SCOTLAND. Single Malt. Blended Scotch? For many, your first Scotch Whisky experience was with a blend. It may or may not have been a good one. In my case, it was the latter. For a long time I preferred single malt—because it was smoother. That statement is true and it is also false. The world of single malt Scotch Whisky is as diverse as the many distilleries that lie across Scotland itself. More and more people year after year continue to “get into” Scotch. Well, if you are like me and enjoy your Single Malt Scotch, then you better develop an appreciation for the blended variety. By appreciation, I mean, the history of Scotch whisky and of course, the wide range of product available.
Some of you geniuses out there are probably saying to yourselves that “blended equals poor quality”. Perhaps that it based on your first sip of Scotch whisky one of your pals snuck out of their parents’ liquor cabinet in high school, or you managed to scam from some unscrupulous night clerk at an out-of-the-way gas station. Well, chances are you probably knew nothing about what you were drinking nor did you drink it for the simple pleasure of enjoying a good dram.
Guys and gals those days are gone. The day has come when you choose to become gentlemen and ladies and drink for pleasure…not just “the buzz”. Whether or not you become a connoisseur of fine spirits is now totally up to you. In this age of information, there’s no need to walk up to a bar or go to your liquor store and get “pwned” or labeled “noob”. Learn something.
As someone whose major influence in drinking Scotch whisky has been with Single-Malt, particularly Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, and Laphroaig, I admit that at first, I was tempted to go into this with some prejudice. I remember my first taste of Scotch, which incidentally was Cutty Sark, and whinced. Pardon me saying so, Cutty Sark fans, but keep in mind I didn’t know what the hell I was drinking and was tricked into taking a snort by a devious cousin of mine. Then my mind drifted to my first purchase of Scotch, which was Chivas 12 yr. I was then introduced to Glenlivet, which reinforced the aforementioned predjudice.
I had to take a moment to back out of my near-sighted view of blended scotch, and remember a few things. Scotland had at one time, many more distilleries than it does at present. Many of those distilleries closed because they could not get their product, no doubt, fine Single-Malt whiskies to market. To save themselves and the art of making their fine spirits, the wiser distilleries began selling their products, exporting a lot of product specifically for blending. Just think, a distillery starts up, makes a run, and has to by law age it’s product three years to be considered Scotch whisky. In the meantime, it’s making additional runs, to follow up once the previous run is bottled as is or sold to other distilleries for blending. It’s a matter of simple economics….you have to do what you have to do to survive. Even though many of the distilleries in Scotland still produce the single-malt variety, their bread and butter, so to speak, is product sold for blending.
A master blender would probably slap me in the face, or at least threaten to, by oversimplifying his art. Scotch whisky is aged in used bourbon barrels, which by law are made from American white oak and then charred on the inside. The charring will impart flavor and color that is preferable in the making of bourbon. Scotch whisky may also be aged in casks made of European oak, that have been seasoned with sherry or used for the aging of sherry. These are called Sherry butts. Bottom line is that each barrel lends a specific and unique set of characteristics to a given spirit. Taking into account the unique recipes for the right amount of malted barley and other grains, the multiple configurations of barrels in which they are aged, the length of time in which they are aged, the strength (ABV) of the spirit, and the nose of the master blender and you have hundreds of possibilities of how the resulting blend will taste. Today, blended Scotch whisky accounts for approximately 90 percent or more of Scotch whisky exported and sold in the world.
Any aged spirit, whether it be Scotch, Canadian, Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey, Japanese Malt Whiskey, etc., is the result of a lot of different factors…and the Master Blender has his work cut out for him. Even then, if the product is wonderful, once it leaves the distillery, is in the hands of marketeers, promoters, and ultimately in the hands of a fickle consumer.
So, keeping my wikipedia-like understanding of blended whiskies in mind, I set out to taste and evaluate these two fine blends of Scotch Whisky.
This was the first whisky to sample. The color is deep amber color with a nice floral nose with hints of peat and wood. I could taste the faint hints of peat and oak in this one, gentle at first. Toffee and chocolate, then a punch of smoky oak at the end, but not harsh. The finish was warm and long, a little peppery.
Color was Light Amber. Deceivingly looks in the glass to be a lightly-flavored whisky. The taste was sweet, very smooth, with a hint of peat. Oak aroma slighter on this one, and a fine finish that lingered with diminished heat and left my mouth with a hint of sweetness.
My verdict…well, this is a tough one for me. Both are exceptional. Both have endearing qualities that would find a place in any Scotch lover’s heart. Comparing the two, you have to look at what they have in common. Both hail from Speyside…so that is where they are common. Both are masterfully blended from young and old whiskies. Would I purchase one over the other? Probably, as far as budget goes, the Chivas 18 year is less than half the going price for the Blue Label. Which, makes it great to have in your liquor cabinet to freely share with guests, but is not the best choice for mixing into cocktails. The Blue Label should be reserved for someone very special….it’s hard to find where I live, while the Chivas is more readily available.
A draw, then, is my best conclusion at this point. It depends on you, the consumer and what you like. As always, these fine products are in your hands.