The triumph of Scotch Whisky was only made possible by the cost-effective industrial production of alcohol from unmalted grain. The honour belongs to Robert Stein, who invented the Patent Still in 1826. In this device, also called Continuous Still, unmalted grain can be distilled continuously.
The great advantage is obvious: The Patent Still can be operated around the clock without the need for cleaning between batches, which is necessary with Pot Stills in Single Malt production. It also eliminates the long and expensive process of malting, which together with the soaking of barley takes several days. Whisky from Patent Stills is called Grain Whisky after its main ingredient, the grain.
Before Grain Whisky, there was only Malt Whisky and it was almost unknown outside Scotland. Aeneas Coffey improved the distillation process in the following years, whereupon the Patent Still was also given the nickname Coffey Still.
The enormous success of Blended Whisky turned distillery owners of the two distillation processes (Pot Still and Coffey Still) against each other. In 1909, a Royal Commission settled the dispute between the companies: Alcohol made from unmalted grain may also bear the name Whisky.
Some of the first blenders were Andrew Usher and William Sanderson, who blended cheap Grain Whisky with Malt Whisky to create the first Blended Whisky. Among the first brands were the names still known today: Black & White, Dewar's, Haig, Vat 69 and White Horse.
The characteristic of Blended Scotch Whisky is the marriage of soft Grain Whisky with intense Malt Whisky. Only the Grain Whisky makes the Malt Whisky bearable for the unaccostumed tongue. Blended Whisky is the Scotsman's compromise for the mainstream's taste.
Basically it doesn't matter which grain is used for Grain Whisky, as it only depends on the starch that is found in each grain. A little bit of barley is always involved, because only the enzymes in barley can transform starch into sugar. The main ingredient of Grain Whisky used to be corn, which nobody in Scotland liked to admit. Today, the preferred grain is wheat, as it is slightly cheaper than corn. Corn is bought on the world market, its largest producer being the USA, as Kentucky Straight Bourbon consists of more than 51% corn. When a Scotsman talks about unmalted grain in a Blend, he likes to mention unmalted barley only, as this places him further away from Bourbon, made from corn, and closer to Malt Whisky, made from pure barley.
The spirit from unmalted grain is produced with a higher alcohol content than in Pot Stills and contains less esters, which are responsible for the flavour of Whisky. Grain Whisky therefore tastes more neutral. However, neutral alcohol from potatoes or molasses is taboo. The British law only allows alcohols from grain, which have matured in casks for a minimum of three years, if the final product is to bear the name Whisky. When the age of the Blends is indicated, the age of the Grain Whisky is included. So the Grain Whisky has also matured for at least 12 years in oak casks if the Blend is 12 years old.
Malt Whisky is still produced by handcraft, whereas Grain Whisky is produced in industrial production. There are many times more Malt distilleries than Grain distilleries. If you have ever seen the warehouses of Ballantine's in Dumbarton or the warehouses of Chivas, you can roughly imagine the output of these Grain distilleries. Among the 30 best-selling spirits worldwide in 2014, six were Blended Scotch Whiskies.
- Caledonian (mothballed since 1988)
- Cambus (mothballed since 1993)
- Carsebridge (demolished 1992)
- Dumbarton (mothballed since 2002)
- Inver House
- North British
- Port Dundas (mothballed since 2010)
- Loch Lomond
Up to 90% of the Malt production is used for manufacturing Blends. When you consider that these 90% Malt Whisky only contribute 10 to 15% to the production of Blends, you get a rough idea of the output of the few Grain distilleries.
The proportion of Malt in Blends ranges from a meager 10% to 15% (e.g. Johnnie Walker Red Label), 50% (Chivas Regal) and up to more than 80% (Bushmills 1608). The majority of Blends should contain between 10% and 15% Malt. But not all Malt is the same: Intensive Malts are needed to achieve a strong effect with a small proportion. Lowland Malts have an important role in Blends: Their mellow aroma is the link between Grain and Highland or Islay Malts.
The process of blending the different types of Malt Whisky with the main component of the Blends, the Grain Whisky, requires the highest skill and experience from the Master Blender, who has more than 100 different Malt Whiskies at his disposal. However, a Master Blender typically uses only 30 to 40 different Single Malts, of which about ten are used in significant quantities. The other 20 to 30 varieties are used to refine and fine-tune the taste. There are rare and usually extremely expensive Blends, which are composed of more than 100 different Malts.
A Blend is built up systematically: First the blender selects about ten Malt Whiskies. These are the so-called ‘Lead Whiskies’. These Whiskies determine the basic taste of a Blend. The Malts typically come from different regions of Scotland (Lowlands, Highlands, Islands). Malts from the Highlands (Speyside) provide the basic taste and depth of the Blend. Malts from the Isle of Islay provide the smoky aroma while sherry cask matured and Lowland Whiskies give the soft fruity note to the Blend.
Each of these Lead Whiskies is accompanied by a comparable Whisky, so there is always a replacement in case one of the Lead Whiskies is out of stock. Frequently sold Blends are even provided with two to three replacement Malts for the Lead Whiskies to increase the safety of the production.