says the brand grew more than 30 per cent globally in 2021. The Asian market has nearly doubled over the last five years.
“The Asian consumer has a strong appetite for prestigious spirits, including whisky and cognac. There’s a culture of gastronomy and entertainment, of bringing people together for celebrations and shared occasions,” he says.
The brand, established in 1953 to create a whisky in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the British throne, released the Royal Salute Platinum Jubilee Edition last year to celebrate Her Majesty’s reign. The blend, which comes with a US$20,000 (S$27,000) price tag, combines the red apple notes of Inverleven Distillery with Lochside’s hints of blackcurrant and Caperdonich’s rich toffee.
Alongside its more traditional focus, Royal Salute has in recent years taken an innovative approach by offering bespoke blends that retain the brand’s heart of rich malts and smooth grains while offering something new.
Last year, it collaborated with British sculptor Kate MccGwire on a 53 Year Old, one of the highest age statements to be released by the brand. The Royal Salute Forces of Nature by Kate MccGwire, priced at US$90,000, is the first expression in a new artist collection called The Art of Wonder. Each of the 21 bottles was accompanied by a unique artwork created by MccGwire, a feather specialist.
The Pernod Ricard-owned company also collaborated with British fashion designer Richard Quinn to create a bespoke 21 Year Old blend. The bottle features bold blue flowers and the whisky has floral notes that pay homage to the young designer’s colourful designs.
The Asian consumer has a strong appetite for prestigious spirits, including whisky and cognac. There’s a culture of gastronomy and entertainment, of bringing people together for celebrations and shared occasions.
With limited edition releases, and storytelling — to honour a queen’s reign or an artist — to add a sense of “enchantment and wonder” to its whiskies, Deslandes believes it is diversifying its offerings.
It is clear that some blends can compete with single malts on age, quality and taste, but they are more limited when it comes to investment potential. In spite of that, as whisky investors around the world increase daily, and competition for rare whiskies becomes fiercer, those looking to expand their collections should not neglect blends.
“The majority of blend investments are made only in super rare, elite whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker or Royal Salute, or in very old whiskies from the early 1900s because of their vintage,” says Gana. “Investment in rare casks can also be beneficial.”
Experts advise, however, as with all whisky investing, to choose carefully and research thoroughly before making any big decisions.