Casking in the Glory

The Battle of the Blends, Round One
By Rupert Wheeler
The Battle of the Blends has begun with both contenders being introduced in the last issue. The casks have been acquired, even named and now seasoned not just once but twice. The rules are very simple; create a blend that will be judged by our readers, contributing editors and from within the industry. The final blend has to be complete by 1 September 2015 and the final result will be announced in the last issue of the year which publishes 4 December. Let battle commence.

Dave 'The Rummager' Broom

She arrived just before Christmas all wrapped in swaddling clothes (well, plastic) so I immediately laid her in her manger. She was from Mexico so I called her Rosalita. Popped the bung and sniffed. Vanilla yes, but lots of fresh new wood. I mean LOTS - and that after a period of seasoning with neutral spirit to leach some out of the more aggressive elements. Not unpleasant if you like the smell of a sauna, but worrying if there is going to be whisky in there for months. In fact, that's my main worry - trying to build a complex blend while keeping a lid on hugely active wood. Oh yes, there is a plan - a vague one - because unlike normal blending this is being done incrementally so I know I have to be willing to deviate from my intentions should something untoward happen. That plan, by the way, is to make a blend which is medium-bodied, low in smoke, relatively sweet, and elegant.

That means Rosalita had to be seasoned once again before any whisky could go near her. Sherry might have been logical, but I figured that it wouldn't be strong enough to strip out the elements I wanted, and would only add another layer of big flavour which I'd then be trying to dilute - given the ultimate aim. What then? Fino? No. Wine? Wrong direction. Rum? Now you're talking, so four bottles of different white rums were poured in. It would season, give sweetness, and maybe just a tropical fruit note. It seemed appropriate given my working nickname as well. It was amazing how quickly the mix picked up colour and began to mellow. I also rotated Rosalita every day to ensure that there was maximum coverage of the inner surface [the budget wouldn't allow me to fill her with 15 litres].

After a couple of weeks, the rum was decanted out - light golden in hue, sweet fruits and vanilla coming through - and the first whiskies added. We are both using Clynelish as the 'starter' malt, so in it went, but with an addition of some Teaninich 10 Years Old. The former will hopefully give texture and some aroma, the latter adding verve, acidity, apple and grassiness. I would have held off with the Teaninich but was worried that Rosalita would dry out.

One week in and the start of the blend is coming along not too badly. The main thing I'm worried about is what to do with all this gold rum…

Neil 'Copper Dog' Ridley

Well, here we are then. About to embark on the battle of the century (well, at least for as long as the readers can withstand our wittering) trying our utmost to create a mighty fine and drinkable blended whisky. When we first came up with this concept over a few drinks (back in March last year, believe it or not) it seemed like a world away. How hard could it really be to put together a palate of flavours that would ultimately resemble a masterpiece, rather than a dirge, where '50 shades of brown' is the overall result?

Reality has finally bitten and shortly before Christmas, our little 20 litre casks arrived, waiting to be filled with whatever recipe we could come up with. But before any whisky was carefully measured into bellies of the wooden beasts, they needed to be seasoned. Removing the bung and sticking in one's nose revealed the extent of the challenge. Despite being filled first with high strength neutral grain spirit for six weeks to effectively take the edge off the woodiness, (the casks are lightly toasted, but are Virgin American Oak) there was a very strong tannic, dry aroma emanating from inside. With a sharp intake of breath, the type that a plumber does before delivering the devastating news that your boiler needs to be condemned, I began to think about how to fix the problem. The answer was to be found in the festive surroundings of the rest of my house, particularly the sweet, spicy aromas coming from the kitchen. Mrs Ridley was just steaming a Christmas pudding, laced with about half a litre of Pedro Ximinez sherry from Gonzalez Byass. What If I could create a killer blend of sherry seasoning first? Using the wonderful sticky sweetness of PX, but tempered by the rich complexity of a fine Oloroso and the bone dryness of a Manzanilla. Had I in fact developed OBD (Obsessive Blenders Disorder)? Heading to the nearest wine shop proved the turning point and under the advice of the owner, I selected a seasoning recipe that was heavy on the Oloroso, but backed with nutty spiciness - delivered directly from a youthful Manzanilla and a terrific Palo Cortado, all topped up with sweet PX. After leaving the mixture in the cask for three weeks, the aromas concentrated and smelled… well, absolutely sensational. In fact, my ruddy-faced in-laws quickly quaffed the eight litres of blended sherry during the Christmas break. But of course, all this means nothing in the grand scheme of things.

Yes, the foundations of one's house need to be sturdy, (in this case, very tasty) but it doesn't mean that the designer won't eventually create a dreadfully tacky, stone-cladded-floral-print monstrosity. Let's just say, I'm aiming more for Grand Designs, rather than Changing Rooms. So with all that in mind, cask seasoned, I added the first whisky - essentially the foundations of the blend. The Highland malt Clynelish (in this case, the vastly underrated 14 Years Old, which can be purchased for a shade under £40) has long been favoured by blenders for its richness and ability to help bind a blend together, alongside its deliciously waxy floral notes. From this undoubtedly sturdy starting point, I am hoping that my blend will retain a simplicity, but have a personality all of its own. The danger is to 'know no bounds' when it comes to adding layers of different whiskies, something I suspect that is probably the first 'do not do' in the big leather-bound blending book, which metaphorically adorns the shelves of the true blending greats in the whisky industry today. With this firmly in mind, I'll be meticulously drawing out the architecture of the blend (currently named 'Orville') over the forthcoming issues - something which Kevin McCloud would be proud of. As for my opponent, Mr Broom - well, he bears more than a passing resemblance to Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, does he not? Let's hope that his blend doesn't end up tasting of flock wallpaper and ruffles.