Why is 'Blended' such a dirty word? Feat. BBR Sherry Cask



Well, this whole thing started off as a review of Berry Brothers and Rudd’s Sherry Cask Blended Malt. It’s a product I like, and have been meaning to get around to a wee write up for a while. Why? Because it’s tasty, good quality and very fairly priced – all things to be much celebrated given the current state of the whisky market. However, due to a couple of experiences and conversations with friends recently, it started to feel as if the word ‘Blended’ in general deserved a bit of a fair trial – given that it’s still sometimes very misunderstood at best, much maligned at worst.


So, what does it mean? Well, without going into too much detail, there are essentially five categories of scotch whisky (which is a sentence someone is going to take umbridge with I’m sure): Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Malt, Blended Grain and simply Blend(ed). Now, simplistically, all the word ‘blended’ in those contexts means is that the whiskies in the bottle come from more than one place (with a couple of unusual exceptions some pedants might point out, but let’s try and keep on track) as opposed to ‘single’ which has to come from one place. Now that in itself – especially if you’re familiar with how almost any other alcohol tends to be made (wine, anybody?) – seems like it would be a good thing. A neutral thing at best. But a bad thing? Doesn’t make sense. Surely bringing two (or more) different things together could create something greater than the sum of it’s parts?


Old blends are oft sought-after even now
Old blends are oft sought-after even now

So why then is Blended a dirty word? Having worked selling whisky to both the trade and consumers, the word ‘blended’ still puts a lot of people off buying a bottle (or dram) of a whisky. I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past. When looking through any whisky menu in a bar it is all too easy to simply glide right past the blends section. But this wasn’t always the case – blended whisky was for a long time truly king of the scotch world, and even now old blends are sought after at auctions (I myself have a slight fondness for Ballantine’s made in the 1980’s). Blended whisky gave Scotch it’s name around the world, and still in a lot of markets names like Dewar’s and Johnnie Walker are considered hallmarks of quality – often much more than in their home territory.


So what happened? Well, when single malt’s popularity was almost non-existent, there was a lot more of it around to go into blends, and blenders had access to almost all of the single malt being produced – young and old, good and bad. Then, as single malts became more of a lucrative market – especially for distilleries who previously only sold to blenders, and for the ever increasing array of independent bottlers – the pool from which blenders could pull whisky for an entry level blend became slightly smaller. So, there was less malt around – leading to a higher content of single grain whisky in blends (which is often seen – sometimes wrongly – as of a lesser quality and complexity), and some of the malt that was being siphoned off to be bottled on it’s own was likely some (but not all) of the good stuff. This is a simplified view, but scale it up to an industry producing up to 524million litres per annum and you start to see even small shifts in demand mean a lot of liquid going to different places.


So, inevitably, those blends that were already established in global markets retained their position in those markets while the quality (at least in perception relative to the increasingly popular malts) decreased and the ‘connoisseur’ pretended as if they’d always drunk single malts anyway. But what about blended malts? Well, they are comprised of only single malt whiskies (so the grain whisky argument falls apart) and are normally curated especially to be of quality, and often to reflect a certain flavour profile. Problem is, it’s a bit of a new term (they were called vatted malts when I first came across them) and people see it as being synonymous with blended. There are though some exceptional premium blended malts on the market, and in particular having been through a lot of Compass Box’s (a modern blending house specialising in blended malts) back catalogue recently I can highly recommend them, and it’s worth also mentioning that the most chosen Desert Island Dram is a blend, Johnnie Walker Black Label.


Monkey Shoulder as a brand are bringing blended malts into the mainstream with mixed drinks.
Monkey Shoulder as a brand are bringing blended malts into the mainstream with mixed drinks.

Equally, with the rise in scotch whisky being used in mixed drinks, a lot of blended malt brands have focused on that market. The most prevalent is likely Monkey Shoulder (and sister brand Smokey Monkey) of William Grant & Sons. A lifestyle brand the likes of which WG&S specialise in (see: Hendrick’s Gin), Monkey Shoulder takes its place in between sipping and mixing, much as the category does between single malts and blends. A premium spirit the likes of which doesn’t feel out of place in a mixed drink in a high end bar, it’s imagery and branding retains a fun and approachable motif – separating it from any inherent single malt snobbery.


So, to Berry Bros’ Sherry Cask (you’d forgotten that’s what this was meant to be about hadn’t you? In honesty I almost had as well). This is exactly where blended malts can thrive in our current market. It is made up of all single malt whiskies (from different locations), all sherried, and that’s what it tastes like. ‘Which region do they come from in Scotland?’ Who cares. ‘How old are they?’ Not important. ‘Which distilleries were they produced in?’ Are you still asking stupid questions? It doesn’t matter. Whilst you have every right to know those things if you really want, the reason it doesn’t matter here is because it’ll set you back about £30 (I’ve seen it for as low as £27). For all-sherried, all single malts. At 44.20% ABV. It’s deep red in colour, and if you wanted to describe it you’d literally be playing tasting note bingo. It tastes, funnily enough, like sherried whisky. And it’s fucking delicious.



Transparency:


Like almost any product, working in wholesale part of my job is to sell this product (amongst literally thousands of others). However it is of no benefit directly to me to sell any of these over any other. I paid full retail price for this bottle (and as you can see have made my way through most of it).


Specs:


Distillery/Brand: Berry Bros and Rudd ‘Sherry Cask Blended Malt’ (Batch #2)


Region: Scotland


Age: Doesn’t Matter (NAS)


ABV: 44.2%


Cask: Sherry


Non-Chill Filtered?: Not stated on bottle – though BBR tend to releases their whiskies NCF so I would assume yes.


Natural Colour?: As Above.


Price: Approx £30-£35