With the grain

With the grain

Ian Wisniewski delves in to the role of grains in a blend

Production | 01 Jun 2007 | Issue 64 | By Ian Wisniewski

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Blended Scotch is a prime example of a speciality that evolved from a practicality. Malt whiskies were originally considered too robust for typical palates, particularly as peating was standard practise, so blending malts with grain whiskies, from the 1860s, resulted in a style that was easier to enjoy, and so generated a broader appeal.However, a readily accessible flavour is only one aspect of what blends have to offer.“If you try to get into a blend you’ll find more varied flavour than a single malt,” says Robert Hicks of Beam Global.Glenmorangie’s Rachel Barrie concurs: “The more complex a product is the harder it is to dissect. Blended Scotch weaves together all the characteristics that can be discovered in the whole category of Scotch whisky.” Discussing the composition of a blend invariably focuses on the malts rather than grain whisky, which makes sense, as single malts are far more familiar. And with so little grain whisky bottled, how illuminating would it be to stipulate the grains in a blend anyway? However, with limited knowledge of what grain whiskies have to offer, there’s an unfortunate, and lingering notion that grain whiskies only make a minimal contribution to a blend, and are merely capable of ‘mellowing’ more intense malts.“It’s a myth that grain whisky only adds volume. Grain whisky has a very important role to play in a blend,” says Colin Scott of Chivas Bros.Sandy Hislop of Chivas Bros continues the theme: “Grains definitely make a difference.Some grain whiskies have very different flavours than others so you have to use them carefully, if you use heavier grains you’ll change the profile of your blend.” In fact, grain whiskies are actually a starting point for blends. “Grain is the base that we add the malts to,” says David Stewart of William Grant, while Robert Hicks adds: “Grain is the foundation of the blend, holding the blend together.” There are various way of quantifying the role of grain whiskies in a blend. This includes the degree of flavour they contribute in their own right; the characteristics they help to develop through interaction with malts, and also their more ‘strategic’ contribution to a blend in terms of structure and balance.Meanwhile, an initial consideration is the volume of grain whiskies used in blends. But whether it’s a standard, ‘entry level’ blend or a ‘premium’ 12 or 15 year old blend, there are no rules, as the style of a blend also determines the level, and selection, of grain and malt whiskies. “Lighter blends do not necessarily mean a higher percentage of grains, it depends on the style of blend,” says Sandy Hyslop.When composing a new blend, for example, master blenders can choose from a range of grain whiskies.“I first think about the style of a new blend; light, medium or heavy, then you choose the appropriate malts and grains, with the range of grains also spanning light, medium and heavier,” says Richard Paterson of Whyte &Mackay.Grain whisky was traditionally distilled from maize (in conjunction with malted barley), though there was a general move to wheat in the mid- 1980s. One reason for this were various benefits from the EU, which helped make the price of wheat more attractive. But does the original ingredient have any longer-term significance, or does the distillery character and maturation override that?“You get a different skew depending on the distillery rather than the original ingredient.However, I have picked up differences in terms of the balance of esters and buttery notes, for instance, depending on whether it’s maize or wheat, and this could affect the final flavour profile,” says Rachel Barrie.While it’s clear that grain whiskies have plenty of individuality and flavour to offer, the real issue is the extent to which these flavours are evident in the final character of a blend.“Malt is the main flavour driver, giving more sumptuous and dried fruit, though grain whisky gives apple, pear and lemon, and in terms of sweetness it’s butterscotch and toffee. So there are elements of grain whisky that make it through to the final flavour profile,” says Rachel Barrie.Richard Paterson adds: “Even within a 30 or 40 year old deluxe blend, the grain whiskies have a weight of their own and will show through in the resulting flavour profile.” Grain whiskies also make an additional contribution to a blend’s flavour through interaction with malts. “It’s a perfect partnership, malts and grains both need each other. Grains seduce the malts and make them shine. You want them to interact, and it’s got to be a team effort to give complexity,” says Richard Paterson.Even combining one malt with a grain whisky creates interaction between them, which has a significant influence on the flavour profile.“As soon as you put two whiskies together you don’t get A and B. Some flavours will be the same, but you also get a change of flavours and extra flavours,” says Robert Hicks. It’s a fascinating process for the master blender to utilise.“When we produce a vat of malt whiskies it’s a tight ball of flavour, grains open that up and you can get far deeper into the flavour more easily and you get greater complexity. Some grains have a really creamy, soft flavour, and you can open up fruity malt flavours by complementing them rather than competing with them,” says Sandy Hyslop.With so much happening during blending, the obvious question is how much of a blend’s final flavour profile is created by the process of interaction, compared to the ‘original’ characteristics of component whiskies showing through?“It’s not possible to quantify how much flavour is created through interaction but it’s not minor,” says Robert Hicks.Consequently, when creating a new blended Scotch, master blenders must also account for the contribution that interaction will make to the final flavour profile.“You know roughly the sort of style you will get when you think about the whiskies, but until it’s actually done you can’t know totally, with texture an important part of this. We’d make up two or three versions to see how the interaction changes,” says David Stewart. Beyond contributing flavour directly, and through their role in creating interaction, grain whiskies also make a significant contribution to the structure of a blend.“Grain always brings something to the party, balance and harmonisation is a very important role of grains,” says Colin Scott.Rachel Barrie concludes; “Grain whisky very much provides the backbone, crispness, structure and vibrancy, delivering a refreshing experience.Grains also give acidity, a bit like lemon tart, balancing out the sweetness and dryness, which allows the flavour to develop rapidly on the palate.”
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