WhiskyA Brief History of Blended Whisky

March 9, 2021by Kurt Bradley0
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Unbeknownst to many, blended whisky accounts for over 90% of all whisky sales worldwide.

Blended whisky’s universal appeal stems from its typical smooth character, often as a result of the mixing of malt whisky with other, softer, grain whiskies.

But how did blended whisky first come about? To understand this, we’ll take a look at its early commercial beginnings.

A Mighty New Still

The invention of the Coffey Still (also known as the Patent Still) in 1831 by Irishman Aeneas Coffey was a major moment in history for blended whisky.

The Coffey Still allowed for a continuous and uninterrupted process of whisky distillation to take place, which made whisky much more plentiful and thus more affordable than ever before via traditional pot still methods.

The Coffey Still led to the widespread production of unmalted grain whiskies, that utilized grains such as corn, wheat and rye, which where then blended with malted (barley) whisky.

This greatly reduced the time-consuming and costly process of soaking and malting barley.

The finished result of blending whisky resulted in a sweeter, smoother and more delicate finished product. A much more approachable whisky for a widespread audience.

Blending in softer grain whiskies helped smooth out the intensity of malt whisky, and in many cases mellowed the effect of the peat smoke that was traditionally used in many characteristically heavy single malts of the day.

A Grocer’s Specialty

Prior to the mass bottling of whisky, consumers would typically bring in their own jug to a local grocer that would then be filled up for them with primarily single malt whisky directly from the cask.

To top off the bottle, the grocers soon began adding additional grain whiskies which would change the character slightly – and simultaneously trim costs.

Over time, certain grocers would begin creating their own special blends, using ratios of different whiskies that seemed to resonate with them and their customers.

The only downside was that theses early blends often lacked consistency from one mixture to the next.

Getting The Right Balance

One of the first to improve upon such inconsistencies was Scottish grocer Johnnie Walker’s son Alexander, who is rumored to have created the first blended commercial whisky in 1857, called Walker’s Old Highland.

 This expression would ultimately became Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label in the year 1909.

It is said that in the 1860’s, Andrew Usher II, a spirit merchant from Edinburg, Scotland truly perfected the art of blending in an effort to create a consistent product for the end consumer.

In having access to whiskies from Glenlivet, Usher first began mixing or ‘vatting’ different matured single malts together to create something very different from the original.

Here, Usher was emulating a practice that he saw being used already in the making of cognac in France, which was enjoying great international recognition and acclaim as a spirit.

Soon Usher gained access to local supplies of cheap, relatively mediocre, Lowland grain whiskies and began adding them in precise quantities to single malts and vatted single malts to create something much smoother, lighter and more consistent than ever tasted before in Scotch.

The rest is history, and to this day Andrew Usher is widely regarded as ‘The Father of Blended Whisky’.

Conclusion

Prior to the 1860’s, the sale of Scotch whisky was modest and mostly relegated to the United Kingdom.

Following the 1860’s, sales of scotch surged both locally and internationally, largely due to the recent creation of new smoother, more approachable blended whiskies thanks to blending pioneers like Walker and Usher.

Blended whiskies, including ones to be made far beyond the borders of Scotland, would only continue to grow in popularity in the many decades to follow.

Today, nations such as Japan, Ireland and Canada are all major players in blended whisky, and though bourbon (an unblended form of whiskey) is still America’s biggest spirit export, blends are becoming more commonplace there now than ever before.

Today, blended Scotch typically combines malt whisky, either one single malt or multiple, with grain whisky.

The whiskies must be aged at least three years in oak barrels. If a bottle has age statement, it is the age of the youngest whisky in the blend.

Though it is undeniable that single malt whisky certainly holds much prestige among whisky enthusiasts, it was blended whisky that must be accredited for truly bringing Scotch to the world and making it the celebrated spirit it is today. If you’d like to learn more about the art of blending whisky – Read on!

by Kurt Bradley

A lover of all things whisky, Kurt Bradley is a regular contributor for Whisky Ontario Quarterly, and is the contributing editor and the founder of The Gentleman's Flavor. He possesses WSET Level 2 Award for Spirits and is Prud'homme Certified for Beer.

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