All about making whisky
Blending is an art that is not limited to whiskies. Other spirits, wines, perfumes, tea, and coffee can all be blended. This practice began in 19th century Scotland as wine and spirit merchants began to emerge: John Walker from Kilmarnock (1820), George Ballantine from Edinburgh (1827), William Teacher from Glasgow (1830), James Chivas from Aberdeen (1839), John Dewar from Perth (1846). These ‘whisky barons’ were veritable visionaries, leaving an indelible mark on the whisky industry and history, far beyond Scotland’s borders.
A representative for Smith's of Glenlivet, Andrew Usher launched the first commercial whisky brand, Usher's Old Vatted Glenlivet. This whisky was the result of blending (or vatting) several barrels of different ages from the same distillery (Glenlivet). The practice had previously been recognised, in a law passed in 1853. A few years later, Gladstone's Spirit Act allowed grain and malt whiskies to be blended in warehouses. In doing so, it helped foster the success of blended scotch.
Blended scotches are made by blending single malts and grain whiskies. The latter were originally made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley that was distilled in large, traditional pot stills. The introduction of the new and more cost-effective patent still in 1830 marked a real turning point. In 1846, the repeal of the Corn Laws (which limited use of this grain) allowed distillers to replace the malted/unmalted barley mix with a blend of cheaper grains containing high proportions of corn. These factors, combined with the phylloxera that ravaged French vineyards from the 1860s onwards, allowed blended scotches to rapidly rise to the forefront of the international stage.
Another style of blending involves combining single malts from different distilleries. These whiskies are known as blended malts (formerly also known as vatted malts or pure malts) and are rarer, essentially restricted to the big blending houses that offer a handful of versions: Johnnie Walker 15-year-old Green Label, Famous Grouse Vintage 1987, Ballantine's Pure Malt 12-year-old, etc. But this style of whisky caught the eye of a new generation of manufacturers such as John Glaser, founder of Compass Box, who developed blended malts and blended grains, blending several grain whiskies from small batches (blends from several barrels).
The blending technique is also used to make single malts. This involves combining barrels of whiskies of varying ages in the same distillery. The age of the youngest whisky used features on the label on the bottle of blended whisky. This practice was used to alleviate discrepancies in aromas and tastes that vary from one barrel to the next, and applies to most single malts available on the market.
Today, master blenders are no longer 19th century-inspired independent traders or merchants, they are professionals employed by a blending house. Their sense of smell is used on a daily basis and their work involves not only ensuring consistency among existing blends, but also assessing the quality of new distillates produced by the ‘house’ distilleries. To help them in this task, they use a new tool, Cask Management, to ensure improved traceability of barrels and casks (age, origin).
A true orchestra conductor, the master blender draws on an infinite number of aromas to compose their masterpiece. All compositions are created based on an aromatic blueprint (a recipe) that will serve as a kind of ‘score’ within which the blender can let their imagination run free.
The master blender begins by laying out their instruments, the whiskies, according to their aromatic profile and complementarity. To create a central theme, they use the most intense fragrances: aromas of fruit (citrus fruit), dried fruit and flowers. Harmony can be created by adding greener, more herbaceous notes as well as spiced notes. Finally, percussion is provided by aromas taken from peat, in particular smoky and medicinal notes. Despite the strong identity enjoyed by some whiskies, the master blender’s first priority is creating a harmonious yet complex whole.
As well as selecting an aromatic palette, the master blender determines the intensity with which each whisky contributes to the final harmony. Contrary to popular belief, the proportion of grain whisky does not affect the quality so much as the intensity of the blend. Ultimately, the choice of ingredients and masterful dosage of each of them are the two most important factors. With the aforementioned in mind, a blend comprised of a significant proportion of peated single malts, a few delicate single malts and a low proportion of grain whiskies will never be a complex combination. As a rule of thumb, the ratio of malt whisky to grain whisky should be around the 25/75 mark, and the number of distilleries included can vary from twenty to fifty. Drawing on a broad range of distilleries serves as a buffer in the event that one shuts down.
Once the whiskies have been selected and their proportions defined, the blending process can finally begin. Some blending houses prefer to mix their malt and grain whiskies separately, while others pour all of the whiskies into the same vat and leave them to rest before dilution. At this stage, the alcohol content is brought up to a level slightly higher than, or equal to, the bottling strength by adding demineralised water. Some houses bottle the resulting mix after just a few days of ‘marriage’. For others, the marrying stage is perceived as a defining factor that determines how the aromas blend and harmonise. The whisky is then returned to used barrels in order to prevent any influence from the wood, for a period that can range from three to six months. Two weeks prior to bottling, the barrels are emptied into a large vat. The whisky then undergoes a final dilution process to bring the alcohol content to the desired degree.
The decisive role played by blended scotches in terms of developing and shaping a modern, long-lasting whisky industry, is undeniable. Brands such as Ballantine's, Chivas Regal, Dewars and Johnnie Walker are responsible for having brought scotch whisky its prestige, respectability and glory. The technique of blending also allows the specific character of each distillery to be transcended, resulting in single malts with aromatic palettes that are more expressive than ever before.