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Why Is Blended Scotch Being Lost in the Mix?

Blends represents the vast majority of the worldwide market for Scotch whisky. The world of blended Scotch typically offers great value, with flavor profiles that, by design , are seamless, smooth, and versatile. They aren’t just for mixing—although that’s fine, too—but they are definitely being lost in the mix. So why is it that blended Scotch whiskies are being overlooked?

USA vs. The World

The first place to look is the differing drinking habits of the United States as opposed to the rest of the world when it comes to Scotch. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), 9.585 million 9-liter cases of Scotch were sold in the U.S. in 2015. Of that, 7.457 million cases, or about 77.8%, was blended, whereas 2.127 million cases, or 22.2%, was single malt.

Wait—doesn’t that show that blends dominate the market? Yes and no. Let’s look beyond the overall numbers to the trends. Since 2002, blended sales are down 10.6% in the U.S., when they represented 91.7% of the market with 8.343 million cases. Single malt sales, on the other hand, are up a staggering 181.7% in the same timeframe, from 755,000 cases which represented just 8.3% of the market.

The first of the Rare Casks Reserves Ghosted Reserves from William Grant & Sons (image via threebrand)
The first of the Rare Casks Reserves Ghosted Reserves from William Grant & Sons (image via threebrand)

Here in the U.S., it’s easy to see that new releases and consumer attention all points to the surge of the single malt at the expense of the blend.

Now let’s go global and compare how the U.S. stacks up to the world, using the latest export statistics from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), referencing the first half of 2016. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re excluding bulk sales, which represents 23% of total Scotch export volume.

Comparing just single malts and blends, and excluding the U.S., there were approximately 358 million bottles of Scotch exported globally from January to June 2016. Single malt exports equaled about 39 million bottles, or 10.9% of the total. Proportionally, that means that U.S. Scotch whisky drinkers favor single malts twice as much as our global counterparts.

As one final point, also consider that whether U.S. Scotch drinkers are purchasing single malts or blends, we’re drinking the good stuff when you factor in volume versus value. Therefore, drinkers here often treat blends like single malts, meaning they’re drinking them neat or on the rocks as opposed to sticking purely with value brands to mix up a Scotch & soda and the like.

To demonstrate that point, compare the drinking habits of France to the U.S., the number 1 and 2 global Scotch whisky export markets, to see a stark difference. According to the SWA, for the first half of 2016, France maintained its position as by far the largest export market by volume, representing 90.9 million bottles. The U.S. was number 2, with 53.1 million. Now flip that on its head for value. The U.S. is by far the largest export market by value, representing £357.4 million. France trails at number two, with £193.1 million.

But We Owe Our Single Malts to the Blend

If you’re one of the many whisky drinkers in the U.S. who prefers single malt Scotch whisky, then you’re also one of “the lucky benefactors of the quality of our blends,” says Dr. Nicholas Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo. “All the single malts wouldn’t exist without blends.”

Yes, even with over 100 distilleries making Scotch malt whisky, their collective primary purpose is to service the blends. Again, look at those overall export sales, and factor in the bulk sales this time. Now, single malt Scotch whisky exports represent just over 9% of the global total, or 49 million bottles out of 533 million.

At Diageo, sales are even more heavily skewed towards blends than the industry as a whole, and that’s despite the fact that they own 28 production single malt distilleries. After all, they have a little brand known as Johnnie Walker to satisfy, not to mention J&B, Bell’s, and Buchanan’s. So even if you think that a standout single malt such as Lagavulin is, in the words of Dr. Morgan, “sort of the grand cru of whisky,” you owe a major debt of appreciation to the blended behemoths.

It’s not just Diageo though. Look at Strathisla, a storied single malt distillery with a history stretching to 1786 and a part of the Chivas Regal and Pernod Ricard umbrella. It’s the third oldest continually operational Scotch distillery, and 90% of its production goes straight to the blended Chivas line. Overall, Chivas has 14 malt distilleries in its portfolio.

Now look at Aberfeldy, founded by John Dewar & Sons in 1896 and today under the Bacardi umbrella as one of their five malt distilleries. They have production capacity of between 3.5 and 4 million LPA, and 92% of it goes straight to the blended Dewar’s line, which is why it’s touted as the brand’s “heart malt.”

Beyond the world’s top single malts, dozens of other distilleries are little known and survive by pushing their production entirely, or near entirely, into blends. Even Lagavulin, that “grand cru,” with its production maxed to the brim and its stock cherished, still supplies a bit of its whisky to feed a blend, White Horse.

Five to Try: Blended Scotch Whiskies to Explore

Rather than simply toasting the blends for allowing your favorite single malt to exist, here are a few different blends representing a diverse style and price range for you to explore directly.

  • Dewar’s Scratched Cask ($25): Finished in new and ex-bourbon casks which have been charred and scratched to release more of those flavors. Chocolate, char, oak, and spice.
  • The Black Grouse ($30): Take Scotland’s top selling whisky, The Famous Grouse, and add depth with a rich smokiness and the result is The Black Grouse. Rich, sweet, peaty.
  • Chivas Regal Ultis ($200): The first blended malt from Chivas, incorporating five single malts in homage to five master blenders. Honey, fruit, and floral.
  • Compass Box Three Year Old Deluxe ($300): A $300 three year old? Not quite. John Glaser continues to bang the drum for transparency with a blended malt incorporating .4% of three year old whisky, with a mix of decidedly older whisky of untellable age. Vanilla, toffee, fruity.
  • Rare Cask Reserves Ghosted Reserve 26 year old ($400): William Grant & Sons released this blended malt from two shuttered distilleries, Ladyburn and Inverleven. Floral, malty, creamy, honey.

Jake Emen

Jake Emen is a freelance writer based in San Diego, and a lover of all types of whiskey. He's passionate about food, drink and travel, and lucky enough to write on such topics as he explores both newly burgeoning regions around the United States, and others across the globe. For whiskey and spirits coverage, he has been published in outlets including USA Today, Maxim, GQ, Whisky Advocate, AFAR, Vice Munchies, Eater Drinks, Tasting Table, The Washington Post Express, Distiller, and various others. Follow him @ManTalkFood.

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