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What's In Your Glass? - Known Blended Whisky Components

Updated: Mar 5


blended whiskies in a barley field

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Some of us prefer single malts - some of us, blends, but most whisky drinkers enjoy them both. People new to whisky might be surprised to learn that some well-known single malts are key components of particular blends.


In the last 30 years or so, blended whiskies have experienced a downfall in the eyes of consumers. With the rise of single malts, some whisky drinkers assume that blends are inferior in quality. They are simply different types of whiskies with different designed uses and taste profiles. Blends are mostly targeted towards the masses, while single malts specialise in one particular style of whisky.


So, what exactly are blended whiskies? And how did they come to be the best-selling type of whisky in the world? Let's find out.



 

Very Brief History of Blends


By definition, blends have to have whiskies from at least 2 different distilleries. Depending on what type of whisky is used, products produced in Scotland can be labelled as blended Whiskey, blended malt Whiskey, or blended grain whiskey. The terms Pure Malt and Vatted Malt were banned in 2011 in Scottish whisky production and replaced by Blended Malt.


Men in John Walker & sons tasting room

Image by The Herald


The first blends in the early 1800s were either made from mixed grain whiskies or mixed malt whiskies. It wasn't until the Spirits Act of 1860 that grain and malt could be blended. Many spirit shops and grocery stores offered their range of blends made from locally sourced whiskies. Many big names of today got their start from these family-owned boutiques, including Johnnie Walker and Chivas Brothers.


The first single malts hit the market in the 1960s and soon gained popularity, followed by overproduction and distillery closures in the 80s. Since the birth of blended whiskies, they have been the saving grace of many malt distilleries. Over 90% of all whisky sold in the world are blends. Without them, we wouldn't have today's thriving single malt industry.


Want to read more about the history of blends? Please see our article on blended whisky evolution and rebranding here. Want to know even more? Click here to read about the first Golden Era of Whisky.



 

The Mastery


The wizards behind blending whiskies are called Master Blenders. All distilleries that produce other than single cask releases will have one at hand.


The job of a Master Blender is to design blends, inspect maturing whiskies by the nose, work closely with the distillery manager to decide what casks from the warehouses will be used, and guarantee the consistency of the brand - just to name a few. Some might think that blending only happens when blended whiskies are created. In reality, single malt distilleries will sometimes blend hundreds of casks together for consistency since not all casks produce whisky with the same nuances. It is the job of the Master Blender to find the perfect desired balance amongst all the whiskies available to stay true to their recipe.


Richard Paterson master blender Whyte & Mackay

Image by Whisky Advocate - Richard Paterson


Many Master Blenders have become industry legends, including Richard Paterson, Jim Beveridge, John Glaser, Rachel Barrie, Colin Scott, David Stewart, etc. Other highly guarded wizards like to stay in the shadows of their laboratories, practising magic. But one thing is for sure: companies often rely greatly on their talent with millions of pounds at stake. They are paid well for their wisdom, which often requires decades to master.


master blender Rachel Barrie

Image by BBC - Rachel Barrie


Finding the right ratios and balance is hard work, and creating a new blend doesn't happen overnight; sometimes, it can take several years. In 2022, there are around 140 whisky distilleries in Scotland alone and picking the right ones to put in a blend to reach the desired character is not easy - not to mention that many of them do not sell their whisky to blenders. Even though some of the biggest names in the industry own many distilleries across the country for diversity, they will also exchange whiskies with other producers. Past ownership of distilleries can affect the recipe make-up, which is often tweaked over time. Distillery closures have also affected the blend ratios when certain whiskies are no longer available.


Just like not all single malts are smoky - not all blended whiskies are bottom shelf. The main difference between single malts and blends is that blended whiskies are designed to suit the palate of a wider audience. All 137 currently operational Scottish whisky distilleries make whisky with different characteristics - some of them distinctively. It is more likely to find a soft blend than a soft single malt amongst all the brands made available (not to mention that blended whiskies were designed to suit the feminine palate). And that's the secret behind the popularity of blends.


Blended whiskies should be appreciated for all the mastery that goes into making them and their complexity.



 

Transparency


Many producers want to keep their recipes a secret, while others like John Glaser from Compass Box advocate for industry-wide transparency. While many occasional drinkers might not care what goes into their blended whiskies, many whisky enthusiasts are getting more interested in the details of what they are consuming.


Compass Box - The make-up of Blended Grain Whisky Hedonism

Image by Compass Box - The make-up of Blended Grain Whisky Hedonism


Blends can have any number of whiskies in them up from two. There is no roof on how many whiskies can be blended and no maximum grain whisky content. That said, an unnamed supermarket chain tried in the past to make a blend with a grain whisky content of 99%, but the SWA quickly stepped in to disapprove of the attempt.


We can say with confidence that the quality of the whiskies used is more important in a blend of 2 whiskies than in one of 60 different whiskies. We wonder how many individual whiskies influence the final product when the components are tossed in like grains of salt. Don't they say that the dish is as good as the weakest ingredient in cooking? Unfortunately, in a blend, some disadvantages can be disguised.


So why does a consumer need to know what goes into a blend? Some brands like to keep the information to themselves simply because, like any other industry, the whisky industry is money-making. Nobody likes to be told that they are getting ripped off in some instances.


Most blends will have a high grain whisky content. It is cheaper to produce than malt whisky and has a sweeter and lighter overall character - perfect for combining different flavours. Some single malts used can be classified as so-called 'filler whiskies'. These malts have no prominent or distinctive character to add to the final product, but the malt content can be increased significantly by using them. The quality of malt content is known to increase in high-end blends.


High end blended whiskies

Image by The Whisky Ardvark


Knowing what's in the blend can sometimes make recommending a brand easier. When looking for a whisky with similar characteristics to something people have already enjoyed, knowing blends can indicate which way to look. Although the segue might sometimes be a big jump.


We enjoy both types of whiskies depending on the occasion and mood. There are amazing blended whiskies out there. We are glad that the once-stale category is attracting whisky makers interested in experimenting and advocating for transparency not formally known to the industry.



 

Known Components of Some of The Most Well-Known Blends


Here are known components of 12 well-known blended whisky brands for you to enjoy! Do note that the distilleries listed in the pictures represent just some of the whiskies going into the blend if not mentioned otherwise.


Please note that we have underlined the whisky the blend relies heavily on if revealed. Please also be aware that the whiskies are specific to the expression shown and do not include other releases by the same brand.


known components in The Famous Grouse blended whisky

All Images by The Whisky Ardvark

known components in Bell's blended whisky

known components in Chivas Regal blended whisky

known components in Dewar's blended whisky

known components in Monkey Shoulder blended whisky

known components in Johnny Walker Black Label blended whisky

known components in Ballantine's blended whisky

known components in Grant's blended whisky

known components in Black Bottle blended whisky

known components in Black & White blended whisky

known components in J&B blended whisky

known components in Compass Box Artist Blend blended whisky


 

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