Among “serious” whisky drinkers, there’s a fair amount of shade thrown at blended whisky. Single malt, the thinking goes, is the good stuff. But like so much we’ve been fed by marketers and self-styled connoisseurs, it’s far from the truth. Regardless of how you feel about Johnnie Walker and his old-world counterparts, modern blended whiskies have much more to offer than simply being cheap mixers. New-school blenders are working their magic to create drams of outstanding distinction without the “single malt” moniker.
I recently sat down with Jota Tanaka, the master distiller and blender at Japan’s Fuji brand, whose Single Blended Japanese Whisky won the Best Japanese Blended category at this year’s World Whiskies Awards. “Most whisky produced in Japan is designed to be affordable, approachable and with good flavour,” he told me. “We made blended whisky to please the Japanese palate from the beginning.” Tanaka says Japanese whiskies have always been good, but it’s only lately that the world has taken notice. “We follow authentic Scotch but we’ve been really exacting because that’s the Japanese character,” he says. “Japanese blends are very mellow, smooth, but really complex. We’ve been making it that way for a long time — meticulously paying attention to details.”
On the other end of the spectrum from the large-scale Japanese producers is the world of independent bottlers. This is the pointy end of whisky where esoteric brands track down, bottle and share the most interesting casks they can find. One such bottler is Scotland’s North Star Spirits, which is known for its remarkable single casks, such as a recent 31-year-old Glendronach. But there’s a problem. “Single casks of Scotch whisky are becoming harder and harder to find,” says Iain Croucher, the proprietor of North Star. “And what’s out there is getting prohibitively expensive.” As such, he says, “Serious whisky drinkers need to get around blends if they want reliably good whisky at an affordable price.”
North Star has released some incredible blends of late, such as a 49-year-old Scotch with as much rich, dense sherry-cask character as any single malt. Sadly, it’s sold out, but the company’s Blended Scotch 1993 — an impressive 29 years old — is available and a steal at £150 (about $285); a comparable single malt would go for a sum well into four figures. Also worth considering is North Star’s Tarot series. It’s younger and more affordable (about $95) but packs no less of a punch, with a recent release, The Fool, weighing in at 57.3 per cent ABV.
Local whisky producers are getting in on the blending game, too. Starward’s Two-Fold is among the best-selling Australian whiskies on the market, in part because of its affordability, and Lark’s Symphony No.1 blend comes with a slightly less eye-watering price tag than the company’s standard offerings. Even small-scale craft producers are having a crack, and with some brilliant results. Jumping the Rattler is a blend of whiskies from Fleurieu Distillery, Timboon and Backwoods, all tiny, regional single-malt distilleries. A previous blend put together by Fleurieu with Black Gate distillery in New South Wales’ Central West has won a bevy of well-deserved trophies.
It’s a testament to the mateship in Australia’s craft whisky scene that these family distilleries will share precious casks for an experiment of this kind, and the result is wonderful, offering a complexity no single distillery could achieve on its own.