The Long Read: Blended Malts and Teaspoons

Welcome back to the blog! Today, we’re going to be talking about the Blended Malt whisky category, with a focus on the Blended Malt term itself alongside a quick look at the curious and occasionally contradictory classification rules associated with teaspooning and cask finishing.

The term Blended Malt refers to the product of two or more single malt whiskies blended together without any grain whisky content – a rare type of whisky that was formerly known as Vatted Malt or Pure Malt and remains probably the most niche category in the (Scotch) whisky world.

The two older terms Vatted and Pure Malt were effectively outlawed by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) in the aftermath of the regrettable Cardhu Pure Malt debacle, which occurred in 2003 when Diageo withdrew their Cardhu single malt whisky and replaced it with Cardhu Pure Malt – a new product that was a blend of single malts from both Cardhu and Glendullan, but was packaged identically to the old Cardhu single malt bottlings and distinguished from them only by the term Pure Malt on the label.

Following an industry-wide outcry, Cardhu Pure Malt was withdrawn and the SWA eventually drew up regulations for the classification of different types of whisky. These rules, which were legally formalised in the 2009 Scotch Whisky Regulations, expressly forbade the use of the terms Vatted Malt and Pure Malt, replacing both with the Blended Malt designation. 

As justification for banning the use of the Pure Malt and Vatted Malt epithets, the SWA claimed that they were confusing to customers. This was certainly true of the nebulous ‘Pure’ Malt term, which was used indiscriminately for decades by producers, with some utilising the term for single malts and others for vatted malts. 

Many whisky fans, however, regretted the demise of the Vatted Malt label, which was perhaps a little functional and unsexy but was the clearest expression of the type of whisky in the bottle and had been in use for well over a century. Vatted Malt’s passing was marked by Compass Box releasing their legendary Last Vatted Malt, the final bottle of which was sealed in a special ceremony on Westminster Bridge at 11.59pm on 22nd November 2011, the last day the term was legal.

Contrastingly, the new SWA term ‘Blended Malt’ had never been used before, and was immediately condemned by the trade press and whisky fans for muddying the waters and causing more confusion than the terms it would replace, as it could easily be conflated with Blended Scotch Whisky. Nevertheless, the Blended Malt term was now law and has remained in place ever since, pleasing nobody.

Notable blended malts are relatively few and far between. The most obvious examples are Johnnie Walker Green Label (itself once labelled as Pure Malt) and William Grant’s Monkey Shoulder, sometimes referred to as a Triple Malt because it contains single malt whisky from three different distilleries. Other modern blended malts include Compass Box’s Peat Monster, Prában na Linne’s Poit Dhubh, MacNair’s Lum Reek from Glenallachie’s Billy Walker, Morrison Distillers’ Old Perth, Douglas Laing’s Big Peat, North Star’s Supersonic and Nikka’s Taketsuru, which is still labelled as Pure Malt because it’s not Scotch whisky and doesn’t have to abide by the SWA’s rules.

However, there is another type of Blended Malts, almost a shadow category – the ‘teaspooned’ casks of malt whisky released by independent bottlers. A teaspooned cask is a cask of single malt whisky that has had a tiny amount of whisky from another distillery added to it so that it cannot be called a single malt. 

Teaspooning is a relatively common practice in the whisky industry, where distilleries routinely swap casks of their malts with each other for blending purposes. Teaspooning is designed to protect brands by preventing the use of the distillery name if the casks are subsequently sold on to independent bottlers – William Grant’s, for example, will add a teaspoon of Glenfiddich to a Balvenie cask, and vice versa. 

These teaspooned malts are usually given new names. Balvenie teaspooned with Glenfiddich is known as Burnside in the industry, while Glenfiddich teaspooned with Balvenie is known as Wardhead and teaspooned Laphroaig is often called Williamson. These new names are helpful to cask brokers and independent bottlers, and of course the teaspooned malts have a lower market value than a cask of single malt from the same distillery as they cannot use their real distillery names. 

All this has brought us to the peculiar situation where adding a single teaspoon of single malt whisky to a cask that already contains 250 or 500 litres of a different single malt whisky can turn it into a blended malt – even though the taste and quality of the product is not materially affected in any detectable way – but finishing any single malt whisky in a cask that previously held wine, calvados, champagne, cognac, rum or tequila (and which will still retain at least a couple of litres of its former contents) is, in the eyes of the Scotch Whisky Association, absolutely fine and doesn’t affect the status of the single malt whatsoever. 

The same goes for refill casks from other distilleries, so a Balvenie with a teaspoon of Glenfiddich in it cannot be called Balvenie, but a Balvenie that has been finished in a cask that previously held Islay malt whisky – and therefore has much more of another single malt whisky in it than a teaspooned cask – is still absolutely fine and can be sold as Balvenie Islay Cask or Balvenie Peated Cask with impunity. 

Crazy enough, but there’s another elephant in the room. The reality of the Scotch whisky industry is that today the majority of single malt whiskies are matured in casks that have already been used to mature both bourbon and later grain whisky before being filled with single malt. If this whisky is then re-racked into, say, a rum cask for finishing, the final product will contain malt whisky and several litres of a mix of grain scotch whisky, bourbon and rum.

Now, as far as the SWA and the market is concerned, this rum-finished product is definitely 100% single malt Scotch whisky – even though if you were to start again with an empty cask and add the exact same quantities of each of the ingredients you couldn’t even call it whisky, let alone Scotch whisky or single malt. But if you put a single teaspoon of another single malt whisky in the original cask, then it becomes a blended malt.

You might think all this is stupid, wilfully blind hypocrisy. You would be correct. The arrangement makes no logical sense and is indefensibly bizarre. But on the other hand, it does make the teaspooned malts cheaper to us as consumers, so it’s a case of swings and roundabouts, eh?

In our opinion, Blended Malt is a noble, though badly misnamed, category of Scotch whisky. Teaspooned malts, meanwhile, are a necessary evil for the continuance of the cask-broking ecosystem, with the added benefit of being cheaper to consumers than equivalent single malts from the same distillery – but they’re not really blended malts. No blender’s skill has gone into their creation and they are materially indistinguishable from the single malts that make up 99.99% of their contents – so if cask finished malts can still be classified as single malts, we believe teaspooned casks should be as well.

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