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Nose on the Line – Beginning Blending

Is blended Scotch muscling in on single malt’s limelight? When Whisky Magazine publishes two supplements devoted to the aggregated Scotch whisky product in fairly close order, the Caskstrength.net boys choose to release a blend on the route of their A-Z bottling marathon, and Johnnie Walker creates such a song and dance about their swanky yacht experience through big whisky retailers, maybe the huge bias in single malt’s favour amongst professional and amateur commentators is beginning to dissolve. For so long, blends have been explained in terms of economics with single malts scooping all of the column inches for provenance and craftsmanship. Perhaps the tide is turning…

Of course, I am only being flippant. The blogosphere’s infatuation with the singularity of malt whisky is going nowhere fast: let blends make all the money and we shall maintain our vigil around our beloved copper pot stills. Aberfeldy, Strathisla, Cardhu – these are the distilleries we wish to venerate, rejecting their statuses of blend brand homes as so much peripheral marketing.

Paraphernalia...

However, I for one have changed my mind. Maybe it is the proselytising of Compass Box’s John Glaser, perhaps it is the duo of Meet the Blender evenings I have attended, the ardent penmanship of Dave Broom, or perhaps it is the smattering of articles detailing blended Scotch to be found on other blog platforms (such as this excellent Ballantine’s expose courtesy of Miss Whisky) which have piqued my interest, but I am no longer prepared to ignore blended whisky. It is instrumental in allowing for the diversity of the single malt category which we presently romanticise; it has a history and cast of iconic characters, and it can taste breathtakingly fabulous. I want to write a lot more about it here on the Scotch Odyssey Blog.

...vs. provenance.

I’ll start today with a few tales from my encounters with Master of Malt’s Home Blending Kit (£49.95), the mother of all procrastination tools for the whisky-loving student with exams to prepare for. Upon receipt of my sturdy package, I did indeed turn my ‘once tidy home into the chaotic, bottle-filled, peat-rich laboratory that is a blender’s workshop’, as the introductory letter put it. I could not wait to commence with the combinations, and appreciate just how dramatic the effect of adding tiny portions of this to that could be. MoM’s advice: begin with the grain whisky base and mild malt whisky, build complexity with a marriage of ‘mid-range malts’ and then season with the older samples they had supplied. Only so much blending could be done in theory: I needed to dirty some glasses and measuring cylinders.

Initially, I wanted to make a Dewar’s 12yo-style blend. I love the bold fruit, abundant vanilla and rich yet clean barley flavours of this whisky, but found that I couldn’t replicate it with the profiles of the Speyside and Lowland malts provided in the Kit. I was, however, hearted by the quality of the grain base. My tactic had been to create a ‘mid-range’ malt sample and a top dresser sample, then combine proportions of both until the flavour was right. This is Mr Glaser’s approach, as explained in this videofor the 2012 edition of Flaming Heart. Nosing constantly, I began to suspect that my palette of liquids ought to be confined. I was using my packer malt, the Lowland, Speyside and Highland for the mid-range, while the top dressings attempted to coalesce the better qualities of the Old Highland, Old Speyside Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay. Just because leading blends use 30+ malts did not mean – I gradually conceded – that I should, too.

The building blocks of my blend.

Using the three tier approach of grain, mid-range, and top dressers, I struck on a system of using no more than two malts for the mid-range and a maximum of three whiskies for the blend’s ’seasoning’. I also changed tack, preferring an earthier, richer blend which might make greater use of the Islay offerings.

My specification read: ‘A smoky, rich blend. Money no object!’ With one fifth of the recipe grain, 50% became a Highland and Islay combination, with Old Speyside, Very, Very Old Grain and Very Old Islay creating genuine intrigue on the richer spectrum. Computing my blueprint for future blended whisky world domination onto MoM’s calculator, I was rather crestfallen to discover that my highly drinkable blend which boasted light and smoky peat, allied with fresh and vinous fruit and a building creaminess would cost somewhere in the region of £60. Master of Malt launched the Home Blending Kit in tandem with a blogger’s blending competition and the eventual winner – dubbed St Isidore – had been priced at closer to £45. Even if my blend carried the infinitely superior title of the Elisha Cuthbert Select Reserve, would customers tolerate the premium cost?

I’m not saying a lively, pretty blend cannot be put together from the core ingredients on a lower budget – I just haven’t been able to find the killer marriage yet. John Glaser, Colin Scott, Richard Paterson, Joel and Neil… You’re safe for now.

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