Monday, July 17, 2017

There Are Blends and There Are Blends

The word 'blend' is primarily a verb. It means to mix two or more things together so they combine into one thing. It is a common word, meaning more or less the same as 'mix' and 'combine.' It can also be a noun, referring to the combination itself.

A 'term of art' is a word or phrase that means one thing in common usage, but something else in a particular trade or 'art.' The specialized definition usually is related to the common one, it is just more narrowly drawn. Terms of art exist in many fields, from law to, well, whiskey-making. They can be confusing, especially when you are unfamiliar with the specialized terminology.

Which brings us back to 'blend.' Here it gets even more confusing because while 'blend' is a whiskey-making term of art, it doesn't mean the same thing everywhere. In Scotland, for example, a 'blended whisky' is a mixture of one or more single malt whiskies with some quantity of grain whisky. That is what it means in Ireland and Japan too. Canada is a little different, but the same in principle.

Which brings us to the USA.

The American definition of 'blended whiskey' is unique. It grew out of a dispute between distillers and rectifiers that came to a head in 1909. The compromise, issued by President William Howard Taft, allowed distillers to call their product 'straight whiskey,' while rectifiers were required to use the term 'blended whiskey.'

The new rules were written so as to define 'blended whiskey' as essentially what the rectifiers at the time were making.

Under U.S. rules, 'blended whiskey' is a mixture of at least 20 percent straight whiskey, the remainder being whiskey or neutral spirits. That sounds simple, but it covers a lot of ground. The typical American blend today is at that minimum of 20 percent straight whiskey, the balance being neutral spirit, i.e., vodka. Most knowledgeable drinkers, when they think about American blends, think 20 percent whiskey, 80 percent vodka.

Such a creature is whiskey only in the United States. In the rest of the world, you can't put neutral spirit in something and still call it 'whiskey.' Admittedly, most blending whiskey is nearly neutral, but it is whiskey.

Seagrams 7 is the best-selling American blend. The last time I looked it was 25/75.

Because of the large quantity of neutral spirit in American blends, they are very inexpensive and that seems to be their primary appeal. They are sometimes disparagingly called 'brown vodka.' 'Whiskey-flavored vodka' may be closer to the point. They are usually served as a highball with a soft drink, most famously 7UP (the 'seven and seven' cocktail).

But American blends have not always been that way. In the years after Prohibition, when well-aged whiskey was in short supply, many companies had 'Class A' blends that were all whiskey, albeit of different types, and some of it young, but containing no neutral spirit. These went away as well-aged whiskey became more available and blend buyers became more and more price sensitive.

Today, well-aged whiskey is in short supply again, for a different reason, and 'Class A' blends may be making a comeback.

More on that to come.


Anonymous said...

There's a lot right in this post, but one very important thing that needs a bit of clarification. It relates to the premis that " you can't put neutral spirits in other countries whiskey and call it whiskey." In reality this is a marketing slight of hand. For example the distillation requirement for "whiskey" in Ireland is "less than 94.5 ALC/VOL. Whereas the distillation requirements for all whiskeys in the US ( and no I don't mean light whiskeys) is less than 80% ALC/VOL. please don't confuse these numbers with proof, these are ABV numbers.

As a distiller I can tell you that there is a huge difference between 80% and 94.5%. However there is minimal or no difference between 94.5% (Irish whiskey) and 95% (US - NGS). So while I am a big fan of Irish and Canadian whiskey's, I enjoy it while knowing full well that it is less that 1% ABV from being 75% Vodka.

Chuck Cowdery said...

27 CFR 5.22(b) Class 2; whisky. `Whisky' is an alcoholic distillate from a fermented mash of grain produced at less than 190[deg] proof (etc.)

27 CFR 5.22(b)(1)(i) `Bourbon whisky', `rye whisky', `wheat whisky', `malt whisky', or `rye malt whisky' is whisky produced at not exceeding 160[deg] proof (etc.)

Chuck Cowdery said...

Under U.S. law, whiskey is any grain distillate distilled at less than 95% ABV, just like in Europe and Canada. You are thinking of the definition of the 'named types,' such as bourbon and rye, which must be distilled at less than 80% ABV.

Unknown said...

Another thing "Anonymous" doesn't understand is that in Scotland, Ireland, and Canada the spirit distilled to an ABV a little under 95% that is mixed in with spirit distilled to a lower ABV has to be aged at least to the legal minimum three years. That is, even by itself, this spirit qualifies as whisky. So right there it is not analogous to vodka. It is not colourless. American "blended whisky" is different because up to 80% of it can be white spirit fresh off the still.

Gordon Braun said...

Greatly appreciated this information. Thanks, and keep up the good work.

Erik Fish said...

"Another thing "Anonymous" doesn't understand is that in Scotland, Ireland, and Canada the spirit distilled to an ABV a little under 95% that is mixed in with spirit distilled to a lower ABV has to be aged at least to the legal minimum three years. That is, even by itself, this spirit qualifies as whisky."

This is crucial. The grain whiskies, three-year-plus base whiskies just like old versions in blended scotches with age statements like JW black or Chivas, are aged whiskies with distinct flavor profiles which make important contributions to the final product. No comparison to plain unaged neutral spirit which only contributes proof. It seems odd that someone claiming to be a distiller would not know such a basic fact of life.

Billy said...

I remember reading on one of your posts about "Kentucky Whiskey a Blend". I forgot what product you were writing about , but I came across a bottle of "Beam" , you know, one of those cheap decanter bottles with wildlife in the front, well after reading the label in said "Kentucky Whiskey a Blend". It's was 72.5% gns and 27.5% straight whiskey. I thought that was interesting as i thought all those bottles just had regular JB Bourbon in them.

Florin said...

Coming back to Anonymous's comment, I believe s/he is correct: according to the CFR Beverage Alcohol Manual, that clarifies the CFR's and has the power of law, anything in the whisky CLASS has to go under a whisky TYPE. You can't just produce "whisky" - see note 2 in BAM/Spirits/Chapter 4. Under the whisky TYPES, a) the only American whiskies allowed are basically bourbon, rye, wheat, malt, or combinations (plus straight, etc.) - these have to be distilled below 80% ABV; and light whisky, which is the only one on the list allowed over 80%.

My interest in these rules is slightly different: due to the allowed TYPES, one cannot have an American whisky from (dominant) grains other than those 4 listed. So, for example, Koval's Millet whisky should not be allowed as a whisky according to these rules.


Anonymous said...

One positive aspect of US law is that disclosure is required. I.e. on the bottle of "Kentucky Gentleman" it specifically states that it's a blend of 51% straight bourbon aged 3 years and 49% NGS. That's close enough for me. And certainly better than the likes of "rum whisky" in India. And US distillers can't call their whisky "rye" while not having any rye in the grain components :)

Also I think US law requires certain disclosure on imported whiskies, i.e. NAS Scotch and Irish whiskies that are younger than 4 years require the small print "aged 3 years" (you find this on JW Red and some other cheap blends).

IMHO there's nothing inherently wrong with blending whiskies, as long as it's ALL whiskies. It can be an art.

At the same time I'm sure there's lots of substandard distillate and even aged whisky that needs to be utilized and liqueurs and blends help distilleries salvage some of that stock. Why not? I'd certainly prefer that NGS mixes weren't called "whisky" on the label. I won't be holding my breath :)