Elizabeth Riley Bell is a Scotch whisky expert and the author of The Smart Guide To Single Malt Scotch Whisky. As any whisky expert is to do, Bell is currently traveling through Scotland and will be filing stories about her adventures in the land of rain and peat.
Day one of my 10-day visit to Scotland’s distilleries arrived in typical Edinburgh style — gray and wet — a morning the Scots appropriately describe as dreich. But the warm and bright conference room at Wemyss Malts was a sharp contrast to the soggy view into Melville Crescent below me. Although my passion and interest lies in single malt Scotch whisky, today I was on the trail of something else — not single malts, but blended malts.
Scotch drinkers have long known and enjoyed single malt whisky and blended scotch whisky, but what about the “other” malt whisky — blended malts? What are they, and who bottles them?
The name, only standardized since 2009, further bewildered (some might even say, bamboozled) Scotch enthusiasts because they were often confusingly labeled as “Vatted” or “Pure Malts.”
The explanation is relatively straight forward: Blended malts combine the single malts from two or more distilleries and occupy the ground between single malts and blended Scotch whisky. They are approachable, flavorful and smooth — competing in the premium blended Scotch price range.
Even though a blended malt, like Douglas Laing’s Big Peat, has developed celebrity status, it is often a “one-off” in a company’s larger portfolio. On the other hand, the Wemyss Family began their association with the whisky world by first developing a core range of blended malts, which naturally filled a gap in this often little-known and underappreciated area of whisky.
When William Wemyss launched the family’s line in 2005, he made a conscious decision to simplify the approach to malt whiskies by having the Wemyss Malts reflect the natural flavors and aromas in each bottling. After some experimentation with different ages and several flavor profiles, Wemyss Blended Malts have settled on three different expressions, each bottled at both 8 and 12 years old at 40% ABV.
One of their blended malts, The Hive, replaces the Smooth Gentleman bottling and draws most of its whiskies from Speyside malts. It has the elegant character of a Speyside whisky with the sweet flavors and aromas found in many of our autumnal memories — caramel apples, mulled cider, hints of vanilla , and of course the honey implied by its namesake.
Another expression, The Spice King, emphasizes the characteristics found in many of the Highland malts, particularly the spiciness, white pepper, iodine and hint of smoke found in many coastal whiskies.
The most assertive bottling, The Peat Chimney, has a double-barrel reference to the peaty (think peat moss) and smoky aromas (think ash trays) of an Islay malt. Some people find the smoky and aggressive Islay Malts to be off-putting, but this blended malt offers a polite introduction to the Islay character. It warms and fills the mouth with rich flavors, balanced with a hint of clean orange zest.
Although Wemyss Malts have grown to include a blended Premium Scotch whisky and a small range of single cask bottlings identified not only by the dominant flavors and aromas but also by the name of the distillery and the age of the cask, the blended malts constitute the majority of its production. This is not surprising because they offer a quality drink — flavorful, balanced and consistently good. Scotch drinkers can enjoy these drams “neat” without any water, or with a small dash of H2O. Either way, the flavors are very approachable with subtle nuances quietly developing during the time one takes to enjoy this sipping whisky.
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