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Issue 47 - All in the blend

Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009

 

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All in the blend

We take a look at blended whiskies and how they are made.

They say it’s a little like conducting a symphony orchestra, when it all comes together you can be swept off your feet.

The art of the blender has always been a fascinating one, how you keep some of the world’s most recognisable brands tasting the same time after time.

With a blend consisting of anything from 15 to 50 different single whiskies, blending is a considerable skill acquired only after years of experience.

Most blenders will keep their successful formulas a close secret.

On the face of it, the art is a simple one. Mix together a series of grains and malts to make a new, interesting whisky.

However when you get deeper into it life becomes a little more complex. Whiskies from different distilleries have a character of their own and, just as people of different temperaments are often incompatible, so some whiskies will not blend happily with certain others.

The various malts and grains must be blended to complement each other and enhance the overall taste, and this is where it gets a little tricky.

There are really two main aims for the blender. First is to produce a whisky of definite and recognisable character, and not deviate from this standard. The second is to achieve consistency.

One of the most important decisions the blender has to make is when the different single whiskies are ready to be used in the blend.

They will be brought from the warehouse where they have been maturing to the blending room, then mixed together in a blending vat.

The blend is usually returned to cask and left to marry for a period of months, before bottling.

Some say blending as we know it today was pioneered by Andrew Usher in Edinburgh in the early 1860s. In some respects it was thanks to the art of the blender that whisky began to make its name across the border in England and throughout the world.

The main reason for this, in the 19th century, was that pot still malt whisky was often too strongly flavoured for everyday drinking.

By combining malt whisky with grain whisky, which has less pronounced characteristics, the demand for a whisky that is milder in flavour and more suited to the conditions of modern life can be met.

The blend character is determined not only by the proportions of malt and grain whisky it contains, but also by factors such as the ages of the individual whiskies and the manner in which they combine to bring out the finest qualities in each other.

A deluxe blend may contain a higher proportion of carefully selected older and, therefore, more expensive whiskies.

When there is an age label on a bottle of blended whisky, it refers to the youngest whisky in the blend.

For example, if a blend is described as an eight year old, the youngest whisky in that blend must have been matured for at least eight years.

It was really the Victorian era that produced some of the big names in blends and big taste profiles.

Between the late 1870s and the turn of the century a handful of canny Scots promoted their new blended whiskies, first in London and then around the world.

Many of them became immensely wealthy as a result, and several were elevated to the peerage – James Buchanan (The Buchanan Blend and Black & White) became Lord Woolavington; Tommy Dewar (Dewar’s White Label) was made Baron Dewar of Homestall and his brother John, Lord Forteviot; Peter Mackie (White Horse) was made a baronet and Alexander Walker (Johnnie Walker) was knighted.

The spread of blended Scotch fame was assisted by a number of factors. There was growing fashion for things Scottish, led by Queen Victoria and the well established rail and sea routes, which made transportation far easier than previously.

Finally, the existence of the British Empire, the biggest free market in the world helped.

For some blends hold more of a tasting challenge than single malts. Ardent blends fans claim that the mélange of malts and grains in a premium or well aged blend offers a more complex taste profile than more malts.

So with blends beginning to regain some of the market ground and respect they once garnered, we spoke to a trio of top of blenders about what they make of their own art, and what makes a good blend for them.

ROBERT HICKS Consultant master blender for Teachers and brand ambassador for Laphroaig “To become a blender you generally start as a trainee, then an assistant hopefully ending up eventually as a master blender.

But unlike most jobs there is no jumping ship after two year, it’s the experience that counts.

“I spent 35 years at Ballantines and Allied and in that time there was one blender before me and one after. It really is a lifetime job, and it is all about learning.

“The recipe for the blend is handed down by each blender and the thing you are aiming to stick to is the flavour profile.

“For instance there were 128 or so distilleries when I started so when some closed, and they have, you have to try to replace that flavour and match it as closely as you can. This might mean you end up with three or four malts to replace one.

“Once you start delving there are even subtle changes in flavour that come from barley varieties changing. I know of one distillery that will only use Golden Promise barley because of the flavour it gives.

“For me a good blender spends everyday nosing whisky and keeping on top of the quality of product coming in.

“Also the vital part of the blender is the sense of smell, and a strong smell memory.

Sounds silly but I can forget peoples’ names, but ask me about a blend 30 years ago and I can tell you what it smells like.

“For me a good blend is something softer and sweet with a nice flavour to it.

Some blenders grow into the blend they produce and I do like both Ballantines and Teachers. To be honest there is nothing out there you could call a bad whisky these days.” DAVID STEWART Master blender for Grants “I joined Grants in 1962 straight from school and was lucky enough to start in the department which the blender ran.

Although I was doing cleric work, he really started me off on nosing whisky, spirit and samples from casks. He basically trained me to create our blends. In the mid 70s he left and I took over.

“For me the job is all about being able to nose and tell the difference between the malts. It is also about getting to know the products you are working with, and how whisky matures.

“Grants Family Reserve is the main blend I work on, but we also have premium blends.

“I have a formula to create Grants with the grain and malt content, and this has been fairly consistent for 40 years or more.

“I think I am quite lucky in that most of the malt content comes from Glenfiddich and Balvenie, and this has not changed for a long time.

“I look for balance in a blend. If I was looking for a premium malt it would probably be something special like a 12 year old. It has to have no rough edges or one malt standing out, balance is essential.

“Our blends tend to be quite similar to Speyside, so sweet and fruity rather than smoky.

“For me it is all about getting the different ingredients to combine in the right proportion. The malts are the key as they give the sweetness, character and flavour to the blend.” RICHARD PATERSON Master blender Whyte and Mackay “Both my father and grandfather were whisky blenders - whisky therefore flows through my blood.

“I was eight years old when I carried out my first whisky tasting with my father at his Stockwell Bond in Glasgow. I have been in love with whisky ever since.

“There are many things that make a good blender but the greatest of all to my mind is passion.

“Genuine passion allows you to achieve almost anything and blending whisky, great whisky is no exception.

“When you select a wide range of aged malt and grain whiskies between 15 to 20 years old from the four distilling regions of Scotland, matured in a variety of different wood styles, that’s when you set your character profile. The blend is prepared with a malt ratio of around 45 per cent.

“But when it is finally bottled and drunk at the appropriate time, shared with good friends - not hurried. Simply sipped and savoured.

“That’s when what you have created becomes a sensational blend, and when Scotch cannot be beaten.”