Deluxe scotch blends have been a big part of the top-end spirits scene abroad for decades and now, finally, they're starting to gain a following amongst the cognoscenti here. Richard Woodard reports on a world beyond single malts
It all started 30 or 40 years ago. Before that, for the vast majority of the population, whisky was just whisky. You might be a Bell's man, a Haig or a Grouse man (and yes, it was mostly men), but when it came to scotch, you drank a blend without ever calling it that. Then single malt arrived on the scene.
'When single malt whisky came along in the 1980s, most of the luxury blends were exported,' says Phil Huckle, whisky ambassador at Pernod Ricard UK. 'The UK was just too price-sensitive, and there wasn't much being done for blends by the companies.'
This polarisation of the whisky category – blends for everyday consumption, malts for a treat – helped create the 'malts good, blends bad' prejudice that has since done so much to damage blended scotch in mature markets around the world.
The products that might help overturn those preconceptions – Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Chivas Regal 18, Ballantine's 17 and so on – were being shipped across to the newly lucrative markets of Asia instead.
Some prestige blends carry a status symbol attached to them that few malts have achieved’ Ryan Chetiyawardana
Now there's a growing feeling that this narrative is changing, that blends – high-end blends specifically – are beginning to find their niche in the UK on-trade. According to CGA on-trade MAT figures to 14 May this year, quoted by Pernod, premium blended whisky was up 12% in value terms – compared to a 5% decline for the value price segment.
Meanwhile, Chivas Regal 18 has seen its volumes surge by 72% over the same time, while Pernod stablemates, Royal Salute 21 and Chivas Regal 25, have moved up 65% and 41% respectively.
'From my perspective on the front line, I'm starting to see what the figures are saying,' reports Huckle. 'We're starting to see better distribution of our brands and our competitors, and more interest from consumers. I think they are starting to get it a little bit more.'
At Compass Box, head of marketing Jonathan Gibson says the old malts versus blends preconceptions still exist, but believes these are not impossible to overcome.
'The most expensive whisky we released this year (The Circus) was a blended Scotch whisky and it was also our fastest-selling release,' he points out.
Colin Dunn, whisky ambassador with Diageo Reserve, agrees. 'I hear this [malts are better than blends] sometimes, but to me it's a matter of taste,' he says. 'I often introduce blends blind into single malt tastings and, unsurprisingly, it is often voted the best of the tasting.'
However, consumers don’t buy their whisky 'blind'; they're all too aware of whether it’s a malt or a blend, and of the brand name that’s on the label, when they place an order at the bar. So what's the experience of bartenders?
Ditching the stigma
'Of course the common prejudice of "malts are better than blends" – no matter how high-end the blend may be – is still around, but as long as we continue to educate our guests, we can hopefully change their perceptions,’ says Aaron Masonde, head bartender at Oblix.
'It's important for us as bartenders to recommend other brands of blended scotch, to demonstrate there is diversity in this market. The guest can then compare and contrast… Perhaps by doing this we can encourage the UK to rediscover the blended market.'
To Shiv Lal, previously general manager at LAB (now closed, formerly on Old Compton Street), the malts/blends cliché is already 'an old stereotype', while Mr Lyan’s Ryan Chetiyawardana sees the situation as rather more complex.
'That "superiority" of malts over blends waxes and wanes – at the lower end, common perception will often direct someone to an entry malt over an entry blend, but this begins to blur as price increases,' he says. 'Some prestige blends carry a status symbol attached to them that few malts have achieved, except through age.'
Whisky and the Long Arm of the Law
Why a campaign you can see right through caused problems for Compass Box
Compass Box produces infographics for each of the whiskies it releases, outlining the casks used and the ratios of them in the final blend – an educational tool for the company’s target consumer, the informed whisky drinker.
Then, late last year, the company received a metaphorical tap on the shoulder from the Scotch Whisky Association: did it realise that its latest communications broke the law? It was true, the infographics for two new releases, This Is Not A Luxury Whisky and Flaming Heart, revealed their precise recipes in terms of source, cask type, age and even proportions in the final blend.
Under EU law, brand owners may only communicate the youngest component of any blend – a necessary measure to prevent them from misleading consumers by over-emphasising older blend components – even if they clearly stipulate the precise proportions of each of the
elements in question.
The furore prompted the company to launch a Scotch whisky transparency campaign, to lobby for changes to the law which would allow producers to give ‘complete, unbiased and clear’ information on the component whiskies in their blends.
Changes to the law, if they happen at all, could take years. But Compass Box founder John Glaser believes the issue is vital to Scotch whisky and to increasingly curious consumers. ‘The changes we're proposing will give the consumer greater clarity around what it is they’re buying, and will help the scotch industry stay relevant.
The motivation for ordering a luxury blend also varies, he believes. 'For some, the prestige blends fit a lifestyle spot – ordering a Johnnie Walker Blue or a Royal Salute is part of displaying a connoisseurship and wealth – much like ordering a big-label Cognac.
'However, there are still some who wish to drink it less from a status position and will order a high-end blend as an experience. I've seen drams such as Black Bull, Isle of Skye 50 or prestige Compass Box go out in specialist venues, as the person understands they’re getting a special treat that is distinct from a malt, and often at a much more accessible price point, but still with the fleeting experience truly rare things have.'
Blends and trends
A couple of trends are helping to change things. One is simply that the big players – Diageo, Pernod/Chivas, Bacardi/Dewar's – are giving their high-end blends more focus in the UK. Just years ago, you'd be lucky to find a bottle of Royal Salute outside Asia, but the brand now has a global presence.
One of the key duties for Fraser Campbell, global brand ambassador at Dewar's, is to persuade consumers and the trade, through tasting, that products such as Dewar's 18 or Dewar’s Signature are every bit as good sipped neat as somebody's favourite single malt.
Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard UK has placed new emphasis on education, conducting 'Art of Blending' sessions, where participants blend their own whisky using four single malts and one grain. 'By getting involved themselves, they understand the scale of [creating a blend],' says Huckle.
London's status as a hub of international travel has also helped to cement the place of luxury blends like Ballantine's 17 – again, a product more readily associated with Asia – on the capital's back bars.
Citing 'London's international demographic', Huckle says: 'A lot of people from around the world have premium blended Scotch as their natural drink if they can afford it… bartenders are aware of the global reach of these blends, so you ask them to think about their customer. Chivas 18 is the world’s best-selling 18-year-old whisky. That's a great starting point.'
The second trend is the rise of the 'modern' blend – contemporary products with non-traditional branding. This category is the province of iconoclastic blenders such as Compass Box, or indie bottlers like Douglas Laing.
Masonde believes the advent of these products has 'absolutely reinvigorated' the blends category, luring younger consumers to blended scotch for the first time. 'Perhaps they are new to Scotch whisky and their palates are like a sponge, keen to experiment with flavours,' he adds.
Did someone say 'millennials'? For Gibson, there are parallels with the growth of craft beer. 'The craft beer audience has an appetite for discovering new brands and flavours, and a fervent curiosity for detail – understanding the minutiae of production and where flavour comes from. That works well for a brand like ours that is so open, transparent and keen to share knowledge' he says.
Bars, in turn, can capitalise on this, Gibson believes, helping to turn the nascent recovery of high-end blended scotch into a full-blown revival. 'Provide information that goes above and beyond expectations to the consumer, bring in brand ambassadors to host a whisky school, make it fun to explore the category and some – not all – will thank you for it and think better of you for it,' he argues.
'Scotch whisky is an intimidating category to find your feet in,' concludes Gibson. 'Make it easy for people to make a choice they will enjoy.'
What works? How to sell luxury blended scotch
Jonathan Gibson, head of marketing, Compass Box
'When making their first foray into scotch, many consumers may have heard of certain brand names, but may not have an idea of what they taste like – and, if you order a huge, peaty whisky when it’s really not what you wanted, it can put you off the category for life.
'A few brief notes on the flavour profile contained on the menu can go a long way. We've recently started doing exactly this on the front labels of our bottles – describing the whisky in just three words.'
Ryan Chetiyawardana, White Lyan & Dandelyan
'I think the more familiar serves are going to work best here, and although the use of a prestige whisky in a scotch and soda or specialist cocktail can do wonders for the whisky and the cocktail, as an educational tool, Old Fashioneds, Rob Roys and their ilk are likely to have the best impact.
'Know the product! The higher price is only value for money if the whisky is used sensitively, and is backed up with the information to explain the how and why it's being served in that way.'
Aaron Masonde, head bartender, Oblix
'A key way to sell blends is to place them in cocktails – the results can be very interesting. I myself have made a Penicillin using two different blends from the same brand, Compass Box Enlightenment and Peat Monster. Both made equally exceptional cocktails, each of which were very different.
'Maybe this could be a key way for bars to sell an array of blends. By offering a cocktail on a menu with a range of different whiskies, each blend could create a very different cocktail, meeting the guest's needs and tastes.'
Colin Dunn, whisky ambassador, Diageo Reserve
'My biggest piece of advice would be to go compare, and to play around with serving blends in different ways – trust your nose and palate, and experiment. Bars such as the Savoy's American Bar, Connaught Bar at The Connaught, and Galvin at Windows at the Hilton Park Lane are doing just that – they have created some amazing Johnnie Walker Blue Label cocktails.'
Fraser Campbell, global brand ambassador, Dewar's
'Bartenders are on the front line between the customer and the bottle. The more they understand about the history and processes used to make your blended whisky, the more they will engage with the customer and recommend them the right blend – based on their previous whisky experiences or current mood.' #d1973b