Ask most people what their first experience of whisky was and you will be greeted with a shudder, the questionee’s face will turn a charming tinge of green and they’ll reply, “A cheap blend out of my dad’s drinks cabinet, frankly it tasted vile and it made me do things I’d really rather not talk about here.” Fair enough. We all have to start somewhere.
However, this common experience of blended whisky —plus the ready availability of the stuff on the shelf at the supermarket—has led to blends getting a reputation on a par with that of Hollywood diva Lindsay Lohan, some say worse... This has propagated the fallacy that ‘single malt is good, blended whisky is bad’ which is repeated like Animal Farm’s ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ mantra until everyone is bored and has moved on to the Tequila and lime. However, I am here to put the case forward for blended whisky and then, through bravely/foolishly attempting it myself, I will try and give you some tips on how to create your very own blend!
John Glaser: Master Blender
Before I do this, here’s a brief (I promise!) history of blended whisky.
The birth of blended whisky can be indirectly attributed to a man called Aeneas Coffey who in 1831 invented the Coffey Still; in fact he named it the Patent Still as he was a humble kind of fellow who wouldn’t have dreamed of being so vainglorious as to name an invention after his good self.
Now, the Coffey Still is the shape of a column with metal plates running up the middle which allows for greater control of the distillation process than the traditional copper pot-still does. More importantly, because it has a feed line at the bottom, it can distil constantly. Do you hear me? Constantly.
A Pair of Coffey Stills
This invention with the use of un-malted grain (grain which hasn’t been malted, hence is cheaper to produce) made the whisky-making process a whole lot quicker and a whole lot cheaper. The accidental benefit of this is that grain whisky— as this cheaper variety is known—is lighter and much sweeter than malt whisky. Whisky makers began blending (or vatting) grain whiskies with various single malt whiskies as a cost-saving measure. However, this sweeter and lighter whisky, with the complex notes of single malt woven in, had a much broader appeal than single malt had with anyone who didn’t have the more robust Scottish palate. Blends rocketed in popularity, to the extent that distilleries didn’t produce single malt bottlings—rather they just sold to the growing number of blending companies. Even today, blends make up the vast majority of all Scotch whisky sold by volume.
During the twentieth century, single malt whiskies began to emerge as premium spirits thanks to a rebranding effort that marketed them as purer expressions of Scotch whisky and an importance placed on the age of the whisky. Factor in those boom years when people had more disposable wonga to spend on whisky, and the triumphant return of single malt whisky was complete. Thus began the tarnishing of the blending brand.
What remains to be seen is if single malt and blends can live harmoniously side-by-side.
Our 8 Year Old Blended Whisky
Right let’s dispel a myth: the words ‘blended’ and ‘single malt’ only tell you how the whisky is made; it isn’t a reference to the drink's quality. Blended, simply means that the whisky is made from a minimum of one single malt whisky and one un-malted grain whisky that have been mixed together. Whereas, single malt means that the whisky has been made using malted barley and everything in your delightful bottle has been produced at one distillery only. Interestingly, in a bid to create a distillery style, most single malts are a blend of lots of different casks from a distillery. This brings me to my favourite argument for blended whisky, and this is that the world’s greatest wines are blends by their very nature, and therefore why shouldn’t a whisky be greater than the sum of its parts like these stupendous wines? Blending companies such as Compass Box make the same argument and consequently we have seen a huge increase in quality blends hitting the markets.
The Great King Street Blend from Compass Box
Now this is all very well, true, and heartily proper, but I can still see one major problem with all of this blended bluster. If you’re buying a blend, then someone else—probably in a laboratory armed with a pipette—has had all the fun of making it and all you can do is drink the darned stuff. So what if you could blend your own whisky? Well, settle in close and I will tell you a story…
The St. Isidore Blend
A little while ago, in May 2011 no less, we sent some blending kits out to ten bloggers and asked them to create a blend each which we would then bottle and put to the public. Eventually a favourite was picked and this was bottled as the almighty (and award winning) St. Isidor Blend.
However, we weren’t content with just this so we then created the Home Blending Kit so you can turn your kitchen into a blending laboratory and annoy partners/housemates/other hangers-on as you put together the greatest blend the world has ever seen whilst they’re busy making cheese toasties. This is amazing news; except it struck us that blending isn’t as easy as all that, so this led to this post right here. I’m going to talk you through some of the ground rules of blending and then next week I’m going to have a shot at it myself and let you know how I fare.
The Home Blending Kit
You may have read a few posts back in April that we visited Compass Box Towers and learnt from Master Blender John Glaser how to blend a whisky. The key points that we got out of this were as follows: Less is more, if you put lots of different whiskies together they’re going to be all screaming for attention like a classroom full of children on a diet of Red Bull and Skittles, but if you use just a few carefully selected whiskies there will be plenty of chance for them all to shine. The next rule is to only use peaty whiskies in moderation as they easily overpower a blend, unless you want a peat-bomb of a dram in which case knock yourself out. Finally, blends require time to marry. If you put two humans in a house and tell them to get on, inevitably it’s going to go all Pete Tong within days/hours/minutes (delete as appropriate). Whiskies, like humans, require time to get to know each other, so be prepared to leave your blend for a week or two to assimilate. So with these three rules in mind I am going to attempt to create my own blend and write a masterclass (which may be a grand word for it) in whisky blending. Until next week!
P.S. I have once attempted to make a blend without following these rules. For your amusement only here is my tasting note:
Nose: The nose was surprisingly wholesome and was the only part of the blend that actually worked. A lovely maltiness arrives first with waves of sea breeze and light fruits, with apple wood smoke drifting behind. Underneath is a touch of caramel and vanilla that plays quite nicely with the malty foreground.
Palate: Bitter, one component in particular dominated and fought a bloody battle with a squabbling opposing army. Truly horrid.
Finish: The bitterness now comes in waves, reminding me of my own idiocy. On the other hand a slight toffee-ness allows for a brief respite before a flavour that is beyond disgusting taints my mouth for the next half hour, a massive mistake.