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  1. #1
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    Blends, what are they good for?

    Every whiskey-making culture makes both "straights" and "blends" except the Canadians. Each, in different ways, has followed a pattern in which blends are initially dominant, then are supplanted by straights. Actually, that's not true anywhere except the USA, but what has happened in Scotland and Ireland is similar, whereas although blends still sell more than "singles" (their equivalent of straights), singles are where the action is.

    And yet there is a parallel phenomenon, of educated and experienced straights/singles drinkers revisiting blends.

    What do they discover?

    First, that blends are in fact another kind of whiskey and if you take them on their own terms, they indeed have something to offer.

    Second, that blends may be a good way to introduce a friend to whiskey. People who contentedly sip Stagg have trouble accepting the fact that, for some people, Jim Beam is too strong.

    Third, all whiskey makers intend their product to taste good. Nobody sets out to make a bad-tasting whiskey. Because blend makers are not limited by the restrictions that constrain straights/singles makers, it should be easier for them to make their products taste good and it shouldn't be a wonder that some of them succeed.

    Fourth, what is a blend? In simple terms, a blend is a straight whiskey "diluted" with vodka. Mix your favorite bourbon 50/50 with your favorite vodka (unflavored, of course) and see what you get.

    Fifth, the problem with taking blends seriously is that what you ultimately want to know about is the underlying whiskey, which brings you right back to straights/singles.

  2. #2
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    Re: Blends, what are they good for?

    Blended Scotch uses grain whisky instead of GNS, with the grain vs. malt proportions depending on the blend. Some, like the now-extinct Campbeltown Loch 25yo, are mostly malt, with some much older grain whisky in the blend.

    There are a few single grain (100% grain whisky) bottlings available; they are nowhere near as common as single malts.

    Then there's the new "blended malt" category that the SWA came up with - what is traditionally known as a "vatted malt" - all malt whisky, but blended from different distillers' output. The SWA also defined a "blended grain" category for grain-only blends.

    Scotch grain whisky has a lot in common with bourbon in my experience, but it's a bit softer in character. Some have said that it's at its best when well-aged; I haven't had a "young" Scotch grain whisky, so I can't say that first-hand.

    So far, I haven't tried an American blend - maybe I should do so, just to get a better idea of what they're like.

  3. #3
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    Re: Blends, what are they good for?

    The grain whiskey used in most blended scotch is whiskey, not GNS, but only barely so. It is distilled at a very high proof and doesn't get much age. The flavor in blends comes from the malts. The grain whiskey provides body and alcohol, but not much taste. It is misleading to compare a scottish all grain whiskey that is sold as such to the grain whiskey used in most blends.

  4. #4
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    Re: Blends, what are they good for?

    Third, all whiskey makers intend their product to taste good. Nobody sets out to make a bad-tasting whiskey.
    Chuck, are you sure about that?? I thought the Maker's Marketing said that was what made Maker's different from other bourbons. They'd designed it to taste good.



    Ken

  5. #5
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    Re: Blends, what are they good for?

    The grain whiskey used in most blended scotch is whiskey, not GNS, but only barely so. It is distilled at a very high proof and doesn't get much age. The flavor in blends comes from the malts. The grain whiskey provides body and alcohol, but not much taste. It is misleading to compare a scottish all grain whiskey that is sold as such to the grain whiskey used in most blends.
    My understanding is that the grain whisky (mostly unmalted wheat or maize and column, rather than pot, distilled, at high proof) in blended Scotch must be aged at least as long as the stated age of the whisky. So Johnnie Walker Black contains five different grain whiskies that are each a minimum of 12 years, are are the 35 different malts (see Murray below).

    I believe this is also the case in Irish and Canadian blended whiskies, but not US blends, which use unaged GNS. Better Scotch and Irish whiskies can have up to half straight whisky or even more, while US blends generally have 20-25%. The highest I know of is Seagram's-7 at 33%.

    The grain whisky in blended Scotch seems to me to contribute a juicy sweetness, as well a a lightness that is sometimes quite welcome. And, since a blend may have dozens of malts as well as several grain whiskies, blends can be far more complex than single malts.

    Blended Scotch is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of whisk(e)y. I find it quite enjoyable at times, although I completely lose my taste for it and single malt Scotch in warm weather. Fortunately, bourbon and rye keep their appeal throughtout the year!

    Jim Murray's 1999 Classic Blended Scotch is a great book on the subject, and the only one I know of that deals only with blended Scotch. Single malts have swamped blended Scotch in lines in print, though not in sales.

    Jeff

  6. #6
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    Re: Blends, what are they good for?

    My understanding is that the grain whisky (mostly unmalted wheat or maize and column, rather than pot, distilled, at high proof) in blended Scotch must be aged at least as long as the stated age of the whisky.
    That is correct, but there is a large volume of blended scotch sold without an age statement. Across the range of blends, it is fair to say that the better blends contain older grain whisky. That doesn't change the fact that the function of the grain whisky in blended scotch is exactly the same as the function of the GNS and corn whiskey in American blends, to provide a more-or-less neutral base for a flavor profile constructed from the malt components.

  7. #7
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    I hate to say this, but I have yet to find an American blend that I find enticing.

    What makes this so painful, is that many foreign blends rivet my attention. Blended Scotch like Chivas 18yo & Royal Salute, JW Gold, and Campbeltown Loch 25; Irish such as Midleton, Jameson Gold and 12yo; and Canadian like Crown Royal Special Reserve, and Canadian Club Classic (12yo); are all fine whiskies IMHO.

    Seagram 7 is not bad, nor is Ancient Age blended, but none are on a par with the other blended whisk(e)y producers IMHO.

    I'm certainly open to suggestions regarding great American blends I have overlooked!

    Thanks,
    John

  8. #8
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    They're all pretty undistinguished and I don't think that's going to change. What do you want from whiskey-flavored vodka?

    The best blended American whiskey is probably the standard Four Roses bourbon. I'm playing, of course, because Four Roses is straight bourbon but it is, in fact, a blend (as in combination or mixture) of ten or eleven different bourbons, differing in terms of yeast, mashbill and age.

    What Four Roses does is more like Gillmanization than true blending. Like Gary, Four Roses blends together several good straight whiskeys to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. True blending, as practiced in all whiskey-making cultures, is about taking intensely flavored whiskey and making it less intense by cutting it with a nearly flavorless whiskey. The USA goes a little further by saying you can cut it with neutral spirit if you want to.

    Perhaps it makes a difference that while the grain whisky in Scottish blends and the corn whisky in Canadians is nearly neutral, it isn't quite and it gets a little aging too, albeit in used barrels. The main answer, though, is that while there is a range of quality, reflected by price, in the Scottish and Canadian portfolios, American blends are all cheap, bottom shelf products. Consequently they are made as cheaply as possible, which typically means they get the straight whiskey the distiller has already rejected for any of the company's signature products.

    So, who makes the straight whiskey base for Seagrams 7? None other than Four Roses.
    Last edited by cowdery; 02-06-2006 at 17:31.

  9. #9
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    To me it is all a continuum. Single distillation can result in a very intense product full of secondary constituents that a second distillation would reduce (e.g., Lot 40). At one time, such "singlings" were common. Even in the 1970's for a while, and earlier for those small plants which lacked a rectification column or doubler, some bourbon distillers used one run. Double distillation produces a more refined - less intense, in Chuck's words - palate. Triple distillation, even more so: robust as WR is it would be a heck of a lot more so if it was double-distilled. Different still settings and designs can change the equation again...

    By the same token, if you dilute any such whiskey with near-GNS aged or not, or GNS, or young whiskey under 160 or over 160 but under 190, you will get a milder palate. How mild depends on what you are diluting and how much diluent you use. This is from the distillery's perspective. The consumer has always cut his whiskey, with water amongst other things.

    The mingling of all-straight whiskeys is a form of blending, yes, but not really different in kind than the foregoing. It is not just Four Roses that does it. Wild Turkey does it too although the whiskeys used are from the same mashbill (ditto Barton's for some of the VOB line). In all such cases the idea is to get a balanced and often milder palate. The commercial practice currently may be, for American (blended) Whiskey, to add no more than 1/3rd real whiskey to a GNS or young whiskey base. But at one time (pre-1920) recipes added from very little to 90% or again 100% real whiskey with every gradation in between.

    Currently my own blends tend to be 80% straight whiskey to 20% Canadian whisky but I've drunk some made with 50/50. If you use Lot 40 you can do 50/50 very well using regular Canadian whisky as the base. Maybe you could do the same with Old Potrero or WR 4 grain (or using say 60:40). It is all relative in other words, I don't see that one can draw bright lines between American Whiskey, mingled whiskey, or straight whiskey except (and not to minimise this) in terms of what is available commercially. But for those willing to use some simple historical sources and experiment at home, and again for those who make whiskey cocktails, they have many other options.

    A rye Presbyterian for example is rye whiskey, 2 ounces ginger ale, 2 ounces soda. Very nice drink, it is a "blend", isn't it? Maybe a better or more obvious example is half Southern Comfort and half bourbon.

    In terms of what is on the market, I like Barton's blends, one is called (this from memory) QT. Heaven Hill makes some good ones, too, one is Kentucky Gold. I am not a fan of the current Seagram 7 Crown but that's okay, if I happen upon some I'll just add bourbon to it or a mix of straight whiskeys.

    You can too.

    Gary
    Last edited by Gillman; 02-07-2006 at 18:12.

  10. #10
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    Was there a time when Seagram's Seven Crown was blended without GNS? I was at a party a while back at which an old (tax-stamped) bottle of Seagram's was offered, and it seemed more flavorful than I would have expected from a GNS blend.

    Also, I seem to remember reading somewhere that Seagram's made some rather unusual whiskeys that it blended into Seven Crown, i.e., not just traditional straight bourbon or rye. Does anyone know anything about that?

 

 

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