The success of Scotch whisky is a story of toil, of hard work, and of skill all mixed in with just a touch of luck. Today we are surrounded by single malt brands whose roots run far back, beyond the licensing of distillation, to a time where local farmers would routinely produce spirit as part of their harvest; this was a time not for brand building, emerging markets or commercial opportunity, but for survival, sustenance and storage.
The strong, white spirit produced by these farmers moved from an agricultural product and into the realm of luxury when it was discovered that the flavour of the spirit improved from time spent resting in an oak barrel; more so in barrels that once held French brandy or Spanish sherry. From this point on, aged whisky became sought-after and highly desirable (such as King George IV asking for a dram of Glenlivet-style whisky when arriving in Scotland in 1822).
Yet it was the same challenge for those taking whisky from a single cask from the first day maturation was realised, through to the present day: delivering consistency, a challenge embraced by the entrepreneurs of the 1800s, adapting their experience in blending teas and spices to vat together mature whisky. Aided by the arrival of the Patent Still and grain whisky production, what we now know as blend, was born.
Blended Scotch whisky was left to the shopkeepers of the day and such famous names as Alexander Walker and John Dewar began to create special blends for their customers, pinpointing a unique style which served to attract even more custom and was in line with the general house style of their teas and spices.
Sourcing their whiskies either direct from the distilleries or, more commonly, from a major broking house such as Roberson and Baxter, these 19th century blenders decided they needed some control over the stocks making their way into their products, so they moved from blending into distilling. In 1886 John Walker & Sons purchased Cardhu distillery. A few years later in 1896 Dewars acquired Aberfeldy and in 1930 Bells took on Blair Athol. These famous names, who started off as blenders, ended up becoming distillers as well. Today many of the best known single malt distilleries in Scotland belong to large drinks companies, with a focus on producing mature whisky for blending purposes.
However, it seems that these days, from Keith to Kentucky, everyone wants to build a distillery but no one wants to focus solely on blending. So, where have all the craft blenders gone? The 'blender without portfolio' seems to be a lost art.
There are now just a handful of modern day examples (certainly not as many examples as there are of new 'craft' distillers) and of these craft blenders, probably the most famous is John Glazer of the London-based company Compass Box. Proprietor John observes that "we're just carrying on the tradition that goes back to the 1800s."
Back in Scotland, one of the oldest remaining blending houses who have not acquired a distillery is Douglas Laing. Famous for their fantastic single casks whisky release, Fred Laing tells me they "came late to the single cask game."
"When my father set the business up in the 1940s, he focused on blends and we have always done so. It wasn't until the early 1990s that we started releasing single cask whiskies and even now we are focused on our new range of blends, Big Peat and Scallywag," he notes.
However, the art of blending for a company such as Douglas Laing is all about personality, not consistency.
"Our blends are small batch," says Fred. "Big Peat is around 3,000 bottles on each release and we let the consumers know a batch number as, despite using the same malts in each vatting, there will be slight variations."
Ben Ellefsen from Master of Malt in England, whose Lost Distilleries Blend (released under their 'The Blended Whisky Company' label) won Blended Whisky of the Year at the 2014 World Whisky Awards, agrees.
"We're fortunate in being able to create blends according to the stocks available in the marketplace, which is a real joy as it gives us creative freedom to get the best from what's available without the constraints of being obliged to use up specific stocks," he explains.
"Our job isn't the same as a blender at a major brand who need to produce a consistent product. We just look to create something exceptional from what is available to us."
And it isn't just in Scotch where there seems to be craft blenders entering the market. Trey Zoeller set up Jefferson's bourbon in 1997 and tells me that "At first I wanted to open a distillery, but then I went and looked at the set up some of these guys have in Kentucky and these places are immense; it's a real science and I wanted to focus on the art of maturation and blending."
Trey explains that blending is a major part of keeping his products consistent, but that there will always be individual elements within each batch produced.
"I buy different bourbons, with different mashbills. One of my expressions is made from four styles of bourbon, with around 50-55 per cent coming from one style and then the rest is made up from the other three styles," he tells me.
"Every time I put a batch together, I reference it against a control sample. I've been using the same control sample now for over three years. This might last a while longer, or I may change it soon. But this is all to aim for some consistency in the batches."
Trey has taken the idea of 'blending' a step further and wants to be more in control of the maturation aspect, happy to contract out the production of the spirit but look at the detail of the barrel.
"In bourbon up to 85 per cent of the flavour comes from the barrel, so I'm concentrating my efforts in that area too," he explains.
"I have 14 different experiments going on at the moment, from our chef-inspired releases, through to more of our Ocean release (which spends time maturing at sea) and a wider experimental series we'll roll out soon too," Trey says, excitedly.
It seems that those who have embraced the blenders' art are focusing on small batch products packed with personality, so next time you head out to pick up something unusual, don't forget these modern day craft blenders who owe their art to the pioneers of the 1800s.