"Will It Blend?" is intended to be an ongoing series in this blog, much like my "Nosing the Net" and "Friday's Finest" segments. Partially this is to raise awareness of efforts of master blenders in crafting some of the finest spirits in the world (and in sustaining a huge slice of whisky business, well above 90% in fact). The rest of the time I'll be showcasing the work of entrepreneurs and amateurs, while encouraging you to join in the fun!
Whisky blending is intensely experimental. In fact, as far as the market goes, I'm willing to bet that only a single-digit percentage of blends birthed in the master blenders' hands end up surviving to store shelves. You can be blending from established whisky lines that have not changed production methods in decades, but there's just no guarantee - from one cask to the next - that the quality will always be the same. Maintaining a blended whisky's quality requires an intrepid nose, tons of patience, and a willingness to face failure and frustration head-on. For this reason, master blenders are the unsung heroes of the whisky biz. They are just as deserving of glory as master distillers, while requiring ten times the perseverance to "get it right." The true alchemist's work happens not in the wort but in the blending lab, for single malts and blended malts and vatted malts alike.
There are plenty of ways to sample the work of master blenders, usually involving a trip to the store with an informed recommendation, but tonight I want to focus on the faithful efforts of amateur blenders. After all, it's not as if there's something uniquely magic about blending that shuts out the uninitiated. Just as Ratatouille's Chef Gusto insisted that anyone (even a mouse!) could cook, I am equally confident that anyone can blend! You don't need permission, you don't need practice, you just need a willingness to take risks and experiment. Few blends will turn out exactly as you hoped, but there's some serious fun to be had on the margins of an expertise-dominated whisky scene. Plus, it's a great way to learn more about what makes a good whisky in the first place!
Start a Living Bottle
One fun way to get started in the amateur blending scene is to create a "living bottle." I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I actually borrowed it from a great blog I've combed through called Vatted. It's run by a guy named Matt and hasn't been updated in a while, but the idea behind a living bottle is solid. Essentially, whenever you finish your next bottle of whisky you empty it, clean it out, and set it aside as a blending vessel. From that point forward, when you're on the last few sips of your favorite whiskies, take those ounces of liquid and contribute them to your living bottle. Over time, the bottle builds volume and becomes a blend of your favorite whiskies. Plus, it's constantly changing depending on what you drink and what you like!
It's possible to vat everything together in a living bottle to see what happens, but I'd like to think a more sure-fire recipe of success would be to segregate whiskies by style. By that I mean you could have a Scotch living bottle, a bourbon living bottle, an Irish living bottle, etc. That's not to say you couldn't cross lines every now and then (i.e. pour your last ounces of highland malt into your bourbon bottle, just to see what happens) but this would enable you to learn more directly about the styles of your favorite whiskies while still getting experimental. You could even segregate the style along other lines if you'd like: particular wine finish living bottles, particular wood finish living bottles, particular grain style living bottles, etc.
The beauty of the living bottle concept is its enduring nature and low-risk approach. It's not like you're putting down lots of money on single malts that may or may not blend well with the rest of your whisky cabinet, and it's a process that can take its sweet time (with whiskies you consistently enjoy). I personally intend to start several living bottles over the next few weeks, as I've got lots of great bottles reaching the end of their volume. I'll let you know how I sort out the styles in future postings.
With tonight's elixir, I went for something a little more complicated than my "Cardinal North" blending series. I wanted to see how some well-groomed Islay malts (peated and unpeated) interacted with an old base grain whisky to round out the rough edges. I'm also doing this "live" (off the cuff), so you can actually trace my thoughts during experimentation. The bottles I've initially chosen are seen below, and as I'm hoping this will turn out rather "campfire and sex on the beach" in style, I hope to christen the ensuing night-cap Sandfire.
I mixed Compass Box's Hedonism, Laphroaig's Port Wood Cairdeas, my 11yo Longrow Wood Expression, and Bruichladdich's "Laddie 10" in a ratio of 6:3:3:2 respectively. I wanted a fruity wine influence (apart from sherry) in the blend, along with a good mix of bright and maritimey peat. Showcasing the peat interaction was really the point of Sandfire, with the Laddie 10 (unpeated) thrown in to add some umami and tropical melon notes. These were all fairly young whiskies, with a great deal of variation between the disparate elements. The Hedonism was there to round out the edges with its grain characteristics and first-fill bourbon notes, as well as to add a light sweetness underneath all the fire. Sadly, it didn't want to make its influence known (I had to keep upping the ratio), with the Longrow dominating the blend much more than I anticipated. Let's see how this one shook out...
The nose is distinctly Longrow/Laphroaig dominant with wooden pencil shavings, a low beach BBQ smoke, and a middling fruit salad play. Bringing it onto the palate reveals those rich, tropical fruit notes I so desperately tried to add (acai, honeydew, cantaloupe, blueberry), but they struggle under the immense weight of oak (why, oh why, in such a young blend overall?). That wood is definitely on fire, with the individual peat characteristics canceling each other out and smothering the blend in a tongue-numbing ash. I guess you can't win them all - looks like I have some perfecting to do with this blend. I could probably start by substituting the Longrow for another bright peat like Ardbeg, while upping the ratio of Laddie 10 in the blend. The Longrow just didn't play nice here. You could even see it in the color after I brought it down to proof - pale, ghostly straw.
Let's get perfecting. Blending is, after all, a work in progress. Gimme a sec while I gather my pipettes...
Now I've substituted Ardbeg 10 for the Longrow, bumped it down to 2 in the ratio, and bumped the Laddie 10 up to 3. Do they play nice?
Sigh... it's a step in the right direction, but the Ardbeg is strong and a little too botanical. I would probably be better off pairing the subtlety of the Port Wood Cairdeas (I know, "subtle" not usually being a word you associate with Laphroaig, but with this expression it fits) with something like Bowmore's Dorus Mhor (young, first-fill bourbon, with subtle Bowmore smoke). I'll still happily drink what I've got in front of me, since it is distinctly Hebridean (with a good deal of salt now, BTW). You're starting to see how this works, right?
Third time's the charm...
Ah, yes. That's the ticket. The Dorus Mhor takes Ardbeg's place and brings that low, pipe-smoke waft of peat I've been seeking all this time. Rich, Hebridean, fruit-forward, elemental. This is what I've been looking for! Still, I wonder if I could dial the fruit to 11 with a sherried Islay and tone down the tequila by reducing the Hedonism in the ratio...
... but that would be a different blend :-) Maybe next time?
A blend of whisky news and commentary from around the web. In this edition: Those Yeasty Beasties, Japan moving in the business space, whisky in the movies, ambience (admit it, you love saying it), Whisky Web 3.0, and Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! Editor's note: all Nosing the Net links will now open in new tabs, allowing you to continue to browse this page without annoyance. Enjoy!
Feature: Those Yeasty Beasties
Popular Science has an amazing article about those marvelous organisms that make this entire whisky affair possible:
You might say that a master brewer is to yeast what a dog breeder is to a champion purebred. Both disciplines harness the power of artificial selection, also known as selective breeding. As Harvard microbiologist and avid homebrewer Sarah Douglass explains, “when you add yeast to sugar, you’re putting them into into their ideal environment for rapid evolution via rapid growth. You might see several generations of yeast live, reproduce, and die in a single fermentation.”
Whisky companies (I'm most familiar with the work of Seagrams) pour millions of dollars a year into research behind proprietary yeast strains and their effect on fermentation and flavor. Four Roses' four-letter recipe codes (there are 10 proprietary recipes at the distillery; ex. OBSV would be one recipe) all end with a letter that designates the yeast's contribution to the mash (either V, K, O, Q, or F). When the recipes are tasted separately, they reveal distinct differences in each bourbon's style and body. Beer brewers have known for years that yeast was the "brewer's best friend"; it seems that master distillers may soon be coming to the same conclusion.
Suntory (great Japanese whisky makers) created quite a stir early this year when they announced their acquisition of Jim Beam (American bourbon icon). Predictably, the move brought about a rash of ignorant comments from interweb warriors. The spectacle was unfortunate, since the merger is really a win-win for both sides. Japan gets access to great American bourbon (which continues to represent a single digit percentage of all whisky consumed in Japan), and our bourbon gets access to new markets and new converts. It will only make the Jim Beam brand stronger, and it's unlikely Jim Beam's daily operation will change much, if at all.
There's a good (if short) track record of Japanese management of American brands. In 2002 Kirin purchased Four Roses bourbon as part of a realignment of Seagrams' portfolio, and it turned the brand from a bottom shelf also-ran into an elite player at the top of its industry. Four Roses' single barrel bottlings are now consistently my most recommended bourbon purchases, right alongside products from Heaven Hill. What's more, it's not like a move to Jack Daniels is going to make you feel any better. They're owned by beverage giant Diageo, a British company. This is just how international distribution in the whisky boom works now, friends. If you really like small and local, find thee a craft distillery! There's plenty to choose from nowadays.
I'm coming around to Canadian grain whisky. It really has been getting an unfair rap for the last few decades. Still, they can only blame themselves. You can't rest on your laurels during a disruptive whisky boom.
There are lots of online whisky auctions popping up in recent months. You'd better be REAL sure you're not getting duped.
Also, regarding rye: been sayin'.
[And now you will know why I write about whisky instead of blogging for Rotten Tomatoes.]
I have a lot of good things to say about The Angel's Share, a heart-felt and well-paced Scottish drama about whisky, mild shenanigans, redemption, and persevering through adversity. My wife and I rented it through iTunes, but I understand it's now available on Netflix and a host of other digital distribution sources. It's not a whisky documentary, it's a drama with plenty of unemployed millennial street-kid angst and cussing (hey, they're Scots, deal with it). The subtitles are actually totally necessary, unless you're a native. Check it out sometime (but earmuffs for the kids). I started drooling when they brought out the 35 yo Springbank.
If you've read my recent review of Nikka's 15 yo Japanese single malt, then you may be interested in this documentary about Nikka founder (and Japanese whisky industry co-founder) Masataka Taketsuru's wife: "the Scot behind Japanese whisky." There's a rich and wonderful history here, told alongside a beautiful romance.
Finally: it's tough to beat out Bruichladdich when it comes to pairing whisky zeitgeist with cinematography. This is just gorgeous...
We now know that ambience affects whisky flavor, because science. Say that word with me again... ambience. :-)
By now we've put lots of thought into how the grain, the yeast, the fermentation time, the design of the still, the wood, the maturation time, the finish, and the ambience all contribute to whisky flavor. I thought it was particularly interesting to add warehouse design to the list of variables.
I generally feel that whisky is less susceptible to the sorts of psychological marketing gimmicks that haunt wine-buyers. On second thought... never mind.
Science finally does something useful by bringing you the iPhone-controlled micro-brewery. If only the law would accommodate iPhone-controlled micro-stills...
In case you didn't already know that whisky could come in "vintages" (Balblair isn't always easy to find, depending on your distributor network), now you do.
Glenmorangie's Cask Master's Project (an attempt to crowd-source the company's next Private Edition release) nailed down the finishing touches on Taghta last year. So this year's Private Edition release... was not Taghta. Companta was the burgundy-finished cask series that formed one of three finishing choices in last year's Cask Master's Project (and was actually my second favorite, Taghta - a Manzanilla finish - was my third; I have personally tasted all 3 expressions). So... I can comfortably predict you will now see all three of these finishes released as Private Editions in the next few years (SIGH). Taghta, wherever you are, you were a brilliant marketing stunt. So much so that the Glenlivet is now following suit. Wake me up when the Bordeaux finish arrives (for what it's worth, a friend has already acquired a bottle of Companta and enjoys it thoroughly).
The Antipode: cool name, cool coffee.
Holy Grain Spirits, Batman! It really is fantastic cave vodka (HUGE vanilla hit). I'm very sad to hear that they're following the micro-barrel craze with their whisky maturation. Still, I'm trying to work out a personal distillery tour and see what it's all about before we move away from KC this summer.
A counter-point to that Canadian whisky article: whisky water may not make a huge difference before distillation, but think about the water you're using after. I personally will not spend extra money for source water. Talk about obnoxious.
I love barrel-aged gin, but barrel-aged sriracha? Hokay.
Jim Beam continues whiskey's sorry descent into flavored obscurity. This was before the Suntory acquisition, BTW.
Quote: "Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then it's time to drink." - Haruki Murakami