In conversation with Robert Hicks

In conversation with Robert Hicks

Charles Maclean talks to Robert Hicks, the master blender at Allied Distillers.

People | 16 Apr 2000 | By Charles MacLean

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CM Are whisky blenders born or trained?
RH A bit of both. You have to have the right temperament to be a blender. You have to be a perfectionist, passionate about fine detail – like a watchmaker, say, or one of those guys who makes model ships to put into bottles. You have to have a well-trained nose, of course, but also you have to have a prodigious memory of the characteristics of malt and grain whiskies. Experience is key here, and obsessive interest. You have to be single-mindedly dedicated to the whiskies in your charge. The blender’s fundamental responsibility is to the consistency of his blends. They must be the same from batch to batch, year in year out, from generation to generation.
CM How did you learn the trade?
RH I joined the whisky trade in November 1964, aged 19. It was a temporary measure, until I decided what I wanted to do. You might say that I still haven’t decided. I was raised in Dumbarton, and joined Barton Distilling at Alexandria. My first mentor was Noel Malloch, who had been trained at Dewar’s in Perth before the war. He believed, as I do, that to be a good blender you have to have an understanding of every stage of the production process, right through to packing and shipping. I worked under him for the last three years of his life, then got the job of assistant blender at Hiram Walker in 1970. I’ve been here ever since. Here I worked under the great Jack Goudy, a legend in the trade and custodian of the Ballantine’s blends for 50 years. For the past few years I have been passing on my knowledge to Sandy Hyslop, who will succeed me.
CM What would be a typical day for you?
RH Every day Sandy and I nose between 100 and 500 samples. In the run up to Christmas, when production is flat out, this can rise to 1000 samples on some days, and we’re required to be on call day and night. Although if the system is working smoothly, this just means starting at 6am and coming back in for a couple of hours in the evening. We nose each batch of new make from our own distilleries, and random samples of maturing whisky. We examine every cask of malt and grain whisky that goes into each blend – 800 equivalent barrels (200-litre) of malt and the same of grain for each vatting. The whiskies are vatted separately; it is easier to ensure continuity if you do this. The current Ballantine blends require around 57 malts and four grains, and the grains are a mix of maize (corn) and wheat spirits. Teacher’s blends use slightly fewer malts. After the vattings have been roused and rested, we nose them, before blending. Then we nose the blend itself. We nose it finally again just before bottling, once it has been filtered etc. Each stage has to be signed off by us before the whisky passes to the next stage. And just to make sure that our noses continue in good shape, from time to time, the laboratories send us groups of samples for blind tasting in relation to material compatibility tests.
CM Do you work to a formula?
RH Up to a point. But you have to be flexible. Each cask matures its contents differently. The key thing is to know how the individual whiskies work together, how they balance one another.
CM Do you then compare the result with standard references?
The last batch, say, or a batch from 10 years ago, to avoid flavour shift?
RH This is impossible. The moment a bottle is opened, its contents begin to change, so your standard references are no longer standard. Their flavours have shifted! I think visually rather than verbally and hold an image in my mind’s eye of what the whisky should be like. Sandy has his own imagery. But we both know the moment we have got the blend right.
CM How do you know you are both smelling the same thing?
RH We don’t. We never can . But we know we are looking for the same characteristics. Recently the pair of us were up at Scapa on Orkney, selecting 600 casks for a bottling of Scapa 12 Years Old. We worked independently, nosing hundreds of casks and chalking our initials on those we thought best dispalyed Scapa’s character. Ninety-eight per cent of the casks bore both initials.
CM What is your favourite whisky, apart from your own ones?
RH A particular Canadian whisky, but I also love vintage port.
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