When I was a kid, my parents seemed to have an unhealthy obsession with sweet, fruity drinks. Every party I remember them hosting in the 1980s was fueled by some combination of piña coladas (rum and pineapple juice), Harvey Wallbangers (vodka and Italian liqueur), daiquiris (rum and strawberry syrup) and white Russians (vodka and Kahlúa). But none of their saccharine choices interested me—even with my adolescent palate; instead, I preferred to take a furtive underage nip from one of the more neglected spirits in the family liquor cabinet—blended Scotch whisky.
It’s not surprising that my parents’ bottles of Scotch sat around gathering dust. By the 1970s, Scotch sales were on the decline. And while single-malt Scotches such as Glenlivet and Glenfiddich helped lead a Scotch re-birth, single malt’s younger sister, blended Scotch, still seemed left behind.
Its history dates back to the earliest days of Scotland’s distilling tradition—at least partly. (It is blended after all.) Back then, barley farmers made moonshine from their surplus crop, which they hid from English tax collectors deep in the Highland glens. This moonshine (or fiery whisky) trickled into Scottish cities roughly around the same time of Irish grain whisky. Urban grocers such as Chivas Brothers, Johnnie Walker and George Ballantine took it from there, blending the intense moonshine with the lighter, less expensive grain whisky. The result—blended Scotch whisky—took over the world. (Partially because of taste and partially because an insect specie named Phylloxera had decimated the French wine industry.)
Today, I stick by the trio of classic brands I nipped as a kid—Johnnie Walker, Chivas and Ballantine. The only difference? I’ve graduated to the top shelf of their product line as opposed to sticking with the entry-level stuff my parents stocked. Three in particular fill my glass:
· Johnnie Walker Black Label, silky, caramel-forward with just a touch of smoke from the Islay distilleries.
· Chivas 18, a perfect mixture of rich, candied single malts such as Glenlivet and Aberlour.
· Ballantine’s 30 Year Old, a luxurious honeyed blend balanced by leather and chocolate.
For me, they recall two separate histories—one personal (my first few sips of booze), the other much larger than me (the birth of Scotch whisky).
Photo by David L. Reamer