The Art of Blending

The Art of Blending

The combination of malt and grain whiskies

Production | 02 Sep 2016 | Issue 138 | By Ian Wisniewski

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It's always good to begin with the parameters. Blends can comprise numerous malt and grain whiskies. But rather than focusing on the number of component whiskies, or the proportion of malt and grain whiskies, looking at how they can work together also helps to explain the result they create.

"Grain whisky creates a foundation of flavour, and that flavour is hugely important, if you changed one grain whisky in a blend it would be noticeably different, that's why I say grain whisky defines the style of the blend, and malt whisky adds the nuances, such as fruit," says Brian Kinsman, Master Blender, William Grant & Sons.

Blenders have a broad range of whisky styles to draw upon, which can be classified stylistically, in terms of the key flavour, such as fruity or smokey.

The type of cask used provides another way of classifying whiskies, whether aged in sherry casks (which contribute dried fruit notes including raisins and a rich sweetness), or Bourbon barrels (adding vanilla and a lighter sweetness).

A further sub-division is whether the whisky has been aged in a first, second or third fill cask, referring to the number of times the cask has been used to age a malt or grain whisky. The influence of the cask diminishes with each successive fill, and different fills provide a broad range of whiskies to draw upon. "Different fills are hugely important, there's a step change in flavour each time, and it can be a great advantage to use milder flavours in order to give nuances to a blend," says Brian Kinsman.

Sandy Hyslop, Ballantine's Master Blender, adds, "A first fill sherry cask, for example, is hugely flavourful which includes oak, and it's great that a second fill sherry cask offers a more delicate version of this, the sherry is a bit more subtle and the oak is tempered. Using whiskies from different fills, as well as from different cask types, different distilleries, and various age ranges provides a huge range of ingredients for a blender to work with."

When the component whiskies of a blend are combined, various reactions and interactions occur, which includes certain flavours having a significant influence on the resulting character.

"Every whisky you use is going to affect the overall flavour profile, this could be in a subtle or a more significant way. Peated malts, for example, can hold back some of the sweetness and some of the more fruity character, and come through as a slight dryness, so it depends on what you want to achieve," says Brian Kinsman.

Vanilla is another interesting example. As a classic note it's enjoyable in its own right, but vanilla also contributes something extra. "Vanilla brings a smooth creaminess to the blend and makes fruit flavours more luxurious, adding a level of sophistication," says Sandy Hyslop.

Two other characteristics that play a significant role are sweetness and dryness.

"I definitely consider sweetness and dryness as fundamental flavours, dryness can underline richer flavours and a whisky with a really nice, rewarding, dry edge is completely different to a rich, sweet, vanilla style of blend," says Brian Kinsman.

Gordon Motion, Master Whisky Maker, Edrington Group, adds, "Sweetness and dryness help to determine the style of a blend, a sweeter style is gentler, and sweetness helps to enhance other flavours, such as fruit, whereas increasing the dryness makes it a more robust style. You can adjust the level of dryness depending on the cask selection. Dryness is attributed to the influence of tannins, with sherry casks made from Spanish and European oak having higher tannin levels than Bourbon barrels which are made from American oak."

Understanding how malt and grain whiskies work together in a blend does of course require significant experience and skill, which takes time to acquire.

"I worked for almost 11 years as the Master Blender's assistant before I became the Master Blender. I gained a lot of experience by repeatedly having my nose in a glass over a number of years. Seeing samples regularly, they become very familiar, and you know what component whiskies will give," says Gordon Motion.


In addition to the flavour profile that a blended Scotch delivers, another significant element of the experience is the texture (mouthfeel). This can vary enormously among whiskies, from more delicate and elegant to creamy and fuller-bodied. Another aspect of texture is that this is how flavours are 'delivered' onto the palate.

Mouthfeel is also determined by the component whiskies and the cask selection. Sherry casks generally provide a richer mouthfeel, and Bourbon casks a lighter texture. One reason for this is that tannin levels, which help to determine mouthfeel, can be significantly higher in European oak (eg. sherry casks) than American oak (eg. Bourbon barrels).
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