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The history of blended whisky begins, more or less, with two events in the early 1800s: the 1823 Excise Act which enabled illicit Highland distillers to license their distilleries and sell their malt whiskies legally; and the development of the continuous still, perfected in...
The history of blended whisky begins, more or less, with two events in the early 1800s: the 1823 Excise Act which enabled illicit Highland distillers to license their distilleries and sell their malt whiskies legally; and the development of the continuous still, perfected in 1830 by the Irishman Aeneas Coffey.
The efficiency of the Coffey still enabled distillers to produce very high alcohol spirits from the cheapest grains on an industrial scale. This revolutionised the distillation of grain spirits and led to ready availability of cheap grain whisky in Scotland within a few years.
The only problem was that the new grain whisky was generally of inferior quality and had far less flavour compared to the single malt whiskies which were the existing norm for Scottish whisky drinkers. The other side of that coin, of course, was that the existing single malt whiskies were too harsh and powerfully flavoured to establish a broad appeal among the general public.
At this time, in the mid-19th century, malt whisky in Scotland was sold either at the distilleries themselves (if you wanted to buy a cask, that is) or, to the common folk, in local grocers or wine and spirit merchants who would have a small supply of casks from nearby distilleries available for customers to fill their own vessels to take away. This was before mass production of glass bottles was possible, so people would have their own small casks, pottery jars or hand-blown glass bottles which could be filled, emptied and reused.
Around the 1840s and 1850s the blending together of single malt and grain whiskies was still illegal but many of these merchants - including Andrew Usher, William Sanderson, George Ballantine, the Chivas brothers and one John Walker - had begun blending single malts to proprietary recipes for sale in their shops.
The advantages of these early blended malts were obvious. They ensured a consistency of product, enabled the blender to temper the stronger flavoured malt whiskies with gentler ones and of course they could foster customer loyalty, as in the beginning these nascent brands would only be available from their creators.
The passing of the 1860 Spirits Act legalised the blending together of grain and single malt whisky and the final obstacle to the creation of blended Scotch whisky as we know it today was removed. The light, cheap grain whiskies were used by the first generation blenders to soften the rougher edges of the malt whiskies and had the added benefit of being cheaper to produce in volume, making the whisky both more palatable and more economically accessible.
With the advent of automatic bottle production machines in the 1880s the stage was set for the new blended Scotch whiskies to stretch their wings beyond local and domestic markets. Fortuitously for Scotch whisky, at the same time the previously dominant spirits Cognac and Irish whiskey were crippled, respectively, by phylloxera and the Irish distillers’ reluctance to embrace continuous distillation. The result was an explosion in demand for Scotch whisky which the blenders were able to use to seize a dominant position, both in Scotch whisky itself and in the world spirits market.
It was just as well that the success of Scotch whisky happened when it did, for existential challenges were ahead. The Pattison Crash of 1898 ruined many distillers and occasioned both the first great whisky lake and a large round of consolidation in which blenders, principally Distillers Company Limited, bought up many struggling malt whisky distilleries to protect the supply of malt for their blended whisky recipes.
Around the same time, tensions with Irish pot still distillers reached a head and there was a long and bitter legal battle over the definition of whisky, with many Scottish malt distillers backing the Irish against the blenders - as you might have guessed, the blenders eventually won. This argument played out in the run-up to World War One, which was immediately followed by Prohibition, the Great Depression and then World War II, all of which caused immense harm to the struggling whisky industry and occasioned many further closures and buyouts.
The Scotch whisky industry survived, and even thrived in the brief period between the Great Depression and the Second World War. After WWII ended there was a brief golden era for Scotch before the self-inflicted disasters of the 1970s, when the rush to modernise distilleries irrevocably altered the character of malt whisky and a fatal combination of absurdly optimistic growth forecasts and the failure to foresee the consequences of the rise of vodka led to another ruinous whisky lake, forcing the closure of many of Scotland’s greatest distilleries.
The whisky industry’s answers to all of these challenges were always the same: further consolidation and the push to new markets. Over the decades this has led to both a homogenisation of product and the regrettable relocation or disappearance of many of the classic blended whisky brands. The consolidation of brand focus and marketing resources has resulted in most of the historic brands of blended whisky becoming much diminished; great names such as Buchanan’s, White Horse, Black & White and even Dimple Haig are now no longer sold in their own domestic markets.
However, the downfall of the blended whisky category in the late 1970s and 1980s led to the rise of aged single malt (in a painful, roundabout way), and the resulting increase in prestige over the last two decades has in turn benefited the blended whisky category, which introduced prestige blends such as Johnnie Walker Oldest (now Blue Label), to lead a resurgence for blended whisky.
The new century has seen some green shoots for independent blenders once again, with the likes of Compass Box using blended whisky as a testing ground to push the boundaries of what whisky can be, introducing much needed innovation to the category.
At the same time, the rise of whisky auctions and a growing fascination among whisky fans with the golden age of whisky in the 1950s and 1960s has led to a renewal of interest in old blended whiskies. Previously ignored blends known to contain golden age malts now fetch impressive prices at auction, with old White Horse, Logan and Mackie’s blended whiskies reaping benefits from their Islay associations and bottles of Ainslie’s King’s Legend, Royal Edinburgh and Real McTavish being snapped up by Brora fans.
Today, single malts may account for a far greater proportion of Scotch whisky’s overall revenue than they used to, but the needs of the blended whisky category will continue to drive the market and malt whisky distilleries will always rely on the continuing prosperity of blended Scotch whisky for their own survival.