Recently I passed through Rochester, N.Y. and stopped in Century Liquors on Ridge Road. It has a good selection of bourbon and ryes, not as good of course as Sam's in Chicago. Interestingly, its selection of American Blended Whiskey was excellent; there must have been 12 brands at least on the shelves. I saw Barton's, Calvert's Extra, Lord Baltimore, Corby's, PM (I thought that name belonged to history and ads in 1950's magazines, but it is still going strong), Fleishmann's, Seagram's Seven Crown and 10 or so others. Maybe this category is popular in the area. I noticed that each bottle indicates the percentage of neutral spirits and straight whiskey. I knew old-time labels did so for Blended, but not current ones. Anyway, some brands have as little as 20% straight whiskey; one (Calvert's Extra) has 30% (or very close), the highest in this particular range.
I decided to try just one and opted for Lord Baltimore. I thought the name suggested that the blend would be rye whiskey-influenced. Rye of course was a major product of Maryland until the 1970's. However the straight whiskey in there seems to be bourbon, judging both by the taste and also the fact that after I bought it, I saw in another store a bourbon sold by the bottler in question. So I think they use that bourbon in this blend, not rye. Lord Baltimore is a decent blend, but not what I hoped for. I thought it would be more assertive, like Barton's is (in fact there are two American Blended Barton's). It mixed well with cola, but I found it hard to drink straight. The taste of the neutral spirits (it reminded me of the odour of swabbing alcohol in hospitals) was fairly strong although it seems somewhat contradictory to say so. (In a sense, alcohol of any kind is rarely tasteless).
What this showed me was a number of things. First, of course the amount, type and age of the straight whiskey used will influence quite strongly the taste. Second, the taste of neutral spirits (at least in this brand) differs quite noticeably from most vodka I know. So even though vodka is distilled at (I understand) about 95% abv., there clearly are differences from how neutral spirits are made to taste, relating of course to residual congener content. Canadian whiskey, produced to about 95% abv. in a triple distillation, still tastes like whisky, mildly, to be sure, but Canadian does not taste like the neutral spirits in the Lord Baltimore blend.
Next time I'll try the Calvert's Extra. Possibly with its higher straight whiskey content - and higher price - it offers a richer palate.
Sure, one doesn't expect all that much from American Blended. However its price is very low ($8.00-$10.00) and it has uses that are valid, e.g. to spike coffee, to use in certain cocktails, and for those who find straight whiskey too strong a taste (or whose pocketbook does not allow the purchase of straight whiskey). I believe some brands of American Blended are well worth buying for such purposes.
A comparative tasting would be instructive.