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Issue 87 - Trying to blend in

Whisky Magazine Issue 87
April 2010


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Trying to blend in

What is wrong with American blended whiskey? Maligned and misunderstood, American blends may be due for revival by Charles K. Cowdery.

A‘term of art' is a word or phrase that has special meaning in a particular context. In whiskey lexicon, ‘blend' is such a word. While it can refer to a mixture of likes (a blend of single malts, for example), it more often refers to a combination that includes a more neutral base whiskey which gives the drink a milder flavour and, not coincidentally, a lower production cost.

In this, as in most things whisky, the Scots, Irish, Canadians and Japanese are in one camp and the United States is in another. All of their blends are all-whisky, whereas virtually all American blends contain grain neutral spirits (GNS), ie vodka.

A seemingly-related difference is market perception. In most of the world, blends dominate and range from low status to high.

In the USA, straight whiskey dominates and American blends are universally considered cheap and shoddy, even by the people who make them.

Why is this? Most people will answer, “All that damn GNS.” Yet it's not that simple. The ‘whisky' which forms the base of a typical Scottish, Irish, Canadian or Japanese blend leaves the still almost as neutral as GNS. Ninety-five percent alcohol is neutral, but anything less is whisky. The whisky intended for blends is distilled as close to that line as possible. The difference in refinement is on the order of one per cent.

The real difference is not distillation proof, it is aging.

In Scotland, that base whisky is aged for a minimum of three years. GNS is not aged. The GNS co...

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