Bespoke Blending

Bespoke Blending

Can you blend it with the best

Production | 18 Jul 2014 | Issue 121 | By Joel Harrison

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As whisky drinkers, we are all aware of the importance to Scotland of blended whisky. It is the bedrock of the business, making up somewhere in the region of 90 per cent of all Scotch sales worldwide and without it the category would have run into trouble a long time ago.

From the late 1800s with the famous Pattinson crash (the over-extravagant Scotch whisky company known for giving away 500 African grey parrots trained to say "Buy Pattinson's Whisky") through to 'the noble experiment' of Prohibition, it was the consistency of blended Scotch which helped single malt distilleries to stay in business.

Such was the fame of the consistency and quality of blended Scotch whisky that during the early twentieth century in New York, Paris and London other more crude spirits were being made palatable through the medium of the cocktail, while Scotch was consumed simply by adding soda water; a true sign of its purity.

And herein lies the key to the Scotch blend: consistency. For the major brands today, it is the ability to create a consistent product from ever changing stocks, which puts these rock solid foundations into the industry and allows for limited edition range extensions (think of those rare Johnnie Walker's you see pop up every so often) and also the liberation of some liquid into single malts and rare single casks.

But in this journey, there is a gap and it is one that has been seized on by family owned and run distillers William Grant & Sons. Well used to conquering the market with Grant's blended Scotch whisky, now the fourth biggest selling blended Scotch in the world, the company also leads the way in global single malt sales through their Glenfiddich brand.

But it is not just these heritage offerings and others such as The Balvenie, which gives the company such importance in the spirits world, but also their fame and flare for innovation.

From developing Monkey Shoulder triple malt, through to the single grain whiskies from their Lowland distillery in Girvan (as well as Sailor Jerry's rum and Hendrick's gin) they are at it again, this time with Rare Cask Reserves.

Billed not as a brand, but a concept in blending, the project focuses on the skills of William Grant's Master Blender, Brian Kinsman. Only the sixth person to have held the job since the company started at the end of the nineteenth century, his skills are the key to unlocking some of the rarest casks in William Grant's vaults. Brian tells us that: "For the first time in our history, we are unlocking our rare casks to produce a finite number of bespoke and boutique batches".

The project will be based out of the Grant's family home, housed at the Glenfiddich distillery in Speyside. Built by William Grant and opened on Christmas Day 1887, the distillery has long been the centrepiece of the Grant's portfolio. But, like the majority of single malt distilleries, it was originally built to supply whisky to blends. And like all distillery companies, William Grant & Sons is active in the purchase of new make from other distilleries, both grain and malt, in order to manage the supply of liquid to their own blends.

It wasn't until 1963 however that William Grant's became a serious player in the distillation game, with the opening of their Girvan grain distillery in the eastern Lowland region, which was further bolstered by the opening of the malt distillery Ailsa Bay (now the second largest single malt distillery in Scotland) in 2007. This increased level of produce allowed William Grant & Sons, heavily active in the trading of stocks for the blending market, to squirrel away those extra special casks for use whenever they are deemed ready; a luxury which has left a fantastic liquid legacy.

With stocks of whisky from a variety of different single malt distillers which have been maturing well from 25 years upwards, these mature stocks have now been deemed ready for use and Brian Kinsman will be creating special blends for different customers across the globe.

Three versions of the Rare Cask Reserves have already been created: The Annasach Reserve was developed for five independent retailers in the US and each came with the individual store's name printed proudly on the label; a gift pack of three select blends for Harrods (one is due for the Whisky Shop containing a blended grain, a blended malt and a blend); and finally the Strathspey Reserve which was developed with World Duty Free and co-blended by individual airport store managers and Brian Kinsman himself, with each expression only available in the World Duty Free shop where the blender works. All these releases carried an age statement of 25 years.

"This is just the start, however. Expect more in the coming months, as customers line up to offer their clientele that something special. If you're lucky enough to be passing through certain airports in the future, there will be a selection of pop-ups where customers can create their own blend from a selection of different offerings."

And it doesn't stop there. Each batch will be limited to between 33 and 1000 nine litre cases due to stock constraints and a unique, bespoke blend can also be created by individual private clients. So if you are feeling flush and want your own rare blend created, now is your chance. But don't think this will last forever, as William Grant's have made it clear that these rare stocks will only last just four to six years.

As a final act, the cherry on the cake, William Grant's have developed a bottling simply known as 'Ghosted'. Following in the lead of this year's World Whisky Award winner The Lost Distilleries Blend, the Ghosted series bottles will be constructed from stocks of distilleries no longer in production. The first release will arrive in September of this year and will be a 26 year old blend using Ladyburn, (closed in 1974) and Inverleven (closed 1991) which will be limited to just 6,000 70cl bottles and priced at around £300.

These unique blends are the closest thing the blending world has to single casks: snap shots of a moment in time and once they are gone, they're gone.
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