It's Coming to Fruition

The Battle of the Blends round five
By Rupert Wheeler
With only one more round to go, the contenders are actively finalising their blends. The blends will be judged by our Contributing Editors and our readers. We are still on the look out for any of you who would like to participate in the judging process. Please contact me on:

The final blend has to be complete by 1 September and the result will be announced in our final issue of the year which publishes on 4 December.

Dave 'The Rummager' Broom

Well, after a month of integration in Rosalita, the last addition seems to have done its job. A nosing brings out a little more fleshiness and a better sense of mid-palate richness. What it shows is that even in a blend which is intended to be medium to light-bodied, there is a requirement for an anchor. It also shows a salient point in blending, which is 1+1 does not equal 2.

It's a common enough assumption - and one made by a group of bartenders when I recently set them a blending challenge - that the characteristics of each whisky used will still exist on its own and the blend therefore becomes a layer cake of individual flavours. They picked the malts they liked and assumed that this would be enough to create complexity. It wasn't.

The 'Springbank' element (the anchor) doesn't manifest itself as such. Individual characteristics have been absorbed and integrated and a new overall flavour has been created. You can't think of components as standing on their own - you have to think of how flavours will work together.

It's this 3-D aspect of blending which is perhaps the trickiest element to bring on board in this exercise, for the simple reason that I don't know what's going to happen! There is more than an element of blind faith and (semi) educated guesswork going on. I daresay a proper blender can draw from a vast array of different possible liquids. There's none of that grabbing a sneaky sample bottle from the shelves to correct.

Anyhoo... Time to add some more. I've headed into the Highlands, Aberdeenshire to be specific, and the mighty Ardmore. It's a distillery, and a dram, that I am an unashamed fan of. It simply had to go in. Ah, but Dave, you are probably saying, aren't you just falling into the heffalump trap you set for the barkeeps?! Perhaps, but the reason I love Ardmore so much is because it is a fascinating and multifaceted dram that manages to be smoky but fragrant at the same time - think of woodsmoked apples. In other words it would/could/should (maybe might is better) add different elements to the dram. Anyway, it's whisky which is central to any number of great blends - one reason you haven't seen it as a single malt… Until recently.

I used two 70cl bottles of the new(ish) Legacy which hopefully - please! - is that start of a raising of the profile of Ardmore by Beam Suntory.

Just the Lowlands to go.

How Dave's blend is developing

Ardmore Legacy

Kilkerran Work in Progress 6 matured in ex-bourbon casks

Springbank 12 Years Old

Aultmore 12 Years Old

Caol Ila 12 Years Old

Greenore 8 Years Old

Cameronbridge No Age Statement

Girvan Apps No4

Teaninich 10 Years Old

Clynelish 14 Years Old

Neil 'Copper Dog' Ridley

Things are about to get murky around here. In fact, an eerie haze has begun to roll in at Ridley Heights, in a scene that makes John Carpenter's The Fog look as tame as an episode of Peppa Pig.

I'm talking about smoke... and lots of it. Perhaps it was my recent visit to the Islay Feis Ile that prompted a major thirst for all things smoky, but as a result, Orville has taken on a new layer of complexity in the shape of some peated whiskies.

Adding smoke is the most tricky and unpredictable element in any blended whisky and really marks out the masters from the amateur blenders - the latter, a category that I most definitely fall into. In the past I have been lucky enough to spend a little time with some genuine Master Blenders in the industry: Johnnie Walker's Jim Beveridge, Cutty Sark's Kirsteen Campbell and Ballantine's Sandy Hyslop who all know a thing or two about the art of balancing a smoky whisky within their blends - and the consequences if that balance is upset in any way.

The premise is fairly simple, but very easy to mess up: add too much and you totally dominate your blend, making it very tricky indeed to rectify, without the damage limitation of trying to blend the excess smoke away. This requires time and a lot more whisky, neither of which I have at the moment, so my plan was to start of with tentative steps.

"Whatever you're planning to add, always add half the amount," muses out Sandy Hyslop, whose wise words resonate with me whenever I have a go at blending. "Remember, a little goes a very long way." The key here is that smoky whiskies have a huge phenolic content and even when highly diluted with other whiskies, we notice a significant amount of the resulting peatiness in a blend. It's a little like a shark being able to detect a single drop of blood in an ocean; for the most part, our senses really pick up on smoke in a big way.

My first task was deciding on what kind of smoke I was looking for: big medicinal notes, or a more subtle, sweet floral style - or perhaps a bit of both wouldn't go a miss?

Breaking down my requirements into simple smoke styles, I decided on a blend of different peated single malts: Bowmore Darkest, which has a delicious, hearty sherry note, alongside a slightly perfumed / floral note, Arran Machrie Moor, a drier, more earth-driven smokiness and Highland Park Svein, one of the Orkney distillery's Travel Retail exclusives, which is again lighter and more floral with its smokiness.

At first, I added 300ml of the Svein, swirled the cask (which must have nearly 12 litres of liquid in it by now) and stood back. Trying it revealed little or no effect at all. So I added the remaining 700ml (being it was a litre bottle) and the smoke began to emerge - but only the slightest whiff. I then added 300ml of Machrie Moor and, feeling perhaps over confident, went a little more heavy-handed on the Bowmore, because I felt its profile suited the more sherried nature of the overall blend. The peat was definitely there now, and still fortunately in check with the other whiskies previously added. Time will tell if my confidence has been misplaced though…

How Neil's blend is developing

Bowmore Darkest

Arran Machrie Moor

Highland Park Svein

Glenkinchie 12 Years Old

Auchentoshan Three Wood

Nikka Coffey Grain No Age Statement

Dailuaine 16 Years Old

Aberlour 12 Years Old

Clynelish 14 Years Old

The competition 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.

3. No bottle of whisky used must cost more than £50 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 £150 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 that you can add.

9. The blend must be complete by 1 September 2015 when it will be sent out for tasting and the winner will be published in Whisky Magazine Issue 132, on 4 December 2015.