...where distraction is the main attraction.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Fail...er...Adventures in Home Blending, Part 1

Unless that whisky in your hand is a from a single cask, bottled at its actual cask strength, you're drinking a blend.

Blended Whisky -- A mix of many barrels of malt whisky from different distilleries with many more barrels of grain whisky, watered down to 40%-43% ABV.

Blended Malt -- A medley of single malts from multiple distilleries, usually watered down to a 40%-46% range.

Single Malts -- A blend of hundreds, sometimes thousands of different casks of malt whisky from a single distillery, then often mixed with a portion of local water.

High-strength single malts, like Glenlivet and Glenfarclas 105 --  Blends of numerous casks, kept at a high ABV, and sometimes even watered down a bit obtain the profile desired by the producer.

Though the term "blend" has had a negative connotation (courtesy of cheap low-quality brown stuff) in the whisky world, blending is not a bad thing.  In fact it's an art.  It can be alchemy, mixing multiple whiskies with completely different characteristics in order to achieve a single statement.  It's adding 4 + 3 and somehow getting 8.  Sometimes the results are modern delights like Ardbeg Uigedail or Balvenie Tun 1401.  Sometimes the results are more perfunctory, with blends like Johnnie Walker Red Label and Dewars White Label.

From David Stewart to Rachel Barrie, the Master Blender can be a distillery's most valuable asset, aside from the amber liquid itself.  They're the ones who figure out the recipe, the flavor, nose, texture, finish, the entire experience.

It wasn't until I listened to an extensive interview with John Glaser of Compass Box (courtesy of David Driscoll of K&L Wines), that I ever considered tinkering with my own blends.  Glaser had been making small blends for friends for years while working for Johnnie Walker's corporate office before he made the leap to start his own whisky company.  The man has since mastered the magic of blended malts (Flaming Heart, Peat Monster, Oak Cross, Spice Tree) and his every new release is a cause for excitement.

I took Glaser's words as encouragement.  So I gave blending a try.

I am no John Glaser.

ROUND 1: The Benbeg Sauternes

I owned two bottles of which I had very separate opinions.
1.  The Ardbeg Ten -- loved it; would take a stinky bath in it if I could; plus I had some whisky to spare in a mostly full bottle.
2.  Benriach 16yr Sauternes Finish -- was down to the end of the bottle; did not love the stuff; can understand some of the appeal of the wine finish, but it was far from being appealing to my palate.

I wondered, "What would a young Ardbeg taste like with a French wine finish?"  So I mixed up a tiny batch.

First rule of blending: A little bit of peat goes a loooooooooooooooooong way.

I did not know this at the time.  Now I know.

I mixed five parts Ardbeg Ten with three parts Benriach 16yr Sauternes Finish.  In hindsight, I probably should have rethought that ratio.

The mix, the home vatted malt, was married for a mere 48 hours in a little glass bottle.

Second rule of blending: Let your blend marry. Allow the new couple some time to get to know each other.

48 hours was probably not enough.  But I don't think time would have rescued this relationship.  Here are my notes:

March 12, 2012
Color -- Sauvignon Blanc
Nose -- Sweet, meaty, hammy.  Honey and baked bananas.  Mellows with time, but there's lots of ham.
Palate -- Peat wins this round. Some band-aids. Butter. Boston creme. Drying yet sweet.
Finish -- Long peat smoke only, very drying

Nose -- Sauternes finish up front like a sickly sweet varnish
Palate -- Very creamy, brown sugar, Ardbeg peat, gets quite bitter
Finish -- Sweetens up, grainy, then more bitterness. A heavy NutraSweet aftertaste.

Actually, these notes are very polite.  For a more accurate measurement, here's the lone final comment from my notes:
"never again".

Neat, it was ham and peated Boston creme pie.
With water, peated bittersweet varnish that I couldn't scrub off my tongue.

Happily, I only used 50mL of whisky.  Unhappily, I drank the whole 50mL.  Later, I woke up in the middle of the night with the reek still on me.  Don't do this.  Don't repeat this blend.

Two questions then arose, what if I blended two malts I like?  And what if I blend two malts I don't?

Let's find out those answers this week.


  1. I need to try this in the not too distant future. I'd like to try making an ersatz Arran Devil's Punchbowl (I'm not spending $130 on that) with the Sherry and Bourbon Single Cask bottlings I have on hand. Might add in a bit of something peated as well. Much experimentation will be required, I suspect.

    1. On the spur of the moment, I just threw some Russell's Reserve Rye together with Kilchoman Machir Bay. I'll let you know how it works.

    2. That Russell's and Kilchoman sounds awesome! I hope they mingle well.

      That Arran experiment sounds worthwhile too. My Arran knowledge is limited. But I'll, hopefully, be sampling their sherry and port caskers this weekend.

    3. Hopefully they'll still be around when you make it to Portland. Both Arran Sherry and Bourbon Single Cask bottles are under $60 a piece in Oregon right now.

    4. You guys are psycho. But, out of curiosity, how Russell's Reserve vat with Machir Bay? And, what in the world would lead you to choose those two? Of all the hooch in your ample cabinet?

      On the weird vat end, I'm drawn to the idea of vatting a simple sweet malt (like Auchentoshan Valinch) with a sherry or a port reduction (i.e. boil down the fortified wine into a syrup). It's not my idea - Ryan of Value Whisky referenced it - and it was being done by someone else. But it sounded like a possibly great idea...

    5. @Jordan - Portland trip still in the plans, but my new job basically won't let me out of their cave until 2013. And those are TREMENDOUS prices on single cask Arran, someone must have worked out a great deal with the distributor.

    6. @Josh - Gladly accepting the psycho designation! <|:-) A sherry reduction with a mild malt sounds great (thanks Ryan!), I am intrigued...

  2. Something Ralfy suggested was putting a few drops of pure maple syrup (no hi-fructose corn syrup cheap stuff) to help the marriage along. But not too much for a little goes a long way. In fact the Malt Maniacs did a study a while back that showed E150 helped in blends for similar reasons.

    1. Would much rather have the maple syrup in there! Might try that soon. Thanks!

    2. When you think about it, maple syrup may make a better whisky colorant than E150a since it's the product of a tree and it's quite dark in color so a drop or two would be pretty effective. The only problem is pure maple syrup is a lot more expensive than caramel coloring made in a lab. Oh well.

    3. I agree. Sometimes I like to think of very thick rich whiskies as being naturally flavored by Oak Syrup.

      I wouldn't doubt that E150a has a chemical structure that allows it to disperse then not separate. I'd be curious to see what happens to the colorant 50+ years after bottling.