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  1. #1
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Blending, the Scottish influence

    Among we fans of American whiskey, "blend" is a bad word, connoting both the "imitation" whiskeys of the past and the unedifying American Blended Whiskeys of the present day.

    Even in Scotland, where the art of whiskey blending began, today it gets no respect. Real whiskey enthusiasts don't care about Johnnie Walker, regardless of label color. It's all about single malts.

    But as Gary Gillman often reminds us, blending gives us an unlimited variety of flavors, some of which are wonderful and can be achieved no other way. As his fellow Canadian Sam Bronfman once said, "distilling is a science, blending is an art."

    What I have realized just recently is how influential Scottish blending techniques have been, especially in some unexpected places, especially the practice of combining very flavorful pot-distilled spirit with more neutral column-distilled spirit. This is, of course, the way Scottish, Canadian and Japanese blends are made, but as I recently learned it also is the way fine rums are blended in the former British colony of Jamaica. Different varieties of sugar cane are processed, their molasses separated from their pure sugar content, then the molasses is fermented, distilled in either a pot or column still, and aged in used Jack Daniel's barrels. These different, aged rums are then blended to a desired taste profile, exactly the way Scottish whiskey blends are made, except with rum.

    In the United States, where we value straight whiskey above all else, and where pot stills are usually used only for secondary distillation, there are still some parallels. Four Roses makes ten different bourbon formulas by combining five different yeasts with two different mash bills. Everything is aged in new, charred barrels. Still, that gives them ten different taste profiles, more if you factor in different ages, which they blend into an ideal final product.

    Even closer to the Scottish model is Woodford Reserve, which combines pot-distilled straight bourbon with column-distilled straight bourbon and blends them in much the same way as Appleton blends rum. It's no accident that Brown-Forman, whose controlling Brown family is proud of its Scottish ancestry, makes both Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Appleton Rum.

    Finally, I learned last week that Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, creator of Old Forester, which was originally a blend of straight bourbons, opposed the part of the Bottled-in-Bond act that required bonded whiskey to be from one distillery during a single season. He valued the ability to mix whiskey of different ages and from several distilleries together to achieve the best possible flavor.
    Last edited by cowdery; 09-17-2007 at 20:04.

  2. #2

    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    Chuck, several of us, a couple of years ago, wound up buying single-barrel bottles from FOUR different Stitzel-Weller barrels distilled during its final distilling season in Spring 1992. Each is a fine drink, but I've found that vatted (blended), they strongly resemble Old Rip Van Winkle 15/107 (the barrels were 13-1/2 years old when bottled). Who doesn't claim ORVW 15/107 as a favorite pour?
    So, in the hands of a practiced/professional blender, should we expect a premium product? Sure. I'm sold.
    Tim

  3. #3
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    I agree with both and with Tim's example being a case in point. Each individual bottling is very nice....but I keep a bottle for vatting the remains of each SB......and it's my favorite Weller 12yo.

    Randy

  4. #4
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    It is true that blend is a bad word, mostly due to the fact that most blends are not blends of straights. I have no issue with blends as long as the rectifiers are willing to own up to the fact that they are blends. The blenders art is a noble one and has created some damn fine drams.

    One issue is that (to the best of my knowledge) American blends don't require an aged Grain component as do Scotch...this may be my biggest problem with traditional GNS based blends. Fixing this as well as issuing more blends of straights(and labeling them as such) could help to remove some of the stigma, at least to the blended scotch levels.

    I know and understand that FR Yellow label is a blend of straights and it's a fine pour. If an independent bottler does a blend of straights and is honest about that fact and has a consistent and good product I see no reason to think any less of that product. Yes it will take a bit of a mental adjustment to justify the dollar amounts that the upscale Chivas and Johnny Walkers demand, but if adjusted for the market (bourbon is much cheaper than Scotch) I don't see it as a huge issue, personally.

    Of course having said that, I would still like to be able to know at least what the major component of the blend is (as we know what the major of JW and Chivas are and can buy and try them as Singles)...this is all part of the fun of whisk(e)y exploration.

    It is a complicated subject, filled with a lot of stereotyping and predjudice, but with the right marketing and consumer education it should be a solvable problem.
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  5. #5
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    An elaborated version of my post above is here. It explains that the typical American blend (e.g., Seagram's Seven Crown) is 40 percent straight whiskey and 60 percent grain spirits. The percentage of grain spirits must be shown somewhere on the label (but you usually have to hunt for it).

  6. #6
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    Remember too that most of the world's finest wines are blends of individual grape varietals. The great wines of Bordeaux are the most obvious examples (Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot can all be used.) There are few "single barrel" wines available and when I've had them, I generally find them uninspiring.
    Last edited by jeff; 09-18-2007 at 05:22.
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  7. #7
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    Well put by all. It is a question of balance: with too few components, the taste (sometimes) is monochrome; with too many or not skilfully blended, the taste is bad or muddied.

    Technically, Four Roses Straight Bourbon is not a blend of straights because Four Roses is blending all-bourbons, but I take the point made.

    Aging the GNS part (as in Canada and Scotland) does improve the final flavour but only to a degree, it can't impart genuine whisky qualities (as I conceive whisky) to the blend.

    Interesting what Randy said too, probably any mingling of those barrels would tend to produce something that resembles ORVW 15, or Pappy 15 (at least when all-S-W), and the reason simply is added complexity.

    But I agree with Chuck too on the fundamental idea that blends (i.e., excluding minglings and blends of straight whiskeys) were and are regarded with suspicion in connoisseur/insider/informed circles. And this is simply because a blend fools with or traduces the taste of real whiskey. And I can't gainsay that.

  8. #8
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    Quote Originally Posted by jeff View Post
    Remember too that most of the world's finest wines are blends of individual grape varietals. The great wines of Bordeaux are the most obvious examples (Cabernet Savignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot can all be used.) There are few "single barrel" wines available and when I've had them, I generally find them uninspiring.
    That's been a problem for California wines, where the common use of varietal names made it tough to market blends without the 85% of one grape (or whatever it is). Opus One overcame that with brute marketing strength, and some vintners have created the "meritage" designation, but that's limited, too. It's tough to market an American Bordeaux-style blend.

  9. #9
    Bourbonian of the Year 2002 and Guru
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    Quote Originally Posted by craigthom View Post
    That's been a problem for California wines, where the common use of varietal names made it tough to market blends without the 85% of one grape (or whatever it is). Opus One overcame that with brute marketing strength, and some vintners have created the "meritage" designation, but that's limited, too. It's tough to market an American Bordeaux-style blend.
    That's an interesting parallel too. Americans get themselves locked into some rigid definitional scheme in the name of authenticity and it prevents us from chasing the real goal, which is great taste.

  10. #10
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    Re: Blending, the Scottish influence

    For what it's worth, in order to be given a varietal designation (e.g., to be labeled a Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon) the bottle must contain only 75% of the named grape according to American law. Personally, I find that misleading, but there it is.

    Quote Originally Posted by cowdery View Post
    ...Americans get themselves locked into some rigid definitional scheme in the name of authenticity and it prevents us from chasing the real goal, which is great taste.
    Chuck, I assume you're referring to California producers of Meritage wines trying to imitate Bourdeaux blends.

    I'm sure you know all the following, but just in case some don't know the routine, by treaty U.S. producers are not allowed to use French appellations (geographic names) like Bourdeaux, Cognac, Champagne, etc. (I guess Chablis and Burgundy got grandfathered in so you still see those names used). In turn, distillers in the EU are not allowed to use the name Bourbon or Tennessee Whiskey. So, Meritage was the marketing scheme developed to produce Bourdeaux-style wines without infringing on French naming rights.

    Why should we try to imitate French wines? Well, because these blends have been perfected over the centuries - they're hard if not impossible to beat. Just like tomato, garlic, basic and olive oil is peerless, and corn, rye, barley malt, water and yeast amazing, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, with a dash of Petit Verdot and Malbec is unsurpassed. So, in fact, this combination is the goal, i.e., great taste.

    Mark

    I love him whose soul squanders itself, who wants no thanks...for he always gives away and does not want to preserve himself.
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