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In the mix

Published:  23 July, 2008

Once, whisky was such a simple affair. If you wanted a Scotch you went out and bought one. And it was a blend.

Blends dominated the bar of your pub or hotel, and your sideboard. And they took pride of place in off-licences. Watch any pre-1970s' film and if a Scotch was called for then Johnnie Walker Red Label or Black & White would normally do the trick.

To drive home the point - and I make no apology for this - I have beside me my bound January to June 1956 issues of a particular spirit trade magazine. And leafing through the pages my eyes are bathed by full-page adverts for whisky. Don't be Vague', I'm advised. Ask for Haig'. And I had a choice at 36/- for the Gold Label or an extra three bob for Dimple.

A few pages later I'm informed that Johnnie Walker was Born 1820 still going strong'. And at identical prices to those above for the Red and Black Labels respectively. Then we go all colourful for the famous MacKinlay's kilted man perched on a rocky outcrop: There's no use talking TASTE IT!' Fair comment. Less impressive is a gaudy ad for VAT 69, the bottle beside an arrangement of flowers (how the hell are you expected to nose that?). Next a 1950s' beauty stares lovingly and bare-shouldered at a glass of Whyte & Mackay's Special (showing a healthier, lighter hue than today's, it should be noted): A fine old Scotch whisky that has humoured many tongues since 1844'. Had they used just the last five words they might have been in trouble

Next Highland Queen: Queen of Scots'. Then back to full colour for House of Lords and King's Ranson. Elswhere the Finsbury Distillery Co presents Rothsay Scotch. And, fearsomely, with feathered tam-o'-shanter above full shaggy beard, a Scots warrior charges at the reader with cutlass raised: In demand throughout the World' is MacDonald's Gold Label. When men meet the choice is MacDonalds' (sic). To hit each other over the heads with, presumably. And to add to these, for the issue of exactly 50 years ago to the week I write this are Dewar's (It never varies'), Ada 53 Blended Scotch, Bell's, Long John (the spirit of a great race') and King George IV Old Scotch - the blurb offering the whisky to those who want to take some time out in an increasingly busy world.

Blends, each and every one. Tellingly, the only adverts I could find for single malts, were to nudge industry blenders in their direction (see left), rather than to tease, tempt and excite a whisky-loving public.

Today, the world is a much more confusing place. For a start, if the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) gets its ill-advised way, no one will be too sure what a blend is any more. Even when I got the brief for this article, the commissioning editor was all at sea. Having been invited to write as a champion of blends', I'm then asked to talk about innovations e.g. Monkey Shoulder etc.'

And it is at times like these that I wish there really was a Tardis and I could whisk myself back a few decades (preferably with Billie 100' Piper) so that if my head hurt it came from drinking whisky, rather than trying to understand or explain it.

For a start, Monkey Shoulder - a delicious little number you may have seen in such outlets as Oddbins - is not a blend, in terms of how we have understood this whisky to be since Victorian times. Namely, a mixture of single malt whisky and cheaper grain whisky.

No, Monkey Shoulder is a vatted whisky. That is, a mixture of malts from more than one distillery. It is not a single malt. It is not a grain. It is not a blend (a mixture of the previous two). It could also be called a Pure Malt because it contains, purely and exclusively, malt. It just so happens, though, that it is following the SWA directive and calling itself a Blended Malt.

Confusion reigns

But the fact that such confusion arises from such a simple brief is a taster of things to come. Even when I was talking with the guy from the SWA to get the current details of the state of blended Scotch, ridiculously, I had to keep breaking off the conversation to add riders in order to explain that I was talking about true blends (ie a mixture of malt and grain whisky - blast! look I'm doing it again!) rather than vatted malts. Or Blended Malts if they have it their way and which, worryingly, is already being used on labels.

So if the editor wants innovations in the industry, the first must be its all-out assault on confusing the public.

The Brits have been trying to copy the Brazilians at football for years. Much easier would be to follow the lead of their Scotch Whisky Society, which has voted not to recognise the term Blended Malt. Then sanity in the industry might be restored. Certainly in my annual Jim Murray's Whisky Bible there is no such section as Blended Malts'. You will find Monkey Shoulder and it's ilk under Vatted Malts where it belongs.

Now, with all that out of the way, I shall concentrate on the matter in hand: Blended Scotch.

Well, it's sticking around. The advance of single malts has not quite had the grey squirrel effect, although that could mainly be down to a price factor But it still has to be said that it is taking a battering from single malt and, among connoisseurs, bourbon and dark rum.

About ten years ago some 96 out of every 100 bottles of Scotch whisky sold in the UK were blended. Today it is 89.3. The problem with blends is that they have not been seen as sexy for a long time. Wonderful product in new and developing markets like China and Thailand, but not back in Blighty, where the focus is on the single malt market.

As one executive from Diageo once said to me: If you want to find out where all our British drinkers are for White Horse and even Black Label, have a look in the obituary column.' It is a sentiment echoed around the industry. Blends are seen as the fodder of an older, less-demanding generation; malts the ambrosia for the new sophisticates.

Yet it shouldn't be this way. Each year I taste between 1,500 and 2,000 whiskies for Jim Murray's Whisky Bible. And easily some of the greatest moments come when a bottle of blend is opened. In fact, should you ever catch me at home, relaxing late at night with a dram in hand, chances are it will be a Scotch blend that is smoothing my furrowed brow.

But although I am often asked to give training around the world on blends, it must be about five or six years since I last did so in the UK. And that is symptomatic of the lack of focus on blend understanding and development.

As one buyer for a supermarket chain put it to me: One of the problems is that you have the same few whiskies for people to choose from.' Spot on. The die was cast back in the late '80s and early '90s when a number of famous brands vanished off the British shelves and became export-only. What has remained has become so common as to be background noise. The only changes seem to be from the supermarkets themselves, never quite sure where to position their better blends. Sainsbury's, for instance, is soon to drop its pretty average 5-year-old and very good 12, and replace them with an 8-year-old. A likely reason is that Tesco has squeezed the price point on the 12-year-old blend market with its new product. While Morrison's has shown that an 8-year-old blend can be of very high standard indeed.

Spot the thoroughbred

But all this is like horses jostling for position in the starting line-up. The problem is that the public now no longer recognises the thoroughbreds. And, believe me, they are out there: who cannot delight and marvel at the complexity and balance of a Grant's (not the cask finishes - the old-fashioned classic); or the imperious, weighty fruitiness of a Johnnie Walker Black; the astonishingly delicate touch of the deftly smoked White Horse; the chunky, charismatic and charming Black Bottle? Or the playful, mouthwatering Bailie Nicol Jarvie; the astonishing, almost mind-blowing caressing of an Old Parr 18? All these are whiskies which single malts have to work overtime to challenge.

But their cause is not helped by the industry not being above shooting itself spectacularly in the foot. For my money probably the most constantly high-quality grain, which in standard blends makes up around 65% of the composition, was made at the Dumbarton distillery. It was that firm, muscular grain that had the ability to bring malts together yet allow the stars to shine. It was this grain which made Teacher's a true classic for so many years. But rather than preserve this most vital ingredient to a blend, the then owners of the distillery, Allied Domecq, decided to bulldoze it to make room for waterfront real estate. In nearly 30 years of following the fortunes of this great industry, it was singularly the most brainless act of recklessness I had ever seen. Because now it means that inferior grains must take the place of greatness. And that, in turn, means the reduction in average quality of blended Scotch. If you were not an accountant you could weep.

I, for one, will not turn my back on blends. I shall still try and include them in all the whisky tastings I give around the world. And especially in the UK. But unless the industry is prepared to put as much energy into marketing blends as it does malts on its home shores, that alarming decline of the blend here will continue.

Perhaps the time has come to bring back some of those famous missing names. Black & White. Haig. Dewar's. Old Parr. Come home, lads: your country needs you.