In today's world of whisk(e)y, terms like "special reserve" and "small batch" carry a lot of weight, marketing-wise. But as David Wondrich writes in this month's Esquire, terms such as these are the liquor equivalents of "lite" and "natural" on food packaging. But the word "blend," as unexciting as it may initially seem, does have some legal backing to it, though depending on the style of spirit it can mean very different things.
Most blended whiskies are created by taking an aged spirit (or, in most cases, a combination of several aged spirits) and mixing them with a more neutral grain alcohol. Alright, this is where it gets complicated: as defined under the law, American blended whiskies are made by cutting straight bourbon or rye with neutral spirits (aka vodka), which subdues the whiskey's robust flavor and makes the finished product either softer and more approachable or dull and hopelessly flaccid, depending on your point of view. Most whiskey fans take the latter approach, and leave American blends well alone.
Blended scotch whiskies, however, take a different tack. To create a blended scotch, blenders barrel-age the neutral grain spirit just as they do the richer-flavored malt whiskies, giving the finished spirit depth and complexity, while smoothing out the more rugged flavors and esoteric characteristics found in single malts. For all the acclaim hung on single malts, blends are the big sellers in the scotch world, for good reason: blends such as Johnny Walker and Famous Grouse are great whiskies, suitable for sipping and for occasional use in cocktails, and premium blends such as Johnny Walker Blue and Chivas Regal 18 have earned their place on the top shelf for many whisky lovers.
As Wondrich notes, things get even more interesting with so-called "blended malts, "which leave the neutral grain spirit out of the equation in favor of simply blending multiple malt whiskies. Among the stars in the blended malt firmament are the whiskies from Compass Box; Wondrich heaps deserved praise on the blender's Oak Cross, made with aged spirits from three Highland distilleries, that have been blended and re-aged together.
Last week at Whiskyfest in San Francisco, I had the chance to try another blended malt from Compass Box, Flaming Heart. This is the third limited-edition release for Flaming Heart, a mixture of Highland, Islay and Island single malts, aged in a combination of American and French oak casks. Ethereally smoky and alluringly sweet, Flaming Heart was one of the highlights for me at Whiskyfest, and is high on my wish list for the holidays.
There are some dismal blended whiskies out there, to be sure, but there are also some real finds. What are your favorites?
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.