Have you heard the blended whisky musical metaphor? It goes that single malts are soloists who spend most of their time working together in a blended whisky orchestra. The idea is that master blenders are like great composers, creating blends that like orchestras are greater than the sum of their parts. Whisky shop shelves are full of solo artists and orchestras – single malts and blended brands. Where, though, are the whisky equivalents of bands, groups, and duos?
Craft beer collaborations are generally from duos, and sometimes from larger groups. The musical metaphor is different: each brewery is a hip hop artist. Breweries look to learn and gain exposure from collaborating and appearing on each other’s labels. Collab releases aim to retain elements of the breweries’ house styles but are often more unusual or experimental than regular releases.
A recent whisky blend from Sonoma and East London Liquor Company shows there is potential for this approach in whisky too, but a collaboration from new distilleries will always be handicapped somewhat by its age. More established producers could put out blended malts with major single malt brand logos, but they don’t. There are no bottlings of Balblair ‘n’ Pulteney or Glenmorangie feat. Ardbeg.
Perhaps major producers have put out so few blended malts because many whisky drinkers see ‘single malt’ as a byword for quality. People aren’t wrong to look for the word ‘malt’. The term ‘grain whisky’ is a bit of a misnomer – Scotch grain whisky is generally distilled to within an inch of having no grain character at all. It’s the musical equivalent child in the school band playing the triangle or the rock bassist playing root notes at 1% volume.
While being a ‘single’ malt is meaningful, ‘single’ is not a guarantee of quality. Like blends of malt and grain, blended malts can be greater than the sum of their parts. The blender can round out the whisky and add complexity because a diverse range of distillates are available. But the challenge of releasing a blend isn’t just making the liquid greater than the sum of its parts, it’s about making the label greater than the sum of its brands. The risk is that blending dilutes the appeal of every constituent part, creating a symphony that falls flat before anyone hears a note.
There are examples of successful blends and blended malts with two or three components. Independent blenders Compass Box have put out three editions of The Double Single, a blended Scotch comprised of one malt and one grain. Johnnie Walker recently released their Black Label Origins series showcasing Black Label’s components, including an Islay blended malt made using Caol Ila and Lagavulin. Monkey Shoulder, at least originally made using three malts, is the world’s most successful blended malt. With these whiskies, the producers are relatively clear about the component distilleries. But you couldn’t spot them on the label from a distance, if you could at all. The brand is the blend or the blender – Johnnie Walker, Monkey Shoulder, Compass Box – not the blend’s components.
Today’s whisky is a bit different in that the distilleries are more prominent on the bottle and certainly in the marketing of the whisky. It’s a marriage of two casks – one Ardbeg, one Mortlach – both aged (at least) 10 years. A total of 360 bottles were released in 2018 at 46% ABV. It was bottled by Douglas Laing for their Double Barrel series of two-cask blended malts as an exclusive release for the Green Welly Stop, since renamed Tyndrum Whisky. You can still pick up a bottle directly from their webstore for £48.
Nose: A heavy mix of sweet and smoke. The peat smoke is medicinal, mossy, and earthy. The sugary sweetness is almost sour. Imagine lemon and orange sherbets dropped into a can of 7-Up, with a side of liquorice. With air, the smoke fades and the tropical soft drink is amped up. Water emphasises the sweetness further and adds a pinch of ginger.
Palate: This is a big whisky with a dense oily mouthfeel. The fruity fizzy drink has evolved into lemon shortcake with icing sugar, which is followed by burnt digestive biscuits before ashy smoke takes over. There are hints of rubber and fresh laundry in the background throughout. Water makes the mouthfeel lighter and waxier whilst also further amplifying the smoke.
Finish: Long on burnt wholemeal toast with a thin scraping of lemon conserve. Smokier after adding water.
This whisky might not be greater than the sum of its parts, but it doesn’t seem any lesser than either. Ardbeg’s earthy, fruity peat is loud and clear, with Mortlach tempering the peat but adding its own spirit sulphur-tinged sweetness along with a heavy oily mouthfeel. You can taste the ingredients. The combination produces some pleasant new tropical fizzy juice flavours. It’s unique – a vatting of two single casks – and that’s a big selling point here. But blending these two distilleries likely turns off some of fans of each, meaning that on paper it’s less than the sum of its brands. Thankfully, we don’t drink whisky on paper.