You want to drink some scotch but not pay a small fortune for single malt scotch whiskey? Well here is your ranked list of affordable blended whiskey based on blind taste tests. But first let’s learn a bit more about what we are drinking.
Blended whiskey versus single malt whiskey
First off what is the difference between a single malt and a blended whiskey? Single malts are made of malted barley roasted over an open fire by a single distillery. Thus the name single malt. This does not however mean the scotch comes from a single barrel. It comes from many barrels but at the same distillery. Single malts are more expensive as they only contain malt whiskey not grain whiskey to water them down. Grain whiskey is basically industrial alcohol aka vodka which is much cheaper to produce from other grains such as corn, wheat and potato. Single malts are also more expensive in the USA due to a 25% tariff imposed by the current administration for trade war reasons. Plus people are willing to pay more so producers can charge you more. Some examples of single malts include Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Highland Park.
Blended whiskeys by contrast are blends of whiskeys from different distilleries blended together to make a consistent product by a master blender. They also include some portion of grain whiskey to reduce the cost. Remember I said it’s essentially vodka mixed in so you get less malted scotch. Adding the grain whiskey aka vodka allows the producers to reduce cost thus reducing price. This also reduces flavor intensity and potentially increases smoothness. Examples include Johnnie Walker, Dewars, Chivas Regal and J&B.
There are also blended malt whiskeys that don’t contain any grain alcohol only malted barley. These used to be called vatted malts. They are still blends from other distilleries but don’t have the vodka filler. Johnnie Walker Green Label is an example.
Aging, the older the better?
Often scotch whiskeys denote an age or not. By law all whiskeys must be aged for three years in oak wood barrels. If there is no specific age statement then it is likely the whiskey is exactly three years old. Those are called young whiskeys. Some more premium blends are aged for twelve years or more. That adds smoothness and complexity to the taste. It also adds cost as someone has to store those barrels for an extra nine years. Storage isn’t free. In general the older whiskeys taste better but that is not always the case.
How to drink blended scotch
- Straight up in a glass with a little water. If the scotch is bad this won’t be an option.
- In a rocks glass with a few ice cubes to cut the burn down
- Mixed with water and ice in a highball glass
- Mixed with soda water and ice in a highball glass to make a sparkling and refreshing drink. This is common in Japan and is called a whiskey highball.
- Mixed with Coke or Pepsi in a highball glass with ice. This is common in Southern Europe. I like this method and it is a good way to blend away the taste of cheap tasting scotch.
- Mixed with ginger ale and ice in a highball
- Mixed with Sprite or 7 Up and ice in a highball. This is variation of a 7&7.
So onto our reviews of blended whiskey at a reasonable price point
From worst to best in my humble opinion based on tasting of unmarked cups poured by a friend. We agreed on our rating with exception of the top. He ranked the Double Black number one.
7. Cutty Sark $20 for 750 ml: Ok blend but you can taste it through any mixer you choose. Either you love or hate it. Not a straight sipper in my view and overly sweet. Much better than most bottom shelf scotch however.
6. J&B Rare $20 for 750 ml: Decent for a mid-bottom shelf scotch. It is a good mixer in Coke and sodas. It is however not something to drink straight. J&B and Coke is a popular nightclub drink in Southern Europe and all around the Mediterranean. It is very good and a good value when mixed as such. If this is your intention then this does the trick. I drink this with Coke/Pepsi too. You can taste it but not to much.
5. Dewar’s $26 for 750 ml: Good overall as a mixer. A bit peaty and smoky plus a little bitter on the end. Some say the bitterness on the end is due to reusing barrels too many times so that only the tannins are left to impart flavor. This is likely true. I know people who like this and others who hate it. Personally I like it but it’s not great by any means. I find this works well in Japanese style whiskey highballs.
4. Johnnie Walker Red $26 for 750 ml: Spicy and slightly rough. This is best mixed not straight. You will taste peat here and it is very “scotchy”. You can taste it more robustly through a mixer than some of the others which can be a good or bad thing depending on your preference.
3. Chivas Regal 12 year $38 for 750 ml: Smooth and a bit oaky in taste. Can be drunk straight or mixed. This the point in the ranking when quality of taste takes a quantum leap as these are aged 12 years not 3. You also pay twice the price for that storage and smoothness. This one is actually my favorite to drink and mix with on a regular basis as it so smooth. However the others bring a bit more flavor to the party so they are ranked higher. For these top three it is a toss up. This one is sort of the Toyota Camry of scotch. Does everything well but not outstanding in any way so it didn’t pop in the tasting. It won’t offend anyone and will be well received.
2. Johnnie Walker Double Black $45 for 750 ml: Smooth, charcoal like and smoky. It is like the Johnnie Walker black but aged in more charred barrels. They should call it black plus because that is what it tastes like.
1. Johnnie Walker Black Label $37 for 750 ml: Smooth and mellow. It mixes well and can be drunk straight if you want. Personally I think it’s a bit expensive to mix up and better straight or with some water.
As the adage goes you get what you pay for. That is most certainly true in the world of scotch. If you are going to blend with say Coke then a cheap whiskey such as J&B, Dewars or Johnnie Red will be fine. If you want to drink it straight or with ice you might want to stick with Johnnie Walker Black, Johnnie Double Black or Chivas Regal.
Once your price point goes north of $45 you are in the realm of single malt whiskey and you may not want to be buying blends any longer. Then it’s time to taste blends versus single malts. Many people prefer single malt sippers at this point. Examples include Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Highland Park. Glenlivet is quite smooth. Try and you will see.