Home Blending Bonanza

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This post has been some time in the making. I concocted my first home blend in 2014 and subsequently created two more in 2015 and 2016 respectively. I left them to marry and forgot about them, until now!

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Most people start their whisky journey with blends. Aside from the odd JD & coke or two, I skipped right past the blends and launched straight into single malts in the year 2000. It wasn’t until much later in my journey that I began to discover and appreciate the value and artistry of blending. Seminal moments included:

  • Ralfy’s positive persistence that we give it a go
  • An afternoon’s blending session in Brian Kinsman’s blending room [link]
  • Compass Box
  • Hankey Bannister 40yo
  • The realisation that every single malt, unless it’s a single cask, is a blend of sorts.

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John Glaser of Compass Box-fame explains:

  • TWE: Here’s the reason why everyone blends: it provides the whiskymaker with a platform for creativity. It always has, going back to the Victorian roots of the industry. Blending is how the flavour profile of your favourite whisky is brought to life. It is how that whisky is produced consistently year after year. Blending is also what makes Scotch whisky dynamic in an ever-changing spirits market, because blending is fundamental to how new products are fashioned.

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Gone are the days of taking an empty bottle to your local grocers to be filled up with their own blended Scotch. More than 150 years on, however, blends still account for more than 90% of global market sales.

SW says: Best-selling blends depend on quality, consistency and individual character to maintain their popularity, but that’s no easy task when – to take the example of The Famous Grouse – you’re shifting roughly 1m bottles of whisky every 10 days.

  • Underpinning this process is a recipe: a secret one, of course, but one that encompasses distilleries and flavour camps, ages and cask types. For Grouse, the spicy, dried fruits from European oak are key, supported by toffee/citrus from ex-Bourbon, and creamy smoothness from Bourbon-matured grain’.

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From whiskyadvocate:

  • “The challenges in blending are in knowing when a new recipe is finally complete,” warns John Glaser. “Sometimes it’s difficult to stop that process, because you want to keep tweaking to get to some idea of perfection”.

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Here, distiller reports on Chivas Regal’s initiative to modernize blending by educating drinkers on the art of doing so:

  • Supplied with five small bottles—labelled fruity, smoky, creamy, citrus and floral—guests are invited to create their own, personalized blended whisky. The floral bottle is vatted grain whisky, while the others are single malts‘. 

MoM introduced a similar experiment back in 2011:

  • ,… we sent some blending kits out to ten bloggers and asked them to create a blend each which we would then bottle and put to the public. Eventually a favourite was picked and this was bottled as the almighty (and award winning) St. Isidor Blend.

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  • However, we weren’t content with just this so we then created the Home Blending Kit so you can turn your kitchen into a blending laboratory and annoy partners/housemates/other hangers-on as you put together the greatest blend the world has ever seen whilst they’re busy making cheese toasties’.

Distiller [again] says:

  • Glenfiddich brand ambassador, Mark Thomson, hones in on the objective. “Balance is what makes a blend great,” he states. “Add little by little, stir, and allow the whiskies to sit for a while. The longer it’s left, the more it will develop.

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BASIC COMPOSITION OF A BLEND [from various sources]:

  • Base: First up, you’re looking for a base spirit that underpins the blend
  • Body: Here, you’re adding weight and texture as well as balance profiling [bitter/sour/sweet, earthy, meaty, savoury, waxy, oily attributes]
  • Top notes – Providing fruity and floral flavour complexity, for example
  • Peat: = additional flavour seasoning. Talking of peat & wine [cask], Serge from WF says: ,… peat in itself has already become a way of aromatising malt whisky (nobody burns peat to malt barley anymore, except in very few proper kilns)‘. The consensus when it comes to using peat in a blend is, treat with care.
  • Casks: Marrying time in casks, ISBs, or glass is of great importance, especially for cognac makers. Casks may also help to balance/round off a blend.

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BLEND #1:

Keeping Things Simple

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CONCEPT:

For my first home blend I used just three single malts. Can I make something more than the sum of its parts? I banked on there being some sort of harmony built from similarity.

MAKEUP:

Scapa 16yo [2014] Ob. The Orcadian 40% WB83.45[830] WF79

  • C: Lamented by many, I always found this a promising if ultimately disappointing release let down in part by the minimal abv. That said, offering malty fruity textural floury elements, I’m hoping this will join forces/gel with the Inchgower as well as adding something of a structural base. [81 points]

Inchgower 1999/2012 12yo McGibbons Provenance Sherry cask #DMG8260 46% WB84[3]

  • C: Overall, not a great whisky but there’s always something to appreciate along the way. As well as being leathery malty fruit fudge & butterscotch-ey, this sherry butt also offers up sharp/astringent salty spicy qualities that the Bladnoch shares to a degree. [83 points]

Bladnoch 10yo [+/-2005] Ob. Flora & Fauna 43% WB84.46[121] WF85 WM81[5] connosr90

  • C: Subtle in parts, more challenging in others, this sour citrus number was one of the stronger Flora and Fauna expressions in its day. Utilising this one’s ‘bold flavours against pastel shades‘ attributes, as the most convincing malt of the three, I’m deploying this lovely dram for body, structure, and form. [+/-88 points]

RECIPE:

  • 3 parts Scapa 16yo
  • 2 parts Inchgower 12yo
  • 1 part Bladnoch 10yo

Marriage time – 8 years

RESULT:

‘Keeping Things Simple’ Blended Malt [2014]

  • N: First up, I identify the slightly salty floury Scapa before the also salty and [red peppercorn] peppery herbal toffee-d sherried/wine-y Inchgower, tussling/agreeing on terms with the more honeyed grassy gingery pollen-oozing Bladnoch. Overall, grassy floral honey, raisins, smelly soft coppery cheeses, rich [boozy-sherried] vanilla & apricot ice cream,… There’s a cross-fading taste profile among all three malts. Nice nose, this. I wonder whether I could pass this off as an 18-20yo Dailuaine? 
  • T: Not unsurprisingly, a congenial if slightly congested honeyed-sweet peppery-floury mildly sour [lemon] citrus arrival, the Inchgower reaching for the top notes yet finding the citrusy honeyed Bladnoch there too. This combo makes for a light salivating citrus sweet > salty vegetal mouthfeel towards a warm biscuity chocolate experience. The Scapa tends to stay in the engine room, though the [more complete/involved] Bladnoch is, again, right there too. Many of the inadequacies of these three single malts, if not forgotten, are more forgiving when blended. In other words, as a blend, we’ve a more rounded experience.
  • F: Slightly nonchalant on the turn, all three malts contribute till the last with a slight almost butyric calvados-like apple~pear note with a honeyed-sweet soft entrenched-sour waxy vegetal-waxiness and Scapa’s chalky floury porridge notes ever-present. 
  • C: Savoury-sweet sourness is the key taste profile, overall. Given the similarities, you might expect some bickering or even some in-house fighting, but the overall result is far more laid back. Another result was blending away three parts Scapa to only one part Bladnoch, the quality of the Bladnoch perhaps compensating for the Scapa whilst the Inchgower certainly pulls its weight in the mix. Indeed, my first home blend has been one tasty education!

Scores [a modest, and I hope objective] 86 points – pretty damn good given my component part scores.

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Ralfy says “if you blend whiskies you like, you won’t go far wrong” [quote from an infinity bottle episode].

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BLEND #2

Blending quality with quality

CONCEPT:

I’m sticking with the tri-blend model but using three malt favourites. Also, I’m going in hard with the phenols.

MAKEUP:

Balblair 1997/2008 [1st release] Ob. 43% WB85.86[9] WF80

  • C: I’ve probably drunk more 1997 vintage Balblair than any other whisky, the benchmark for modern young Balblair before the big shakeup. As much as anything else, I’ve deployed this “flawless” [Serge] malt in this blend for its crisp spicy delivery and floral honeyed top notes. [Scores favourably]

[Bruichladdich] Octomore 6.2 [Limousin Cognac casks] [18000 bts] 58.2% WB86.21[434] WF87 WLP88

  • C: Amazing, outrageous, brilliant! Of the Octomore’s if tried, this is one of my all-time favourites. As a young spirit, this should make for a decent structural base as well as adding drive/oomph, shape and [phenolic] colour. [88+ points]

Clynelish 1995/2013 17yo SV Refill Sherry Butt #12794 [622 bts] 56.2% WB89.03[43] WF87

  • C: Without a doubt my standout malt of Whiskylive 2015. I shaln’t tell you how affordable it was back then. There’s are good reasons why Compass Box is heavily reliant on Clynelish for its blends. I’m hoping this one’s complimenting/rounding abilities will provide texture, mouthfeel, body,… all & sundry. [87+ points]

RECIPE:

  • 2 parts Balblair 1997/2008
  • 3 parts Octomore 06.2
  • 4 parts Clynelish 1995 17yo

Marriage time – 7 years

RESULT:

The ‘Allstar’ Blended Malt [2015]

  • N: How could this not work? For my nose at least! With plenty of bourbon cask influence gathered around a pickled saltiness [from the Octomore and Clynelish] and then all this floral fruitiness [from the Balblair], it’s a match made!
  • T: Jeez, that’s some intense abv hit. Making up a third of this blend, the Octomore was always going to be in the driving seat but now it’s reinforced with fruity malty [air-bag] cushioning on either side – and it’s not as if the Octomore is lacking in complexity. Without conflicts of interest, the Balblair and Clynelish are more than just window dressing to the Octomore. Quibbles? There’s plenty more bourbonisation which, depending on your preferences, could change your perspective. For someone who’s not particularly bourbon-centric, this is a malt blend I simply couldn’t put down.
  • F: Anyone for a Highland cigar? Fresh till the end, this is a take-home party bag.
  • C: How can this go wrong? It doesn’t. Of course, it probably helps if you love the 06.2 to begin with. The question is whether this blend is an improvement on the Octomore outright?

Scores 90 points

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BLEND #3:

Attempting an ‘All-rounder’.

CONCEPT:

Made up of a number of whiskies I was struggling with individually, I was hoping to get more from them through blending, thinking/hoping they might get along in a ‘Rejected Rejects’ kind of way.

MAKEUP:

Greenore 08yo [2014] Ob. Small Batch 40% WB81.17[43] WF70[’07] ralfy89 WLP75

  • A youthful neutral Irish grain that should provide structure whilst remaining impartial. [75 points]

Balblair 2002 [1st release] Ob. 46% WB82.77[166] WF81

  • C: This was Ralfy’s [90] whisky of the year in 2013. After a youthful pineapple/banana loaf maltiness on the nose, the palate gives way to a bitter, zesty, fruit, salty, and wood spice profile which I’m hoping will play nicely with the sweeter qualities of this blend. [85 points]

Old Pulteney 08yo G&M 70 Proof WB85.24[23] WF78/[WF]93 WM79[2]

  • C: An underwhelming and flat bottle I threw in, nevertheless, for its desirable OBE-ed old skool sooty leathery notes. [78 points]

Old Pulteney 1998/2011 12yo MoS Cask #1217 [btl #1/192] 52.5% WB83.41[24] WM83[1]

  • C: A super polite and fairly basic cask strength single cask offering yet fully competent barley spirit. Its fresh oily waxy properties should provide this blend with some body and structure. [84 points]

Strathmill 22yo Whisky Broker 54.6% [5cl] WB82[2]

  • C: ‘The Char Monster’ as I titled it back in the day, one I found this to be messy and somewhat unorthodox yet kind of fabulous. I’m hoping this will provide some textural weight and seasoning. [82 points]

Macallan 12yo [2016] Ob. ‘Sherry Oak’ 40% WB84.84[1207] WM85[4]

  • C: Quibbles aside, who doesn’t want a tasty sherried fruity malty number with a butterscotch sweetness at the heart of a blend? [84 points]

Laphroaig QA Cask [2016] 40% [1ltr] WB81.48[400] WF74 WM84[2]

  • Adding some light peat smoke, it’s also an excuse to use up this thoroughly disappointing expression. Easy does it though. Of all the peated malts, I find Laphroaig the most intrusive in a blend. [WLP74 points]

RECIPE:

  • 4 parts Balblair 2002 [1st release] 46%
  • 2 parts Greenore 8yo Small Batch 40%
  • 2 parts Old Pulteney 8yo G&M 70 Proof
  • 2 parts Old Pulteney 1998/2011 12yo MoS Cask #1217 [btl #1/192] 52.5% [5cl] 
  • 2 parts Strathmill 22yo Whisky Broker 54.6%
  • 1 part Macallan 12yo Ob. Sherry Oak 40%
  • 1 part Laphroaig QA Cask [2016] Ob. 40% [1ltr]

Marriage time – 6 years

RESULT:

The ‘All-Rounder’ World Blend [2016]

  • N: Wow! Everything in the mix appears to be contributing. We have murky pongy bitter-sweet sherry characteristics leaning towards a rancio complex, a savoury~biscuity maltiness, fruity ice cream with a flambeed pancake, salty peat,… With a contemporary/old skool convergence, this would surely send plenty of malt heads down a rabbit hole.
  • T: An edgy slightly congested/back-of-throat-puckering salty peaty grassy arrival settles into a more comfortable integrating bitter-sweet vegetal smoked salty malty position. With more than a flicker of that ‘old skool’ into the delivery, the floral and sherried components continue to shine brightly. Slightly hazy on the turn, thankfully, the Greenore is a silent partner in this conglomerate as is the Strathmill.
  • F: Out from a temporary old skool bitter fade comes a more vibrant mid-palate finish. And to think the Laphroaig which was innocuous at best on its own shows its worth when blended. My feeling is both Old Pulteney’s helped its cause. With an elongated textural palate-coating finish – if also a little cinnamon-grainy and dry – the vegetal-sweet phenols meld with the grassier more vibrant malts for a sweet salty-sharp creamy~toffeed~malty finish and a dry green dark chocolate conclusion.
  • C: Everything in this blend is a contributory factor, not without some quibbles, though certainly more than the sum of its parts. Take that JW!

Scores 87 points

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TAKEAWAYS:

  • Get to know your whiskies before you start blending them.
  • Be brave. You really can spare a few centilitres. The payoff is worth it.
  • Experiment with blending whiskies you are less enamoured with as well as those you love.
  • Use quality gear [in smaller quantities] to blend away less superior malt [in larger quantities]. This process seems to make less superior malts shine brighter. Quality outshines the other I suppose.

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  • Careful when blending too many malts together or you may end up making a gravy [Supreme]. Less is more!
  • To begin with, blend small quantities in a glass.
  • Give it time to marry. It makes all the difference.
  • Just do it!

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