Production

Mixing it!

Does the art of blending vary with the size of the operation? Richard Jones talks to John Glaser of Compass Box and John Ramsay of The Famous Grouse
By Richard Jones
They may share a common name, but the contrast between the two Johns could barely be greater.The first, John Ramsay, is master blender for the Famous Grouse: the world’s seventh largest selling whisky, the most popular Scotch whisky in Scotland and a brand with a heritage stretching back to 1896; a man personally responsible for more than 30 million bottles of whisky sold in over 100 countries every year.The second, John Glaser, is whisky maker for Compass Box Whiskies, US born and bred; he began blending whisky in his own kitchen in Kew before setting up his company in 2000. And a man who, while he might produce extremely fine, multi awardwinning whiskies, is, it’s fair to say, responsible for considerably fewer than 30 million bottles.The question was a simple one. Despite occupying widely disparate ends of the whisky industry spectrum, do the skills involved in blending a whisky remain the same for each of them?Whether it be a traditional blended whisky (a mixture of malt whiskies and grain whiskies, as it was defined before recent attempts to ‘clarify’ whisky labelling in Scotland) or a blend of malt whiskies (or in old money, ‘vatted malt’), does the art, the science, the practical implications involved in combining a number of different whisky components into a unified whole change as you move from David to Goliath, from little to extremely large indeed?I began by asking the two Johns, little and large, for their philosophy and approach to blending whisky.In the case of Famous Grouse (Finest), quality and consistency are the watchwords.“You create a blend that you hope people will like, then you try to keep them by ensuring the taste remains the same,” observes John Ramsay.“I took charge of Famous Grouse in 1991 and I inherited a secret recipe that had been bought from Mathew Gloag in 1970. The guiding principle at Grouse is that we only ever make enforced changes to the blend, and we make sure that any changes will not damage it in any way.“I sit down with our operations director every six months to examine stocks and the formula of the blend, but we generally don’t change anything during the summer meeting, so in practice we only tweak it once a year.” Starting a whisky company from scratch, the challenge for John Glaser was altogether different.“I had an idea of the house style I wanted for Compass Box from my experiments in the kitchen,” he remarked.“My aim was to produce whiskies that had three characteristics – richness, sweetness and softness on the palate: richness of flavour; sweetness primarily from US oak barrels (first fill bourbon); and a softness achieved by only using fully mature casks. I also want to make my whiskies as naturally as possible, meaning no artificial colouring and no chill filtration, which strips flavour out of whisky and removes key oils that contribute towards softness. The house style at Compass Box is very much a reflection of what I enjoy as a whisky drinker, but it’s also what a lot of other people like.“The traditional approach to blending Scotch whisky is to take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, a little bit from all the different regions in Scotland, my philosophy focuses on lead characters.“The little bit of everything approach, in my opinion, is like going to B&Q and asking them to blend every single tin of paint.When I begin to create a blend, I have an idea in my mind of the sort of style I’m trying to achieve and I begin with a lead character whisky, the main character that I want to come through in the finished product. I then look for support whiskies to enhance this lead character and achieve the desired style.” John Ramsay broadly concurs: “I say if you take all the colours of the rainbow, you end up with white light,” he explains. “The defining character of Famous Grouse Finest is smoothness, all our research tells us that consumers believe it is significantly smoother than the competition.“This is achieved using a backbone of Speyside whiskies in the blend, distilleries such as Tamdu, Glenrothes and The Macallan. Equally, the grain proportion of Grouse is not neutral, rather it acts as the canvas to hold all the other colours together.“It’s rather like pasta and tomato sauce: pasta can be bland on its own and the sauce too rich – but they compliment each other perfectly.” John Glaser continues: “The idea for Asyla began with an occasion. I wanted to create an aperitif style whisky, something you could drink before dinner or sitting outside in the sun, something sweet, delicate and easy to drink.“I knew from the beginning I wanted a grain component – high quality, mature grain – to provide sweetness as well as helping to subdue the alcohol.“Asyla was a long work in progress over many months. I originally envisaged a 60:40 ration of grains to malts but had to pull back on the grains. One plus one never equals two in blending.“I chose Linkwood from first fill bourbon casks as the main malt component because of its light, elegant fragrance, and then ‘seasoned’ it with equal proportions of three other malts including Auchroisk. In the final whisky Linkwood is arguably the lead character, but the grain (from Cameron Bridge and Cambus aged between 10 and 12 years old) is the co-star, without the grain the malts would not shine.” Although Famous Grouse Finest is the biggest name in John Ramsay’s portfolio, much of his time is also taken up developing new blends and brands. “It usually begins with a brief from the marketing department, telling me what kind of whisky they’re looking for and for what specific market,” he says.“I then go away and look at stocks either side of the age of whiskies we’ll require, it’s no good making it this year if you can’t the next, and then call in samples.“I’ll normally have an idea in mind of where I’m going, but the key questions are: first, ‘Is the whisky going to be peated or not?’ and second, ‘What type of wood influence am I looking for?’ Of course cost comes into it as well, older whiskies have a higher value.“I’ll nose the samples diluted to 20% abv, but when I’ve put the blends together you have to taste, you can’t pick up sweetness on the nose. I’ll generally produce two or three variants of a new blend, then blind taste them with the brand manager and take it from there.” Once the formula of a blend has been agreed, there then comes the small matter of turning a laboratory sample into up to 30 million bottles of whisky. Given the different scale of their operations, it should come as no surprise that this is where the two Johns differ most.At Compass Box, the largest batch of whisky they have ever produced is 40 casks, but is typically just 12. This allows John Glaser to personally nose and taste every single cask used in the blend at least twice, as well as sampling every batch of Compass Box whisky that is ever released.At Famous Grouse a batch is measured in hundreds of thousands of litres rather than casks, and John Ramsay has to rely on a trained team of nosers to assess the individual casks, as well as numerous checks once the blend has been made.Both Johns agree, however, on one, final stage of the blending process.“The marrying process is vitally important to allow the flavours to integrate,” John Glaser explained. “That’s why we allow between three and six months in cask for marrying – plus, the whisky continues to absorb sweet flavours from the wood.” At Famous Grouse old, inert butts are used for marrying, so there is no question of wood influence, but John Ramsay is a committed advocate of the process.“We used to marry for six months, but following some research by John Piggott at Strathclyde University we now achieve the same results after around two months, although depending on the time of year, marrying can still last a lot longer.” Marrying also improves the stability of the whisky, allowing Famous Grouse to be bottled after a gentle filtration at 4°C, making it one of the least processed blended whiskies on the market. John Glaser, of course, eschews chill filtration in its entirety.When it comes to mixing it, then, there exists a surprising amount of common ground between the two Johns, Ramsay and Glaser. Although their target markets and production volumes may occupy polar extremes of the industry, the underlying principles of blending remain broadly the same.Both are passionate proponents of the importance of blending in the Scotch whisky industry today. Many serious whisky drinkers view the word ‘blend’ as a term of abuse, denoting inferior quality and perceived ‘impurity’ versus their favourite single malt whiskies.But as John Glaser put it, “few people realise that everyone blends, whether it be a blended whisky, a vatted malt or even a single malt. In the case of a single malt, every distillery will have literally dozens of different potential single malt styles within the same warehouse to choose from.“Unless it’s a single cask bottling, it’s then up to the owner of each distillery to decide on its house style and blend its various casks to maintain that style.” So, it seems the techniques of blending will be with us for some time to come.