When it comes to Scotch whisky, premium single malts get star billing, but the world's top seller of blended varieties is aiming for a similar audience with some new, more upscale labels.
Johnnie Walker, best known for its best-selling Red Label and Black Label brands, has launched a pair of pricier blends — Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label — in hopes of winning over growing numbers of affluent Scotch drinkers, many of whom are single-malt purists.
It also wants to attract new converts to Scotch with some ideas for mixed drinks that tone down some of the initial boldness of the spirit.
This all may be sacrilege to those who contend the only thing one should add to Scotch is, well, Scotch. But the aim is to show a worldwide market that has been expanding by at least 5 per cent a year that there is more than one way to enjoy a wee dram.
Think of the relationship between single malt and blended Scotch as that between a concert violinist and a symphony, said Ewan Gunn, Diageo's global Scotch whisky ambassador.
Besides Johnnie Walker, the British liquor giant also markets single malts, such as Lagavulin and Talisker.
"To make a good single malt, you make one good product, you distill it, you mature it, you bottle it and your job is done," Gunn said after presenting the new blends.
"When you're making a good blended Scotch whisky, you have to do that 30, 40, 50 times with entirely different whiskies. Then you have to bring them together in perfect harmony and only then is your job done. So for me, it's a testament to true skill to be able to make a really good blended Scotch whisky."
There's no shortage of the stuff, as blended varieties account for roughly nine of every 10 bottles sold, and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, 40 bottles per second are shipped from the UK on average.
Indeed, single-malt distilleries, with their rich, peaty product, owe much to blenders, as few would survive without contributing large volumes of their output to the mixes, Gunn said.
BETWEEN BLACK AND BLUE
The new premium varieties, are positioned between the moderately priced Black and the swish Blue Label, which runs upwards of $200 per bottle.
Gold Label Reserve is notable for the addition of malt whisky from the casks of the Clynelish distillery in Scotland's northern highlands, which traces its roots back to 1819.
It is recommended served chilled and enthusiasts may notice honey and toffee sweetness in the blend. It actually goes pretty well with a chocolate or two and retails for $78.95 per bottle.
Platinum Label, at $119.95 per bottle, brings together single malt and grain whiskies from all parts of Scotland for a blend that is matured for at least 18 years. It features suggestions of almond and orange peel that linger on the palate.
Gunn rejects the notion that good whisky should never be contaminated with other ingredients including water, and notes that a splash of H2O brings out different characteristics in the blends.
One mix suggestion includes coconut water and green tea. Pitched as a recipe aimed at attracting more women to Scotch, frankly, it might horrify most peoples' fathers. Still, it's all about helping newcomers along with acquiring a taste.
"I mean, it is a bold complex flavour, unashamedly so. It's not like we're trying to hide how it tastes or dramatically change how it tastes or trick anybody," Gunn said. "It's purely about making it more accessible for that first or maybe second time someone tries it."