The Art of Science

The Art of Science

Our man tackles the age old question about blending, and looks at other traditions

Production 25 Oct 2013 | Interviews | By Ian Buxton

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That simple principal was grasped first by the merchants of Scotland. The earliest blends arrived on the market in the early 1850s, pioneered by Andrew Usher and William Sanderson. They were working in an era when Irish whiskey dominated sales; when Scotch was little known outside Scotland and, where it was available, had a poor reputation.

The reason can be summed up in one word: consistency. The great Dublin distillers, by working very large stills, triple distilling and vatting the output, had achieved a high degree of product consistency, avoiding the burnt flavours and raw tastes that characterised much Scotch whisky at the time.

By the 1850s the continuous still was in widespread operation and was being enthusiastically adopted by many distillers in Scotland, while regarded with distrust and antipathy by the Irish. As far as they were concerned adding grain whisky - or 'sham spirit' as they termed it - to their pot still product represented adulteration and fraud. In their eyes the consumer was being cheated of the genuine article, and they campaigned energetically against the practice. But the consumer didn't care - in fact, offered the choice, blends were enthusiastically preferred. Tax changes in 1860 permitted blending under bond and Usher soon launched his Usher's OVG (Old Vatted Glenlivet). Usher's Green Stripe brand achieved a substantial following in the USA during the 1950s and is still available today, though very much at the 'value' end of the market - a pale shadow of its distinguished past.

Just as the Irish industry continued to resist the pressure to blend their whiskies, so the Scots adopted this new technology with glee, happily taking sales and market share from Irish whiskey for the latter part of the nineteenth century. Working from their traditional grocers' shops (see panel 'Tea') several great dynasties were born - including the family firms of Walker, Buchanan, Dewar, Ballantine, Bell and many others now forgotten or absorbed into larger concerns.

Fortune favoured these companies.

Their great Irish rivals conveniently continued down the path of commercial suicide; the growth of the British Empire meant global demand was created; Scotland became both fashionable and a patriotic member of the United Kingdom (the term 'North Britain' was a positive one) and when the French cognac industry was destroyed from the 1870s onwards by the effect of the phylloxera aphid, middle and upper-class drinkers gratefully turned to blended Scotch whisky. Great fortunes were made, often in a single generation. The world of whisky would never be the same again and blending was legitimised by the findings of the 1908/09 Royal Commission on Whiskey. Today more than 90 per cent of all the Scotch whisky sold in the world is blended; though single malts get more publicity, the money is being made by the blends!

The business of blending had been rapidly perfected in Scotland. Writing around the end of the 19th century Alfred Barnard claimed that "It is a fact well known that the old-established Scotch houses, above all others, are enabled to give a higher class of whisky, by reason of their careful study of the science of blending, which they have now reduced to a fine art." Never short of hyperbole, Barnard managed here to claim for blending the status of both science and art - he was nothing if not energetic in promoting the cause of Scotch whisky, especially when he had a paying client!

But much of what he wrote in his little-known pamphlet How to Blend Scotch Whisky on behalf of Mackie & Co (the proprietors of the White Horse brand) remains both relevant and true today and helps us understand how quickly blended whisky developed.

For example: "Very many persons think they can blend whisky, and that it is just a matter of throwing a few brands together." Barnard didn't agree, and nor would today's blenders. Just try itself yourself to see. Your first attempt might be palatable - but could you repeat it time after time and make thousands of cases?

"It should be remembered that a high-class blend cannot be made out of inferior whiskies… Age is the first essential in Scotch whisky… Flavour is the next essential in a good blend." By 'age' Barnard was thinking of whiskies of up to 10 years old for his 'ideal blend'; two and up to four years old was apparently sufficient for the public house trade. Within a few years the better blenders would be using even older whiskies in their premium expressions, though it would be many years before we would see blends much older than 12 years.

"A very common error is to use whisky newly blended; no matter how old the whisky may be, delicacy and flavour can never be developed in a blend unless they have been 'married', so that after a blend has been run off it should lie in wood for three to six months before being used." It's hard to find anything to disagree with in that. So, if the essentials of blending were fully understood and established more than 100 years ago how, I wondered, does today's blender ensure consistency and keep a constant house style?

I put that question to Dr Jim Beveridge, Master Blender for Johnnie Walker and his colleague Dr Matthew Crow. The Walker house style was established sometime in the 1860s, when the first copyright was obtained for Walker's Old Highland Whisky. Of course, then the firm was based in Kilmarnock and John and his son Alexander would have obtained their whiskies largely from the west coast of Scotland, where the style was heavier, peatier and more smoky.

That remains true today. In fact, it's interesting to contrast the Walker house style, with its roots in west coast whiskies, with that of the continuing Dewar style, developed around the sweeter, honeyed Perthshire whiskies favoured by that company, based of course in Perth to the east. With a good amount of the company's Aberfeldy single malt at the heart of the blend it's naturally softer and sweeter - very different from the Walker signature.

Walker benefits from the existence of the original blending books kept by the founders. It's clear from studying these that, by the late 19th century, Alexander Walker II had adopted a 'building block' approach. Today the company describes this as representing six 'cardinal Influences', each subject to the effect of distillery character, wood, and maturity, which can be directly related to Walker's original notebooks.

In fact, the stock book for Walker at the beginning of the 20th century shows a vast range of whiskies: more than 70 different makes of malt and at least 12 makes of grain were employed to provide the quality and flavour essential to create the complexity that excites the connoisseur. By 1910 the company was carrying a wide range of aged whiskies in order to create the first premium blends - a tradition which continues to this day.

Describing how he continued to use the original notebooks, Jim Beveridge told me, "It's the lens through which we make the judgement on whiskies and final quality, but" he continued "blending has become a much more precise operation as we also have to plan to protect stocks many years ahead and anticipate how casks will be used." As the market for super-premium whiskies continues to develop so the importance of aged stock will grow - a trend seen in Chivas Brothers' Royal Salute range, so successful in the Far East. Their standard range includes the 38 Years Old Stone of Destiny and spectacular one-offs such as the Tribute to Honour expression include substantially older whiskies. These luxury flagship expressions retail for £100,000 and upwards but are not simply for PR. I'm reliably assured that a considerable number of the Johnnie Walker Diamond Jubilee edition have found new homes.

It's evident that the different blend styles within Diageo such as Walkers, Bells, J&B and Windsor are valued and preserved. The diversity is respected as essential to the brand values and to what consumers expect but clearly also gives the blending team challenges and opportunities for development.

So how, I asked, are new products developed that are true to the house style? Again, referring to Walker, Jim Beveridge talked of Johnnie Walker Red and Black as "the twin pillars by which the family DNA is maintained." Interestingly, both he and Dr Matthew Crow maintained that new products were developed by reference to drinking occasions - how it was anticipated that the consumer would use and enjoy the product - rather than, as I had expected, by a hierarchy or price points. They consistently spoke of ritual, consumption, occasion and the serve, rather than price, margin or brand positioning.

Quality kept coming to the fore. In fact, if you wanted to offend these gentlemen then simply present them with a sample of any whisky, malt or grain, and enquire "Is this any good - or would you put it in a blend?" Then watch the red mist descend! You have entirely misunderstood what drives them and the basis of their work.

"Our job is to make great liquids for occasions," they maintain. Given a new product brief they ask "what should the liquid be for this consumer on this occasion?" Only then will they start to look at their immense stocks of whisky and ask "How do we do that?" We moved on to discuss grain whisky.

Again, Jim Beveridge was entirely and immediately clear. "Grain reveals flavour in the single malts. It brings sweetness but works with the malts to play an active role - we absolutely depend on great grains." Historically, grain whisky may have been used as a low cost filler - Barnard counselled that "there are only three or four makes that can be used in firstclass blends" and criticised some illinformed 19th century blenders for "putting in a larger quantity of grain spirit to the detriment of the unfortunate consumer" - but it's clear that blending has long since moved on to a greater appreciation of the proper use of good grain whisky. Today, intelligently and skilfully employed, grain binds the malt whiskies together; provides a catalytic effect by opening up the flavours of malt whiskies, and adds its own distinctive sweet vanilla note.

If you doubt that then consider the success of a whisky such as Compass Box's Hedonism. It may only be produced once or twice a year when the Compass Box team can source the rare old casks that they require but its rich, sweet and creamy taste demonstrates very dramatically what a fine grain adds to the magic of blending.

With their public face, Drs Beveridge and Crow are a far remove from the traditional anonymity of the blender.

But, as they acknowledge, this is still not the place for a 'personality' - blending is about continuity, the blenders' job being to articulate in liquid form the craft and skills of his or her predecessor, to embody their art and tradition and to pass on that legacy renewed yet consistent and true to the past.

Misunderstood it may be but blending remains the very heart of what made Scotch great and vital to its consistent delivery and success with grateful new drinkers the world over.



Chocolate



There are, of course, chocolate notes to be detected in some whiskies and the pairing of different whiskies alongside a complementary chocolate has become almost a cliché of any good tasting experience.

What you may not have appreciated - and why would you - is that cocoa beans have to be fermented before they can be used and that virtually all chocolate is blended to deliver a specific taste and mouth feel. And, like whisky, mouth feel is a critical part of the tasting process. The different percentages of cocoa are especially critical because cocoa, like alcohol, contains chemicals which have physiological effects on the body and are linked to levels of serotonin in the brain - which makes you feel good.

Alongside theobromine, caffeine and other ingredients the effect is to promote a feeling of well-being and happiness. Did you spot the resemblance to whisky there?

So whisky and chocolate are not just accidental partners, there is sound chemistry behind this blend. And when leading-edge chocolatiers like Rococo Chocolates' Chantal Coady talk of "the magic, theatre and emotional journey of chocolate," I am readily transported back to the distillery and blending rooms of Scotland. She describes her creations as having "balance," adding "the flavour must not block out the chocolate, nor the chocolate dominate the flavour." It could be any blender talking.

www.rococochocolates.com



Tea



As whisky historians remind us, many of the great blenders started out in life as grocers, wine and spirit merchants or, as they were sometimes known, 'Italian Warehousemen'.

Before the advent of the supermarket and the out-of-town retail park every High Street in Scotland had a grocers shop and, especially prior to WWII, many blended their own teas and whiskies.

"The object of blending being," wrote one authority in 1896 "not to lower the standard or reduce the cost at the expense of quality, but to produce a measurably better tea and … a much finer and more desirable flavour than that yielded by any single variety." And there you have it - substitute 'whisky' for 'tea' and the parallel is exact.

Little wonder then that Chivas Brothers, Dewar's, Johnnie Walker, Bell's and Ballantine's can all trace their roots back to a humble grocer's shop, and are happy to do so. The skills learnt in blending tea were applied to whisky from the middle of the 19th century onwards and blends soon dominated world markets, as they continue to do to this day.

Another day... another Day. The tradition continues with Alasdair Day's recreation of The Tweeddale Blend, a small batch limited release dating to the long-lost family grocery shop in Coldstream.

The Tweeddale Blend, around £40 from www.tweeddalewhisky.com or major retailers.



Perfumes



It wasn't quite the reaction I'd expected. "You smell like Charlie Maclean," said my wife. I'd asked for her reaction to my new cologne, Aqua Alba by Angela Flanders.

Given that we'd just been to visit Charlie and he presumably gets similar media goodies perhaps that's not too surprising.

Angela has been creating perfumes in the trendier parts of London's East End since before it was trendy and Aqua Alba (Scottish Water) was inspired by her work with Diageo Master Distiller Dr Jim Beveridge. It's quite a sweet-smelling fragrance with earth and wood undertones and hints of peat.

It reminds us that the discipline of creating a great and classic perfume is not so very far different from that of the whisky blender. Years of experience, of trial and error, of study go into the subtle combinations that make the difference between an enduring favourite and a flash-in-thepan success.

As Angela herself put it "I could make a fragrance smelling of whisky, but who wants that? I've tried to capture the essential atmosphere of the Highlands & Islands." And that works for me - and Charlie Maclean it appears.

Aqua Alba, £95 for 100ml from www.angelaflanders-perfumer.com



Blending History



With the revival of interest in classic whisky cocktails old bottles are increasingly being snapped up at auction and the price of a forgotten bottle of a blend from the back of a cupboard has been increasing dramatically - as long as it's spent 30 years or more waiting there and is unopened, of course. Perhaps the ultimate example is the recreation by Mackinlay's of the whisky left by explorer Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic in 1909 and brought back to life by Whyte & Mackay's Richard Paterson.

The discovery of an authentic bottle of Hankey Bannister, reliably dated to the mid-1920s, presented a different challenge to Stuart Harvey, Master Blender at Inver House, owners of this venerable blend. Given that he had to follow the 2008 WWA award of the World's Best Scotch Blend for his Hankey Bannister 40 Years Old the standard was high.

The 1920s bottle was tasted and found to be slightly sweeter and peatier in taste than the modern day blend. To recreate this style the current Hankey Bannister blend was used as a 46% abv base with more mature and peaty malts added to round out the flavour. To complete the look, the vintage style whisky was then packaged in a replica of the original bottle. The limited release of Hankey Bannister's Heritage Blend will retail at £26.99.

As supplies of genuinely old bottles begin to diminish expect more such exploration of blending's past. It's liquid history.

www.theshackletonwhisky.com

www.hankeybannister.com

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