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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Speyside Blending Trip Day 1: Blend It Like Beckham

The majority of what we write about here at CaskStrength focuses on single malt whisky.

The single malt category has a mind-blowingly large array of offerings, from standard releases (no age statement and named ages) through to cask strength, single casks... and that's even before we've moved to indie bottlers and cask finishing.


But now think of the wider market. The most over-used stat of 2010/11 seems to be that the worldwide market for Scotch whisky is made up of just 7% sales of single malt whisky, with the rest, a whopping 93%, being taken up by blends.

"Ah!" we hear some of you cry. "But blended whisky is made up of all the off-cuts. All the stuff they don't want to put in to a single malt. You get me?"

Let's not beat around the bush here, there are some pretty awful blends out there. You can *usually* tell which one's they are, because they'll be, erm...unnaturally cheap.

These particular blends are not really designed to be drunk in isolation. They're there to be mixed, often in cocktails or with a single mixer. They're like the drums in a band: You wouldn't want to listen to a Beatles record of just Ringo playing the drums (Although the break in 'The End' from 'Abbey Road' is pretty damn special) Equally, you wouldn't want a Rob Roy without a blended whisky in it. But you *might* not drink that particular blend on its own.

However, some blends are designed for drinking sans mixer and a lot of hard work goes in to creating them. Once the flavour profile of the blend is nailed, it is then the job of the Master Blender to use a selection of casks from different distilleries to create consistency in the brand. You know, keep it the same time-after-time-after-time-after-time. A bit like making a Coldplay album...

We recently found out just how hard this task is. Along with a handful of other blogs, we've been asked by online whisky gurus Master Of Malt, to design them a blended whisky. Last week, several boxes of samples turned up at Caskstrength HQ. The package included small quantities of different Scotch; base whisky in the form of a blended grain and a blended malt. Then 4 single malts; one highland, one lowland, one speyside and an islay. To finish off, we have four “top dressing” (expensive!) single malts; A very old highland, a very old speyside, a very old grain and a very old islay.

As simple as this task sounds (get a grain and malt base down, whack in some mid tones of highland and speyside and then top dress with something very old and tasty...), it is actually a very tricky game. When the samples arrived, we tried a couple of different approaches, each failing to make something that we would be proud to call a decent blended whisky. What we needed was some coaching. Some training. Some 'proper' advice...

And so it was early one Monday morning we find ourselves in Speyside. This is a place we have visited a couple of times before on whisky adventures, but those times have all been to focus on single malts. This journey was different; it was all about the blends. How, what and why.

One thing you learn when visiting Speyside is that wherever your initial destination, Aberdeen or Inverness, everywhere else is “about an hour away”. That and never, ever eat the cooked breakfast on the flight... but that’s another story for another day. On this trip we were hoping to learn something else- how to compose a decent blend.

Arriving at Glenburgie Distillery, one could be forgiven that you’d actually arrived at Glen Ballantine's, such is the significance of this venue to the blend. The company was founded in 1827, yet another internationally known blender to start from a grocers store in Scotland. Today Ballantine's encompasses a range of six different expressions from a No Age Statement through to a 30 Year Old.

After a brief tour of the distillery with manager Neil Corbett, we were led to a tiny stone cottage on the distillery site where we were greeted by Ballantine’s Master Blender, Sandy Hyslop and a host of samples, empty bottles and scientific measuring equipment. It soon became clear that we were to have an education in how to blend! Once Sandy had given us an overview of what goes in to Ballantine’s and what an exact science (or is it an art? Discuss!) it is, we set off.

For some tips on blending from Sandy, check out the video here. One of the problems we found with 'our' blend was it was way too easy to over use the peated malt, completely drowning the subtlety of the blend.

The whiskies we had been given were some vatted grain, Strathisla single malt, Glenburgie single malt, plus undetermined highland, lowland and islay malts. This time, the aim was not to create our own blend, but to try and match that of the Ballantine's Finest. And with the Master Blender's beady eye on us... so no pressure then!

20 mins later and a couple of attempts down the drain, we’d nailed what we thought was the best match that we were going to achieve in the time allotted. With Sandy’s nose twitching, the thumbs went up as a sign of approval (or maybe he was just being polite) and we felt one step closer to being able to create our very own blended Scotch. To reward ourselves, a dram of Ballantine's much lauded 17yo was in order.

Ballantine’s – 17 Years Old – 43%

Nose: Soft,with buttery notes, backed by vanilla, hints of summer spice, heather and a faint whiff of smoke.

Palate: Sweet vanilla, soft ripe orchard fruit with undertones of creamy fudge. Balanced is a word often over-used in whisky, but having been through the torment of trying to blend a whisky, we can say with confidence that this is truly balanced! The citrus, fudge, dusty chocolate and fruits all sit together complimenting one another. A job well done.

Finish: A fairly short sweet fruit finish with some residue of peat smoke, but this is not a “smoky whisky”.

Overall: An excellent blend which is highly decorated for a reason. Not just “well worth a try”. This is a must for any whisky fan looking to complete their knowledge of the best blends in the world at the moment.

As we leave behind the wonders that lie in the little stone cottage on the Glenburgie estate, one thing still nags me: if you had all the casks in the world to choose from to make a blend, where on earth would you start? I’m not sure, but I know one thing: I’d have a bloody great smile on my face if I did. Unlike the gent in this video: