Drink writer of the year Dave Broom investigates what exactly makes up a blend- and how blenders are steering away from old-school terminology to describe their art
It all started at a distillery (names don’t really matter here, as we will see). A discussion that was meant to be about whether we can talk terroir in whisky had, in the way of these things, ended up with a discussion of how important specific malts are to certain blends. God, I have an exciting life sometimes. Two of the assembled throng were saying something along the lines of: “Blend X always has a high percentage of malt Y in its makeup. It’s different for Blend Y but the principle is the same. These two malts make up the core of the blend.” The blender looked pained.“Well …” he started. “Not quite. They’re there, don’t get me wrong but we don’t think in terms of percentages, but flavours. They’ll provide some of the flavour we want but always the same amount? Not necessarily.” Cue a look of panic in the questioners’ faces. “But that’s what we’ve been told! That’s what we’ve been telling everyone who comes on one of our consumer evenings.” You can understand their distress. But as the discussion continued so a new picture of blending came into focus, a way of looking at how blends are created not by following a recipe but in terms of flavour. Call them flavour blocks, or groupings, as Jim Beveridge prefers to call them. I contacted a few blenders and asked them about this idea of groups, of whether names and numbers really matter. “If someone says to me is a blend which contains 40% malt better than one with 20% I’d say they’re missing the point,” was Richard Paterson’s opener. “What matters is the way the components work together. If there’s some Laphroaig or Lagavulin in the blend then they need to be seduced by other malts like Tomatin, Tamnavulin, Dalmore. That’s the point of blending! What people miss is that the point of blending is to ensure that no one malt dominates, but that the blender allows the malts time to seduce each other.” So do you think in blocks, not names? “I don’t look at the individual malts,” he says. “I’ll use certain flavours and different woods. If I want a medium-heavy sherried finish to the palate I’ll look for whiskies like that to give me that, rather rather than saying I need some Macallan or Clynelish. Marketing people have thought that saying a specific malt is in a blend will help sell it, but by doing so we’ve cut our own throats.” Fine, but surely the idea of a keystone malt – regularly trooped out – holds true? Not quite, says Chivas Bros’ Colin Scott. “The Speyside influence in Chivas Regal is very important to the final blend. Strathisla is the foundation stone of this Speyside influence along with the many other malts from Speyside that have been selected [but] the final blend and taste of Chivas is the result of the final total selection of whiskies from around Scotland in the blend.” It’s the flavour that matters, not the recipe. “The blender, knowing the influence and character of each whisky, will then select the whiskies and the percentage of each whisky he needs to create the final taste required,” he continues. “Think of the whiskies as being a palette of colours, the blender as an artists and the final blend the resulting picture.” It reminded me of something John Glaser had said to me during our chat about vatted malts, about how you create something new out of lots of different components. “I begin with establishing the kind of whisky I want to make — its taste, mouthfeel, level of complexity,” he had said. “Then I break it apart and go out and try to find the individual component whiskies I need. And here’s where the true creation comes in – because when you’re creating something new it’s very hard to tell exactly what the combination of one or more whiskies will be like until you do it. It’s either not what you expect, or it gives you an idea for something else to combine. And the iterative process of blending has begun. It takes time, focus, organisation.” So while the public (and marketing departments) want names, specifics, blenders look for aroma, taste, texture and the way things combine. One step removed, or one step beyond. That said, blends do use the names of constituent malts in their promotional activities. Famous Grouse says it on the label, there’s little secret that Strathisla is the home of Chivas Regal, Blair Atholl the heart of Bell’s, Aberfeldy’s the same for Dewar’s and you can wander round the Johnnie Walker Experience (which sounds like some 60s soul band) at Cardhu. “We’ve said that the Strathisla Distillery is the home/heart of Chivas Regal but this did not necessarily mean that the percentage of Strathisla in Chivas was or is the largest percentage of the blend,” says Colin Scott. But here’s the problem. You’re a punter walking into Strathisla (‘Home of Chivas Regal’). The automatic, understandable reaction is that this is the biggest malt in the blend. Even if this has never been said overtly it is, in the consumers’ mind at least, inferred. They walk away happy in the knowledge that the secret ingredient in Chivas is Strathisla. They’ve seen some of the recipe!You can understand why the industry did it. If Macallan, for example, is in a blend then it has credibility. Trouble is, as Richard Paterson points out the blend he is making may want Macallan from first-fill American oak, which ain’t the same Macallan as you’ll buy as a single. Let’s face it, naming specific malts is a handy hook for marketeers. Giving a famous malt’s name gives the (malt drinking) punter reassurance. “It’s a selling point,” Paterson concedes. “but by saying that do you really understand that the point of a blend is that this particular malt is working in harmony with all the others?” The trouble is, as soon as you identify a malt with a blend the consumer, or the
marketing department, gets the notion that this specific malt is the biggest player. As soon as you start talking specifics you end up talking about a recipe and as we’ve seen before the secret of the recipe is that there is no recipe. You can’t sneak into the Johnnie Walker office, crack the safe, pull out a yellowed piece of paper and copy it down. Blending’s not about that. It’s complicated, which is one reason for naming distilleries. “It helps to reassure consumers that the blend is of the highest quality,” says UDV’s Jim Beveridge, “even if we know that every malt is equal in its own right. Talking about blocks or groups makes it sound like buying paint at B&Q: we get a big tub of white stuff and then add our own colours to it, blending isn’t about that.” That said, he agrees that we have to find a new way of explaining blending. “Talking of [and naming] the major components can go a long way to suggesting what style of whisky you can expect. It’s a way of defining the flavour. Trouble is, blending means we don’t just use that malt and we don’t use a recipe. We’ve painted ourselves into the corner by talking about recipes. It’s much better to talk flavour and work back.” Blending is a complex business and, all blenders agree, we have to find a new way of communicating about blends. The industry has been struggling to find an agreed way of communicating this.
We’ve had painting (Colin Scott), mass orgies (Richard Paterson), football teams (John Ramsay) – all valid all ways of communicating, but something has been missing. “It’s the blend that’s important, not the components,” says Beveridge. “The way blends were described in the past was through the recipe, the list of the distilleries and the method of blending. I want to shift the focus from that to the flavour impact. Think of malts. We used to talk about how when you had this malt, this water, this mash tun, these stills with bashes in them that you’d get this product. What we’re doing now is turning that assumption on its head. “Our starting point is that we want a particular flavour character from this distillery, how do we do it? Doing it this way allows us to see what is important [ferment times, how the still is utilised, temperature of water in worm tubs etc] and what isn’t [the water and the bashes in the stills]. We were straitjacketed by the old way of talking about malt, now we’ve been liberated from it. It’s the same with blends. Rather than a blend being the outcome of a recipe and the percentage of specific malts, now it is about how the flavour profile is worked out and how we have a way of looking at the components in a blend.” The new way starts here.
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