What is blended Scotch Whisky? A Beginner's Guide

by Matt Chambers
at Whisky for Everyone

Close to 90% of all Scotch whisky purchased around the world is a blend. It is versatile, approachable, and often well priced compared to single malts.

Whether you want to sip your blend neat, over ice or mixed in a cocktail, there is something for everyone.

But people call whisky lots of different things, so it’s important to know what blended whisky means.

What is Blended Whisky?

The definition of a blended Scotch whisky is simple – it is a whisky that is created using two or more other whiskies that are married together to make a new product. The majority of blended Scotch whiskies consist of several single malts from different distilleries in Scotland, blended with single grain whisky.

The single grain whisky is relatively light, neutral, and used as a foundation upon which the flavour profile is built by the Master Blender. They have the highly skilled job of producing the same version of the blend each time, often in huge batches. Single malts of differing characters are then added to the single grain foundation, which helps to enhance the aromas and flavours of each ingredient.

Types of Blended Scotch Whisky

While most blended whiskies in Scotland follow the definition above (i.e., several single malts married together with single grain whisky), there are other styles available – blended malt and blended grain.

A blended malt consists only of single malts with no single grain present. There must be a minimum of two single malts from different locations, although more are often used. Similarly, a blended grain is made using two or more single grain whiskies from different distilleries with no single malt included.

What Do Blended Whiskies Taste Like?

This is a difficult question to answer. A blend can be pushed in many different directions, depending on the component ingredients used to create it. Single malts of differing styles – fruity, sweet, delicate, robust, peated – can be blended in differing quantities to give almost any flavour profile that the Master Blender wishes.

That said, many of the popular brands share similar traits and profiles. This makes them accessible and cater for a wide range of consumer palates. They are soft and gentle with good levels of fruitiness, either having notes of green fruit like apple and pear, or dried fruits such as raisin and sultana.

Most blended whiskies have nice levels of sweet, earthy maltiness and cereal notes and these underpin the other flavours. Many also have a hint of peat smoke in the background – this provides balance in a similar way to adding spice to your food. The smoke tends not to be too extreme to fit into acceptable parameters for most consumers.

A Brief History of Blended Scotch Whisky

Blending as we know it began in the early to mid 1800s. It is widely regarded as having started in grocery and wine stores. Here the owners would blend a variety of products arriving from around the British Empire such as tea, coffee, and exotic spices. The practise then extended to whisky with shopkeepers blending whiskies from local distilleries.

There are several key examples of such grocery store owners rising to prominence during this time, many of which are well-known blended Scotch whiskies today. These include John Walker who developed Johnnie Walker in his store in Kilmarnock; John and James Chivas (Chivas Regal) in Aberdeen; George Ballantine (Ballantine’s) in Edinburgh; Arthur Bell (Bell’s) in Perth; and William Teacher (Teacher’s) in Glasgow.

A key date in the development of modern blended whisky came in the early 1830s. An Irishman named Aeneus Coffey invented and patented the first column still, which has since become known as the Coffey still. The production of lighter single grain whiskies made using the column still revolutionised the blending industry.

Prior to this, the blenders had married together single malts which were known for their robust and unpredictable character at the time. This was done to make them more palatable to a wider audience.

The popularity of blends grew and were the only whiskies that were widely available. This was aided by the spread of the British Empire, especially during the late Victorian era. For example, Johnnie Walker was in 120 countries before Coca Cola first left the USA in the 1920s.

Single malt did not really exist as a category until the 1960s, when Glenfiddich launched Pure Malt as the first commercially available bottling. Even as sales of single malts grew, the popularity of blends remained. This remains the case today with only 10% of all Scotch whisky sales being single malt. The rest are blends.

Popular Blended Scotch Whisky Brands

The blended Scotch whisky scene is full of famous household names. Johnnie Walker sells a staggering 19 million cases per year worldwide. When you consider that a case holds 12 bottles, then that is a lot of whisky. 228 million bottles annually to be exact. Johnnie Walker outsells its closest rival by over 2:1.

Ballantine’s is next on the list in second place with close to nine million cases sold each year. Other popular brands include Bell’s, Chivas Regal, Dewar’s, and Teacher’s. Famous Grouse is the best seller in the UK, shifting over four million 12-bottle cases annually.

J&B, William Lawson’s and Black & White also feature in the Top 10 for blended Scotch whisky sales. These are lesser known in the UK but are exported to specific markets. J&B’s stronghold is southern Europe, especially Spain and Greece, while William Lawson’s also sells well in mainland Europe, particularly in France, Spain, and Portugal. Black & White is popular in Latin America, India, and the Caribbean.

Other Blended Scotch Whiskies to Watch Out For

Outside of the top 10 best sellers there are a plethora of blended Scotch whiskies out there. Some of the finest consistently come out of Compass Box, a boutique blending house that is pioneering the current new wave of experimental and artisanal blends.

Compass Box highlights include Artist Blend and smokier Glasgow Blend, plus a series of blended malts such as Orchard House, Peat Monster and Spice Tree. They also produce a blended grain whisky named Hedonism.

Another is Royal Salute, which sits at the premium end of the market. The blend was first launched by Chivas Brothers in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and has become known as one of the finest blended whiskies on the market.

The blended malts category is also experiencing huge recent growth led by Monkey Shoulder, which was one of the first to appear on the market. Noteworthy others include the Regional Malts range from Douglas Laing & Co, where they select single malts from a single region to blend. For example, Big Peat uses only Islay malts and Timorous Beastie just malts from Speyside.

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