Whisky expert Dave Broom reveals secret life of blends

We are now more obsessed than ever before with the most intricate details - provenance, terroir - of the food and drink experiences we engage with. So you'd expect blended whisky, with its secret recipes and untraceable elements, to be doing it tough. You'd be wrong.

Around 90 per cent of the Scottish whisky sold around the world is blended Scotch. And yet it is single malts that enjoy a far more hallowed reputation, bordering on mania.

It is a reality not lost on Dave Broom, one of the world's most renowned spirits and whisky writers, who is currently touring Australia to discuss the oft-neglected blended whisky category.

I recently sat down with the Scotsman to hear his thoughts on why we've forgotten about the breadwinners of the whisky world, and to find out if blends and single malts can co-exist.

Broom's current mission is not dissimilar to those taken by agents from Scotch whisky firms 130 years ago, when merchants travelled to Australia to advertise and consolidate their up-and-coming brands.

"Australia was the biggest export market for Scottish whisky in the world right up until the Second World War," Broom says, recalling the beginnings of the world's first truly global spirit.

Australia was even the first export market for Johnnie Walker, now the world's most recognisable whisky brand. It was grocers such as John Walker who first began blending malt whiskies together, using their experiences with tea as a guide.

"In the 19th century many of these grocers were firstly blending tea to produce a consistent product, because you had variation between shipments from China, Japan and other parts of the world," Broom tells me.

Grocers and merchants encountered a similar problem with some of the potent and erratic Scottish malts they dealt with, so many of them began blending these malts with lighter grain whiskies, and their names (Chivas, Ballantine's, Dewar's) now adorn some of the most consumed whisky brands in the world.


Singular focus

In recent years, blended whisky has fallen out of favour. The shift towards transparent, handcrafted, single-origin products has caused headaches for blended whisky brands. Single malt whisky, which can only be distilled from a barley mash, in copper pot stills at a single distillery, is often revered for its depth of flavour and synthesis of place. But blends, which comprise of malt whisky from numerous distilleries blended with cheaper and faster-to-produce neutral grain spirits, are sometimes considered a poor imitation of the main event.

Broom thinks we need to understand that both styles serve different purposes.

"They're all different. Blends are multi-faceted and very much occasion driven. Whereas malts are pointy; they're all about individuality and driving an intense singular character. Why? Because in Scotland, that's what blenders want, they want 115 distilleries to make identifiably different pointy things so they can then take those elements and go, 'let's make a complete sphere of flavour'."

The perfect blend

For many, it's the discovery of the unique and intense flavours that single malt offers that make the spirit so fascinating. But around the world, the vast majority of whisky consumed is served with a mixer. Broom points out that whisky is enjoyed in huge quantities with coconut water in Brazil, with sweetened green tea in China, and diluted into sophisticated highballs in Japan.

With this in mind, I ask him how he would convince ardent single malt devotees to give blended whisky a second look.

"You have to be sneaky," he says. "You give them a blend without telling them and then hear them say 'this is great'. The other thing I like to do is to pour them Japanese blends like Hibiki 17-year-old, or Nikka From the Barrel, and defy them not to like it. Hibiki 17 is for me about as close to perfection as you'll get in a blend."

Mixed up

I've long enjoyed mixing both quality single malts and blends in cocktails, which some purists deride. But again, Broom advises a sensible approach.

"As far as mixing drinks, malts have a role to play if you want really strong, bold, identifiable flavours coming through. But blends are in many ways more amenable because you can have a little bit of smoke, a bit of fruit, a bit of this and that, often you can pull out more accords and flavours from a blend to make a really complex drink. Again, both have different purposes."

That said, craft whisky distilleries are popping up the world over and emphasising the uniqueness of place in the creation of their spirits. It means that the major blended whisky brands will have to win over an increasingly educated consumer in what is becoming a very crowded marketplace.

Could we see a similar consolidation once these markets mature?

"It's quite possible that we might see terroir-driven distilleries come together in future." Broom says. "Everything around us is blended, wine is blended, cigars are blended, the food on your plate is blended, we live in a world where different flavours and textures come together, and that's what we as human beings naturally do. So why should whisky be any different?"

Single malt fans: has Dave Broom convinced you to have another look at blends?

A professional barman in one of Australia's most revered whisky establishments, Luke McCarthy has also travelled the world to learn more about the spirits he serves. The result is two parts drinks culture and one part global trends, served with a dash of critical assessment.

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