Spirits Close-up: Blended Whiskey

A selection of blended whiskey at Dalton & Wade // Photo by Kevin Kramer

The world of spirits is full of outdated terms. But perhaps no phrase should be relegated to the recycle bin of booze history quite like “blended whiskey.”

As a contrast to “straight bourbon whiskey,” “blended whiskey” was a catch-all term created to describe the strategy of stretching the leftovers—a little of the good stuff, mixed with a lot of the bad stuff, add in some neutral spirits and caramel color, and you can cobble together a cheap whiskey fit for dousing with club soda. Seagram’s 7 is a classic example.

But not all blends are made for the bottom shelf. Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal are fine amalgamations of several different Scotches. And not a whiskey drinker alive can scoff at a dram of Hibiki 21, a precise blend of countless malt and grain whiskies, and say there’s not some magic to be had by a discerning palate piecing together a whiskey from many different origins.

“I think ‘American whiskey’ is a more accurate term,” says Chris Massey, bar manager at Dalton & Wade, where they pour several of these well-crafted blends. “It’s changed with the advent of craft distillers and non-distilling producers, who are going out and sourcing finished whiskey to make a blended product.”

A company could set out to blend a whiskey with an agenda; perhaps something to bring a wave of intense smokiness to a drink, like Compass Box The Peat Monster or High West Campfire. Or a master blender at a large distillery could look at an enormous rickhouse full of whiskey barrels and pick out a few that together make for a distinct expression, like George Dickel Barrel Select or Little Book.

The craft spirits movement has upended the idea that whiskies need to taste the same forever. Consumers are increasingly likely to take a chance on a one-off blend, like Jefferson’s Chef’s Collaboration Series. There are even whiskeys with no flagship formula, like Barrell Bourbon, whose every batch is a limited release that will never be repeated.

The whiskey in this month’s Craft Cocktail (Fleming Florey & Chain) is a blend of Scotch, bourbon, and rye. And while we’re excited about farm-based, grain-to-glass spirits, we recognize there are several paths to deliciousness. Our advice: save those single malts for sipping neat, and find a better blended, er, American whiskey to be your cocktail workhorse.

About John Garland

John Garland is the Deputy Editor at the Growler Magazine. Find him on twitter (@johnpgarland) or in every coffee shop on West 7th Street.