Scotch blends: Whisky symbiosis

The rise of single malt scotch has dominated whisky conversations on the back of the craft explosion, but blended malts have just as interesting a story to tell, says Shay Waterworth


URCHIN CRABS IN THE Indonesian Ocean carry fire sea urchins on their back as a form of protection from predators while moving between coral reefs. In return for its security services, the urchin gets a free ride from one reef to another, without wasting energy. This is the sort of symbiotic relationship which single malt and blended scotch whisky have – a blend cannot exist without a variety of single malts, and many single malt distilleries make most of their money selling whisky for a blend.

But single malts have been elbowing their way into the scotch whisky category over the past 30 years, taking some of the market share away from blends. This is largely due to the diversity of different flavours on offer, from heavily peated Islay whiskies through to lighter Speyside ones. A lot of the momentum gathered by single malts has been connoisseur-led, but bartenders are increasingly playing a part. They like to be different and, having felt obliged to use the more mainstream blended scotch for so long, there has been a thirst for more unusual ‘craft’ whiskies, and single malts generally fit that description.

This rise of single malt scotch whisky has also been driven by experimentation such as Dr Bill Lumsden’s work with cask finishing at Glenmorangie, which has not only unlocked new opportunities in whisky, but in other spirits, such as rum. Despite this oasis of popularity, they’re still leagues behind blends internationally in terms of volumes. To highlight just how dominant the sales of blends are over single malts, only two of the 21 brands in the scotch section of this year’s Drinks International Millionaires’ Club were single malt brands. This long-riding success could make complacency tempting, but the reason top brands reach the pinnacle of their industry isn’t because they change nothing, but because they strive for improvement.

Dr Jim Beveridge joined Diageo in 1979 as a flavour chemist to investigate the origins of malt and grain flavour profiles. During his nearly 40 years with the company he has risen the ranks to master blender, looking after the Johnnie Walker range.

This role requires Beveridge to oversee more than 10 million barrels of whisky, which is more than there are people in Scotland.

Beveridge says: “Glenfiddich was leading the way for the single malt category back when I started with Diageo and it was definitely beginning to take off. Malts have obviously grown since then and I think they’re at a great advantage in that they come from a single source and often have amazing stories behind them. But what’s not understood for a lot of people is that there are more than 30 of these amazing stories within Johnnie Walker Black Label.

“I think if you were to fast forward from when I first joined to now, the traditions remain but the insights into the understanding of how the whisky is made is vastly improved. Nowadays everything is much more precise and done for a reason.”

Johnnie Walker Black Label remains one of the most iconic blended whisky brands on the planet and, with one of the wealthiest investors in the world in Diageo, it is going the extra length to stay at the cutting edge of whisky innovation.


In 2005 Diageo introduced Leven’s Process Liquid Development Area, a small facility north of Edinburgh to focus on improving the production of its whisky. By 2013 the facility had two pot stills, two mills, a mash tun, four washbacks and was officially established as a fully functional distillery – Diageo’s 29th at the time.

The mini distillery is probably the most expensive playground for Diageo’s project scientist, Richard Cowley, who manages the experiments taking place at the plant. The millions of pounds poured into the facility by Diageo is clear evidence of its efforts to keep innovating its existing blends and it has all the latest equipment available to play with – dimple jackets, mash filters, worm tubes and even interchangeable necks on the pot stills, all of which make it the most dynamic distillery on the planet.

Cowley says: “With this setup we now have the opportunity to test everything from grain to oat to rye. Equipment can be tested too. Everything we do here is with the intention of improving the flavour of our whiskies and the efficiencies of the equipment in Diageo’s portfolio of distilleries.

“I would say around 20% of the experimenting we do here is focused on flavour, while the rest is aimed at testing equipment and increasing efficiency.”


Stuart Harvey, master blender at International Beverage, believes grain whisky is important within a blend as it can contribute 60-70% of the whisky. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see the rise in single grain whiskies such as at Loch Lomond or William Grant’s Girvan because of its diversity as a single spirit.

Cowley’s distilling team at Leven works closely with Diageo’s blenders, hosting regular meetings to discuss their latest findings to see what experiments can be scaled up at different distilleries around Scotland.

The most exciting part of the facility for Beveridge is the recent installation of column stills which will be used to experiment with grain whisky production.

Beveridge says: “Grain is terribly undervalued in blended whisky and I’m really excited to see what we can do with the new column stills because there really are no boundaries.”

Cowley adds: “The new column stills have been created by Green Engineering and we specifically asked it not to use its nanotechnology so we can control the temperature more precisely. This means we can keep the yeast alive longer and experiment with more flavours while still increasing efficiency.”


This project at Leven is an indicator that the immediate money is still in blended scotch, with the need to improve production methods to meet global demand. This isn’t likely to slow down either because, from a consumer’s point of view, blends are designed to be easy on the palate and simple to mix. It is no coincidence that, as single malts have begun to rise in popularity, blended scotch brands have been pushing the Highball as their new signature serves – a cocktail for the dummy which is almost guaranteed results with a good blend.

Greg Dillon, founder of Greatdrams whisky blog, says: “I see the trends in blended scotch whisky to be centred around fun times, more up-tempo drinking occasions using simple serves – we have seen a raft of brands talking about highballs this year, Johnnie Walker especially at its F1 activations around the world and Dewar’s Scotch Egg Club events too.

“In terms of styles I think there are some interesting blends out there at the minute playing on different flavour intrinsics, from the incredible smoothness of Dewar’s to the depth and diversity of the Ballantine’s range to the characterful Remarkable Regional Malts range from Douglas Laing and the easy-drinking Johnnie Walker range. They all stand for something, but ultimately all are about easy-drinking, volume sales.”


It is difficult to suggest that either blends or single malts will ‘take over’ entirely from the other because there are still lots of ways in which they mutually benefit. Glenkinchie Distillery, for example, installed a new heat exchanger which has reduced its water usage by 20% and energy consumption by 3%. This was made possible through the huge investments put in by Diageo to improve its blends, which in turn will allow Glenkinchie to produce more of its own whisky.

Dillon adds: “Thankfully, blended scotch and single malt scotch are intrinsically, linked so I don’t think one or the other will be ‘the future’, but I do think with the expansion of The Macallan, Glenfiddich’s incredible uplift in future production capacity, The Glenlivet’s expansion and various other distilleries, we might see a rebalance in the volume sales of blended scotch and single malt scotch.

“How that plays out we shall see as it will take many years to come to fruition. In the short term? A lot more non-age-statement whiskies will be released, but brands that are built on age statements will make more of this and spend a lot of time and money extolling the virtues of proudly having a number on the bottle.”

If we imagine that blended scotch is the crab in this situation and that single malts are the fire urchin, at the moment single malts are able to gain a lot of production capabilities off the back of the huge international volumes shifted by blends.

But if this popularity begins to even out in the future, then the responsibilities to fund innovation may lie with bigger distilleries which can’t rely on selling their whisky to blends.