Mix it up and start again

Mix it up and start again

Why don't whiskies from different nations ever get belnded togeterh? Or do they? Gavin Smith found out

News | 28 Dec 2003 | Issue 36 | By Gavin Smith

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It was one of those questions that hardly seemed worth answering. “If they blend different Scotch whiskies together, why don’t they ever put Irish or bourbon in as well?”“Well, it wouldn’t work, of course”, I replied. “I mean it just wouldn’t be possible, it’s probably not legal, and then there’s…”I trailed off. Why wouldn’t it work, why wouldn’t it be possible, would it be legal? Had it actually been tried, experimentally or commercially, and even if it had, why didn’t we do it for ourselves and see what happened? So what’s the story? First stop, the Scotch Whisky Association – keepers of the flame of true, unadulterated Scotch spirit. The SWA’s director of government & consumer affairs, Campbell Evans, was sceptical. “Would it have any marketing kudos?” he queried. “It’s a crowded market already, and how would you position it? Why wouldn’t you rather have a glass of Irish then a glass of bourbon, or whatever?”He pointed out that “legally there’s no reason why you couldn’t blend bourbon, for example, and Irish, and call the outcome ‘whiskey’. If both are made according to their country’s legal definitions of what constitutes whisk(e)y then there wouldn’t be a problem, provided, of course, you didn’t try to mislead anyone as to the origins of the drink.“Glenmorangie matured exclusively in bourbon casks is probably as close as you have got so far, though of course bulk Scotch sold to Japan gets mixed in with domestic whisky, and can be called Japanese whisky because their legal definition of whisky is so loose, compared, say, to the EU definitions of Irish or Scotch. “Bulk Scotch is also used for ‘admixes’ in South Africa and in France – drinks made using indeterminate spirit, which include Scotch as top dressing”. According to leading Japanese drinks giant Suntory, vatted malt Scotch is no longer being purchased by the firm in order to mix with their domestic spirit, and as existing stocks of it are used up, so their ‘Japanese whisky’ will in the near future become 100 per cent Japanese. John Glaser of Compass Box Whiskies is noted for his willingness to challenge preconceptions and embrace the apparently radical.“I’ve seriously considered putting together Scotch and Irish whiskies. I love good Scottish grain spirit put into first-fill bourbon casks, and I’ve thought about blending it with triple-distilled Irish malt, matured in the same type of cask. I think this would work very well, but when I was considering it, the Irish whiskey I looked at was just too expensive for it to be viable.“There’s a wide range of styles of Japanese whiskies so I’m sure blending them with Scotch could work well. Bourbon, however, tends to be so much more powerful than Scotch, so it would be a difficult exercise to achieve balance, I guess”.Whisky Magazine’s blender of the year, Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay, notes that it would only be worth blending Scotch and Irish if they were both of a good age. “They’d have to be at least 12 year olds for the spirit to have any credibility. If you
put three year old Scotch with three year old Irish you’d hardly be able to tell the difference between the two components and the finished article. You’d get a very run of the mill product if they were quite young.

“You could blend Scotch single malts with Irish malt”, says Paterson, “and if you did that I do think you’d have something
to interest the consumer. You could also maybe put a Jameson blend with a Whyte & Mackay blend, and finish it in, say, a sherry cask.“If you were going to do bourbon and Scotch I’d go for 60 per cent Scotch and 40 per cent bourbon at most, maybe even less bourbon, so that the bourbon notes wouldn’t dominate. It could certainly be done. “And you could blend Japanese and Chinese whiskies, or New Zealand and Canadian. Of course, to do it properly, you’d need a marrying period of between one and two years to allow the wood to exert its true influence.”Another respected whisky industry figure has already begun to explore the ‘international blending’ option. David Robertson, former Macallan master distiller, and now of the splendidly named Jon, Mark and Robbo’s Easy Drinking Whisky Company, describes how he and his colleagues set out to develop whiskies that would fit three style profiles, rather than being bounded by tradition, distillery provenance and what Robertson calls, tongue-in-cheek, “crusty old distillers.” “We set out to create ‘rich spicy’, ‘smokey peaty’ and ‘smooth sweeter’ styles”, he notes. “For the ‘smooth sweeter’ style we experimented in various ways. We looked at younger single malts, but they were too oily, we looked at grain whisky, but it was too grainy/cereal and spirity. Irish was too malty. “We tried a mix of bourbon, Scotch malt and Scotch grain, and while it was eminently drinkable whisky, it just
didn’t have the softness and sweetness we wanted.

“Eventually, after much trial and error, we created the following: 36 per cent North British grain at five years old, 18 per cent Grouse, 27 per cent Cooley Irish malt, and 18 per cent Heaven Hill at three years old. “We then looked to a new Irish supplier – Cooley – and in a youngish whiskey we found just the right profile for our ‘smooth sweeter’ – coconut, lemons and toffee. It would have been possible, however, to blend in some four year old bourbon to give more sweet vanilla notes, to enhance the sweet character. “The experience we have had has suggested that certain types of flavours can certainly be developed by using the key strengths of geographically-driven whiskies. For example, I would love to create the following flavours: 1. Cherry peaty – maximum peaty balanced with vanilla/cherry – using Islay and bourbon. 2. Floral and fruity – using Japanese and Speyside. 3. Super spicy – using malt ex-first fill sherry cask plus American rye whiskey. 4. Citrus sensation – using Canadian and old Macallan which has an orange citrus note”. While luminaries of the industry have considered the idea, at least one distiller is already quietly getting on with practising it on a commercial basis.The Small Concern Whisky Distillery in Tasmania boasts that it produces “an extraordinary blend of two distinctly different single malt whiskies, originating from opposite corners of the globe.”They have taken a 13 year-old Springbank and vatted it with their triple-distilled seven year-old Cradle Mountain Single Malt to create Cradle Mountain Double Malt. The result of this vatting is described by the company as having “a full malt flavour” and just a “a hint of peat and a subtle honey afternote.”The single malt is smooth and comparatively light in character, quite a contrast with the robust Springbank, but the combination won praise from messrs Jackson and Broom during a Whisky Magazine tasting in Issue 24. As one might expect, it has a longer finish than the single malt alone, and also exhibits saltier characteristics.According to the Small Concern’s David McClelland, the company forged a link with Springbank when it made contact with the management of the Campbeltown distillery around eight years ago, and Springbank ultimately purchased seven casks of its whisky, ageing it in Tasmanian red wine barrels.When asked about the advantages of this long-distance marriage of malts, McClelland says that “it seems to bring out the best of both whiskies. The Springbank gives more ‘body’, and the Cradle Mountain more smoothness.”“We’ve not heard of anyone doing anything similar”, he declares, admitting that the idea of this vatting occurred “during a drunken evening sampling some whisky!”The next step for us is to press ahead and plan to create some international whiskies of our own. At the time of writing, Customs & Excise officials are playing pass the parcel with queries regarding the legality of conducting such audacious experimentation under bond within the United Kingdom. However, some of the finest minds in the Scotch whisky industry are addressing this issue even as you sip your conventional Scotch, Irish or bourbon, and the blending begins soon. In the not too distant future we plan to assemble a panel of blenders and tasters to see what we come up with, and to report the findings back
here. We’ll sail them offshore to do it if we have to.Watch this space...
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