When one thinks of whisky in Singapore, one often thinks of a single malt whisky. That is, whisky created solely from malted barley, aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks, and most importantly, blended (that is, mixed with) with whiskies from a single distillery.
In fact, there is even a growing trend towards consuming single cask whisky- which takes away the blending entirely.
What might surprise many to know is that blended whisky is actually by far the most popular style of scotch whisky worldwide.
The statistics vary quite widely. but all agree that blends account for between 70 to 90 percent of all scotch whiskies sold! Some of the old names in the blend world might be familiar- Johnnie Walker, Bell’s, Teacher’s or Famous Grouse. There is something enduring about their appeal- even if it’s not apparent at first sight (or sip, as it happens).
Consider that single malts are a recent phenomenon that has only really started to boom in the last 10 years. For much of the history of whisky, blends were the go-to drams for the average drinker. In fact, many whiskies bottled as single malts today had their origins as components for blends- and this list includes Longmorn, Bunnahabhain and Glenturret.
The Origins of the Blend
There are a few theories behind why, for a long time, blends held dominion over the whisky market. The most plausible one to me is this- they were able to blend (ha ha) consistency and price into an easily recognisable package.
Imagine a beginner to whisky. Given the sheer variety of single malts available, he would be hard pressed to identify one which he would enjoy. Should he pick “wrongly”, that first “bad” dram might very well be his last. This leaves much up to fate; the shades of human preferences could easily colour a rainbow, so the chances of him picking something he likes on the first try are slim. While the internet has made this matching much easier in recent years by improving both information and product access, it was rather more difficult in the 19th century. Let us also consider that quality control was a new concept in 1860. In the formative years, even whisky produced by the same distillery could vary a great deal from batch to batch.
The Scots solved these problems by creating a blend of different whiskies that would hopefully suit everyone. Or at least, have a little something in it that they would like- and want to taste each and every time. A blend, by its very nature, isn’t necessarily trying to match the distinct tastes of a Laphroaig or a Macallan- it is trying to deliver the best, most consistent taste that it can.
Blend, not Bland
That is not to say that blends are bad, or taste bland- quite the contrary. Blends can be extremely flavourful; they are created by marrying single malts- though often also with a good measure of grain whisky to reduce costs. Even single malts are created by blending malt whiskies from the same distillery- not necessarily from the same batch, vintage or even cask type. The same skills that go into blending a single malt also apply to creating a blended whisky; one must consider the interactions of different whisky flavours with each other and balance them. Here, blended whisky makers have a wider spectrum to choose from than your average distiller; being able to use casks from different distilleries gives options when it comes to creating the flavour required.
Like any product, however, the quality of blends can differ. This has much to do with the base of whiskies used; entry-level blended whiskies have a great deal of cheaper grain whisky added, and the malt whiskies used tend to be younger and less refined. However, it would be unfair to paint all blends with the same brush; one does not compare a Big Mac to a Wagyu Burger. Blends often target different price points and quality to match different customers. A high-end blended whisky can often have whiskies 21 years or older in them- and can taste absolutely wonderful.
The Naked Grouse
As a premium blend, The Naked Grouse is on a higher end than its cousins, but not quite at the level of an entry level single malt, which gives you some idea both about its price and what to expect in its taste and complexity. One might consider it the richer, better to do cousin of the Famous Grouse- Scotland’s best-selling whisky since 1980.
Like all its game bird cousins (Famous Grouse, Snow Grouse and Black Grouse), the Naked Grouse is owned by Edrington. The group also owns the Macallan and Highland Park- which might hint at some of the contributing distilleries. The whiskies are taken from the contributing distilleries, which includes Glenturret, and further matured in first-fill sherry casks in small batches So one would expect a heavy sherry influence in this dark amber dram.
Nose: Slight spice, oaks and black fruits. The sherry influence is clear, with wine, plums coming out. a dark chocolate note.
Palate: Black cherries, plums and oak, with dark chocolate and a cinnamon and nutmeg spiciness coming in towards the end. Texture was very smooth- perhaps a bit too smooth for me, but your mileage might vary.
Finish: Quick- of grapes, black fruit. Almost wine like.
Overall, I’d say that the Naked Grouse is a great whisky for the asking price of $88.50. It has pronounced, rich flavours that are reasonably diverse and complex. That said, I would prefer a stronger presence in texture and finish. It’s not going to beat a single malt in distinctiveness and complexity- but you shouldn’t be comparing it to a single malt!
Put it next to another blend and I’d say it’s definitely of noticeably higher standards. A cut above the entry-level Red Label and even the Chivas 12. It serves as a midway point between the entry-level and a starter Single Malt and does an exceedingly good job at it!
The Naked Grouse will be available from June 2016 and retailed at S$88.50 before GST at 1855 The Bottle Shop.