Blending the blues

Blending the blues

Ian Buxton

17 April 2008

Publication: Issue 71

The last time I tried falling off a log I nearly broke my ankle. It looks easy enough, the principle isn’t hard to understand but doing it gracefully is another matter. And doing it day after day is even harder.So I’ve deduced that whisky blending is like falling off a log – rather harder than it looks. I reached this startling conclusion after a morning in the company of Charlie Smith of Diageo, one of their team presenting what they rather grandly call the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bespoke Blend Experience.Essentially, this involves an experienced whisky expert meeting you at a date and place of your choice.There, he conducts a very exclusive tasting of some of the rare and old whiskies in Blue Label and then sits with you to talk you through the creation of your very own blend. Then, when you’re satisfied with your handiwork he blends a small sample right in front of your eyes.You carry that off in triumph to share with friends, together with a bottle of Blue Label.During the tasting itself you’ll try such rarities as a 25 Years Old Royal Lochnagar, 20 Years Old Rosebank, 36 Years Old Glenury Royal and even an 18 Years Old grain whisky from Cambus. Another time, Charlie’s handsome portmanteau might contain Linkwood or some aged Millburn from the now closed distillery in Inverness.By now the thought will have occurred that such an indulgent experience can’t be cheap. And you’d be right, so let’s get the question of the cost out of the way at once.The Johnnie Walker Blue Label Bespoke Blend Experience cost £3,000. Yes, that is correct £3,000, but I use the past tense because, by the time you read this, it won’t be on sale any more. It was a one-off offer, in partnership with Selfridges of London, and only 10 were available. It’s part of a growing trend of ever more luxurious and premium priced ‘experiences’.But with a few exceptions, they’re about single malt. Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy salutes the blender and, at Glengoyne, you can spend half a day trying to create your own blend but that’s about it.Much of what the Bespoke Blend Experience is about is creating greater awareness of the skill and expertise of the Johnnie Walker blenders and the quality of Blue Label. In certain markets, it has become something of a status symbol or trophy purchase and, while Diageo isn’t exactly upset about that, you sense a frustration that its masterpiece is being bought and drunk for the “wrong” reasons.So should whisky connoisseurs be drinking luxury blends?Surprisingly, there could be the basis of an economic argument here. All of the components in the Blue Label blend are rare and expensive on their own account – up to £495 in the case of the Glenury Royal 36 Years Old that we sampled. In fact, all of the whiskies in Blue Label would excite the enthusiast when served as singles and all of them would certainly be pricy.At a typical UK retail price of around £160, and assuming the blend is around 50 per cent grain, Blue Label starts to make a kind of sense. For a super-premium blend, the packaging is reasonably understated, a mark of this whisky’s justifiable self-assurance perhaps, certainly when compared to some of its upstart competitors. So you don’t feel you’re paying for packaging and there’s no sense that it’s trying too hard.Despite the high-priced ingredients and Charlie’s patient and discreet guidance I wasn’t quite satisfied with my blend, even after four attempts, that I’d met the standard that I’d mentally set myself. I wanted a rich, slightly sweet, rounded and mouth-filling whisky that would represent my archetypal last dram of the night.So the Talisker was dropped pretty quickly. With less than five per cent in the blend it still dominated and had to go; Linkwood, too was surprisingly assertive and, with every attempt, I found myself cutting back on this, much though I enjoyed the individual sample.The final blend had a base of Cambus grain, with Linkwood, Rosebank, Royal Lochnagar and Glenury Royal layered on top. A rich colour developed mainly from that latter whisky and the sweetness of the whole was tempered by a hint of smoke that seemed to belong to the Lochnagar but after blending, and with a five minute marrying period, took on a character of its own.I was pleased with it, in truth, but had to admit that the Blue Label had greater complexity and fuller flavour, was ‘bigger’ and more mouth-filling and generally more satisfying. More whiskies go into it, of course, and the marrying would make a difference but the gap, more in drinking pleasure than absolute quality, was a wide one.I consoled myself with the thought that Charlie has been working with whisky for more than 32 years and I’d been a blender for part of a morning.Still, I’ve asked him not to start writing whisky articles. After all, we don’t want him walking with a limp.

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