Whisky experience

The latest innovation in the history of Scotch whisky is a blend of several single malts marketed under invented brand names and labelled Blended Malts.

They are getting traction with consumers, and shelf space in the supermarkets.

You cannot get more crafty than Scotch malts. There are 126 licensed distilleries, each one a ‘craft’ batch operation and 20 million barrels in maturation warehouses for many years more than the three-year minimum. They offer hundreds of taste and style options.

Expert ‘nosers’ decide cask by cask when the whisky is right for bottling as a single malt or for use in the mainstream Bell’s type blends.

Maturation represents a long-term investment before any sales income. This makes shelf prices for ‘craft’ malts around £30 to £40 a bottle seem fully justified.

Art of Blending

The first known written record of whisky distilling in Scotland was in 1495 by Friar John Cor. More then slowly emerged. It was a Scotland-centric cottage industry until a major product development in the 1800s when ‘blended whisky’ was introduced, 45 per cent of the bottle a blend of several malts and the rest grain whisky.

The art of blending was invented to smooth out cask-to-cask variations so that whenever or wherever the branded blend is drunk it will, from the consumer’s point of view, always nose and taste the same. This was the pivotal change that enabled Scotch whisky to migrate from Scotland, first to England then to the world phenomenon it is now – more than one billion bottles exported in 2017.

Now we have blended malts, 100 per cent malt whisky drawn from several individual single malt distilleries and matured for unspecified ages, giving the blender flexibility and consistency of the branded bottled product.

Three to try

I found these three recently in my local Waitrose:

Monkey Shoulder made in small batches from three of Grant’s Speyside malts – 40 per cent abv and £27 a 70cl bottle. The aroma is orange, chocolate and citrus.

Copper Dog, a blend of eight Speyside malts, light and floral, hints of apple and honey. Launched by the Craigellachie Hotel in Speyside, 40 per cent and £28 per 70cl bottle. (The ‘Copper Dog’ was a piece of copper tubing distillery workers would dip into casks and then conceal down their trouser leg to sneak a dram home.)

Naked Grouse, from the makers of Famous Grouse, a deep russet colour from being matured in sherry casks, flavours of dark cherries and spices – 40 per cent, £25 per 70cl bottle.

This blended malt sector looks set to grow quite rapidly. There has never been a better time to enjoy this crafty Scotch innovation.

Distilleries reopening

Showing confidence in the long-term future of malt whisky, Diageo has announced a multi-million pound investment to reopen two distilleries, Port Ellen on the Isle of Islay and Brora in Sutherland (north-east coast), both built about 1830 and dormant since 1983.

The new whisky will flow from 2020 but will need at least 10 maturation years before blending or bottling.

Meantime, the single-malt whiskies they once produced have been in the maturing warehouses and are slowly releasing a cask or two per year. They have become highly prized – and priced.

The Port Ellen release in 2016 was 37-years-old, bottled at 55.22 per cent and £2,600 for a 70cl bottle from www.thewhiskyexchange.com. Others are a mere £700 or so.