You'd better be fluent in metaphors if you're going to talk with the people who make or market blended Scotch. Over the past few months, as a succession of representatives from Dewar's, Cutty Sark, Chivas Brothers and other fine Scottish exports paraded through my office in kilts and tartan neckties, I heard about orchestra conductors, bricks and mortar, sports teams, best friends and crowded rooms. In case the meaning of all this isn't instantly clear, I'll try to interpret.
Blended Scotch is a mixture of two kinds of whisky, grain and malt. Grain whisky is distilled mainly from corn, and has a light, sugary, pleasant flavor. Malt whiskey is distilled from barley; it's made in as many different styles as there are rocks in Scotland, but generally malts have a stronger and more assertive character than grain whiskies. (The famous single malts that we hear so much about are just individual malt whiskies.) To the metaphor mongers, the malts are the bricks that provide the structure of a blended Scotch; the mortar is the grain whisky that, because its flavor is comparatively neutral, binds the malts together. (Or, as I was also told, the malts are the paint and the grain whisky is the canvas.) The orchestra conductor is the master blender, whose job is to get as many as 40 different whiskies to play together harmoniously. The specific whiskies in a blend may be varied from batch to batch, depending on availability; they are rotated in and out like athletes, but the team plays just as well no matter who's on the field.
The best-friend analogy was perhaps the most enlightening, because it told me a lot about the fears of the people who used it. People have strong feelings of affection for their favorite single malt, just as you do about your best friend. But as wonderful as your best friend may be, he's not perfect, is he? And isn't it a little tiresome spending all your time with one person? Don't you occasionally enjoy a large, lively party? Your best friend might even attend the party—just as some of the best single malts turn up in some of the great blended Scotches—but there will be all sorts of friendly new faces in the room too.