Blended Whiskies Return to Favor
by robert Haynes-Peterson
During the Mad Men era of the 1960s, blended Scotch whisky reigned supreme when it came to brown spirits. Single malts were barely on the radar for the Rat Packers and Don Drapers of the world, who instead slugged back Johnnie Walker, Chivas, and Dewar’s— and their Canadian cousins. Sometime in the ’80s, the tide among finicky drinkers shifted toward single malts, and the “blendeds” came to be viewed largely as an inexpensive libation of choice for older men. Thankfully, younger drinkers, cocktail fanatics, and international travelers are once again rediscovering the pleasures of finely made blended whiskies, and brands are responding with carefully crafted, ultra-premium expressions. “The trend is to be a little more experimental,” says Ray Nisi, owner of Double Helix Wine & Whiskey Lounge, which stocks more than 100 whiskies. “As with wine, there are so many more choices now, so people are looking around, looking up. The great thing with a fine whiskey is that it’s not a flash-in-the-pan product. It’s been aging for 16 to 30 years.”
Glancing around the bar for superior blended whiskies, it seems many of the classic brand names are still the go-to bottles: Dewar’s—which last year repackaged and revamped its entire portfolio—has been stepping up the presence of Dewar’s 18 Year Old ($80) and Signature ($200) labels, pairing 18 Year this fall with a handcrafted whisky tote from Freemans Sporting Club. Last year Chivas issued a limited edition of its 18-year expression in a Christian Lacroix–designed specialty casing for $495. And two years ago, Johnnie Walker released The John Walker, a coveted limited-edition whisky, blending six-malt and three-grain whiskies from nine distilleries, including some very rare casks, which sold for $3,000 a bottle.
“It’s the best of the best in one glass,” says Emilio Tiburcio, corporate mixologist for The Light Group. The John Walker is available in only a handful of Las Vegas bars, including Double Helix and the Light Group’s Lily Bar & Lounge at Bellagio. “The flavor profile—the woods, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch, and a little citrus—are unforgettable,” Tiburcio says. “It’s a little journey in your mouth.” Where it’s not available, Johnnie Walker Blue Label is the most popular high-end blended whisky, according to Vegas bartenders. Johnnie Walker Platinum Label is a popular mid-range expression internationally.
The holy grails for fans of blended whiskies, according to Nisi, are the limited-edition releases and rare single-barrel bottles like The John Walker and Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V edition, released in 2007 in a distinctive crystal decanter ($600). Included in its blend is a rare single malt from the defunct Port Ellen distillery. “They’re like collector items—once they’re gone, they’re gone,” says Nisi. “For a real Scotch drinker, it’s like finding gold.”
Blended Scotch whiskies, by definition, contain some combination of malt whisky (made from barley) and grain whisky (made from anything else, such as wheat or rye). The malt whisky is generally a blend itself, combining aged single malts from various distillers into a uniform flavor profile. Grain whisky sweetens and mellows the whole combination, making a blended whisky approachable and smooth in a way that a single malt (100 percent barley-based whisky made by a single distiller) might not be.
The modern crop of high rollers seems to be finding their way to blended whiskies. “I’m seeing more requests for Johnnie Walker Blue Label from drinkers in the 28 to 35 range,” says Alexis Ryan, bartender at Craftsteak at MGM Grand Hotel & Casino.
Bartenders in Las Vegas view this uptick in interest for blended whiskies as part of a growing appreciation for brown spirits in general. Bourbon and rye, along with Irish whiskey, are specifically cited as growth categories. “Recently the entire state ran out of Pappy Van Winkle 15- and 20-year bourbon for a time, due to its increase in popularity,” says Patricia Richards, master mixologist for Wynn and Encore. Johnnie Walker Black Label, Dewar’s White Label, and Chivas 12 “reign supreme” for Wynn in general, according to Richards.
Most people quaff the expensive stuff neat or on the rocks, but high-end whiskies do make appearances in cocktails as well. At Craftsteak, the Highland Fling features Dewar’s 18, lemon juice, ginger ale, bitters, and a lemon twist, while at Lily, the J.W. 1800 is a top-tier Manhattan made using the ultra-rare John Walker, which pushes the price up to $480. Blended whiskies play better in cocktails than single malts, as a rule, and tend to be easier to pair with meals, particularly steak and richer seafood.
“People are exploring, requesting blended whiskies across all age groups, across the casino floor,” says Michael Dona, beverage director at MGM Grand. “The category is going to continue to grow.”
photography by william brinson. food styling by suzanne lenzer (grain); paul hill (barrels)