Do you like surprises? I'm sure you enjoy the good ones, such as a tax refund or an all clear from the dentist. The problem is the nasty surprises, such as an expensive sounding noise from your car engine or a psychotic stalker on Facebook. What has this got to do with whisky? Everything, because when we drink our regular whisky, we don't want surprises. We want consistency.
Our daily dram should be an unsurprising source of comfort. Blended whisky makes up over 90% of all the whisky drunk in the world.
The remaining 10% comprises of Single Malts, whisky from malted barley, produced in one distillery (example: Glenfiddich); Single Grain, the same as single malt, except it's made with grain, (example: Bain's Cape Mountain Whisky); Blended Malt, two or more single malts bottled together, (example: Monkey Shoulder); and Blended Grain, two or more grain whiskies bottled together, (example: Compass Box Hedonism).
Blended whisky is relatively new in whisky terms and started in the 1830s when Aeneas Coffey invented the Patent Still, also called the Coffey Still. This allowed for continuous distilling, as opposed to a Pot Still, which produces spirits batch by batch. Most decent blended whiskies consist of 75% grain whisky and 25% malt whsky, so the large volume of spirit produced by the Coffey still are vital for the whisky market.
In around 1860 Anrew Usher, the father of modern whisky, began blending different whiskies. At more or less the same time, young John Walker did the same in his greengrocer store. Scotland exported the blended whiskies to England, America and then the rest of the world.
The Coffey Still produces spirits much faster and at a lower cost than malt whisky made in a pot still. At first, producers used grain whisky to reduce the cost of the whiskies they sold. The added benefit was that grain whisky is much lighter and sweeter than malt whisky. Consumers in Scotland began enjoying blended whiskies as they were more palatable than malts, and the flavours were more consistent.
As the popularity of blended whisky rose, more and more distilleries sold their stock of SIngle Malts to whisky companies who bottled the spirits under their own label.
Famous blended whiskies include Johnnie Walker Black, Ballantine's and Bell's. While those whiskies have tasted almost the same for decades, the recipes have changed. For example, there are around 32 different whiskies that make up Johnnie Walker Black. Each of those whiskies, (around 5 grains and 27 single malts) has spent at least 12 years maturing in an oak barrel. While Cardhu and Caol Ila Single Malts will always feature in JWB, there will be Single Malts from many other distilleries in Scotland.
We mere mortals will never know exactly which Single Malts and what proportions make up a blend. Those secrets are known only to the Master Blender and one or two of his trusted assistant noses. They have to sample whiskies from around 100 barrels every day. No, they don't drink them, they smell them.
The blend may feature 1000 bottles of Talisker in one year, and 100 the next, with more Lagavulin making up the smoky component. After the whiskies are taken out of their barrels, they are then "married" for a few months in other barrels, before being bottled.
It takes about 20 years of training to become an expert nose and many modern noses have a background in chemistry. They spend their days in maturation warehouses and laboratories, ensuring that the taste and aroma of the whiskies remain the same, year after year.
Next time you have a blended whisky, raise your glass and toast the Master Blenders. Maybe one day we'll join them on a walk round the warehouse, sampling from 100 casks!
Baffled by booze? Get answers by emailing [email protected] or tweet @bernardgwhisky