Hey, big blender

Marcin Miller visits Colin Scott, Master Blender at Chiva Brothers to learn about the subtle art of alchemy
By Marcin Miller
Let’s avoid the stuff you all know about already. The stuff about blending being the backbone of the industry, that blending accounts for up to 95% (estimates vary) of total whisky sales and so on. You know all that because you read Whisky Magazine and we take every opportunity available to remind you of these salient points. I’m in Colin Scott’s blending laboratory. Here Colin re-pilots every Chivas Brothers blend every year. He works to a formula by make, by cask type and by cask size. This is to ensure the consistency that enthusiasts expect from their blends. It is also where new blends and special projects begin.Let’s get down to the bones of it. In front of me are nine new make spirits; two grains and seven malts. All are reduced to 20% abv. Whenever I have had the good fortune to assess fresh distillate, it is always in isolation. By which I mean there is no frame of reference. Under those circumstances, of course, one’s impression of one new make is pretty much like any other. You have expectations along the lines of: “I’ve nosed fresh distillate before so I know exactly what to expect.”The goal posts shift a little when you have nine of the little beauties in front of you, albeit reduced. The grain whiskies are distinctive; one sweet, clean and light whilst the other is heavier and more vegetal. And the malts manifest such different characters that it is easy to see why we all get carried away by the finished, bottled product. Five of the samples are from Speyside and they vary from fishy (not a tasting note to share with the distiller), via citric, smoky and saddle leather to honeycomb. The Highlander is disarmingly sweet and light whereas the sample from Islay is surprisingly fresh, light and approachable. The advantage of seeing so many new makes together is that one can begin to understand the diversity of nose and palate possibilities available to the blender. With new make, the assumption is that because they are all made from the same basic ingredients using the same process, and because nothing has yet exerted an external influence, they will all be quite similar. This is not the case. And these are but seven malt samples. Bear in mind that there are 80-odd distilleries from which to choose and you begin to get an idea of the infinite flavour profile of blended whisky. But why start with the new make? “This is what the distiller makes, day in day out. This is the raw material. At the end of the day we are blending makes and casks. New make is important as that is where everything starts. If you drink The Macallan or Aberlour you see the sherry. But the distillates of The Glenlivet and The Macallan are closer at new make than they are at the bottled stage.”On to the blending proper. I have eight samples, all at least 12 years old. Two are vatted grains and the other six are vatted malts. The complexity of grains surprised me. Colin explains: “people say that grain means nothing and doesn’t do anything. This is patently untrue. They have a character and a role to play.” This is echoed by David Boyd, Deputy Production Director: “Many people underestimate the effects of grain whisky.” I must now assess the whiskies for their blending attributes. For one of the malt samples I have another row of glasses containing the constituent elements for the vatting. In this I begin to appreciate what is possible. I nose the constituent single malts: in particular I admire a light, pretty, floral and feminine Longmorn and a deliciously weighty Strathisla. The finished vatting, in itself but a part of the final blend, manages to combine all the elements of the Speyside whiskies therein. Nothing predominates but all the elements are there. Everything is brought into play.Colin asks me what sort of blend I would like to create. The descriptors I come back with are all relatively assertive: bold, distinctive, multidimensional, rounded. To keep things reasonably simple, we agree to stick to a split of 30% grain and 70% malt. Of course, it’s quite unnerving. Sitting in a blending lab with someone who has performed the dark art for so long and so successfully. It is like an examination. You
have done your revision, you think you can nose whisky, you think you have an idea of what you are talking about, but suddenly all those old anxieties resurface. What if I get it wrong? What if it tastes disgusting? What if I fail?

Colin has set the test: make your blend. You have tasted the samples that constitute the elements at your disposal. Now consider the percentages of those elements required to create the profile you have described. Fill your 200ml sample bottle.So I’ve got 30% (60ml) grain. That’s easy; a ratio of two to one, tropical fruit to vanilla. That leaves 70% (140ml) and seven malts. Let’s have 30ml of Malt No. 1 because of the good whisky nose, the leather and softness. Just 10ml of Malt No. 2 for a touch of scented sweetness. Plenty of Malt No. 3 (30ml) for a creamy mouth feel and a long finish. Plenty of No. 4 (30ml) for the saltiness and the dry, long finish. A good slug (20ml) of No. 5 for the spiciness. And finish off with 20ml of No. 6 for the smoke.And the result: far too hairy and one dimensional. Peat is the predominant note. According to Colin: “To me it’s slightly heavy on the peat side. The nose is balanced; softness, sweetness, nuttiness and smoke. Slightly strong peat on the nose.”Let’s try again. I need to achieve the nose of my first sample on the palate of my second sample. The first attempt wasn’t too bad so I felt that a little tweaking would be all that we needed. The grains were left as before. I increased the levels of malts No. 1 and No. 2 as they were at the gentler end of the spectrum. No. 3 and No. 5 were left exactly as in the first attempt. I reduced the levels of No. 4 and No. 6 by 10ml as they clearly dominated the blend. “The peat has dissipated. It’s become a little livelier.”Remarkably, these little tweaks resulted in a blended whisky of a totally different character compared with the first attempt. In terms of flavour profile, this was precisely what I had in mind before we started experimenting. Colin seemed pleased: “Nice fruity, soft, sweet, touch of nuttiness. Then it changes. Peat comes in, fruit comes back and a little bit of spice. I think that’s lovely.”Flush with success, I tried to improve upon this formula but to no avail. The smallest amount of tinkering led to a concoction with little harmony. And, of course, it became apparent that harmony is key. Of the four attempts to create a blend, the second was by far the best. None was undrinkable but a lack of integration meant that drinking some of these blends would have been hard work. And that’s not what it
is about.