If you look back 150 years or so, whisky was just whisky. People took any grain source at hand and mixed it with water and yeast to make an alcoholic sludge that was put thought a primitive still and then consumed – immediately. Technology, powered by the Industrial Revolution, gradually intervened to allow more advanced whisky making practices. Distillation changed, for example, with the development of the continuous still in the mid-1800’s, leading to fundamental changes to whisky production. And rules, of course.
Remember that whisky, particularly scotch whisky, is a highly regulated product. As a result, two streams of whisky making emerged, with the traditional single malt whisky clearly distinguished from the more popular blended whisky.
So what’s the difference? Oddly enough, the modern (well, 1800’s modern) blended whisky took advantage of the high volume, low-cost continuous still process, where any grain could be used in the whisky making process. The result? A fairly low-quality and unremarkable product.
On the other side, the traditional single malt whisky industry continued to produce smaller quantities of higher quality, premium whisky, made from only malted barley nd produced in single batch stills. But the superior single malt was more expensive. The solution? Blend the two into a product that offered the high quality taste of the single malt with the affordability of the mass produced grain whisky. So successful was this marriage that, until the 1970’s, practically all single malt whisky was used in blends.
And then the Grant family changed everything. In 1961, William Grant and Sons released Glenfiddich Straight Malt whisky. A few years later, they undertook a global marketing campaign of the re-named Glenfiddich Single Malt Whisky. And so it began. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, however, that other single malts whisky brands such as MaCallan, Glenlivet, and Glenmorangie started to gain momentum in the marketplace.
So, how has all this played out over the past 40 years? Well, despite the popularity and incredible diversity of Single Malt Whisky available today, Blended Whisky still makes up about 75-80% of all sales. Most Canadian and American whiskies are blends. Scotch standards such as Johnny Walker, Chivas, Famous Grouse, Dewers, Grants, Ballantines and Cutty Sark are widely consumed around the globe. Why? Mostly because they are affordable and consistent. After all, the goal of blends is to provide the same consistent taste that whisky drinkers have come to expect. Conversely, the goal of single malt whisky is to provide consumers with a unique and widely varied taste experience.
Which is better? I’ll let you decide. I like ’em all. Next, we’ll look at all the fuss about age statements. Enjoy!