The Art Of the Blend
Friday 16 June 2017
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To most whisky lovers, the term ‘blended’ comes with a mountain of baggage, conjuring up cheap, harsh, two- dimensional whiskies, aged for the bare minimum three years and best consumed with ice or a mixer. These were the whiskies that, prior to the rise of the single malt in the 1980s, enjoyed total domination of the Scotch whisky market, and still account for the lion’s share of its volume worldwide.
Yet blending is a legitimate, time- honoured and downright essential craft in the whisky world, and almost all the whisky you’re ever likely to drink depends on the skilled nose of a master blender. Here, then, is Ferment’s indispensable guide to the myths and misconceptions surrounding whisky blending (which can also be rolled into a handy baton for next time a poorly informed single malt snob decides to tell you what’s what).
To start the, the basics: blending is the practice of taking multiple casks of mature whisky and blending them together to meet a target character profile. Blenders typically (though not always) have thousands of barrels to choose from, each completely unique.
So, unless you’re drinking from a bottle marked ‘single cask’ the whisky inside will have been blended into a bottling batch; indeed, without blending it would be impossible for distilleries to achieve a consistent character from bottle to bottle. For a single malt, every cask in the batch must contain nothing but malt whisky (distilled on a copper pot still) from a single distillery, aged in oak for at least three years. The age statement on the bottle reflects the youngest whisky used in the batch, though it may also contain much older whiskies.
This practice is ubiquitous among the single malt distilleries (the ‘master blender’ is often considered the architect of a whisky, rather than the distiller) but there are also several companies who create their own single malts, by buying casks from the big distilleries and blending under their own brand. Essentially, they’re making premium, small-batch whiskies without actually doing any distilling.
AD Rattray has three award-winning single malts in its range: Stronachie 10 year and 18 year, which use casks from the highland Benrinnes distillery, and Cask Islay, from an unnamed Islay distillery. The latter in particular is produced in very small batches, numbering only 10-15 casks.
As Nick White, managing director at AD Rattray explains, through the art and science of blending he is able to create something new: “It takes years of nosing to get the experience needed to build up layers of flavour. The main issue is to have a balance so no single element is overpowering. The sherry casks we use are pretty heavy because they’re first fill, so they take on that rich sherry character at quite a young age.
“In the beginning, we deliberately made each batch of Stronachie different, with its own label and limited release. Some batches would have a lot of bourbon character, others would be heavily sherried. We’ve locked that down to a single consistent style now though, and I think that’s where the real skill comes in.”
Blending as it applies to single malts is relatively easy to understand, if tricky to actually get right. But things get considerably more complicated when you bring grain whisky into the equation. Grain whisky can be made using a mix of grains (rather than exclusively malted barley) distilled on a pot still or a continuous still.
In terms of alcohol yield, barley is expensive and pot stills are considerably less efficient than continuous stills, so malt whisky is much more expensive to produce than grain whisky. This is why the vast bulk of Scotch whisky sold around the world is a mix of grain and malt spirit, with the latter coming from any number of distilleries rather than a single source. By law, these must be labelled ‘blended’ whiskies, and are the reason the art of blending is often stigmatised.
Some of the most popular blended whiskies on the market contain as little as 10% malt whisky, with the bulk made up of young grain whisky. The prevailing wisdom is that grain whiskies are sweet, harsh and two-dimensional, and that blends are therefore inferior to the more expensive, complex single malts.
This prejudice is increasingly being challenged though, as drinkers come around to the idea that high quality, aged grain whiskies can be very good indeed. This is thanks to a growing number of ‘single grain’ whiskies coming onto the market and, in the case of Diageo’s Haig Club, even onto supermarket shelves.
R&B Distillers is another company that has made its name in blending, though it is currently in the process of setting up its own distilleries: one in the Scottish Borders and another on the isle of Rathsay. Founder Allasdair Day’s blending career started when he found a ledger belonging to his grandfather, which set out the recipes used by his family’s old grocer-blender business in Tweedale.
Alasdair’s single grain whisky, dubbed Borders, is intended as a preview of the style he hopes to achieve when his own stills are up and running.
“Borders is actually two different grains from the same distillery, one made from predominantly wheat, and the other made from malted barley on a continuous still. It’s blended, then finished in oloroso sherry casks. These are still young whiskies, but we can achieve the complexity by clever blending and then finishing.”
As the perception of grain whisky changes, there also a growing recognition that the much-maligned blended whiskies can also be rewarding, if the individual whiskies going into the batch are of a high quality and the blend is spot-on.
Alasdair’s very first whisky, Tweedale, was a classic blend, based on one of the many recipes in his grandfather’s ledger. Despite being Alasdair’s debut, Tweedale picked up a host of awards and critical praise.
“In a good blended whisky, the grain works in harmony with the malts, rather than just being a way to bulk them out; it brings in a lot of sweeter notes,” continues Alasdair. “I use 50% grain and then a large proportion of a core malt. Layered onto that you have the ‘top dressing’ of other malts which add the delicate complexity. The art is balancing those things, because whiskies often don’t behave as you’d expect when you blend them. You can’t just take a bunch of your favourite whiskies, stick them in a vat and expect the result to be amazing.”
Nick White agrees, with caveats: “Yes, we could see more of a market for premium blends in the future, but there’s still a lot of misunderstanding among consumers who are new to this. We produce a five year-old premium blended whisky called Banknote, mostly for the American market. The problem is that while we have some superb old grain whiskies and equally superb single malts, we’d be competing in a category that includes whiskies from the big producers at £13 for a 70cl bottle. For the vast majority of the market, blended whisky is about scale; not cases or pallets, but entire containers of whisky, with each person in the chain making pennies. That’s why premium blends are still a niche.”
So why should we beer drinkers care about blended whisky? Well, the key is in the grain – just as the mash makes a huge different to the character of beer, the same is true of whisky, and there are many characteristics that we can recognise from our own tasting experiences, from the oily mouth-feel of oats to the peppery sweetness of rye.
So, if the idea of applying your beer palate to the wide world of blended whisky sounds like a good wheeze, you’re in luck – there are some truly exciting drams out there. As well as Tweedale and Banknote, check out the blends from Wemyss Malts (particularly Spice King), Compass Box, The Last Drop, Douglas Laing and (if you’re feeling old-school) Royal Salute. Needless to say the Japanese are also doing some amazing things, and Hibiki 21 is among the best you’ll ever taste.
So dive in – you won’t regret it.
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