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Big up to blended Scotch whisky, a drink greater than the sum of its parts

Joel Harrison makes the case for blended Scotch whisky, a style often overlooked in favour of single malt but that can offer an artfully balanced ‘tapestry of taste’ to its drinkers

Words by Joel Harrison

blended whisky
Blended Scotch whisky offers an exciting flexibility of flavour according to Joel Harrison (photo: Royal Salute)

‘There is no “I” in team’, as the saying goes. It might sound pithy, but the point of this phrase is to highlight how something, anything, can be greater than the sum of its parts.

How fitting it is, then, that the same little vowel doesn’t feature in the phrase ‘blended Scotch’ either. Blended whisky, as a style, is so often overshadowed by the glowing halo that surrounds single malt Scotch, yet it is the coming together of Scotland’s rich single malts, as well as the lighter style grain whisky, in a blend that ensures this style of whisky is, as a whole, even more impactful.

royal salute whisky
Premium blended Scotch whisky brand Royal Salute's range starts at 21-years-old, never dipping below that age statement

Let’s linger on that for a moment; mostly because this is quite some claim, given that single malt Scotch is undoubtedly fantastic. In fact, many would say it is the apex of the Scotch whisky category: a spirit from a single distillery, matured to perfection and bottled for your enjoyment. So to say that blended Scotch whisky is greater than the sum of its parts, greater even than the single malts within it, is therefore a pretty hefty statement. Huge. Massive, in fact.

However, many whisky lovers will happily proclaim that single malt whisky is better than blended. Or, to spin it another way, that blended whisky is in some way inferior to single malt. I’m here to tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth.

The art of blending – for it is an art, not a science – is built around a deep knowledge and understanding of the canon of Scotland’s single malts

When it comes to the category as a whole, blends account for around 94 per cent of all Scotch whisky sold globally, leaving just a single-digit percentage for single malt sales. It doesn’t take a genius to work out, therefore, that the existence of the 140-plus malt distilleries in Scotland is not based around their own individual success. They exist first and foremost to provide the myriad of flavours we find in blends.

The art of blending – for it is an art, not a science – is built around a deep knowledge and understanding of the canon of Scotland’s single malts, and the qualities each can bring to a blend. You might notice, for example that Johnnie Walker Black Label, one of the most identifiable blended whiskies out there, has a backbone of smoke to it. This comes from the inclusion in the blend of peated whisky from the Caol Ila distillery on Islay. In itself an outstanding single malt, in the context of a blend Caol Ila plays a vital role and, through the alchemy of blending, something magic happens: the malt element it brings is at once uplifted in flavour by the other whiskies in the formula, and at the same time manages to enhance those around it.

caol distillery
Caol Ila on Islay, the distillery behind the smoke in Johnnie Walker Black Label blended Scotch whisky

Blended Scotch is, as a result, much more versatile. Yes, single malts can be mixed into cocktails or lengthened with soda, and there is nothing wrong with this (another myth that needs busting) – but the ability to fine tune flavours through the act of balancing spirit from a multitude of distilleries across Scotland is an honour reserved only for blended whisky.

The malleability of malt and grain allows blenders to have some fun too, at both the entry-level and upper echelons of the world of blended whisky. A great example is Royal Salute, a blended Scotch whose range starts at the astonishing level of 21-years-old, never dipping below that age statement. Recent years have seen this brand focus on innovative aged releases, where bespoke blends have been designed around the core Royal Salute heart of rich malts and smooth grains.

royal salute 26 year
Joel Harrison on Royal Salute's new 26-year-old blend: 'All the balance and poise of rich and unctuous blended Scotch, with a twist of spice from the Scottish oak'

The most recent release from this house is a brave step: using hearty virgin Scottish oak casks. The fresh oak from which the casks are hewn would overpower most single malts, so the team at Royal Salute set about creating a bespoke 26-year-old blend that could stand up to such bold casks. The result is all the balance and poise of rich and unctuous blended Scotch, with a twist of spice from the Scottish oak.

And here is blended Scotch whisky’s biggest advantage: the flexibility of flavour guided by the dexterous hand of the master blender. Next time you’re in the market for a Scotch, consider the tapestry of taste woven together in a blend, and you may well find you end up with the same evangelical fervour that I have for this style of Scotch.

What Joel Has Been Drinking…

  • The Last Drop Distillers is a brilliant bottler that scours the warehouses of the world to find the very best in rare casks, across the world of spirits, to bottle. The most recent discoveries made by these explorers include a Japanese Blended Malt Whisky, a 70-year-old Petite Champagne Cognac and, my choice of their latest releases, a 44-year-old Single Malt Scotch Whisky from the Glenturret Distillery which is at once fruity and spicy, unctuous and drinkable. Grab these rare releases while you can.
  • 25 years ago, Hine Cognac released a Cigar Reserve, designed specifically to pair with a good cuban stick. To celebrate a quarter of a century since its first release, the Cognac house has produced a limited-edition version. The original is a blend of 20 different brandies from the Cognac region, with the 25th anniversary edition of Cigar Reserve adding in a 1986 Grande Champagne vintage to the mix. It is rich and delicious, and utterly drinkable, with or without a good cigar.
  • My cocktail of the moment is something I was introduced to by one of the founders of The Kyoto Distillery in Japan, home to the quite brilliant (and IWSC-award-winning) KI NO BI gin. A twist on a Martini, you’ll need to source one special ingredient, but it will be worth it. Put two parts KI NO BI gin, and one part yuzu sake along with some ice into a shaker. Give it a quick shake and pour into a cold coupe glass. Hey presto, you have a Saketini, the love child of a Gimlet and Martini. Brilliantly refreshing and utterly quaffable.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.