If we could somehow bring bickering groups together and help them find common ground, would we end up with a perfect world?
The difficulties are enormous. For instance, we asked Andrew Lostetter, a bartender at Sense and single malt Scotch aficionado, his opinion of the typical Dewar's fan. "You think of an old haggard man sitting on a dock," he replied. Likewise, we dropped by the Old Monk and handed a good single malt to some guy slurping Dewar's. He grimaced and shoved it away with a terse "that tastes like medicine."
OK, so it's not the most daunting battle. There's Randall and Klugman, Uptown and the 'burbs, UT and that other school, Paris Hilton and humility--just to name a few. Imagine trying to shore up the differences between talk radio and accuracy. But Scotch whisky speaks to all people, whether they prefer the balance and smoothness of blends or the disparate character of single malts. There's no overt reason for such bitterness between the two schools. Still, the Burning Question crew had never sampled a Chivas or J&B or Johnnie Walker and privately chuckled at the folks who watered down their common brands while we sipped stiff, untainted 12-year-old Dalmore from the Scottish Highlands.
"It's kind of like the Sharks and the Jets," says Old Monk bartender Mike Wallace of the Scotch divide. "Maybe the two groups don't mix."
Well, the Burning Question crew jumps at any opportunity to serve humanity and ease global tension...provided there's plenty of alcohol involved. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, which we consider the fourth branch of government, drinkers in this country are in the midst of a high-end revolution. Sales of blended Scotch held steady over the past few years. Meanwhile, "super premium" brands--those retailing for $34 or more--increased more than 10 percent. A quick scan of local shelves suggests a market dominated by the upscale stuff. Pappas Bros. Steakhouse carries 58 single malts and 12 blends. The Old Monk stocks only two blends, plus a rotgut bottle stuck in the well.
"Single malt drinkers are more educated," says Ben Caudle, bartender at Hibiscus. By definition single malts contain only malted barley from a particular distillery. The product varies according to region, brand and year. To understand malts, one must learn the characteristics of Speyside, Highland, Islay and Lowland, pick up on curveballs thrown by soil and air and storage, that kind of thing. People prattle on about the peat in this or the essence of ocean spray in that, the effect of sherry cask versus bourbon cask aging--it's like earning a master's in adult beverages.
If only such a degree existed.
So why are single malts the "it" Scotch? What's wrong with the blended stuff? Well, perhaps the underlying issue is one of status or appearance. We live in an era where Wal-Mart rakes in more cash than many countries but draws scorn from the self-proclaimed smart set. Budweiser rules the world while beer snobs tout the virtues of foreign bottles or micro brews. McDonald's rolls along, much to the dismay of "slow foods" purists. Thanks to the vagaries of weather and other factors, explains Brian Soloway, sommelier at Del Frisco's, "the Macallan you had five years ago may not taste the same today." It may be better, may be worse, "but the Dewar's will be the same."
You see, blended Scotch combines whiskies from sometimes 40 or 50 malt and grain distilleries to produce a consistent product year after year. The process deliberately mutes strong peaty or smoky or other characteristics prized by a narrow group of aficionados in favor of something smoother and more approachable. And it pays off. Blends own 90 percent of the American market. Dewar's is the most popular Scotch brand in this country. In Scotland it's another blend, Famous Grouse. The best-selling Scotch in the world? Johnnie Walker Red. There's a surprising amount of diversity among the blends. Dewar's is smooth with a bitter caramel aftertaste and a slight hint of wood. Sheep Dip, a vatted whisky (meaning a pure mix of malts rather than grain and malt), leans toward the fruity side with a more substantial burn.
In the minds of today's drinkers, single malt confers status. "Some of the younger kids, they just have to be seen with one," says Chris Chapman of Hector's. More traditional types, however, rely on blends to maintain a daily buzz, savoring the good stuff when they don't have to contend with noise and crowds.
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Is it socially unacceptable, then, to order a Teacher's or Cutty Sark instead of an Oban or Talisker? "I wouldn't say there's anything wrong," says Felipe Hernandez, bartender at Pappas Bros. "It's just two different animals. Both are good in their own way."
Ah, a uniter, not a divider.
Now, we still prefer Dalmore 12 Year, a great single malt. But we'll pass along a bit of sagacity from Del Frisco's Soloway: "If you do it right, blend the right amounts, the sum can be better than the parts."