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Scotch in Velvet Trousers

The whisky blender on the phone from London is telling me that blended whisky has an advantage over single malt because it is "sessionable," which I gather means you can drink more of it, for longer. Not a bad goal, but it sounds like the sort of sales-speak that gets you reaching for the metaphorical handgun. (Man walks into a bar after finding the biggest gold nugget in the Yukon, says, "Whisky, bartender. And make it sessionable!" And is shot dead.) Marketers worry about such things, though. Young folks at parties—the people whisky sellers want to attract—look for fast, easy drinks, and that works to the disadvantage of fancy-flavored single malts. Laphroaig is not a drink by which to boogie, or whatever it is young people do at fast parties these days. But blends are built for comfort, not power. Their alcohol content may be the same, but there's a slip-down-your-throat smoothness that leads easily to another round. Ah, sessionability!

If this were only about marketing, we could get back to our glass of Lagavulin and its peat-bog reek. But the whisky blender has a point. Bog reek is not a party quality. Lately, when on the town (like that happens often), I've tried a few blends—both superpremiums and the brands that used to sit in my dad's liquor cabinet.

The London whisky blender in question is John Glaser: Minneapolis-born former global marketing director for Johnnie Walker, now running a small start-up blending company called Compass Box, which is based in England but scouts its casks, of course, in Scotland. Emphasis here on small: "When I say batch," Glaser notes, "I'm talking ten or twelve casks. The big boys are talking upward of a thousand."

Glaser begins with a style in mind—sweet and rich, say, or sweet, rich and smoky—and selects a few casks from such name-brand distilleries as Caol Ila and Cragganmore. He hires a bottler to blend them and put the whisky in American bourbon barrels, where it mingles and interacts with the sweet wood. No claim is made for total years aged, since Glaser might sample whiskies from different sources. He even uses grain whiskies.

In fact, Glaser makes a big deal about grain whiskies, which is brilliant counterattack marketing. In Scotland, whisky can be made from pure malted barley (making it a malt whisky) or from grains: wheat or even corn. Mixing a malt and a grain yields a blend—a Johnnie Walker, a Dewar's, et cetera. Blends rule the trade, but single malts get most of the glory because of their romantic small-production methods and the regional character of island, lowland and highland varieties. The grain whisky in blends is often dissed as filler. But Glaser argues that distilled wheat whisky, carefully aged in the best barrels, is wonderful in its own right: "Good Scottish grain whisky can be the best in all the world. The softest, the most elegant—it's the feminine alter ego to Scotland's malt whiskies."

Single malts can be smooth, too, of course; the Glenmorangie Eighteen I drank the other night over some nine ball had the quality Burgundy wine fans call the "velvet trousers." Still, a bit of the alter-ego grain often smooths out the brogue of a malt.

Compass Box (011-44-207-486-3400; compassboxwhisky.com) even markets an all-grain, no-malt blend called Hedonism ($75), made in part from wheat whiskies from two now-closed distilleries. When I waved a glass under the nose of my twelve-year-old daughter, she said "vanilla." No kidding—vanilla, coconut and caramel. Smells like pudding and tastes like, well, a very sweet bourbon. I prefer Asyla ($32), a blend of malts and grains that has a light, balanced character, sweet but with a malty backbone. Compass Box also makes a commendable Islay-style blend, Eleuthera ($50).

For a tasting, I assembled a dozen blended whiskies, from a bottom-shelf $10 scotch to superblends like Johnnie Walker Blue and Chivas Regal Royal Salute. The superblends top out north of $150 and come in boxes more fancy than the one I intend to be buried in. But there were many in the $30 range, including one winner. The tasting was done blind (after ten whiskies the tasters felt they were going blind).

The Bulloch Lade's ($10) had an evaporative quality. It didn't taste watery—too much alcohol—it tasted vodka-y. But Chivas Regal Twelve ($27), which I hadn't tasted in years, was a delight, with a grassy-honey nose and a sweet, rich flavor unmistakably of scotch. Chivas Regal Royal Salute ($140) was a more refined version of same, altogether nice, though not five times more refined. Another near-unanimous winner was Johnnie Walker Blue Label ($160), a whisky reputed to reflect the company's nineteenth-century blending roots: lean, a fair bit smoky, the color of maple syrup, smooth as hell. Want power and balance for less?Try Dewar's Twelve ($27) or Ballantine's Twelve ($23), both of which scored well.

Do I prefer blends to single malts?In a bar, yes, and probably with a cigar or anything else that can distract the palate. And at a party—even the slow parties I go to these days—these are the ones to drink.


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