"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?