The gentle art of blending

The gentle art of blending

Blended whiskies are too often dismissed as the poor relation of single malts, but as Dr Jim Swan reveals, their creation is extraordinarily complex.

Production | 16 Apr 2000 | Issue 9 | By Jim Swan

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Attractive though they may be, it is not the single malts that have created the enormous success of Scotch that has taken place since the 1950s – that has been the domain of the blended whiskies. Nevertheless, single malt whiskies are at the core of all successful Scotch blends. So how are these highly successful blended whiskies created? What ‘rules’ have to be followed to create a good blend? What are the practical problems that arise?The art of blending is not unique to Scotch whisky, of course. Similar skills can be found throughout industries that are involved in making products to appeal to the senses; the production of tea and coffee and the perfumery industry are two examples. Experts, blenders in these industries, use techniques to enhance and create complexity in their products. The same theory applies in all; the differences are practical ones. In the whisky industry blenders must take into account the practical problems of constructing their product. They have to live with cost constraints, the need to ensure that the necessary stock will be in the warehouses when needed and there is the very real requirement to maintain quality and consistency in an ever-changing world.The blended complex.
Every product that we smell or taste is made up two parts, firstly the part that enables us to recognise the product – for example a Scotch whisky or a white wine, and secondly, the part that gives individual products their own unique identity. In the whisky example this includes descriptive terms which are not familiar to the layman and their character needs to be learned by example. These include descriptions like ‘estery’ (a type of fruity character), ‘peaty’ (Fig 1) (the odour of peat smoke), ‘feinty’ (mainly cereal-like) as well as more well-known descriptions like floral, nutty, honey-like and so on. We can demonstrate the effect pictorially (Fig 1) where each aroma is shown as a triangle, each with a different colour and where the size represents the intensity of each aroma. In the middle of the diagram is a large area where each of the individual characters overlap.This represents the inter-mixing of the aromas of the product and gives its identity. We call this the blended complex. The peaks which ‘stick out’ of the blended complex represent the separate aromas and flavours that we can recognise.If we nosed this particular whisky we would find estery, peaty, floral, honey-like and vanilla characteristics in the product while at the same time clearly recognising it as whisky. With the sole exception of the peaty characteristic, however, the words used could have been those of a white wine because these features are also found in many white wines. But it was from the nature of the blended complex that we knew it was whisky.Every individual whisky has its own unique profile like the one shown. For example, most Islay malt whiskies possess large peaty segments, perhaps divided into smoky and medicinal connotations while the malt whiskies of the Spey valley are generally low in peatiness and rich in esteriness. In the main, the malt whiskies of Scotland exhibit a regional classification. Unfortunately this classification changes. For example, the famous Campbeltown whiskies, once numbered in dozens of distilleries are now just two (Springbank and Glen Scotia, although the former also distils another style called Longrow). Equally, the Lowlands of Scotland, which boasted eight malt distilleries little more than a decade ago is now reduced to just Glen Kinchie and Auchentoshan. The principal reason for the demise of the Lowland distilleries was their relative unsuitability for use in blending. The main characteristics of these regions are shown in Table 1 but there are notable exceptions.Grain whisky
There are eight grain distilleries in Scotland and all but one, Invergordon, are located in the central lowland belt of the country. If we nose and taste a typical matured grain whisky and produce a diagram (Fig 1) the result will be a much smaller picture. The product has a lower intensity of aroma and flavour and tends to have less complexity. The cereal make-up of grain whiskies includes unmalted cereal (unlike malt whisky that uses only malted barley). The major cereal is locally grown wheat. Grain whiskies are distilled in column fractionating stills, hence the lighter more delicate flavour. Estery character is still the major feature of matured grain whisky but there is no peatiness. Other characteristics include grassy, vanilla-like, sweetness in the mouth and occasionally rubbery aromas.The question as to whether Scotch grain whisky is truly Scotch and a relative of the single malts was confirmed in 1909 when the Royal Commission dealing with the ‘What is whisky?’ question presented its report. That decision was based on a detailed study of the industry
and analytical evidence. Grain whiskies with their lower intensity of aroma and flavour, different balance of flavour profile together
with the skills being learned in ‘mixing’, ie blending, different whiskies laid the foundation for the worldwide success of the
Scotch. The theory of blending
Blended Scotch whiskies appeared in the 1850s and the first blended whisky was Ushers Old Vatted Glenlivet Whisky produced by the Edinburgh firm of Ushers. Obviously any combination of whiskies, malt or grain that combine to create a successful product may be considered to be well blended. However, there are rules, see (Fig 1). Whiskies to be blended together are chosen so that their flavour profiles complement each other. The different profiles overlap, removing the spikes that represent clearly identifiable characteristics and producing a smooth blended complex. That is why, when presented with a high quality blend and asked to describe the flavour, even the most skilled assessor will have difficulty is saying anything other than, ‘Scotch’! In other words the first impression given when the product is nosed or tasted will be to present its identity immediately. This immediate recognition is a hallmark of all brand leaders, irrespective of the product.In blending the other major concern is how intense the blend should be made. In Fig 1 the semi-circle represents the blended complex but the overall dimensions of the diagram represent the total intensity of the product. In the main this problem is answered by the amount of grain whisky used in the blend. The percentage of grain whisky is a subject of on-going controversy; in reality it is much less important than the choice of the component parts. A blend with a high proportion of intensely peaty Island malt whiskies mixed with delicate Lowland malts and a small amount of grain whisky is hardly likely to make a complex blend. By contrast a mixture of a small amount of well selected malt whiskies and a subtle combination of several grain whiskies can create a truly great product.Jimmy Lang, formerly the blender at Chivas Brothers, likened the work of the blender to that of the musical arranger of a symphony. In his comparison, the arranger used his string instruments for the melody while the blender used estery (fruity), floral, nutty and fragrant aromas for his theme. The arranger used the woodwind section for the harmonies while the blender used leafy, grassy and spicy characteristics. Finally the place of the brass and percussion sections may be taken by peaty, smoky and medicinal flavours. Whereas each musical arranger has a particular end result in mind, so also the blender envisages the final result of the blending operation.The first step in creating a blend is to begin with malt whiskies that possess the main features of the final blend. These are invariably Speyside whiskies and they may have been matured in sherry casks. Thereafter whiskies are added that complement this core by adding new features as nuances and avoiding increasing any already obvious characteristics. These are mainly found in the Highland malts. Thereafter peaty, Island whiskies are added to dry out the blend, balancing the sweetness that came largely from the choice of Speyside malts. All of the component parts, so far, are malt whiskies, combining to add up to a vatted malt. The final components of this vatted malt are lighter and delicate malts – such as the Lowland ones. These complete the construction by filling any gaps in the product complexity, which must be small at this stage, by adding the final touches. If, at the end of the first attempt, the product is not sufficiently complex and integrated, the blender must either change the formulation or make further additions of malt whiskies to correct any imbalance. In practice trials are gradually added into suitable products over a period of time.Over the years a classification has evolved whiskies for blending that rates the suitability of individual malt whiskies. This classification varies from company to company, since it is very dependent on the target product. It is important to note that this classification is for blending purposes only and has nothing to do with the appreciation of single malt whiskies. Some malt whiskies always appear on the top class list. Malt whiskies like Glenlossie, The Macallan, Glenlivet, Glen Grant and Benrinnes appear on most blenders lists, while Island whiskies such as Highland Park, Lagavulin and Talisker appear on some.Vatted malts are found in the market place, but they are not particularly successful and it is generally considered that their flavour is too intense, too heavy. That is where the grain whiskies make their contribution. Grain whiskies are used to reduce the overall intensity of aroma and flavour, without altering the style of the blend.
Blenders incorporate as many grain whiskies as possible into their blend but, in theory, at least two should be used. Once again the blended complex comes into the picture; the grain whiskies should complement each other and help to build complexity.The final step is to combine the vatted malt with the grain. Usually the proportion is around 40 parts malt to 60 parts grain but the ratio can vary from 15 to 60 parts of malt whisky. Below 15 parts it is difficult to achieve complexity and above 60 parts the product becomes practically indistinguishable from the vatted malt.Maturation and practical issues
By law, Scotch whisky must be matured for three years, in practice most blends are older, typically five to six years old. It is interesting to note that the Royal Commission in 1909 did not recommend legislation on a minimum matured age or a need to require maturation in cask at all. It was recognised that individual casks mature at different rates and that the perception of the product would reflect this. Maturation was
introduced during World War One for purely political reasons.In practice blenders will use the maximum incorporation of the products from their own distilleries. They must also take the long maturation period into account. For example, stocks being laid down to mature this year will be used in the year 2004 or later. Unfortunately existing stocks are rather high at present and production will be lower than normal. Accordingly the blender must take this into account, as they need to be able to forecast future trends.Sometimes the whiskies required to ensure consistency are not available and substitutions with other whiskies (usually malt whiskies) become necessary. Some malt whiskies may be directly substituted while others can be copied with a combination of two or three separate malts.Two types of maturation cask account for virtually 100 per cent of the stock used for blending. More than 90 per cent of all Scotch whisky casks are ex-bourbon barrels or barrels re-assembled as hogsheads. Ex-bourbon American oak barrels hold approximately 200 litres of whisky while the ‘dump’ rebuilt hogsheads hold 250 litres. Despite this small increase in capacity, maturation in hogsheads is remarkably different compared to barrels. Barrels mature faster while hogsheads give more oxidation and fragrance to the whisky. Casks held in the upper racks of warehouses mature differently to those in lower racks, there is more oxidation relative to wood extract in the lower racks. Accordingly, the source of maturation casks can influence the blend to a significant extent. The location in which casks are matured may seem of little importance, yet every individual location affects flavour. Scotland and Ireland both experience low temperatures, small variations – summer to winter and the high humidity that results in well-matured whisky. Yet every location is different and there is still great scope for optimisation of quality as a result of the long period of slumbering in cask.First use ex-bourbon casks tend to give wood extract but destroy the ‘estery’, fruity character of whiskies whereas subsequent fills give less extract, but do not destroy this essential feature. When a proportion of sherry casks is used in creating a blend, major consistency problems arise. Variations in flavour arise from the type of cask wood, American or Spanish oak and whether the sherry cask is from a first or subsequent use. The type of sherry used and the fermentation detail also affects the final whisky, but to a lesser extent.All of these variations can greatly influence the aroma and flavour of a blend and must be taken into account when creating, or trying to reproduce one. Even when the blender has created the perfect blend it is essential to monitor all of these factors to ensure that the quality is maintained. Computers, bar codes on casks, control units on stills, and a clearer understanding of what makes whisky flavour have helped in creating and maintaining the consistency of blended whiskies. In the blended whisky market complexity and consistency are keywords. Perhaps the future will lie more in the appreciation of single malt, and possibly grain whiskies, but our desire for a clear identity will still require blending skills.
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