Blended whisky. Depending on your pedigree, your exposure to blended whisky products, or simply ingrained personal prejudice, seeing the term "blended" on a bottle can make you sneer or smile. I'm often surprised at the visceral reaction that blended whiskies produce from single malt purists: "Yeugh, not me, I'm a single malt man!" (betraying a staggering ignorance as to blended whisky's origins; also, nine times out of ten, they prefer their desired single malt for the perceived "status" of drinking it). On the flip side, there are people who feel safe with their preferred blends and rarely bother to venture onto the black diamond slopes of single malt and single cask whisky expressions ("blend/brand hobbits"; have a little adventure!).
I think it's just plain silly that we would judge blended whiskies harshly at all. They undeniably have their place in the continuum of whisky crafting, and they are the logical antithesis - and true creative outlet - to the elite specialization (and provenance) of single cask bottlings. Seeing as I've written recently about developments in the single cask space, I thought I'd turn around and do a little fireside chat about something that has truly captured my interest. It'll be an ongoing series, because this is my new thing. I AM HAVING A BLAST DISCOVERING AND EXPERIMENTING WITH WHISKY BLENDS!
It started with the perfect Christmas present for an aspiring whisky blogger (one with a confessed fetish for single malts and single cask bottlings). I received Master of Malt's Executive Blend-Your-Own-Whisky set from some awesome in-laws this year, and was quickly broken out of my shell when the humbling task of blending fell to me. Nothing like on-the-job learning! (especially with whisky; even the failures are exhilarating!). That letter you see addressed to "Dear Whisky Blender" has all sorts of wonderful instructions on how to mix the included samples of grain whisky and malt whisky (all different ages and regions of Scotland) in order to assemble your favorite blends. The set even includes pipettes and measuring flasks for recording purposes. What's more, you can order your favorite blends from the Master of Malt website as actual bottlings, with a customized label. MoM isn't the only one doing this though. Behold, whisky meets Web 3.0!
I'll confess to some self-imposed ignorance of the craft of blended whisky as I was sidetracked by single malts and independent bottlers most of last year. Since my journey of craft blending is just beginning, I thought I'd share it with you and include you, rather than pretend I've been all over this for any longer than... 2 weeks. What is truly delightful is how well the art and design of blending have meshed with Cereal Alchemist's mantra: Tinker, Blogger, Guru, Spy. There's an arcane mysticism (Tinker, Spy) to the art of blending, requiring intuitive knowledge of the production of distilled spirits along with a willingness to communicate with enthusiasm and clarity (Guru, Blogger). I think it's safe to say this blog is entering some uncharted territory! Just as well, "ships at harbor" and all...
I'm going to dive deep into the origin and legacy of blended whiskies in a future post. For now, I wanted to let you know that Famous Grouse and Johnnie Walker are totally not the movers and shakers behind blended whisky's revival (if there is one; not dissing the establishment's contribution to the space here) . Blends are being taken very seriously at competitions, and I think I should introduce you to some that have made immediate and lasting impressions upon me as I prep the bathysphere.
I'm going to finish each Will It Blend? series with a rewarding blend that I develop during experimentation. Like any true blender, I'm going to name each one :-) That's half the fun after all. This one's called Cardinal North - Spring.
With Cardinal North - Spring, I tried my hand at a mixture that lingered in my brain after I spent the weekend resampling my collection. I ended up blending Redbreast 12 and Highland Park 15 (for the sherry notes and grain character, in addition to some light smoke) with Talisker Storm (for the Hebridean peat along with some spice and vigor a.k.a. ABV) in a 4:3:3 ratio respectively.
The result is something like a creamy, divinely-peated Irish blend, unquestionably Hebridean in nature. The sweet, fruity character from the sherry and grain are uplifting and graceful. Talisker overwhelms the slightest bit on the pepper, ash, and peat, and I probably could have dialed it down to 2 in the ratio. Overall, it's like experiencing a thunderstorm at sea in the north Atlantic during the vernal equinox, complete with ozone [side note: yes, I actually have experienced all of that in real life]. It carries the promise of new life, while the winds and seas remind you of your mortality. Land has to be somewhere under those black clouds...
The "hyphen-Spring" nomenclature comes from some variations I have planned on this blend - one for each season. My subconscious dreamed this one up in minutes; I guess I'm just longing for the days to get longer here in the northern hemisphere.
Today Single Cask Nation issued the news that they're not going to be acquiring or bottling the cask of Glenfarclas that they proudly announced to Nation members back in November. In an email to the nation, co-founder Joshua Hatton stated that "our ceiling didn't quite meet [Glenfarclas'] floor," which led to a breakdown in final negotiations. While this is disappointing to those of us who were really itching to get our hands on a bottle, I think we'll live just fine. In fact, the more I think about it, the prouder I am of the populist stand that Single Cask Nation took here: "We're okay with walking away."
In these boomin' whisky times, some crazy things have happened to the value of aged distillate that have no doubt influenced your ritual search for liquid gold. I bought rare bottlings of Bruichladdich's Octomore 2.1 and 2.2 only a year-and-a-half ago that would be entirely out of my reach now (if I could even find them). Their contemporary bottlings are no better; perhaps I shouldn't have opened them! (... nah). Small town liquor stores are desperately beefing up their connections with distributors to grab even three bottles of Springbank 10, while whisky bastions are seeing old wares fly off shelves faster than they can call for replacements (our local Gomer's has huge, perpetual gaps in the single malt section between lines of high-stock favorites like Glenfiddich and Glenlivet). It's not uncommon for online vendors to strictly insist on "1 bottle per customer" in order to give whisky fans more than a 24-hour window to grab a new or rare release (before it's gone forever). Times they are a changin'.
Now, I'm no redistributionist (whisky makers and bottlers deserve to be rewarded generously for the value of their hard work and talent), but I tend to believe that whisky pricing is getting uber-crazy in ways that do not necessarily benefit new or "part-time" whisky consumers. Avid whisky collectors are obviously the Real McCoy, people capable of setting aside a chunk of their treasure for the acquisition and enjoyment of premium whisky. Small time collectors will still buy their chosen bottles, they'll just have to buy slightly fewer as price inflation takes its toll. Either way, the collector sees whisky as an investment, so some deal of expense is expected. The whisky boom has stunned and dazzled many a collector, but I'm relatively certain that it fails to dissuade. Thus, whisky makers and bottlers will still make handsome royalties.
The real cost of price inflation is that it creates a Jurassic Park out of whisky's attraction.
I'm not bitter or jaded about it, but the more that distilleries use "limited release" creep to make all of their whisky stock rare and premium (think Talisker Storm, Ardbog, Black Art 4, or the rash of single barrel bottlings; no matter that many of these are excellent), the more that those delicious and rare experiences are out of reach of the casual consumer. At some point, the Wow! factor fails to impress and "rarity" reaches saturation incommensurate with objective valuation. Until that time, the premium push will price part-time consumers out of all but the most plentiful stock or mediocre (not to mention low proof!) bottlings. Whisky shows (about the only place where rare whisky can be found and sampled at very decent cost; forget bars or pubs) become our "coupon day."
I adore whisky shows, but I'm not ready for them to be the only gateway to the best our community has to offer. At some level, I really want to share that stellar new Bruichladdich with my neighbor. I actually love to pour that Ardbeg Alligator for the casual visitor who expresses an interest. Do we really have to wonder why big whisky shows are becoming so popular and sprouting up all over the world? It's practically the last place where we can stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow man (rich or poor, sick or in health, classy or ... not so classy) and proudly say "I'll have what he's having", allowing ourselves - even for a moment - to be equals united by love of Provenance: "L'chaim, friend, and shalom!" Not surprisingly, this good will may not last. As whisky shows increasingly shelter their most premium pours behind "VIP" tickets, special drinking tokens, or paid ticket drawings, how long will it be until even that divine experience is back out of reach? What will a whisky industry look like that closes the door on newcomers and reserves its most delectable drams for the affluent and the collectors? I'm thinking... something like the 1990's.
Whisky is sold on the free market (outside of some rather ridiculous taxes and tariffs), which means that ultimately we decide what whisky is worth. If you don't like the asking price, the answer is simple and straight-forward: just walk away. While Single Cask Nation could charge whatever a distillery demands for their whisky and be relatively certain that somebody will buy it, that somebody might not be the members that Single Cask Nation is looking out for.
I'm still sad about the Glenfarclas, but I know that Josh, Jason, and Seth have some great single cask bottlings waiting in the wings and I'm sympathetic to SCN's business philosophy. I don't need the good will of distillers, importers, distributors, or parent companies to trust Single Cask Nation's motives or taste in whisky, and that's enough for me. In fact, it's why I come. Ultimately, community is the human terroir that independent bottlers are so eager to cultivate; I say, long may they be successful!