The Battle of the Blends is now well under way. The casks have been acquired, even named and now seasoned, not just once but twice.
Totally different approaches are being taken by the two contestants. 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 result will be announced in our final issue of the year which publishes on 4 December.
Dave 'The Rummager' Broom
Adding the grain last month was, for me, the start proper of this whole process. Not only because now the liquid could be called a blend rather than a vatted malt (yes, I know, just call me old-fashioned) but because this was the moment when I could see for myself what blenders have been telling me for decades - 'it's built on grain.' Grain is the bedrock, grain gives personality, it binds, it cajoles. Using three different ones was my (potentially clumsy) way of also having three different personalities of grain playing a role: the sweet freshness of Girvan, the fat corn of Cooley and the light vanilla and lime notes within Cameronbridge. Only time would tell so I left Rosalita alone for month to let things meld.
The tap was turned on 2 March. Out came a liquid which was light gold (what I wanted) with a sweet nose (good) that had within it some Bounty bar, light honey, the banana thing that had been there was still in evidence, and now there was also white chocolate sweet fruit and some nutmeg. I was pretty happy. The grain was in evidence and things were in line with the ultimate aim.
The palate? Clean, sweet again, but there was just a little bit of oak beginning to creep in on the back palate. Not a lot, but sufficient to make me wonder whether this small cask is still feisty enough to overpower this attempt to make something elegant but light bodied.
This whole process is, of course, absurd. I knew that from the start. No blender works like this - adding little ingredients to the pot as it progresses. The best you could expect from this is to maybe gain some insights by stretching the blending out for a long period and seeing in more detail what each ingredient brings. It's blending for dummies.
Time now to add some more. I've gone back to malts and into Speyside, specifically the new Aultmore 12 Years Old. Two bottles worth. Aultmore is a secret weapon for much of the industry, combining fragrance with a beautifully soft texture. To counterbalance that in went the first smoky whisky, Caol Ila, also at 12 years. I've ca'ed canny with this. Only 200ml went in. I don't want this to be too smoky a blend, and sloshing in too much at this stage could unbalance the whole thing. You can't take smoke out, but I might add more later.
The result - after a quick rouse - was immediate. The Caol Ila made itself known straight away, there was more grassiness and a new floral note, but that hit of smoke surprised me. Anyway, it'll sit now for another month and we'll see what happens. It's the oak I'm worried about.
How Dave's blend is developing
"I decided to spread the love here, so used a mix of grains from Girvan, Cooley and Cameronbridge to give a mix of three different styles, wheat and corn, active and less active wood." Dave
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
So far, so… great! In fact, I couldn't be happier with the direction the blend is taking. After my initial worries that the cask was beginning to add to much dryness to the spirit, I came back to revisit the work-in-progress blend and it had mellowed considerably. The waxiness of the Clynelish is still there, alongside the freshness from the Aberlour 12 Years Old. But with the addition of the Dailuaine, it has taken on a much richer maltiness, moving firmly away from any worrying dry/bitter notes. It has also taken on a slight colour change too, with the oak imparting a darker, rich gold shade to the liquid.
On sampling it after a recent trip away for a week, it had changed again and had become very malty and buttery - almost too malt rich - but certainly in a good way. It was now that I thought about experimenting with the addition of some grain whisky to recheck the balance.
There are several great grain whisky distilleries in Scotland to consider here and over the past year or so, grain has very much become a force to be reckoned with when bottled on its own. But I wanted to look a bit further afield for my grain and as a result, I have turned my sights on the mighty whisky-producing nation of Japan for inspiration.
One could argue that for pure single grain expressions, the Japanese are world leaders. The Nikka Company really broke new ground a few years ago by releasing Nikka Coffey Grain, an expression produced at the Miyagikyo distillery not far from the city of Sendai in the north east of Japan. Using an imported column or Coffey still (named after its illustrious creator, Aeneas Coffey) Nikka have been making grain whisky since the early 1960s and its attention to detail is without doubt its greatest asset.
This expression, bottled at 45% ABV is wonderfully light, but contains a depth of flavour that is distinctly different - perhaps more complex - than the notes found in Scottish grain. Straight out the bottle, it gives a floral nose, also combined with a very bold malty/cereal note and some fantastic wafts of toffee and vanilla. In fact, after hesitating above the cask bunghole, I held off pouring it straight in, without exploring the flavour profile further.
What I found is a whisky that holds its own as a straight pouring whisky; think about the direct, bold notes you can expect to find in other Japanese single malts and suddenly you see a very clear lineage to this. Over ice, it is sublime. In an Old Fashioned it melds perfectly with the sweet and spicy notes. Similarly, try this as a Boulevardier (basically a Negroni, but substituting the gin for whisky) and it takes the drink to another dimension of freshness. A superb all-rounder whisky and well worth visiting, if you are curious about the emerging single grain scene.
After adding some to the blend, it changed the balance straight away, heading in a much more floral, zesty direction. But given a day in cask to settle, it has greatly enhanced the overall balance and I really look forward to trying this again next month to see how much it has developed the recipe further.
How Neil's blend is developing
"I started to worry a little about whether the cask would begin to dry out too quickly with such a small amount of whisky in it - and my fears were slightly confirmed after trying a sample." Neil
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 but not the quantity.
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, which publishes on 4 December 2015.