Blended Whisky: We're Almost There
There are always trends in the booze industry, products that fall out of fashion then come roaring back in a newer, hipper, updated form. Rye whiskey was considered an old man's drink ten years ago. Now it's simply cool to be an old man and do things that old men did a century ago -- like play Bocce Ball, sport a twirly moustache, and dress like a banker from the 1920s. One of my favorite phenomena is the repackaging of beverages once considered cheap into a fancy, more upscale version. Canned beer used to be the preferred medium for brands like Bud Light and Coors. Now many of the smaller craft brewers are using the can as their container of choice, i.e. Oskar Blues, Maui Brewing, etc. Boxed wine used to be just for Franzia and Gallo, but now we're seeing high-quality vintners use the collapsible bag-in-a-box for everyday drinkers. Our custom-made Blason Italian White Box is one of the most asked about products we carry. We're always running out.
When people discover the difference between "good booze" and "bad booze" they tend to simplify a few rules down into general practice, often falsely stereotyping or pigeonholing products into neat little boxes within which they may not fit. To use the above examples, many people consider bottled beer as an upgrade to canned beer, which it can be, but isn't always. What are other examples? Organic is always better than non-organic. Small production distillation creates tastier products than mass distillation. Pot stills over column stills. I could go on and on. While most of those strongly-held beliefs are easily countered, one of the myths that has managed to remain strong with whisky drinkers is the idea that blended whisky is cheap. They're cutting down your precious single malt with some sloppy grain distillate and cheating you out of your money. Blended whisky can be cheap, just like any stereotype can be true from time to time, but you can't go around generalizing like that. Each case must be evaluated on its own merit.
Would you rather drink Glenkinchie than Johnnie Walker Gold? Not I. Would you rather drink Glenlivet 12 than Bank Note Blended? Not I. Would you rather drink Yamazaki 12 over the Hibiki 12? Once again, I would take the blend over the malt in that instance. Education is very important in the beverage world. Only by reinforcing the message that there are always exceptions to the rule can we begin to change the way people feel about certain products. By continuing to seek out casks like the 1979 Faultline, or the 1991 Cambus, we're changing the way our customers feel about grain whisky and opening them up to new possibilities. It also expands the selection for people who might once have limited themselves to a few specific choices.
That being said, it's still tough for some whisky geeks to get into blended whisky simply because the educational aspect of it is being taken away. Most blends do not tell you the cepage, but whisky geeks are dying to know which whiskies are being used to create the flavor. What are we paying for? This is changing however. Cadenhead's new sherry-aged blend is very clear about which distilleries were included in the recipe. David Stirk is also transparent with his new 21 year Exclusive Malt blend. John Glaser, of course, has always been open about revealing his sources, and the Morrisons have had no problem telling us that the Bank Note is largely Bowmore and Cameronbridge. More importantly, all of the above whiskies are delicious. They offer value, quality, and honesty. We're slowly seeing all the pitfalls of blended whisky being removed, as a new generation of producers updates the genre for the new generation of drinkers.
If single malt prices keep going up, while blended prices remain stagnant, we might see more rejuvenance as well. The price of a quality 18 year old single malt is slowly moving towards the $150 average, while blended whiskies of 20 years or more still hover at the $100 mark. We're keenly aware of this here at the K&L spirits department. There are some secrets we haven't yet revealed concerning next year's long-delayed shipment. We think blended whisky is the way forward and possibly the antidote to ever-increasing prices. The craft whiskey industry is not helping to curb demand and ease the shortage on big-brand whiskey. If anything, it's making it worse as it provides justification for brands to charge more. With careful blending, however, you can create something great from something inexpensive.
How will the public respond? If there's one thing I've learned working here at K&L, it's that people like spirits that taste good and are reasonably priced. They're willing to trust us at least once, no matter how deep their resistance to an idea. There's a strong resistance to blended whisky, but I think we're close to breaking it down. We're almost there. We just need a few more winners.