October 23, 2012 / 7:08 PM / in 5 years

Blended Scotch aims for hallowed single-malt ground

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - When it comes to Scotch whisky, premium single malts get star billing, but the world's top seller of blended varieties is aiming for a similar audience with some new, more upscale labels.

Johnnie Walker, best known for its best-selling Red Label and Black Label brands, has launched a pair of pricier blends -- Gold Label Reserve and Platinum Label -- in hopes of winning over growing numbers of affluent Scotch drinkers, many of whom are single-malt purists.

It also wants to attract new converts to Scotch with some ideas for mixed drinks that tone down some of the initial boldness of the spirit.

This all may be sacrilege to those who contend the only thing one should add to Scotch is, well, Scotch. But the aim is to show a worldwide market that has been expanding by at least 5 percent a year that there is more than one way to enjoy a wee dram.

Think of the relationship between single malt and blended Scotch as that between a concert violinist and a symphony, said Ewan Gunn, Diageo Plc's global Scotch whisky ambassador.

Besides Johnnie Walker, the British liquor giant also markets single malts, such as Lagavulin and Talisker.

"To make a good single malt, you make one good product, you distill it, you mature it, you bottle it and your job is done," Gunn said after presenting the new blends to bartenders and journalists in Calgary, Alberta, where oil money gushes into fine liquor and other luxury items.

"When you're making a good blended Scotch whisky, you have to do that 30, 40, 50 times with entirely different whiskies. Then you have to bring them together in perfect harmony and only then is your job done. So for me, it's a testament to true skill to be able to make a really good blended Scotch whisky."

There's no shortage of the stuff, as blended varieties account for roughly nine of every 10 bottles sold, and, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, 40 bottles per second are shipped from the U.K. on average.

Indeed, single-malt distilleries, with their rich, peaty product, owe much to blenders, as few would survive without contributing large volumes of their output to the mixes, Gunn said.

In the United States, wine and spirits have stolen market share from beer in recent years, as the companies behind them have lured consumers with more upscale brands and cocktails.

Diageo is the world's biggest distilled spirits maker. Its Smirnoff vodka is the world's top-selling spirit by volume, while Johnnie Walker is the top-selling brand by value, a position showing no signs of tailing off.

In the most recent fiscal year, net sales rose 14 percent with volume up 7 percent. Net sales of Johnnie Walker Black Label 12-year-old were up 15 percent, fueled by price increases and the launch of Double Black, which costs 20 percent more.

BETWEEN BLACK AND BLUE

The new premium varieties, are positioned between the moderately priced Black and the swish Blue Label, which runs upwards of $200 per bottle. In North America, they are being rolled out to Canadian tipplers first with a U.S. launch date yet to be announced.

Gold Label Reserve is notable for the addition of malt whisky from the casks of the Clynelish distillery in Scotland's northern highlands, which traces its roots back to 1819.

It is recommended served chilled and enthusiasts may notice honey and toffee sweetness in the blend. It actually goes pretty well with a chocolate or two and retails for C$79.95 ($81.85).

Platinum Label, at C$149.95, brings together single malt and grain whiskies from all parts of Scotland for a blend that is matured for at least 18 years. It features suggestions of almond and orange peel that linger on the palate for quite awhile after a sip.

Gunn rejects the notion that good whisky should never be contaminated with other ingredients including water, and notes that a splash of H2O brings out different characteristics in the blends.

One mix at the Calgary event included coconut water and green tea, which was pitched as a recipe aimed at attracting more women to Scotch but, frankly, might horrify most peoples' fathers. Still, it's all about helping newcomers along with acquiring a taste, he said.

"I mean, it is a bold complex flavor, unashamedly so. It's not like we're trying to hide how it tastes or dramatically change how it tastes or trick anybody," Gunn said. "It's purely about making it more accessible for that first or maybe second time someone tries it."

($1=$0.98 Canadian)

Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz

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