Blended Scotch case depletions may surpass those of single malt in the U.S., but where single malt has steadily grown over the last decade, it’s been quite the opposite for blends. Blended Scotch depletions in the U.S. totaled 5.85 million cases last year—down more than 2 million cases since 2000. David Marberger, owner of Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits in Annapolis, Maryland, has certainly noticed the decline. “We recently swapped our Scotch section, including blends and single malts, which had been 60 linear feet, and our Tequila section, which had been 45 linear feet—with the growth that we’re experiencing in Tequila and the downward trajectory of Scotch, it only made sense that we dedicate the greater amount of shelf space to the category that’s doing more business,” he says. “That’s the best example of how the blended Scotch category has changed for us.” Blended Scotch accounts for just 3% of total spirits sales at Bay Ridge, where the best-selling labels include Dewar’s ($31 a 1.75-liter), Johnnie Walker Black ($61), and The Famous Grouse ($39). “For us, all of the recent activity in the blended Scotch category has been trending down—it’s not in a free fall, but nothing exciting is really happening,” Marberger adds. “As a category, it’s certainly not going away or running the risk of becoming obsolete, but we never know when things will change.”
But this hasn’t been the story everywhere—and in fact, according to Impact Databank, total blended Scotch depletions were up 2% last year in the U.S., despite seven out of the top ten brands posting losses. At Cheers Liquor Mart in Colorado Springs, Colorado, owner Jack Backman says that while blended Scotch only accounts for 2% of spirits sales, it’s grown recently at the store, mostly due to the big increase on single malt prices and despite blended Scotch prices increasing as well. “I think it will continue to grow slowly as trends in drinking more upscale spirits continue to increase while wine continues to decrease in popularity,” he says. Top-sellers include Johnnie Walker Red ($37 a 1.75-liter, $26 a 750-ml.), Dewar’s White Label ($37; $26), John Barr ($30 a 1.75-liter), Buchanan’s 12-year-old ($40 a 750-ml.), and Monkey Shoulder ($32).
Josh Minton, product planning manager at Twin Liquors in Austin, Texas, says that blended Scotch sales at the store were up about 8% in the second quarter of this year compared to the same time last year, while the entire Scotch category was up 2%. Blended Scotch accounts for 60% of the store’s total Scotch sales, and Johnnie Walker, Buchanan’s, Dewar’s, Chivas Regal, The Famous Grouse, and Monkey Shoulder all rank among the top brands. “Premium and super-premium are growth drivers for the category—premium is growing for us about 16% and super-premium is close to 20%,” Minton notes. “Premium and super-premium trends will continue to drive growth, as will innovation, with new items like Buchanan’s Pineapple. I think supply chain improvements in the short term will stabilize prices, but in the long term demand for older expressions will continue to deplete available reserves and drive up the super-premium and premium channels to higher prices.”
Prices have certainly been creeping up for blended Scotch, but that hasn’t scared off consumers who are increasingly happy to spend more on quality products. “While the blended Scotch category has experienced significant increases in price mix, the category is seeing growth and stabilization this year, largely driven by super-premium-plus brands within the competitive set,” says Johan Radojewski, vice president of marketing at Pernod Ricard USA, which has several blended Scotches in its portfolio, including Chivas Regal and Royal Salute. “This demonstrates a clear premiumization opportunity for the higher price points within the category, along with new competitive releases emerging, tied to more prestigious older age statements and new innovative finishes.”
Chivas Regal brand director Emily Lane also notes that the highest growth in blended Scotch has been in the ultra-premium and prestige price segments, particularly during and coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. “However, we’re starting to see demand in these higher price segments soften with the uncertainty around the economy and inflation as consumers are starting to be more judicious with their spending,” she says. “That said, we expect the premiumization trend in blended Scotch to continue.”
Brian Cox, vice president of Bacardi-owned Dewar’s for North America, notes that 12-year-old Scotch is increasingly “the norm” for consumers under the age of 55. “This is now driving trade up into the 15-year-old segment, which is really the next frontier of Scotch premiumization,” he notes. “Deluxe blended Scotch provides much of the depth of flavor that a single malt does but also, thanks to the aged grain whiskies, a broader palate of flavors as well as a very smooth and rich texture and mouthfeel. Generally, the level of innovation and experimentation in blended Scotch is outstanding and this is drawing interest from Irish and Bourbon whiskey drinkers looking to trade up.”
Drumming Up Interest
No.-2 brand Dewar’s has introduced a number of new expressions over the past five years, but according to Cox, the most significant has been the revamped Dewar’s 12-year-old ($30 a 750-ml.), which is now finished in firstfill Bourbon casks. “This was Whisky Advocate’s highest rated Scotch of 2022, and No.-4 whisky of the year overall,” Cox says. “It was also rated a stunning 94 points, which makes it the highest ever rated 12-year-old blended Scotch whisky.”
Dewar’s posted the most impressive gain last year within the top ten blended Scotches—it was up 19.5% to 1.07 million cases, according to Impact Databank. The only other two brands to grow last year were Diageo-owned Buchanan’s (No. 3), up 6.5% to 655,000 cases, and William Grant & Sons’ Monkey Shoulder (No. 8), which eked out a 0.7% gain to 116,000 cases. Thanks to these gains, plus the fact that category leader Johnnie Walker, owned by Diageo, slipped just 1% to 2 million cases, the top ten brands ended last year with an overall 2.8% growth.
“We’re thrilled to share that Royal Salute shipments year-to-date versus last year are up 19.9%, driven by the 21-year-old Signature Blend,” Pernod Ricard’s Radojewski says. “Royal Salute’s success is largely driven by its annual releases—this upcoming fiscal year, Royal Salute will release several new editions, each celebrating a memorable occasion or culturally relevant moment.” These releases include the 21-year-old Richard Quinn Edition ($12,000 a 750-ml.), Forces of Nature by Kate MccGwire ($90,000), 21-year-old Lunar New Year Edition ($220), and 21-year-old Jodhpur Polo Edition ($250).
No.-5 label Chivas Regal’s latest innovation was the launch of Chivas XV ($50 a 750-ml.), a 15-year-old blended Scotch selectively finished in Cognac casks, in the U.S. market in September. Chivas Regal fell 7.2% last year to 239,000 cases, according to Impact Databank. “Four brands account for 83% of the blended Scotch category’s value, with competition the fiercest among these competitors within the 12-year-old segment,” Lane says. “However, we’ve seen competition pick up within the higher price segments, for instance in the 18-year-old segment. And recently, we’ve seen growth return in super-premium with the recent launch of Buchanan’s Pineapple, the first entry of flavored Scotch into the category.” It’s yet to be seen if the introduction of Buchanan’s Pineapple ($30 a 750-ml.) this past February will bring some needed excitement to the blended Scotch category, or even inspire other flavored blends to come to market, but it’s worth noting that Buchanan’s is the only blended Scotch in the top ten to have consistently grown year-over-year since 2017, according to Impact Databank.
Outside of the legacy brands, newer labels are vying to breathe new life into blended Scotch. “Compass Box has been around since the early 2000’s, has won countless awards, and is considered one of the top whisky brands in the world,” notes Judd Zusel, the brand’s new president for the Americas. “The biggest success factor for the brand going forward is ensuring more whisky drinkers are aware of Compass Box and have a chance to try our diverse set of product offerings.” This fall the brand will launch its first-ever national marketing campaign, focused on key cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and New York City.
This June, Beam Suntory introduced a new blended Scotch to the U.S. market called Ardray ($85 a 700-ml.), which brings together malts from both Beam Suntory—owner of Laphroaig, Bowmore, Ardmore, and Glen Garioch—and Edrington— owner of Highland Park, The Macallan, and The Glenrothes— and pays tribute to Suntory’s legacy of blending whiskies. “Bringing the unique terroir of Scotland together with the precision and artistry of Japanese craftmanship, Ardray was created to challenge preconceptions and offer a fresh perspective in blended Scotch,” says Jamie Mackenzie, Beam Suntory’s marketing brand director for Scotch in North America. “There are more quality blended Scotch options on the market today, more than ever before, but Ardray offers something completely different with origin and production oversight coming from both Scotland and Japan.” Mackenzie adds that the brand’s marketing strategy is digitally driven, with much of the content living on social media and e-commerce platforms. “In addition, we’ll soon be announcing collaborations with like-minded artists and creatives, including a series of launch events in key cities like New York and Los Angeles,” he adds.
Similar to Ardray, Monkey Shoulder, which debuted in 2003, was created to offer something different than the category had seen before. “Within the category, Monkey Shoulder is performing ahead of the segment, with its brand identity as an unpretentious whisky pushing the liquid to outpace its competitors,” says Harvey Purchese, senior vice president of marketing at William Grant & Sons. Monkey Shoulder has delivered 15% CAGR growth over the past five years, making it among the fastest growing Scotches in the top 20, according to Impact Databank.
Purchese attributes much of Monkey Shoulder’s success to its focus on driving relationships with bartenders. “Monkey Shoulder is expanding its educational, bartender-oriented approach through the Monkey Business Academy,” he says. “Monkey Business Academy provides bartenders with an immersive workshop led by industry icons and dives into the skills that really matter, including the fundamentals of concocting a modern classic, the importance of creating memorable moments, as well as expert advice for personal promotion and branding. Through this program, Monkey Shoulder aims to maximize bartender engagement with the consumer and propel new voices in the industry forward.”
Purchese adds that the brand is currently investing in the transformation of the Old Fashioned cocktail. “As a spirit that excels in twisting the old into something brand new, Monkey Shoulder has designed a collection of Old Fashioned recipes for each season so fans can enjoy their favorite classic cocktail all year long,” he says. “One of my personal favorites is the Banana Old Fashioned, which is made with Monkey Shoulder, banana simple syrup, and black walnut bitters.”
Cox of Dewar’s notes that today’s cocktail culture has helped blended Scotch become more approachable and versatile in the eyes of consumers. “There will always be a core range of drinkers who enjoy their whisky neat or over ice, but we’re seeing a renaissance in whisky cocktails and appreciation for the depth and breadth of flavor that Scotch whisky can imbue in a cocktail,” he says. “In December, we created the ‘Dewar’s Dozen,’ where we worked with 12 of the U.S.’s best bartenders, having them create sophisticated whisky cocktails with the new Dewar’s 12-year-old. What we hear from bartenders time and again is how mixable blended Scotch is, and in particular Dewar’s.” In addition, as part of its sponsorship of the U.S. Open Golf Championship, Dewar’s created the event’s first signature cocktail last year, the Dewar’s Lemon Wedge, comprising Dewar’s 12-year-old, lemonade, and club soda. The cocktail is available at all concession stands during the U.S. Open Golf Championship, and the brand released a Dewar’s Lemon Wedge cocktail kit from Cocktail Courier for consumers to recreate the cocktail at home.
“The biggest trend we currently see is that consumers are looking for easy ways to enjoy blended Scotch,” Compass Box’s Zusel says. “They’re open to drinking more Scotch-based cocktails during the summer months, but have not been introduced to easy-drinking whisky cocktails like a Highball or a modified Spritz. Lighter, fruitier blended whiskies can be easily mixed with lemon lime soda, for example, to create the perfect at-home Highball. I personally love a Compass Box Orchard House & Betty Buzz Lemon Lime Soda Highball on a hot summer afternoon.”
Recognizing the opportunity to welcome new fans to blended Scotch through cocktails, in 2020 Royal Salute partnered with Martin Siska, the award-winning director of bars for Scarfes bar in London’s Rosewood hotel, to create a collection of Royal Salute-based cocktails, including what has become the brand’s signature drink, The Kensington, featuring Royal Salute 21-year-old, rose water-infused honey syrup, soda water, and a squeeze of lemon.
Between cocktail culture opening blended Scotch up to more drinking occasions and premiumization helping dispel misconceptions about the quality to be found in the category, the future looks bright for blended Scotch. “At least 80% of Scotch sold in the U.S. is blended Scotch, and 12-year-old and above blended Scotch is just as dynamic as single malts, which isn’t surprising since 85% of Scotch consumers consume both types,” Cox notes. “There has been a long-held myth that blends are good but single malts are better and I’m pleased to see that myth being broken. Drinkers are recognizing the allure of blends and the whisk(e)y category is the better for it.”