Magic in the mix

Magic in the mix

Why is it that the reverence for single malts can turn into disappointment, or disdain,when single malts are mixed together? Is this based on knowing what blending can achieve,or just unenlightened prejudice?

Production | 09 Sep 2005 | Issue 50 | By Dominic Roskrow

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Let’s start our evaluation of the category with a typical definition, that the resulting complexity exceeds the individual components of a vatted malt (I use this term in this article because it is not yet outlawed).But with various single malts renowned for complexity, cynics assume vatted malts comprise simpler whiskies that rely on each other to create excitement.“Many people appear to misinterpret vatted malts, they think it’s for using up the left-overs, but I can assure you the same dedication goes into preparing them as a single malt or blended whisky. It’s not a case of hiding anything, which is an insult to blenders, and it’s our reputation that’s on the line. We wouldn’t produce a vatted malt unless we thought it was of a high quality,” says Whyte & Mackay’s Richard Paterson.Robert Hicks of Allied Distillers continues, “You’ve got to have the right malts of the right age from the right casks. You build a vatted malt, with a base of lighter malts, then add more heavyweights with fruity, smoky notes.Quite a few heavyweights don’t work well together, you need lighter malts to moderate these flavours.” Moreover, apart from single cask bottlings, single malts are also a vatting (albeit from one distillery), gaining complexity from a combination of cask types and often various ages of malt.What a vatted malt offers depends on what blenders want the component whiskies to achieve, integration or individuality.“I don’t want consumers to pick up individual malts like Macallan or Highland Park in a vatted malt. I’m looking for the sum to be greater than the individual component parts,” says The Edrington Group’s John Ramsay.Richard Paterson concurs, “None of the component malts should show individually, if one does then I haven’t done my job properly.You should get a combination of everything, a complete union, that’s the key to it.” Describing another approach, Gordon & Macphail’s Ewen Mackintosh says, “Some vatted malts may aim for particular peaks and make it in line with a single malt.” William Grant’s David Stewart also describes Monkey Shoulder in terms of, “One malt may dominate, but it’s still balanced by the other two, with the vatting accentuating creamier, sweeter notes.” Similarly, the Johnnie Walker Green Label pack declares four signature malts (within a total of around 15). “Talisker, Cragganmore, Caol Ila and Linkwood represent the main flavours of Green Label. Jim Beveridge, our blender, aims to ensure that these come through in the final whisky. All are intensely flavoured malts and often somebody drinking Green Label has the satisfaction of being able to identify the flavours of their favourite malt within this very special blend,” says Diageo’s Ben Anderson.Mixing malts sees some flavours promoted, and others relegated, while interaction creates new characteristics not present in any component malts.“Even putting two malts together gives you new flavours, and knowing how whiskies will react together is down to experience. You can mute flavours by the type of cask you use, some are creamier and some drier, and creamyness can mute dryness.Interaction between malts could produce 30- 40-50 per cent of the final flavour,” says Robert Hicks.John Ramsay adds: “Interaction could be 20-30 per cent of the eventual flavour, and so the same figure applies in terms of flavours which are relegated.” David Stewart raises another consideration, “Some single malts may taste nice individually, but may not combine well as they can nullify each other’s characteristics.” Larger totals of component malts give blenders the advantage that if any become unavailable, it’s easier to maintain the flavour by ‘substitution.’ But a larger spread also raises the question of whether each malt plays an active role.“There are no ‘packers’ or ‘fillers’ as there could be in a blended Scotch. Some malts may be sailing along but they’re still playing their part, and not just adding volume, they’re seducing and blending with heavier styles,” says Richard Paterson.Ewen Mackintosh continues. “Some Speyside malts are very light and delicate, and can have a relatively simplistic character.However, mixed with complementary malts they can start to lift off, as underlying secondary characteristics can come to the forefront, creating and enhancing different flavours and aromas.” Drawing on various styles of whisky can provide significant advantages for vatted malts. “To some extent vatted malts can achieve what single malts can’t. One and one makes three, so you can get greater complexity,” says John Ramsay.Berry Brother’s Doug McIvor agrees. “I don’t think you get the same complexity in a single malt compared to different expressions of vatted malt, which opens up a whole new form of whisky,” he says.And if you’re committed to peat, vatted malts can offer a spectrum of peating levels and sources. “In the Smokey Peaty One we took a splash of Bunnahabhain for tropical fruit, Laphroaig has much darker, charred peat, Highland Park rounds it out, while Ledaig is almost meaty and beefy, so we’re offering a spectrum of peating character,” says David Robertson of The Easy Drinking Whisky Co.The process also enables innovation beyond the remit of single malts. “I don’t think anyone has vatted malts from two different countries,” adds David Robertson, with The Smooth Sweeter One combining different vintages of Irish and Scotch malt.With such passionate interest in distilleries, whether vatted malts suffer by not revealing their sources is another consideration.“Not specifying distilleries isn’t an obstacle, we sell Blue Hanger on our reputation and it’s doing very well, particularly in Japan,” says Doug McIvor.Ewen Mackintosh agrees. “Not many people ask what’s in a vatted malt, and there’s not the same desire to know as when you bottle something as a single malt without attributing it to a distillery,” he says. “We don’t reveal component whiskies as consumers can focus too much on that. We’re trying to achieve a product that’s sold on its attributes and quality, not on the distilleries that go into it.” Revealing distilleries can also result in brands being pre-judged on that basis, rather than on the resulting flavour. “If you stipulate the component malts consumers may think it’s like a dinner menu, and decide I don’t like this or that malt,” says Richard Paterson.Specifiying the region of origin is another option. “We’re using the regionality of Speyside by defining Monkey Shoulder as a Speyside triple malt, without specifying which distilleries on the bottle,” says William Grant’s Guy Middleton.Meanwhile, trying to identify component malts can become an enthusiastic group discussion. “We’ve just launched The Big Smoke, a heavily peated Islay but we don’t mention a name. The Islay peat fans want their hit, and they love the challenge of trying to identify the malt. There’s a lot of speculation in the chat rooms,” says Euan Shand of Duncan Taylor.Some vatted malts do reveal recipes, it just requires a bit of logging on. “We can’t put the distilleries on the packaging, but we can put this on the website, and I’d say it helps most of the time,” says David Robertson.Similarly, while age statements are routine for single malts, it’s far less so with vatted.“We’re not applying age statements as we want the focus to be on the style and flavour of the whisky,” says David Robertson.Meanwhile, the Famous Grouse range includes 10, 12, 18 and 30 year olds. “An age statement lets consumers know where the whiskies are pitched,” says John Ramsay.As the choice of vatted malts continues to grow, an unplanned addition was Serendipity. Pulling the wrong lever resulted in a cask of “very, very old” Ardbeg being vatted with 12 year old Glen Moray. But it wasn’t a problem, it was an opportunity.“We could have blended this away but we’re so confident in it that we thought we’d own up,” says Ardbeg’s Hamish Torrie. “The Ardbeg still has quite a lot of smoke, though less than usual, with slight chocolate and treacle, with Glen Moray adding delicate floral, heathery characteristics as a top dressing, so Serendipity is a gentler take on Ardbeg. Ardbeg fans have asked if it’s the beginning of something on-going. It’s not, and the limited bottle release will sell out by the autumn.” With more vatted malts expected, particularly as demand for various single malts exceeds stock levels, where do they fit into the Scotch whisky category?“The art of blending is to please most of the people most of the time. Single malt afficionados are at one end of the spectrum, blend drinkers are at the other, and there’s a lot inbetween,” says Robert Hicks.Ewen Mackintosh adds: “Most people expect a 10 year old vatted malt to be cheaper than the equivalent 10 year old single malt.Vatted malts are still underestimated by top end consumers.” Ben Anderson continues: “I’d say blended malts sit alongside single malts, there isn’t an automatic hierarchy, you should judge it on the flavour.” So, what will it take for vatted malts to achieve their potential? “It’s all a case of how it’s put to the public. However, vatted malts don’t lend themselves to marketing in the way that blends do, or to education in the way that single malts do,” says Doug McIvor.Richard Paterson adds, “I think it’s going to be really hard, it could be another five-10 years before customers fully appreciate them.” John Glaser of Compass Box, whose vatted bottlings include Eleuthera, Peat Monster and Juveniles, is very optimistic. “Over the past five years more people have become very interested in the concept of vatting malts, and I don’t find snobbery so much as a lack of understanding. It’s an exciting new direction for malt whisky.”
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