Blends are not the future of American whiskey.
There, I said it. Why? Because they’re already here.
A brief history: the word “blend” has been verboten in American whiskey for over a century. Between the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Act of Congress defining bourbon in 1964, blend became a byword associated with cheap, watered down spirit of questionable origin and production. It was also an epithet bourbon and rye producers would sling like mud against their competitors. American blended whiskey was pushed lower and lower on the shelf until just a few remained – notably Seagram’s 7 and Kentucky Gentleman – as poor renditions of blending past. And so, American whiskey blending reached its nadir.
That’s what American whiskey purists would have you believe. But I’m calling bullshit.
I’ll concede up front that examples like Seagram’s 7 and Kentucky Gentleman do the word ‘blend’ no favors. But that’s whiskey – bourbon, rye, etc. – blended with neutral grain spirits (NGS). That’s not the blending we’re talking about here. There will always be cheap products mixing NGS into their product to stretch volume at quality’s expense, and for the sake of argument I’m not considering any American whiskey with NGS added.
I asked Barrell founder Joe Beatrice about the state of American blending, and he quickly pointed out that there’s a difference between “blended whiskey” and “blending with whiskey”. He and Tripp Stimson have used bourbons from up to 7 different states in their various batches to achieve their desired flavor profile. Barrell doesn’t hide behind euphemisms, proudly “blending with whiskey” as Joe put it. To Joe and Tripp, it’s an art and a science rooted in the traditions of blending in Scotland, Ireland, and elsewhere.
Lux Row’s “Blood Oath” annual releases also showcase American blending, albeit with far less focus on the ‘blended’ aspect. I recently tried the first six releases side-by-side, and found Pact 1 the best. It’s a blend of three straight bourbons with no finishing and no extra casks; a clean, elegant blend that elevates the whole above its parts.
The problem the word “blend” faces isn’t in the quality, it’s in the preconceived notion surrounding the word.
To be fair, smaller companies like Barrell, Blood Oath (although not so small after Lux Row merged with MGP), and various distillers around the country aren’t as shy about using ‘blend’ as the larger/heritage distilleries are. Visit the websites of Jim Beam, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey, though, and try searching for ‘blend’. Beam and Turkey will give you words like “small batch”or “batched”; Four Roses uses “marrying” and variations thereupon. Heaven Hill uses ‘blend’ in only one American product – Heaven Hill Whiskey (20% bourbon, 80% NGS).
So where do whiskey lovers go from here? By TTB standards, “Blended Whiskey” allows for the inclusion of NGS (though notably does not require them). A “blend of whiskies” as Joe Beatrice would define it has no legal category appropriate to what Barrell or Blood Oath is producing. Assuming no viable short-term path to a legislative solution, I have a few propositions for curing the American consumer of their ‘blend’ aversion.
First, any whiskey that is not a single barrel is a blend. It’s not my opinion - it’s a fact. Use the words marrying, mingling, mixing, and combining to your heart’s content – they all mean blend. Same goes for small batch, limited quantities, and anything else that suggests more than one barrel went into the product.
Second, respect the consumer: using euphemisms like small batch demeans the blender and misleads the consumer. Single malt Scotch gets a lot of attention, but 90% of Scotch is blended. Johnnie Walker is the best-selling whiskey in the world, and every Johnnie Walker you’ve ever tried has been a blend. As long as Johnnie Walker Blue Label remains the status symbol of choice, a blend will sit in most executive offices as the go-to celebratory pour around the US. Irish whiskey? Mostly blends. Japanese? Indian? Canadian? Blends, blends, blends. Of course, there are exceptions, and great ones at that, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of whiskies made and consumed in the US and around the world are blends. Calling it something else out of fear doesn’t change that.
Third, educate. I don’t blame the larger companies for shying away from using ‘blend’ in their products given the connotation. Hell, it was Booker Noe himself who coined the term ‘small batch’ and he was instrumental in creating some of my all-time favorite bourbons. The two facts can coexist. Asa side note, since there’s no legal definition of small batch, it could be 2 barrels, 200, or 200,000 – whatever the number, it’s still a blend of whiskies.
Instead of hiding behind undefined terms, celebrate the art of blending. Let’s take Booker’s Bourbon as an example. Fred Noe and his team already give the consumer the different locations where barrels came from with each Booker’s release. It’s a very short jump between calling Booker’s a small batch and a blend. Keep up the transparency that’s already there and any bourbon drinker with half a brain will think no less of Booker’s than they did before.
Why should larger brands like Beam, Turkey, and Four Roses lean into this? Simple: to reclaim ‘blending’ for American whiskey.
American whiskey blending is as strong as it has ever been and, in my view, is only growing stronger. Brands like Barrell Craft Spirits, Blood Oath, MGP, and more are producing high-quality, exciting blends with every release.
American whiskey is exploding in every market, domestically and internationally. Consumers around the world already see blending as a respectable, even desired, trait. By keeping ‘blend’ as an epithet, American whiskey-makers keep the consumer at best misled about what’s in their glass. Rip off the band-aid and call a spade a spade: on behalf of American whiskey consumers, we can take it.