American Blended Whiskey is a dying category with a rich heritage. Blended whiskey as a category had its start in the 19th century with the growing rectifying business in America. The invention of the column still in the 1840s made grain neutral spirits very inexpensive to produce. Many of these early blends were as much as 50% aged whiskeys. In the period after the American Civil War, people who did not have the money or the desire to build a distillery, but who wanted to enter the whiskey business, could purchase grain neutral spirits and barrels of aged whiskey and blend them with other ingredients such as fruit juice, caramel coloring and essential oils to create their own blended whiskey. It is true that many of these “blended whiskeys” sometimes did not even have aged whiskey in them, but many of the rectifiers truly wanted to make a good tasting product. John Atherton, a Kentucky distiller who sold many barrels to the rectifiers, defended the practice before Congress in the 1870s by stating that if you can add water to adjust the proof and flavor of a whiskey, why could you not do the same by adding neutral alcohol? It is a compelling argument.
Some people went to great lengths to make a quality blend. James Thompson, who sold his shares of Brown-Thompson to George Forman in order to start his own company, James Thompson & Bro., created a blend called “Old Thompson”. He would make his blend and then place the liquid back in the barrels for at least a year before selling it to consumers. He advertised it as “Wed in the Wood”. Many brands such as I W Harper, Old Forester and Four Roses were created by rectifiers and I know that I W Harper was a blended product as well as a Bourbon. Other brands may have had a blended version in their early history before becoming a straight whiskey.
The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 created a consumer demand for straight whiskeys and blended whiskey began a slow decline in popularity. There were periods of resurgence of blends, such as right after Prohibition and during the Second World War, when aged straight whiskey was hard to come by and companies stretched their stocks by creating blends, but when straight whiskey became available, these blended products declined in sales as consumers bought straight Bourbon brands. There was also a time in the 1970s when consumers were looking for ‘light” products such as beer and whiskey, where blends made a bit of a comeback. Seagram Seven Crown became popular as consumers were mixing it with 7Up for a “7&7”. However, American Blended whiskey has been slowly declining since the 1980s. Today it is hard to find a blended whiskey in the liquor stores other than Seven Crown and Kessler’s.
Today a blend can have as much as 80% grain neutral spirits and flavoring components. The two brands mentioned above are 75% Grain Neutral Spirits (GNS) today. It would be interesting to see some others on the market, a revival some of the old art of blending with more aged spirits and less GNS. Age it in barrels for a time after the blending. Age the neutral spirits before blending. There are methods that can create a decent drink of whiskey with blended products. The Canadians and the Scots have been blending whiskey for years and they still have a market for their blended products, so why not work on creating a better American Blended Whiskey to compete for those consumers? It was done in the past and could be done again.