Well, we’ve gotten to the 100th post on the blog, and this is a great opportunity to start a series on vatted malts.
I’ve been fascinated by vatted malts for a long time, because of their potential. Vatted malts can, at their best, take the best in several malts and enhance them. The potential for disaster, of course, is high too, as the malts could just as easily contradict each other, either by cancelling each other out or by pulling the vatting in different directions. It would seem that the art of blending malts is the highest art in the whisky world, despite being technically less challenging than combining grain and malt whiskys.
And yet, as a commercial category, “Blended Malt Scotch Whisky”, as it is properly and most confusingly called, is almost non existent. According to McDowall’s The Whiskies of Scotland, blending started about 1853 with vatting different Glenlivet malts into Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet Whisky, only later to be expanded to grain and malt blends. Even after the advent of blended scotch, vatted malts continued to be part of the scene – with a Cardhu Vatted Malt being sold by John Walker and Sons during the 1890s. The category hit its stride in the 1990s mainly in Asia, when both Diageo and The Edrington Group had world leading brand names selling vatted malts: Johnny Walker 15 Year Old Green Label and the Famous Grouse Malt range (NAS, 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 30), as well as a full line of Japanese pure malts from Nikka and many of the leading blended scotches (Such as Ballantine’s, Bell’s and Chivas).
But legal attention from the SWA came after Diageo decided that the Cardhu single malts will become vatted malts from several distilleries (mainly Cardhu and Glendullan), a move which was both reviled and and staunchly fought from within the industry, and within three years, Cardhu went back to being a true single malt, and by 2009 the SWA regulations required that all blending of whisky produced in more than one distillery is to be labeled “blended”, be it a blending of single malts or of single malt(s) and grain. The mid 2000s were the high point for the vatted malts, and by the end of the decade, the category suffered a serious decline.
As a category, there has been a significant decline in the demand for blended malts in Asia, and most of the big companies have withdrawn from the category, Johnny Walker Green Label being the latest casualty. On the other hand, William Grant and Sons developed Monkey Shoulder as a mixer whisky for cocktails and mixology, and as such, I’m not really sure that it can be seen as a reviver of this all but lost category.
Today, malt vatting is mostly relegated to independent bottlers, some of whom have an entire line of blended malts, showcasing varying styles. I wish to state that I approached several of these bottlers for an sample of their vatted malts for this article which I needed since non of them are sold locally, and I wish to thank those independent bottlers who lent me a hand in getting this article series underway.
This series will review six peated vatted malts – and will run upto my trip to The Whisky Exchange’s Whisky Show next weekend. I’ll start the series from those I liked least, and work my way up.
Peated Malt Blend #1
Cadenhead’s Duthie’s Regional Series Islay (46% ABV, NCF, NC)
Quite a bit after tasting this expression, I learned that this is said to be a teaspooned Lagavulin (with a bit of Caol Ila). If that’s true, this is only technically a vatted malt and should not be used to judge the range (which is, sadly, a good thing).
Appearance: Gold, wide legs with some residual drops left behind.
Nose: New leather, peat, malt, toasted coconut, vanilla, wood fire (ha! got you there, Laga!). Some water brings out some sweetness.
Palate: Extremely one dimensional with peat slowly milding out on the tongue.
Linger: Very short and just peaty.
Honestly, I was happy to learn that this isn’t a proper blended malt, as this expression was utterly forgettable. The nose was promising, but the palate had nothing but peat, and a pretty mellow peat once you hold it in your mouth for a bit. I guess that means that only Monday’s contestant, Wymess’ Peat Chimney, will actually begin the real battle of the vatted malts.
I wish to thank Klaus of the Cadenhead’s shop in Berlin for inviting me to the Islay tasting.