Whisky is not, and has never been, just whisky. There's Scotch and Irish, rye and bourbon, and even regional divisions between whisky and whiskey. By far the most polarising schism, though, separates drinkers of single malts and blends.
The former believe blend drinkers to be an inferior species who get around the suburbs in Holden Commodores and enjoy Mathew Reilly novels. The latter deride the single malt crowd as urban snobs with ironic facial hair and an unhealthy obsession with tweed.
Single malts hold the social high ground, attracting a perception of higher cost, greater refinement and better craftsmanship. But is that really the case?
Gourmet Traveller Wine magazine's spirits editor Franz Scheurer is also the Australian ambassador for the Islay Whisky Club, and drinks single malts almost exclusively. And yes, he has a beard.
"I'll drink some blends, there are a couple I like," he admits. "For example, Blue Hanger is one of the best blends on the market."
But he disagrees he is a single malt snob. "It's more that I find all of the big brand blends too predictable … I like change," he says. "This doesn't make me a snob. It's just that I don't find blends terribly exciting. Also, I tend to drink cask-strength whisky at around 60 to 70 per cent. Most commercial blends are only 40 per cent."
Scheurer believes the division between single malt and blend drinkers is driven by a fight for market share by big industry players trying to convince the punters that one is better than the other.
He concedes the master blender at any whisky distillery producing blends has "one hell of a difficult job" trying to get as close as possible to a house style.
"He strives to make a whisky that is consistent year in, year out. He will buy in whatever whisky he can and it's never just single malts, it's also vatted malts, grain whiskies, batch stills and so on. It's a real challenge," he says.
The master distiller at a single malt distillery has a very different task, with no such commercial constraints. "The distiller is simply interested in making the very best whisky he can each time."
Is one better than the other?
"No," says Scheurer. "But ask me if one is one more appealing than the other and the answer is yes; to different drinkers it is. People who like the smoothness that grain brings to whisky will prefer a blend. Those who like change, who want to have their palette tickled by different flavours and textures, will opt for a single malt, single barrel, or even a single grain."
Scheurer says the preference for single malt or a blend is often reflected in the drinkers themselves.
"I would suggest that, generally speaking, blend drinkers are conformists and older. On the other hand, single malt drinkers are more adventurous and younger."
Respect where it's due
Which tribe is the snobbiest? Single malt drinkers win, hands down, Scheurer says. But he warns they should pay respect to the historical importance blends have played in keeping single malts alive.
"What single malt drinkers tend to forget is that without blends, there would be no single malts," he says. "The only thing that pulled the whisky industry out of the s..t when it was about to go broke in the 1890s-1900, lock stock and barrel, was blends. Blends kept the market going when single malts couldn't."
Andrew Derbidge is the Australian president of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not surprisingly, it's single malt all the way for him. Abandoned on a desert island with only a blend to drink, he'd probably die of thirst.
"I'd never say anything bad about blends," he says. "After all, some of my best friends drink blends. Mind you, some of my best friends are idiots."
Derbidge sees blends as a bit like a warm-up for the main act; a stepping stone towards the hallowed world of single malts.
"Those who stick with drinking blends are a bit like those who order from the entree menu, perhaps not realising that all the main courses were listed on the other side of the page," he says.
"There's certainly a more exciting world out there, and whilst there's nothing wrong with blends per se, I'd encourage blend drinkers to check out the main attraction."
Blends of expertise
Colin Scott has been the master blender for global whisky giant Chivas since 1989. When he took over the reins, the only Chivas on the market was the classic 12-year-old. Scott was instrumental in creating the Chivas 18 (1997), and the Chivas Regal 25-Year-Old (2007). Last year he introduced Chivas Regal Extra.
Scott's biggest claim to fame, however, is creating the most expensive Scotch ever retailed – the Tribute To Honour; a blended whisky that is part of the Royal Salute range and a snap at just $200,000 a bottle.
So he's obviously not buying the story that single malts are automatically superior.
"We've been fighting the perception that single-malts are better, for a long, long time," Scott says on a recent visit to Sydney. "In fact, when we create a blend, we're actually taking all those fine single malts and putting them into our blends; so you're not just getting one fantastic single malt, you're getting a whole raft of fantastic single malts. You could almost say that the end result is greater than the sum of its parts."
Scott believes part of the reason why single malts are so revered comes down to the experience. That is, punters can actually go to Scotland, visit the single malt distillery and see and touch the spirit being made. Blend drinkers rarely get to have that same tactile experience.
Does the snobbery annoy him? "Not at all," he says. "All those people who actually refuse to drink blends are missing a huge new dimension to drinking whisky. There are only about 100 distilleries of malt whisky; that's the length and breadth of a single-malt drinker's experience."
Scott says a typical blend could see a mix of 50 whiskies, sometimes more. "Back in 1996 we once put 100 different malt whiskies together and created a century of malts. That's about the most we've ever used."
He concedes that single malts command the biggest prices at auction (a Macallan "M" whisky sold for $628,205 in January 2014) but believes times are changing. "People are finally starting to understand what a blend is," he says. "And they are understanding the role of grain, how important grain whisky is, and how a good grain whisky is every bit as good as a single malt.
"To me, there's no such thing as a bad whisky, they are all great. Doesn't matter if it's a blend or single malt … they are all wonderfully different."
- Sydney Morning Herald