Last week I found myself staring at six different samples of whisky. That’s a pretty common sight for me, usually one that involves me tasting them and then writing down what I thought. At the picturesque Dallas Dhu House, however, my objective was different. I had to combine all of them and create my very own blended whisky.
Dean Jode, head of Murray McDavid’s whisky creations, was tasked with teaching our group the art that is the bedrock of the whisky industry. It’s estimated that around 90% of Scotch whisky sold is a blend of grain and single malt whiskies.
Master blenders rule the roost, sampling and selecting from warehouses full of whisky to create a balanced product. They are responsible for the creation and maintenance of the classic giant brands of blends that dominate the world like Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s, and Jameson. It also means single malts. Don’t forget these are made by a marriage of whiskies from a single distillery.
The Murray McDavid selection
Much like the process of cooking or baking, blending is all about putting together different elements and achieving balance. The five whiskies we get are all from Murray McDavid’s portfolio, which specialises in secondary cask maturation. As an independent bottler that sources liquid from great distilleries, adding an interesting new element helps distinguish the brand’s offerings from other independent bottlers. So we’ve got some very interesting whiskies to work with.
Whisky #1 is a single grain Scotch from North British Distillery. Unless you’re making blended malt, good grain is an essential component of a blend and this is certainly that – a 2006-vintage whisky aged in a refill bourbon hogshead that delivers all that classic sweet, creamy goodness you expect from a grain with icing sugar, buttercream, foam bananas, and oak char. It’s cask strength, so it’s a little hot but also delivers some real weight which means I’m already eyeing this as the backbone of my blend.
Whisky #2 is the flip side of the grain spectrum thanks to some secondary maturation. It’s a Girvan single grain from 2007 that was initially aged in refill hogshead and then spent four years in a first-fill Madeira barrique. It still has lots of big grain sweetness, but the profile also boasts aromatic spice, sticky dark fruits, and oily nuts. A really interesting component, one to use wisely I suspect.
Whisky #3 is a light, bright single malt from Glen Elgin. A vintage 2008 whisky that was finished in a 210L bourbon cask (a little smaller than a quarter cask) from Koval, this is a fascinating spirit that has that bright, sparkling Glen Elgin fruitiness I love, as well a flavour that reminds me of, and bear with me here, a Shrikhand, a creamy Indian dessert full of cardamom and nuts. It’s an incredibly delicate component and tasting it I’m both desperate to use it and clueless on how to maximise it. Frankly, I’d happily take a bottle home, but that’s not the task.
Whisky #4 is a Highland single malt from Macduff, a typical big meaty blenders malt, we’re told. It was matured in a refill hogshead and has lots of depth and a character we haven’t seen so far in our selection, teaming with peppery spice and Frazzles. It’s joined by another weighty, hearty whisky from Craigellachie, our Whisky #5. This one delights with an extra layer of exuberance thanks to five-year secondary maturation in first-fill Pedro Ximénez casks. There’s plenty of power and personality here, with chocolate, coffee, hazelnut, and charred pineapple.
Whisky #6 is our peated component. Most great blends have a touch of smoke and it will typically come from the generous giant that is Caol Ila, and that’s the case here too. Our spirit is 12 years old and aged in a refill bourbon hogshead, a proper old-school peated malt with notes of BBQ, earthy peat, lemon sherbets, and rock pools. I love it, but it’s a hefty flavour and one to approach with caution.
The basics of blending
So, we’ve got six whiskies, a large 500ml beaker that’s going to act as our vat, and a tall beaker for measuring out our blends. Jode starts by telling us to taste, taste, and taste again. We need to know these whiskies individually before we can understand how they work together. We’re assessing the flavour, the texture (always underrated), and how each whisky relates to each other. You could bring together complementary profiles or contrasting ones. It’s tempting to look at our six samples and to use each heartily, but that’s not always the best approach. A little can go a long way.
Peat, for example, is powerful. Like spice in food, if you add even a touch too much you could create something only a few people will enjoy. It can drown out the delicate elements, and it’s easy to make something that is so dominant you would have been better off just drinking your peated sample on its own. But, if you get it right then peat is beautifully potent. The oily, smoky minerality it brings can meet rich grainy sweetness and bright, ripe fruitiness perfectly, so don’t feel like you have to avoid it. Just don’t overdo it. Start slow, you can always add more.
But you will want to have a wide spread of whiskies. Variety is both the spice of life and of blending, so having this variance in our selection isn’t something to be afraid of. Think of Diageo or Pernod Ricard and how many Scotch whisky distilleries each owns. Many of them have little to no single malt presence, the purpose is to provide a unique new element that the master blender can utilise. Each is treated as a seasoning, with every distillery character having its place. You wouldn’t cook a curry with one spice, much in the same way you shouldn’t blend just one style of whisky.
A balancing act
Cost is also a real concern. It’s not the most fun thing to consider and while we always want flavour to come first, this is arguably the hardest aspect for blenders to juggle. Age drives up price, as does the scarcity of the whisky and the casks used to mature it. You want to bring different whiskies to the table, of course, but the more expensive your blend is, the more it will cost the consumer – or you if you’re blending at home.
On the flip side, you also don’t want to use the five cheapest whiskies you can find either. Quality obviously does matter. Five bad whiskies pulled together will not create one better whisky. Take our Whisky #5, for an empty PX cask you’re looking at around £950. For one barrel. This is high-quality European oak from a reputable sherry producer, however. It’s cracking stuff and will add a tonne of personality. The point is this: much like with flavour, cost is a balancing act.
Jode also tells us to be comfortable with the idea that this is a process of trial and error. Even the best blenders will create recipes they don’t like sometimes, and let’s face it, nobody builds a perfect blend in one attempt. Every blender, like any great cook creating a recipe, will adjust and perfect as they go. Don’t be afraid to go with your gut too. It’s your whisky, you know what you like. And nobody ever made a great recipe by trying to appeal to everyone. Start with what you love and build from there.
When your blend is put together, you also need to consider if you want to bottle at cask strength. It’s a status many whisky lovers adore, but it’s worth isolating some of your blend and testing it with varying degrees of water. Balance is the key here, always, and it’s possible to have a whisky that’s too hot and heavy at cask strength. Don’t underestimate texture too. I can’t stress that enough, and the ABV of your liquid will play a role in this.
The beauty of your own blend
It’s also fun to consider how you would bring your whisky to market. Liquid creation is not the only way to get creative. What’s your blend’s brand? You can base the name on its flavour, or a place that means something to you, or you can even create a character. Have fun with it. That’s the beauty of blending a whisky yourself, owning the process and creating a truly unique whisky. It’s not like you’ll find another dram that meets the exact specifications of the exact spirits you used. Just in our small group of four, each of us made an entirely different spirit.
Which brings me to my creation. Just over half of my blend was whisky #1 and #2, a grainy backbone, with about a quarter of Glen Elgin (whisky #3) too. I wanted something light and delicate, so I went easy on the meatier, peatier elements, using just 10ml of Caol Ila (whisky #6) in a 250ml blend. What did I learn at Dallas Dhu House? Dallas D-hu anything else with your life. Har har har. Seriously, on the day I thought I had made something pretty good. Trying it the next day was… enlightening. My blend wasn’t balanced, or even particularly tasty. It’s a learning curve, however, and the first step in both getting better at blending and, crucially, appreciating this art and important it is to whisky.
I spoke with Jode afterwards and asked him what he would have done with the same components. He had this to say: “I did have a little exploration and here’s what I would have used: 30% North British, 15% Girvan, 18% Craigellachie, 25% Macduff, 10% Glen Elgin, and 2% Caol Ila. I’d then hold that blend in a refill butt for 6-12 months. Splendid.” So that’s the expert perspective. It sounds very different to mine, doesn’t it?
Still, I hope you’re likewise inspired to blend at home yourself. We have a Blend Your Own Whisky service at Master of Malt, but I would also recommend messing around with open bottles and drams you have at home. Don’t be afraid to have a play. The feeling of creating something that is both all yours and completely delicious is like nothing else. I should think. Mine really was crap.