The unsung heroes of whisky

The unsung heroes of whisky

Dave Broom talks to the people behind some of the world's most famous brands, the blenders, and attempts to piece together the complex jigsaw of tasks their job entails

Production | 16 Jul 2001 | Issue 17

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Blenders are the unsung heroes (and heroines) of the whisky trade. Little time has been spent asking them quite what they get up to in their sample rooms. No great surprise then that most of us have no idea about the complex work that goes on to ensure a blend ends up on the shelf. During this short investigation what became clear is that the blender’s job doesn’t start when the whiskies are ready to be pulled together and bottled but they are intimately involved with every aspect of production, from distillation to marketing. All had their own spin, but one word kept re-appearing: consistency.You’d expect a giant firm like UDV to have one Master Blender overseeing its huge range, the Grand Poo-Bah of blended Scotch, but UDV doesn’t work like other firms, as Jim Beveridge explains. “It’s a team effort,” he says.
A blender is: “a strategist, inventory manager, flavour specialist and innovator.” That means controlling distillation and maturation programmes; cask management (vital when you have up to 7 million casks maturing at any one time) and then bringing it all together through a person “who creates the blends and ensures consistency by understanding their flavour make-up and has the knowledge of how to manage the influences of distillery character, wood and maturation.” Complex stuff therefore and not, as many people think, just a matter of following a recipe handed down through the generations. In reality, there is no recipe: the blend remains the same despite the fact that its components may alter.Colin Scott has been Master Blender at Chivas for 12 years and while he views his role as safeguarding the integrity and ensuring the quality and consistency of taste of his brands, he’s aware that he is at an interface of art and technical ability. Colin is not just maintaining the consistency of Chivas 12 but creating new variants like the 18-year-old and Oldest. The key to blending for him is balance between grains and malts. “A blend is like a wedding cake,” he says. “The fruit cake (malts) is good on its own; the icing (grains) part is good on its own as well, but the two eaten together are just delicious! It is also a juggling act to ensure the consistency of the product under changing circumstances. That, in turn, means having a deep understanding of the intricacies of flavour.“The idea of there being a single recipe is false. With aged blends like Chivas, the blend will require tweaking depending on availability and demand, but consistency is key.”Just like their products, blenders come in all different varieties. Some are shy people who are happy out of the limelight, others are upfront and messianic about their place in the industry. Robert Hicks is part of the latter group. What on first meeting appears to be an abrasive personality is in fact a garrulous, opinionated and very Glaswegian passion for his product.While other Master Blenders will quietly explain things, Robert attacks like a whirlwind, shoving samples at you to back up his point. UDV may have a team but Robert is a one-man show controlling Allied’s production regime, setting the parameters at all the plants, nosing samples of every batch of new make before it hits the wood and insisting that Ardmore remains coal-fired, that malts, where possible, mature on-site to absorb the local air. “I’m lucky that they [the bosses] listen to me,” he says, “and I can show them samples to prove what I’m arguing.”But, despite close involvement in every aspect of production, he doesn’t see blending as a clinical activity. “I’ve never been a believer in taking a bottle and saying ‘we have to copy this’,” he says. “You have to learn the whiskies, to develop a picture of what Ballantine’s ‘is’. If you stick religiously to a formula your whisky will vary from spring to autumn. The recipe is in our minds. It’s the memory of smell. A blender has to be a perfectionist and must have the integrity to say that’s not right. There’s 12,000 people whose livelihood relies on us getting it right.”William Grant’s Master Blender, David Stewart, is the polar opposite of Robert Hicks. A genuinely modest man, he seems almost embarrassed when you enthuse about any of his products. He’s the quiet persuader, getting malts and grains to work together. The Grant’s family may have Girvan grain and the three company malts at its core, but there’s up to 25 whiskies in the final blend and, some, as he says, are more awkward than others. The art of blending, he argues, isn’t just putting components together, but knowing how they interact with each other. But how does he keep a house style running through different blends? After all, Grant’s 18-year-old isn’t just the Family Reserve recipe with a few more years on it. “The core remains the same,” he explains, “but some malts are at their best at between four and six years, so I’ll use these lighter whiskies in Family Reserve and heavier, longer-maturing, malts – Cragganmore, Highland Park, Macallan – for the older brands. Also, the grain to malt ratio will have been reversed in the older brands to keep flavour and complexity. That 18-year-old is 60% malt. It keeps me on my toes and it’s good fun.” A mass of parameters to take into consideration.Glenmorangie may argue about the difficulties involved in making a single malt but in recent years it has helped to kick-start a new era of high-quality blends with its Baillie Nicol Jarvie. The man in charge of that is John Smith. “Our focus is still on malt, that’s what pays the mortgage, but BNJ is now an important part of the range.” So how does a new blend come into being? “I started with a brief from the marketing department and a blank sheet of paper,” he says. “We haven’t the resources of a UDV which can put 40 malts into a blend like Johnnie Walker, so I had to work with a single grain and a few malts (between nine and 10), but had to end up with a whisky which was to be marketed as the blend for malt drinkers.” The high malt (60%) BNJ was the result. It has also allowed John to become more closely involved in the process. “Blending is different today to what it was 20 years ago,” he says. “There’s less of the man with his nose in the glass and much more stock management and wood purchase. You never stop learning in this job. It’s one of the best jobs in the world. Now, if we could just get people to try BNJ!”John Ramsay is another of blending’s quiet men. Joining the industry in 1966 he was Master Blender with Wm. Lawson from 1981 and is now in charge of Edrington’s huge range which includes Famous Grouse and Black Bottle. He also blends Cutty Sark for Berry Bros. He controls the whisky-making process across all aspects of production, which is very technical. While he accepts that the blender must have knowledge of barley varieties through to “the uses for Solid Phase Micro Extraction (SPME/GC) as used by our chemists”, John’s also happy to accept that there’s a creative side to his work – not only producing new products but fusing apparently disparate elements into a seamless whole. He’s quick to refute the notion that you should be able to taste individual malts in a blend. “The malts will direct the style, but blending is a synergy – the blended complex exceeding any component part.” This is achieved, he feels, by Edrington’s insistence on using the unfashionable (and expensive) technique of marrying the whiskies together before bottling. “Not just malt and grain,” he emphasises, “but malt, grain, water and time. Utilising these four elements allows me to blend for consistency, as well as maximising flavour and mouthfeel by the use of a very gentle filtration regime.” That is at the root of the house style.John Glaser has created his own house style. He left Johnnie Walker to set up his own one-man operation, Compass Box, but has rejected the standard independent bottler route and instead is releasing small batch vatted/blended whiskies. His starting point? “To create something delicious whether it’s a new blend or a new batch of an established blend by combining intuition and inspiration with some technical background, and then creating!” Like all blenders, at the heart of Glaser’s approach is a passion for grain whiskies. “Every grain distillery makes a distinctive spirit and great grain whiskies from good wood can be some of the sweetest, most mouth-wateringly delicious whiskies in the world,” he says. “Everyone likes to focus on the malts, because malts are sexy, but the truth is if you don’t get your grains right, you cannot create a great blended whisky.”Billy Walker, Master Blender at Burn Stewart has been in the industry for over 20 years which gives him an excellent perspective on how blends are put together and where they should be going. “A succesful blend is a whisky where the final product is greater than the sum of its parts,” he says. So, the notion that a drinker (professional or not) should be able to pick out the main players in a blend is anathema to him. “I don’t support the view that the consumer should be able to taste the major malts in each blend – unless the objective was to create a blend which delivered such an end product because the blend should exceed the sum of the parts ... individual malts (have) to sacrifice their individuality and in the process deliver quality enhancement.”As far as he – and Burn Stewart – is concerned, the days of ‘this is my product, please drink it’ have long gone. In a hugely competitive global market, these days blends need to be tailored to consumers' requirements. “Burn Stewart has built its reputation on meeting the needs of the consumer on a regional basis,”Billy explains. “In our products we’re seeking to deliver what the consumer is looking for ... the perception and taste needs of the Asian consumer are quite different from the northern European or UK consumer.”So that’s how they make them but the question remains, how does the industry get people drinking blends again? Here the key words seem to be education and excitement which in turn means going back to basics. “We have to make blends that appeal to current tastes,” says Glaser provocatively. “We have to encourage the development of new brands rather than relying on old brands with too much historical baggage and focus on the pleasure of drinking blended whiskies for their tastes.” Jim Beveridge picks up the point: “Our main focus of communication should be on flavour and taste. As an industry we’ve focused too much on how whisky is made. We should look at flavour and consider its origins from the constituent malts and the influence of grain, cask and maturation time. Blends and malts are complimentary, and shouldn’t be portrayed as competitors.” They should also, adds Robert Hicks, be fun. “People say blends are all the same, well they ain’t,” he says. “For me whisky should be about pleasure – it should be fun. Sadly, we’re the only country in the world to talk down our own product.” It seems that things may be about to change?
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