Scotch: Blending the Old and the New

While dwarfed by the relative size of the bourbon and Canadian whisky markets, Scotch remains one of the identifiable standard bearers of the urbane consumer. Its cache of quality, breadth of expression and dynamic range of flavor has made Scotch a global heavyweight.

A closer look at the numbers reveals some interesting trends. According to the latest statistics in the just-released Handbook Advance 2012, published by the Beverage Information Group, the Scotch market dipped 1.4% to 8.47 million cases in 2011, roughly half the depletions of bourbon and Canadian during the same period. While the overall Scotch category shrank marginally, the sales of single malts grew last year a robust 8.4%. Value brands of Scotch-both domestic or imported-continued to lose ground.

Even though Scotch is not the largest of the whiskey markets, the category still manages to carry more gravitas than other whiskeys. Single malts have been offering more expressions, superb marketing and packaging and a strong academic/educational bent. Collectively, they’re positioned in a sophisticated, upscale way, lending an importance and weight that’s disproportionate to case sales. And, despite the difficult economy of the last several years, Scotch distillers have been anything but complacent. To the contrary, they have been working to raise the bar and improve on what they’ve offered in the past. And great examples of this quest can be found throughout the often overlooked and unheralded category of blended Scotch.

Blended Gems

By their very nature, these blended Scotch whiskies are artistic endeavors, the combination of dozens of spirits varying in ages and compositions, produced at a number of distilleries.

For retailers, selling these products requires focusing their efforts on educating consumers. Hand-selling and personal recommendations can be immensely helpful when it comes to selling Scotch. As such, the retail trade is the single most important entity in the education of consumers. Retailers and their staff are perceived as experts and the more knowledge they can impart to the consumer, the more they will enjoy and experiment within the category.

These are certainly the best of times for devotees of exceptional Scotch. The biggest names in blended Scotch have extraordinary line extensions. Here is a brief list (not comprehensive) of some blends with their characteristics that you can use to help educate consumers.

– Ballantine’s -One of the world’s most famous and successful brands of blended Scotch. The brand’s 30-Year Whisky is highly aromatic with a light silky body and a complex palate featuring sherry, honey and a hint of peat. – Chivas Century of Malts – It combines 100 distinctive single malt whiskies produced from distilleries in every appellation throughout Scotland. The result is a complex, medium-bodied blend with a wonderful array of flavors. – Chivas Regal 18-year-old – The 18-year-old Chivas Regal is a melding of the 12-year-old Chivas Regal blend (with its character and intricate flavors) and the finesse and elegance of the 21-year-old Royal Salute. Smokier than the Chivas 12-year-old, the 18-year-old features a lush, full body and a complex ensemble of flavors with a long finish.

– Chivas Regal Gold Signature – Comprised of more than 40 whiskies, all of which were barrel-aged at least 18 years. A special reserve blend that is aromatic and accessible.

– Chivas Regal Royal Salute – Royal Salute was released in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth (though it was introduced in 1891 by James Chivas). The youngest whisky used in its blend is 21-years-old.

– Compass Box Whisky -Compass Box produces a full range of blended Scotches including Compass Box Hedonism, a 100% grain whisky aged between 12 and 23 years in American oak. The firm also produces Compass Box Peat Monster, a blend of super-peaty Islay single malts, a peated Speyside single malt and a malt matured in French oak from the northern Highlands.

– Dewar’s 12-Years Old Special Reserve – Dewar’s Special Reserve is a blend of individually aged 12-year old single malt whiskies from the different regions of Scotland. The core of its blend includes the renowned malts of Dewar’s Highland distilleries, notably Aberfeldy (Speyside), Lochnagar (Highlands), Benrinnes (Speyside), Pulteney (Highlands), Aultmore (Speyside), Royal Brackla (Highlands), Craigellachie (Speyside) and Glen Ord (Highlands). After blending, the whisky is further matured in oak barrels to allow the blend to “marry.”

– J & B Ultima – Superpremium Ultima, by Justerini & Brooks, is a blend comprised of 128 Scotch whiskies; 116 of them are single malts, with more than a quarter coming from rare, vintage reserves of distilleries no longer in operation. The constituent whiskies range in age from 8 to 20 years. Ultima has a soft, sweet bouquet, a smooth, medium body with mild undertones of peat, and a clean, lingering finish.

– Johnnie Walker Double Black Label – Launched in October 2011, Double Black is a heftier, bolder variation on classic Black Label. It features peatier malts and whiskies aged in deeply charred oak. The result is something akin to an Islay malt, only the peat smoke is slightly more subdued than most malts from the island. The nose is peaty with oak and spice notes and the palate features loads of fruit, vanilla and toasted oak.

– Johnnie Walker Blue Label – Considered the flagship of the Johnnie Walker line, Blue Label is blended around a core of Cardhu single malt whiskies, some having been aged in sherry oak for up to 60-years. It has a reserved, yet elegant nose, warming and decidedly complex. Its palate has layers of delectable flavors, including oak, vanilla, peat, and luscious fruit that taper off seamlessly into a wholly satisfying finish.

– Johnnie Walker Gold Label – This blend is made according to a 1920 recipe created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It contains fifteen different 18-year-old single malt whiskies. Johnnie Walker Gold Label has a malty, slightly fruity nose, a medium body and is flawlessly textured and balanced. It has a waves a savory flavors, most notably fruit, oak, pepper, grain, and peaty smoke. The whisky finishes long and slightly sweet.

– Johnnie Walker Green Label – The minimum age of the malts in this blend is 15 years. It features a lush palate and Highland flavors along with hints of Island malts.

– Whyte & Mackay Supreme – Created in Glasgow by master blender Richard Patterson, Whyte & Mackay Supreme is a luxurious, 22-year-old blend twice barreled in sherry butts. The range also includes a regal 30-year blend.

The Single Malt Phenomenon

Single malts have a loyal consumer base, one that is particularly well heeled and diversified in age. The category’s strength continues to be with men in the 40- to 50-year-old demographic. More often than not, these consumers purchase based on a recommendation from retailers or through their own discovery and research.

This past year or so has featured the release of new and tremendously exciting malts, each nudging the envelope and expanding the horizon. So discard the notion of “best” as outdated and overtly subjective. Instead, line your shelves with genuinely intriguing whiskies.

Distillers are passionate about what they do and it is helpful to try to impart the romance and passion behind a brand. Sharing insider information with a whisky aficionado is an irresistible hook, instilling the person with a sense of ownership in the brand that won’t soon be forgotten.

Stocking a limited selection requires considerably more thought to ensure that you market a balanced offering, one that best represents the varieties of styles of each Scotch-producing region. Again, what follows is a selective look at this vibrant segment.

The Highlands

Located in the northern part of Scotland, the Highlands is the largest Scotch-producing region and the home to a majority of the country’s distilleries. The region’s peat-laced waters and cool, moisture-laded air is perfectly suited for making classic malts. The heartland of the region is the Speyside. Its malts are known for their sophistication, elegance and complexity, the most famous of which are The Glenlivet and Glenfiddich.

The Glenlivet range recently expanded with the release of The Glenlivet Nàdurra, a single malt aged for 16 years in ex-bourbon American oak casks and bottled at cask strength (57.2% alcohol). The Glenlivet range also includes category leader The Glenlivet 12-year-old, 18-year-old, 12-year-old French Oak Finish, Archive (21-year-old), and Cellar Collection vintages 1983, 1959 and 1967.

The Glenlivet 15-Year-Old French Oak Reserve is aged in American ex-bourbon barrels, after which a portion is matured further in new, Limousin oak barrels. Famous for use in aging cognacs, Limousine oak is an extremely fast-growing tree, resulting in the widest grain pattern of the species. Its loose pores allow a spirit to extract more flavorants from the wood. While still representative of the Glenlivet style, the French oak finish adds some welcome spice. Another lord of the Speyside is Glenfiddich, the bestselling single malt Scotch whisky in the world. The distillery’s range of single malts took another leap forward with the release of Glenfiddich Cask of Dreams. Launched in conjunction with their 125th anniversary, the whisky pays homage to the legacy of Glenfiddich founder William Grant who in 1887 pinned all his hopes on a dream to create “the best dram in the valley.”

The Cask of Dreams is a special marriage of Glenfiddich whiskies taken from a hand-picked selection of American oak casks holding matured whiskies of a variety of ages, with the youngest at 14 Years Old. This whisky was then decanted into the 11 inscribed casks and left to finish in the virgin American oak to bring an intense and powerful vanilla sweetness. The casks were closely monitored to ensure a desirable balance of the oak’s vanilla and spice with fruity, floral aromas, with Kinsman finding perfect balance after 3 months of finishing and at a high strength of 48.8% ABV. Glenfiddich Solera Reserve Single Malt is aged 15-years by a system modeled after Spanish Soleras. Three different types of wood are used in production-used bourbon barrels, sherry butts and new oak casks. The whiskies are then aged in Solera vats with the core age being a minimum of 15 years. Solera aging creates a malt that drinks much older than its years. The Speyside district of the Scottish Highlands is also the home of the Balvenie Distillery. The Balvenie range is a compilation of five artisan expressions. Their flagship is the Balvenie PortWood 21-year-old Single Malt, a whisky double barreled, first in traditional oak and then 30-year-old, oak port pipes. The wine influences every aspect of the whisky.

The Balvenie distillery also has a series of cask strength expressions that includes The Balvenie Caribbean Cask, a 14 years old malt finished in Caribbean rums barrels; The Balvenie Madeira Cask, a 17 years old malt finished in Madeira barrels, The Balvenie Sherry Cask, a 17 years old malt finished exclusively in Oloroso Sherry oak barrels and The Balvenie Vintage 1975 Cask.

The Macallan well deserves its lofty reputation among whisky aficionados. The distillery has the deepest whisky reserves in all of Scotland and a colossal range that includes 33 distinctive bottlings and vintages. Their famed sherry oak single malts are bottled at 10 years, 10 years at cask strength, 12 years, 18 years and 25 years. One of its latest is The Macallan Cask Strength Single Malt Highland Scotch, a full-bodied malt bottled at a mouth-tingling 116.4 proof. A splash of spring water brings out waves of fruity, smoky flavors.

 Another addition to their already prestigious repertoire is an innovative series called The Macallan Fine Oak, whiskeys made from a decidedly lighter blend of malts. The Macallan house style is easily discernable, a result of introducing American oak whiskies to the mix. The Fine Oak Macallan is bottled at 12-years, 15-years and 21-years.

 The malts of Aberlour have made it a franchise in the Speyside since 1826. New to their portfolio is Aberlour Highland 12 Year Old Non Chill-Filtered Single Malt. This expression is non chill-filtered to ensure that the full flavor of the malt is preserved, giving the mouth-feel increased body and a rich texture, while retaining the distinctive characteristics of Aberlour, derived from its double maturation in rare sherry butts and bourbon casks. The malt is a balanced offering with warm notes of fruit and spice, bottled at 48% ABV.

The distillery also features Aberlour a’bunadh Single Speyside Malt, a luxurious whisky bottled unfiltered, undiluted and at cask strength; our tasting sample was 59.6% alcohol by volume. It has an expansive nose and a full creamy palate.

A fixture in the Highlands since 1843, The Glenmorangie Distillery produces nothing but single malt whisky. The distillery markets bottlings of 10-years, 15-years, 18-years and 21-years, which is appropriately named The Glenmorangie Elegance.

Of equal stature is the distillery’s incomparable stable of wood finished malts. The first of these 12-year-old malts introduced were The Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish, Malmsey Madeira Wood Finish and Oloroso Sherry Wood Finish. They were followed by The Glenmorangie Growth Claret Wood Finish, which is finished in Bordeaux first growth châteaux barrels; Côte de Nuits Wood Finish, a 1975 vintage malt finished in Côte de Nuits burgundy barrels, Fino Sherry Wood Finish, finished in Fino Sherry butts, and the latest entry, The Glenmorangie Burgundy Wood Finish.

Tucked away by the banks of the River Alness in the Northern Highlands, The Dalmore Distillery is one of the category’s best-kept secrets. Imported by Jim Beam Brands, The Dalmore range of single malts includes the 12-year-old and 21-year-old, both of which are remarkable values. New to the range is The Dalmore Castle Leod, the second in a series of limited edition bottling crafted by master distiller Richard Patterson. This classic vintage 1995 malt was matured initially in American white oak and Spanish sherry wood before being transferred for the final 18 months to barriques from a legendary 1st cru classe Bordeaux chateau.

Recently released The Dalmore Aurora is an elegant, 45-year old expression casked in February 1964 hand-selected from the House of Gonzalez Byass. The malt is brimming with the aromas of blood oranges, apples, jasmine and pear. The limited edition includes 200 mouth-blown crystal decanters. The Dalmore Cigar Malt, an award-winning spirit with more sherry character than can be found in their other single malts. The additional dose of sherry adds to the whisky’s already full body.

The Glenrothes Speyside Single Malt are rare vintage-dated malts embodying the nobility long associated with the Speyside. Almost 90% of the whisky’s constituent elements were aged no less than 15-years in American oak bourbon barrels, the rest having been aged in sherry wood.

The recent vintage release-The Glenrothes 1994 Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky-is a light festive offering. It’s a rare vintage-dated malt embodying the nobility of Speyside. The 86-proof whisky has a zesty orange and lemon bouquet and lively notes of raisins, toffee and coconut and a full rich palate of fruit, toasted malt and dark chocolate.

Located in Perthshire and built in 1898, Aberfeldy is the Dewar family’s original distillery and its malts are at the heart of the famed Dewar’s blend. The firm also bottles several single malt expressions. The Aberfeldy 12-Year Old Single Malt Whisky best represents the heather honey sweetness that has become the house style. Contributing greatly to the malt silky smooth character is the fresh spring water of the Pitilie burn used in production.

The Glenfarclas Distillery is among the last of the privately owned distilleries. The distillery ages most its highly sought-after whiskies in Oloroso sherry casks. Their line of malt whiskies also includes the Glenfarclas 17-year, 21-year and 25-year-old single malts. The most singular expression of the range is the 10-year-old Glenfarclas Cask 105, which the distillery has produced since the 1950s. Bottled at 120-proof, it is the strongest single malt issued by any Scotch distillery.

Regional Malts

The malts made in the Lowlands of Scotland are often overshadowed by those produces in the Highlands. It’s an unfortunate oversight because the Lowland malts are delectably soft, light and fruity. Today, Auchentoshan is one of only three distilleries still operating in the Lowlands and the only distillery in Scotland dedicated to triple distillation. Their portfolio includes Auchentoshan Classic 12 Year Old, 18 Year Old and the limited release 21 Year Old, in addition to select vintage, limited edition releases. New to their range is Auchentoshan 1999 Vintage Bordeaux Wine Matured. This limited edition release is 100% wine cask matured. Bottled in 2011, it is presented at cask strength (58% alcohol by volume) and non-chill filtered. A mere 300 bottles of the Auchentoshan 1999 Vintage Bordeaux Cask Matured are available for the U.S. Also released in 2011 was Auchentoshan Valinch. The malt is non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength (57.5% alcohol by volume), bringing the drinker all the smoothness, sweet vanilla aromas and citrus finish of Auchentoshan Classic, but with far more intensity. Two thousand cases of Valinch were released, with 1,200 bottles coming to the U.S.

Also hailing from the south of Scotland is the Glenkinchie 10-year-old Single Lowland Malt. The 86 proof whisky is popular as a before dinner dram and is at the heart of the Pinch 15-year-old blend, primarily because of its light to medium body, and slightly sweet flavor.

Located on a peninsula near the island of Islay, Campbeltown was once considered Scotland’s whisky capital. Where once more than 30 distilleries flourished, Springbank and Glen Scotia are the last remaining entities. Springbank is the oldest, family-owned distillery in Scotland. The family is involved in every stage of production-from the cutting of peat to final bottling. The distillery’s range of handcrafted triple-distilled, lightly peated malts is awash with choices. Its core releases are 46% alcohol and include bottlings at 10 years old, 15 years old and 18 year old.

Island Malts

Highland Park, from the island of Orkney, is the northernmost distillery in the world. The microclimate of the isolated and wind-swept island is dominated by the North Sea and North Atlantic. Its U.S. portfolio includes 7 expressions of Single Orkney Malts -the standard bearer 12 years old, 15 Years Old, the limited edition Highland Park 18-year-old, and the 25 year-old Highland Park. The latter is an unfiltered, cask strength (96.2 proof) whisky made with several malts over 35 years in age. The distillery’s highly acclaimed Orcadian series now features 3 vintage bottlings-1964, 1968 and 1970.

Isle of Jura Superstition features a blend of finest peated whiskies and older, traditionally finished malts stored in their warehouses. The 86-proof spirit has a mahogany hue, velvety, medium-weight body and generous nose of light peat, honey, cinnamon and toffee.

The Isle of Skye is the home of famed Talisker, a smoky, character-rich single malt aged a minimum 10 years. Talisker provides the backbone of Johnnie Walker Red Label blend. Of the Scottish islands, the malts distilled on Islay are most renowned. Laphroaig Single Islay Malt Scotch Whisky enjoys international celebrity because of its powerful, exuberant flavor. While not for the faint of heart, Laphroaig malts offer aficionados a rare and singular taste experience. Laphroaig’s range includes the acclaimed 10-year-old, vigorous malt full of salt and smoke, 15-year, 30-year and 40-year-old malts. Even sleeping one can discern that these superb whiskies were distilled on Islay. New to the range is Laphroaig Triple Wood, a rare quarter cask expression. The first maturation takes place in American ex-bourbon barrels. It is then transferred into small 19th century style Quarter Casks for a second maturation The final maturation is in specially selected, large European oak, Oloroso sherry casks.The flavor profile includes a subtle sherry sweetness along with vanilla and nutty notes, as well as the signature peaty element.

The Ardbeg distillery is one of the oldest, smallest distilleries in Scotland. Ardbeg Single Islay Malt is a bold and robust whisky with the distinction of being the most heavily peated single malt. It is aged for 10 years in seasoned American oak casks, bottled at 92 proof and imported by Brown-Forman.     


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