Recently, I ordered a Johnnie Walker Black with soda in one of my favourite Canberra bars. To my horror, the bartender dropped a wedge of lime in it. And a straw. As if I was ordering a vodka lime soda at a hen’s night. “Hey, what’s the big idea?” I cried. “It’s only a blend,” he replied. “Only a blend?” I retorted. “Only a blend? Why I oughta…”
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m up for a decent cocktail, and I have no snobbish aversion to mixing drinks if that is what one’s taste dictates, but if a man orders a scotch, then he isn’t asking for a damn lime! Unless he is. In which case, he will state it. Which I didn’t. Anyway, enough of that–the point is, blended whisky is not ‘only a blend’, and this view reeks of a certain elitism that is sadly creeping into the simple act of enjoying a whisky.
A good blended whisky is something to enjoy; not for its wank factor, or for some particular profundity, but simply because it is a perfect and balanced go-to drink.
To make matters worse, I came across a scotch drinker’s forum recently where some newbie was asking whether he should bother with blended whiskies at all. Can you believe this? The guy was just starting to drink scotch and he already had an attitude. Of course, a number of pretentious pratts entered the thread, articulating their disdain for blends, and generally blowing their own trumpets. Which compels me to ask: Are you ignorant of the history of this fine spirit? If so, let me give you a short and succinct lesson.
Up until the mid 19th century, whisky making in Scotland consisted mainly of individual distilleries, each producing their own spirit. At this stage, it was essentially a cottage industry, and many of the whiskies required a little getting used to before they could be fully appreciated. Some, of course, only a mother could love. Blending created a smoother, more complex drink, allowing each ‘single malt’ to bring its own characteristics to the blend. Master blenders meticulously crafted each blend with balance and palatability in mind, leading to a standard that defined the actual taste of whisky. The success of blending led to the widespread acceptance of this spirit across the world, and even today, around 90 percent of the whisky consumed falls into this category. In fact, without the demand for single malts created by the blenders, many of them would not exist today.
Blended whiskies generally include grains other than malted barley. Many times, these are less expensive. On their own, these spirits probably resemble vodka, but they contribute to the balance, and also the lower price of many entry-level blends. But make a note here. Money doesn’t always buy class, and the fact that something is inexpensive does not necessarily mean that it is a dud. Sure, there are some ordinary blends out there, but more often than not, they can still be consumed without offence; and while single malts have been deservedly gaining in popularity since the 70s, a lot of them remain an acquired taste to most whisky drinkers, demanding the kind of commitment that is akin to a full blown declaration of undying love.
Of course, if you are looking to go on an adventure of discovery, or to sit around talking about ‘peatiness’ or ‘fruit notes’ and other such things, then the world of single malts may well be for you, but if you are simply looking to have a decent drink and don’t want to spend a king’s ransom, you can’t go past a good blend like the Johnnie Walker Black Label. But hey, don’t take my word for it, as far greater palates than you or I have made this call. Take Jim Murray, of Murray’s Whisky Bible for example: ‘If there is a silkier delivery on the market today, I have not seen it. This is sublime stuff…one of the world’s most masterful whiskies back in all its complex glory’.
So there you have it. A good blended whisky is something to enjoy, not for its wank factor, or for some particular profundity, but simply because it is a perfect and balanced go-to drink. It does not demand too much of its drinker, but rather embraces the one thing that makes a night out desirable: Fun! It is egalitarian and it is inclusive, but that said, it can have complex character and often requires little enhancement, if any at all. It certainly does not warrant a lime. So do me a favour–heck, do yourselves a favour–and embrace the fine art of whisky blending, lest you make a name for yourselves as elitist and misguided snobs. And for the love of God, do not drop a lime wedge into my scotch and soda. What do I look like, a vodka drinker?