Blended Scotch producers challenge category misconceptions
Malts are in the ascendancy but innovation is rife in blended Scotch. The Spirits Business speaks to producers who are seeking to challenge prejudice and push boundaries of what a blend can be.
Blends or single malts – which whisky is better? Let us follow the train of thought of Chris Anderson, head of Edrington brands, to break down this common conundrum: by comparing whisky to Italian cuisine.
“Grain whisky for me is like pasta, it gives a base, heart and body to a dish,” Anderson explains, referring to the fact that blended Scotch contains grain and malt whisky, which, he says, plays are similar role to “arrabbiata, or Bolognese sauce”. On their own, the pasta and chosen sauce are delicious components. But combined, they create a much more flavoursome dish. “When you think about the final meal, it’s much better to have a pasta dish with both elements,” Anderson says. “In a similar way, blended whisky is a combination of two very strong whisky components that bring great balance and complement each other.”
But single malts remain in fashion – and while this sub-sector of Scotch whisky has been put on a pedestal, consumers are often quick to denigrate blends for being of ‘lesser quality’.
However, blends are still the bedrock of the Scotch whisky sector, shifting enviable volumes worldwide. During 2018, exports of blended Scotch whisky grew by 5.8% to £3.04 billion (US$3.8bn), according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). Data from market research provider Euromonitor also shows that volumes of blended Scotch globally grew from 83.43bn nine-litre cases in 2017 to 84.61bn in 2018.
Single malts also demonstrated continued strength, though, with exports up 11.3% to £1.30bn during the same period. Volumes also grew, as Euromonitor’s figures reveal, with single malt sales increasing from 7.49bn nine-litre case sales in 2017 to 7.88bn last year.
“We shouldn’t forget that blended Scotch is still the giant in terms of volume, and even though the category has been kind of flat for some time, it is now back on track towards growth,” says Nadège Perrot, international senior brand manager of whiskies at La Martiniquaise-Bardinet, which owns blends Label 5 and the recently acquired Cutty Sark. “Top historical countries for Scotch are not decreasing anymore, but are flat, while new dynamic countries are emerging, like the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India and China]. Blended Scotch contributes a lot to the prestige of Scotch around the world.”
But if blends shift far greater volumes than single malts, why has the Scotch whisky conversation tipped so favourably towards malts? “Broadly speaking there’s a general misunderstanding about the quality of blended whisky in the UK and other developed markets,” explains Freddie Vereker, Grant’s brand manager. “The misconception is that the addition of grain whiskies and malts from other distilleries is diluting the quality. But that’s not the case – it’s about creating flavour that will appeal to a lot of people.”
The task for blended producers, he adds, is to assure consumers that the quality of their liquid is equal to what they expect to find in single malts. As such, last year, William Grant & Sons-owned Grant’s blended Scotch underwent a complete brand overhaul and streamlined its core range by discontinuing various expressions and introducing three new blends. The core range was simplified to four expressions: Grant’s Triple Wood, Grant’s Triple Wood Smoky, Grant’s Rum Cask Finish and Grant’s 8 Year Old Sherry Cask Finish.
Furthermore, Grant’s replaced its ‘family reserve’ strap-line with ‘triple wood’ to better communicate the production process behind the liquid, namely the three cask styles used to mature the whisky: virgin oak, American oak and refill Bourbon.
“We wanted to emphasise the versatility of Grant’s and to introduce occasions and flavour expectations,” says Vereker. “In terms of reception, we’ve been retained by all the grocers who were originally stocking us. Blends are being pushed off shelves as consumers trade up to single malts, so we feel the threat of delisting going on around us. But Triple Wood has allowed us to keep our place safe in all the top five grocers in the UK.”
Grant’s has not been the only brand to realise the need for blends to adapt to remain relevant and competitive against a rising tide of single malt drinkers, and also against other flourishing categories, such as gin and Irish whiskey. Even the world’s leading blended Scotch whisky player, Johnnie Walker, has been busy experimenting with fresh ideas.
In 2016, the brand introduced its Blenders’ Batch range, starting with Johnnie Walker Red Rye. The experimental series involved more than 50 experiments exploring 203 malt and grain whisky samples until the brand’s team of blenders, led by master blender Jim Beveridge, settled on the final recipe. The whisky was a combination of malt and grain whiskies that had been aged in first-fill Bourbon casks before being finished in rye casks. The following year, Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch Bourbon Cask & Rye Finish joined Red Rye, before a wine cask- finished blend joined the range later that same year – championed as a whisky suited to “all tastes”.
Not only this – in 2017 Johnnie Walker owner Diageo also created an unusual blended malt as part of its highly anticipated Special Releases series. Collectivum XXVIII comprised liquid from all 28 of the firm’s active Scottish distilleries – and was also only the fourth no-age-statement release from the range to date.
Ewan Gunn, Diageo global whisky master, says: “Looking at the success and excitement we’ve seen for innovations such as Johnnie Walker Blenders’ Batch and Collectivum XXVIII, it’s clear to see that along with authenticity and provenance – recognised by discerning consumers as signposts for quality – flavour is the most important feature they look for in whisky, so are happy to place their confidence in a particular brand.
“When our master blenders receive a brief to innovate without an age statement, for instance, it gives them great freedom to combine flavours from different ages, casks and distilleries, adding a whole new dimension to our whiskies. We therefore see ‘non-age-statement’ whiskies continuing to prove popular with consumers and believe they have an important role to play alongside whiskies with age statements.”
Blended malts have become a rising trend within the Scotch category – and a number of brands have introduced a blended malt recipe to their stables. Diageo-owned Buchanan’s released its first blended malt in 2018 – 15-year-old Buchanan’s Select – as a permanent addition to its portfolio.
Meanwhile, last year Edrington’s Naked Grouse took a slightly different approach by relaunching entirely as a blended malt in a bid to “challenge traditional stereotypes of whisky” and entice a younger demographic.
The new recipe features whiskies exclusively from malt distilleries such as The Macallan, Highland Park, Glenturret and The Glenrothes, and is said to offer a “more robust” flavour, thanks to its Sherry cask maturation. “We decided to change the recipe to differentiate the brand and classify what we call a ‘contemporary’ category,” explains Anderson. “This is a progressive sub- segment, and our decision was about differentiating Naked Grouse from Famous
Grouse, and contemporising opportunities for Naked Grouse.”
One of the biggest success stories of the blended malt subcategory to date is William Grant & Sons’ Monkey Shoulder. A bartender favourite, Monkey Shoulder has been bold in its efforts to shake up Scotch and highlight its mixability, to create a less pretentious, more accessible category.
“As with other categories, such as gin, there can be too much choice. While price is a driver, if you can get the message across about flavour and how it should be drunk then that will win the day – especially for those people new to the category,” says Ieuan Morgan, brand manager of Monkey Shoulder. “The future is unpredictable, of course, there are lots of interesting things happening and it’s an incredible category for innovation. But there are huge opportunities for blended malts, and we are well placed to capitalise on drinkers’ desire to try new things, experiment and to have fun while doing so.”
The rumour mill was in full swing last year, as reports suggested Diageo had put together a secret task force to consider potential changes to the rules that govern Scotch whisky’s production, all in the name of experimentation. Among the proposed suggestions was the creation of a new category of blended whisky to include flavoured and lower-abv line extensions. The idea to allow Scotch to be aged and finished in Tequila barrels was also supposedly floated. But any proposal to amend the Scotch whisky regulations divides opinion.
“Expanding the rules probably would make the category a bit more experimental,” reflects Andrew Skene, cofounder of blended Scotch Black Tartan, which launched in 2018 to challenge category’s “elitist, snobbish and clichéd” views. “The thing is, Scotch has already got a pull with consumers but it is facing challenges from the likes of Bourbon and gin. Maybe doing something like this would help the category compete – and especially with the likes of Diageo behind it.”
Stephanie Macleod, master blender of Bacardi-owned Dewar’s, has proven – along with multiple other whisky producers – that experimentation and fresh approaches to flavour are still possible in the existing boundaries. In March, Dewar’s brought out
Dewar’s Double Double, a travel retail-exclusive range of whiskies that had been put through a four-step maturation process. The range was crafted as a nod to the brand’s history of double ageing, and comprises three age statements: a 21-year-old, a 27-year-old and a 32-year-old.
“We allowed the malts and grains to each mature to their age statements in their respective casks,” explains Macleod. “Then we blended the grains together, and the malts together, and put them into separate oak casks. After this, we blended the grains and malts together, and put them back into casks to age again, before finally putting them into different types of Sherry casks. It was time-consuming, and something we’ve never done before. But it opens up the next stage of experimentation – not just the number of steps involved in maturation, but other cask finishes and ways of looking at the whisky.”
But although Macleod believes the Scotch rules already offer opportunities to experiment, she says she would welcome an expansion of the types of casks that could be used to age Scotch. She explains how the SWA is already exploring the possibility of widening the range of options, and says:
“That’s certainly something that Bacardi is really supportive of.”
Others are more hesitant to see the regulations dabbled with or split into further subsegments, insisting there is plenty of room for innovation within the current constraints. “Low-abv or flavoured Scotch- based spirits can exist, if they are correctly labelled and are not deceiving for the consumer,” says Perrot. “But as they will apparently still represent a very small share of the market and not be actual Scotch whiskies, I’m not sure I see the need to create a dedicated category.”
For Edrington’s Anderson, the future success and reputation of blended Scotch is not heavily reliant on tweaking the current regulations. Instead, he sees the continued strength of blends as being dependent on the global success of all whisky styles, from the US and Ireland to Japan, India and Australia.
“As a category, all brands in whisky are having to innovate, and work harder and smarter so we’re not left behind by other growth categories such as gin and Tequila,” he says. “We’ve got a strong base of consumers, but we recognise there is a leaky bucket of consumers in the blended category dying off. We have to make sure we’re topping up that leaky bucket by energising consumers with inspiring new products developments, brand stories and exciting innovations.”