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Traditionally, New York and San Francisco are the two biggest scotch-drinking
towns. New Yorkers have always been big fans of blended scotch whereas San
Franciscans seem to prefer the malt versions. In between lies Las Vegas, where
people from both coasts come to play, so both traditions are strong. The draw
for scotch drinkers is quality, the best of the best. So when it comes to
scotch, that means showing the colors of Johnnie Walker, the undisputed
champions in a very tough division: Red, Black, Gold, Blue and Green!
The Origins of the Big Brands
In 1819, Granddaddy John Walker was a grocer in the town of Kilmarnock in
Ayrshire, Scotland (where Johnnie Walker is bottled today). And you ask what a
grocery has to do with scotch? Well, let me name a few other grocers: John
Dewar’s grocery opened in Perth in 1846; George Ballantine started a grocery and
wine shop in Edinburgh in 1827; and James Chivas operated a very successful
general store in Aberdeen beginning in 1841, to be joined by his brother John in
1857. (The brothers started blending scotch in the 1850s, although not under the
Chivas label; that would come many years later.)
At the time, scotch was a drink made for the local community so I’ve got to
think the men were happy to do the grocery shopping in 19th century Scotland!
These grocers were the fathers and grandfathers of the men who would market and
sell a new kind of whisky that would appeal to a larger audience at the end of
the 19th century: blended scotch whisky.
Until the middle of the 19th century, scotch had an audience that was limited to
local communities in the counties of Scotland and with good reason; the whisky
was rustic, to say the least. In those days, whisky makers were not buying oak
barrels from Spain or the United States to age their whisky and create special
nuances as they do today. The product then was moonshine or just one step up
from moonshine, even when it was legalized.
However, the invention of the continuous still in the 1820s marked the advent of
a new distilling technology, which would have a tremendous worldwide impact on
scotch whisky and spirits. This new technology enabled distillers to produce a
light and fruity grain whisky at high proof with much lower overhead costs.
The first blended scotch on the block was a vatted malt produced by Andrew Usher
in 1853 called OVG—Old Vatted Glenlivet. Yes, the same 18-year-old Glenlivet of
single malt fame today that makes one’s mouth water just to think of it. The
term “vatted malt,” though now out of favor, referred to a whisky that was made
by blending barrels of single malt scotch from several different distilleries to
add richness and complexity to the whisky. However, the blended malt whisky is
certainly not out of favor, in fact blended malts (as we are now instructed to
refer to them) are making a comeback; a sip of Johnnie Walker Green will
communicate more than I can express in words about this rich and rewarding
Eventually, Usher experimented with blending the stronger, more assertive single
malt whiskies with the lighter fruitier grain whiskies to produce a blended
whisky that had layers of flavor and nuance. The malt whiskies can create smoke,
peat, brine and saltiness, even floral and herbal nuances, depending on where
they are distilled. Like cognac and other world-class spirit categories, scotch
speaks about the place where it was made. The grain whiskies, on the other hand,
supply the fruit notes and mellow the overall attack of the alcohol.
Michael Jackson [sadly, Michael just passed away, not long before press], author
of Whisky: The Definitive World Guide, wrote: “The notion that taking a
selection of malts and mixing them with a selection of grain whiskies produces a
drink that is somehow inferior is an erroneous one. A top blend is every bit as
complex and rewarding as a single malt.”
The Growth of Blended Scotch
In the late 19th century, this new style of scotch whisky conquered the world
thanks to the entrepreneurship of men like Dewars and James Buchanan. During
this time, a phyloxera infestation in the vineyards caused a serious drop in the
production of French brandy, creating an unexpected demand for this lighter
style scotch. For the first time, makers began selling scotch whisky to London
and, more importantly, to North America and around the world, opening a huge
market for this local whisky from Scotland. Today, 90 percent of all scotch
whisky sold is blended scotch.
Of the top five best-selling blended scotches worldwide, Johnnie Walker Red is
number one and Johnnie Walker Black is number five. There are many important
reasons for that success and I know a few at the top of the list: Clynelish,
Talisker, Cardhu and Royal Lochnagar, single malt whiskies that make up the
heart of the Johnnie Walker blended scotches. However, I must warn you: The
Johnnie Walker blends are made from three separate grain whiskies and over three
dozen malt whiskies, so don’t expect the distinctive Talisker nose—the rich,
smoky, slightly herbal and heather notes—to jump out of the bottle. But the malt
whiskies add to the complexity of the blend. Jackson describes the contribution
of Clynelish to the Johnnie Walker blends as adding “…a rich mouth coating
sexiness when mature. It gives a fantastic mouth feel to blends.”
New Barrels, New Flavor
Once scotch whisky became an international business and demand increased for
storage barrels, the impact of the wood barrels on the whisky became a
significant factor in its taste. The longer the whisky stayed in barrels the
better it tasted. The English owned many of the sherry and port houses of Spain
and Portugal and shipped the wines north in barrels to England and Scotland for
bottling. Those barrels were then reused for storage of scotch whisky. The
sherry barrels imparted a fruity nutty character to the whisky. Indeed, experts
calculate that 70 percent of the flavor in the whisky is due to the years spent
in oak barrels.
Eventually, as Spanish barrels became limited in supply and more sherry was
bottled in Spain, the Scots looked to the United States for barrels. By law,
American bourbon, rye and Tennessee whiskey has to be aged in new charred
American white oak barrels, meaning that there are plenty of used barrels
available for sale. Since many large spirit companies already owned brands on
both sides of the Atlantic, and with the Scots being a thrifty lot, a brisk
trade in used American whiskey barrels developed between the two countries.
Great Scotch Cocktails!
All this is fine but let’s get practical about what to buy and how to make
cocktails with it. There are some classic and modern scotch cocktails worthy of
note. Since malts tend to be tough to match, the trick is to pick flavors that
can stand up to the strong flavors in the malts.
Gary Regan, author and beverage expert, came up with a simple two-ingredient
cocktail called the Debonaire Cocktail (great name as well!) that I highly
recommend. In a sense, the Debonaire cocktail derives from the Manhattan
cocktail, but without the bitters.
By Gary and Mardee Regan
2 1/2 ounces Speyside malt scotch (I suggest The Glenlivet 12)
3/4 ounce Canton Ginger & Cognac liqueur
Preparation: Stir both ingredients to chill and strain into a chilled martini
glass. No garnish.
Canton Ginger & Cognac liqueur is a combination of ginger and Cognac that has
recently returned to the market, much to the delight of bartenders, myself
Speaking of Manhattans, the scotch version of this cocktail, called the Rob Roy,
is a sophisticated way to pass cocktail hour. My favorite recipe is the Perfect
Rob Roy, meaning simply that the scotch is mixed with French dry and Italian
sweet vermouth. Note that I used the qualifiers for a reason: With the exception
of Vya from Quady Winery in Madera, California, I recommend that you avoid using
I have a favorite scotch cocktail, which, at first glance, looks like a bizarre
and God-awful combination of ingredients, but take the leap of faith. It is
worth it. I noted that the recipe started appearing in some serious cocktail
books so I finally decided to try it. The taste convinced me never to judge a
drink again without trying it.
2 1/2 ounces Johnnie Walker Black scotch (if you are rolling in dough, use the
Johnnie Walker Blue. Hey, why not!)
1/2 ounce Italian sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce French dry vermouth
Dash Peychauds Bitters
Preparation: Pour all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass and stir as you
would a martini. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon
BLOOD AND SAND
Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail, is an award-winning bartender
and consultant to the spirits industry.
3/4 ounce Johnnie Walker Red scotch
3/4 ounce Peter Heering Cherry Heering
3/4 ounce Italian sweet vermouth
1 ounce fresh orange juice
Preparation: Shake the four ingredients well with ice and strain into a chilled
cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.
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