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Six Vatted Blended Malts

 10 Mar 2012  

As of November 23, 2011 whisky producers are no longer allowed to use the labellings "pure malt" or "vatted malt". Instead, the term "blended malt" should be used for whiskies that are, eh, blended from dif­fer­ent single malts. When this change was first proposed by the SWA I thought it was sensible. Blended malt whisky is simply a blend of malts. But then I read a surprising amount of opposition against this change, for instance from noted whisky writer Dave Broom.

I wondered what all the fuss was about. After all, blended malt is a tiny category, compared to "blended whisky" (which is the biggest whisky category, by far) and "single malt whisky" (the most prestigious category).

Think about it - how many blended malts do you have in your cabinet? How many brands of blended malt do you know? For my own part, prior to writing this article I had only tried half a dozen blended malts, compared to over 700 single malts and over 80 blended whiskies.

The focus of the criticism of the term "blended malt" was that whisky drinkers would confuse blended malt with blended whisky (as if blended whisky were an inferior product). Let's look at two of the most common (if not *the* most common) blended malts: Johnnie Walker Green Label and Famous Grouse 12 year old. I asked a bunch of my whisky drinking friends about them and they already believed (or just assumed) they were blended Scotch whiskies. So much for that theory...

Ok, enough rambling. On to the tast­ing notes:

Famous Grouse 12 y.o.:
Subtle, complex, rather nice nose: spicy and oaky with notes of vanilla, dried fruits and pepper­mint. The palate is quite mild and smooth at first but de­velops spices and heat. Nutty with quite a bit of oak. All in all pleasant and well-mannered. A little heavy on the oak, though, but apart from the oak there's not much going on. (That said, it is bal­anced and quite drinkable) (84 p)

Johnnie Walker Green Label, 15 y.o.:
Very nice, promising nose. Balanced, malty, oaky and a little fruity with notes of liquorice and peat. Medium-bodied palate with oak, caramelized sugar and a nice note of peat. A little rough, however. The finish is quite oaky and a bit hot, with notes of smoke and mint. The oak is dull and dis­ap­point­ing, un­for­tu­nately. All in all it has a nice nose but goes downhill from there. (84 p)

Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt, 47.3%:
The replica of "Shackleton's Whisky". Wood smoke, oak and malt on the nose, also honey and green fruits. Rather nice and sur­pris­ingly smoky! Rich, power­ful palate. Smoky and malty with honey and citrus. The alcohol heat makes it crisp and dry. The finish is initially nice with mostly oak and smoke but in the end only dull, dis­ap­point­ing oak remains. All in all complex and power­ful yet nicely bal­anced. Overpriced, in my opinion, but beautifully presented. Best without water. (Thanks to Richard Paterson for the sample!) (86 p)

Macdonald's Glencoe 58%:
The nose has oak shavings, floral notes and honey. It's also earthy and a little peaty. Rough yet rather nice! Sweet, fruity palate with citrus and orange candy. Also slightly floral. Chewy and yummy, grows fairly oaky. Oak, fruits and citrus on the finish. All in all fresh with lots of flavour. More-ish. Youthful in the sense that it's zesty and lively but it seems older than 8 years. The notes of honey and peat remind me of Highland Park 12 from about 10 years ago. (Reputedly a vatting of Ben Nevis, Oban and Dalwhinnie - Ben Nevis is a given but I wonder about the other two) (86 p)

The Six Isles:
Peaty, malty, youthful nose with honey and green fruits. The palate is light, sweet and smooth at first, then de­velops malt and fresh notes of mint and citrus. Grows quite peaty. Peaty finish with a youngish cereal note. All in all a little on the young side but charming and more-ish. A won­der­ful concept and actually a very nice whisky. Younger and less bal­anced but in fact nicer than the first bottling I tried (from 2004). The youngest whisky in the flight but it beats a couple of older ones. (86 p)

Compass Box Oak Cross:
Nice, fragrant nose with lots of oak, vanilla and malt. Behind that there are fresh notes of green fruits. The palate is at first sweet, mild and smooth, fresh, zesty with citrus. Drying, de­velops oak and spicy notes. The finish is herbal and quite oaky (the new French oak comes to the fore). All in all bal­anced, very nice and quite more-ish. Very well crafted. (87 p)

Conclusion: Like blended Scotch, blended malts tend to be subtle and complex but naturally they have a richer, fuller character. I find that many of them lack the freshness that grain whiskies provide in a good blended Scotch. Character-wise, blended malts fall somewhere between the single malts and the blends - more subtle and complex than a single malt but not as light and fresh as a blended Scotch.

Footnote: Ap­par­ently, the regulation change has also had an effect on Irish whiskey: Redbreast "Pure Pot Still" has been renamed to "Single Pot Still".

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