Battle of the Blends Challenge No 2

Neil Ridley, current champion, takes on the new challenger George Keeble
By Rupert Wheeler
With the enormous success of the Battle of the Blends Challenge No 1, coupled with the positive feedback, we decided that it was really worthwhile continuing the challenge. To this purpose, our Editor at Large and current champion Neil Ridley takes on a new challenger, George Keeble who is the manager at The Soho Whisky Club.

The casks (kindly supplied by Master of Malt) are first-fill 20 litre American Oak which have been toasted and are at present full of high strength neutral spirit. These casks will be delivered in mid-March where each contender will take on the task of creating their own master blend.

Before they can start the blend they will need to season their casks with whatever they feel will give their resulting blend that ultimate edge.

This could be sherry, port, wine - or something completely different and unusual like rum. The rules do not cover this area but it's a very important part of the stage development.

The rules of engagement are very similar to last year, so to begin with the foundation will be the same - Clynelish 14 Years Old - this classic Highland distillery, an absolute favourite for many blenders due to its well-rounded maltiness and balance.

Over the course of the year the two contenders will build their blend and report on each stage starting in Issue 135 which publishes on 22 April. However, this year we intend to have a half-way stage where both contenders will come together to discuss their blend. This will be held on 31 August at The Soho Whisky Club. We are absolutely delighted that John Glaser from Compass Box will be attending this event, giving a short talk and offering both contenders his advice and considerable experience.

The art of constructing a great blended whisky is a challenge that has confounded many who have tried before. It could be compared to a house of cards - laying a weak foundation whisky will ensure that one's blend will collapse under the weight of additional flavour placed upon it.

Historically, blenders have drawn their palate of colours from across Scotland, including some incredible malt and grain whiskies, bringing seemingly disparate flavours perfectly into focus by precise measurement - and of course, their experienced palates.

To throw in another twist, as well as using whiskies from all the classic regions of Scotland, both contenders can add in a totally wildcard whisky. Literally anything from anywhere in the world. In Challenge No. 1, Neil added Overeem Port Cask and Dave Broom added The Glenkinchie 12 Years Old Distiller's Edition. How much is added is obviously up to each contender - too much and their blend may suffer, but then again too little and the blend may lack depth.

The final blend must be complete by 2 December and there will, as last year, be an opportunity for Whisky Magazine readers to take part in tasting both these blends, as well as taking part in the voting process which will decide whether Neil or George eventually wins and which blend is crowned the victor. Full details of how this process will take place will be announced later in the year, but we are hoping to beat the 299 judges who took part last year.

The Rules

1. The first fill will be a Highland malt, Clynelish, of equal measure (1 litre).

2. All the regions of Scotland need to be incorporated: Islands (which includes Islay), Speyside, Highlands (already accounted for), Lowlands and Campbeltown. There is no order as to when these are used, but in each issue, the details of the whisky must be revealed but not the quantity.

3. No bottle of whisky used must cost more than £60 RRP except for the wildcard detailed below and must be commercially available in UK.

4. There must be at least one grain whisky but there are no rules as to its origin.

5. A wildcard must be chosen - this can be anything, from anywhere. The only rule here, is that it cannot be over £175 RRP. Also it must be commercially available in UK.

6. The blend must be under 50% ABV when finally bottled.

7. A minimum of 15 litres of blend must be prepared.

8. There are no rules as to how much of each individual whisky category you can add.

9. Blend to be complete by 2 December 2016 when it will be sent out for tasting. Winner will be published in Whisky Magazine Issue 142 on 18 March 2017.