Are blended Scotch whiskies of lower quality than single malts?
The straightforward answer is: not always inferior, and sometimes even superior. The verdict hinges on the specific whiskies being evaluated.
Without delving into exhaustive detail, it's worth noting that historically, single malt whisky was combined with grain whisky 'to create a drink with broader appeal from at least the 1820s' (Maclean 2009). This insight encapsulates the essence of blended and grain whisky for many enthusiasts.
Those who delve deeper into the history of Scotch whisky are often surprised when they find out that, without blends and grain whisky, their cherished single malts might not exist.
The Rise of Commercial Blends
The era of commercially successful blended whiskies dawned after 1853. In that year, Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet (OVG) emerged as Scotland's inaugural branded blended whisky, achieving commercial success.
The ascent of blends wasn't solely sparked by the launch of OVG or the passage of Gladstone's Spirit Act 1860 (which permitted the blending of malt and grain whiskies under bond before taxes). A mysterious adversary named Phylloxera vastatrix was wreaking havoc on vineyards across Europe.
The Emergence of Blended Whisky
Phylloxera's devastation led to a dearth of wine for brandy production. This crisis particularly impacted England's upper and middle classes, who favored brandy and soda. The fate of whisky blenders underwent a significant turnaround as this populace embraced 'Whisky and soda' as an alternative.
The Whisky Boom
By the 1890s, blended whisky reigned supreme. Its sales soared, prompting the establishment of numerous new malt whisky distilleries. Many of these distilleries were constructed with the sole purpose of supplying another component for the ever-popular blended whiskies.
A Transformed Whisky Landscape
While grain, blended, and malt whisky experienced more fluctuations, it's irrefutable that the trajectory of whisky would have been vastly different without the expertise and commitment of whisky blenders and grain whisky producers. Presently, malt whisky continues to flourish in the 'Malt Whisky Renaissance,' initiated in the 1960s with the successful re-launch and rebranding of select premium Speyside single malts.
Even today, though numerous enthusiasts champion the 'superiority' of single malts, it's undeniable that, in terms of popularity and sales volumes, blended Scotch whiskies remain supreme. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, in 2022, Blended Scotch whisky accounted for 59% of all exported whisky, whereas Single malts comprised 32%.
In conclusion, a premium blended whisky frequently surpasses a budget supermarket single malt. Similarly, an award-winning premium single malt typically outshines a blended whisky crafted for mixing purposes. The skill of a master blender is, without a doubt, an essential skill in the industry regardless of what type of whisky is being blended.