The world’s top whisky makers talk blending

By Felipe Schrieberg

4 minute read

As whisky fans, we want to gather as much information as possible about our favourite tipples.

Our aim? Seeking to understand how the production details of each chosen dram affect the aromas and flavours. Most of the time, we’re looking for technical details, such as how fermentation times, distillation cuts, maturation methods and other factors influence the bottled product.

However, it is the final, less technical step of the process that forms the beating heart of most whiskies – blending. This is overseen by an elite group of professionals in the industry; blenders rely on their senses, experience and instinct to craft the profiles of high quality whiskies enjoyed all over the world.

Blending on a larger commercial scale began in the early 19th century, when Scottish grocers would mix casks of whisky together to smooth out unpleasant flavours, while also creating a larger supply of a whisky product unique to them. Though the overall quality of production has improved since then, almost all whiskies are still blended, no matter where they are produced.

Here’s how some award-winning blenders approach their work.

Quality as standard

Strathisla Distillery April Journal Courtesy Of Chivas
Top: Master whisky maker Bob Dalgarno; photography courtesy of Glenturret. Above: Strathisla distillery, home of Chivas in Keith, Scotland; photography courtesy of Chivas

Quality as standard

In order to ensure a high-quality product, component whiskies sourced for blending also have to be excellent. It is similar to cooking, where good ingredients are as crucial as the recipe of the dish being prepared. 

For Sandy Hyslop, director of blending and inventory at Chivas Brothers, it means running a tight ship covering the 42 unique Scotch whisky products, including blends and single malts, that he is responsible for. “A big focus of my job is working with our distillery managers across our 14 distillery sites,” he tells us. “With my team, I’m checking all the distillate from these facilities on a weekly basis, while also selecting the casks that they should be filled into. It’s about setting standards at the front end.” 

In Japan, master blender Jota Tanaka also helps oversee production at the Fuji Gotemba distillery. “We try to maintain a house style across all our whiskies, I would describe it as pure and mellow,” Tanaka shares. “Our entire production process has been structured in order to make sure that our whiskies have those qualities, from mashing to distillation.”

Know your whisky identity

Barrels April Journal Courtesy Of Chivas
Casks are filled across 14 distillery sites, managed by director of blending and inventory at Chivas, Sandy Hyslop; photography courtesy of Chivas

Know your whisky identity

Blenders are rarely working from a blank slate. They also need to understand the underlying vision behind the distillery or brand they’re working on. 

For example, Hyslop wouldn’t consider significant changes to the character of Chivas Regal 12 Year Old, which has been sold for 100 years. However, he has also produced a newer line of whiskies, branded as Chivas Extra, that allow for the introduction of new experimental flavours. 

At Scottish distillery Glenturret, whisky maker Bob Dalgarno had some flexibility when planning the brand’s new single malt releases. He identified what made Glenturret unique by becoming familiar with its distillate and warehouse stock. “We start with the new make spirit at The Glenturret, it is the thread that runs through everything we do,” Dalgarno explains. “We speak about estery, fruity notes – apple, pear, orange, and lemon.” 

“There is a toffee apple note that comes through when working with the cask samples, alongside a sweeter note of icing sugar, which is a nice mix,” he continues. “It is important to understand your stock, and what you can create with it.”

Consistency is as important as flavour

Jota Tanaka April Journal Courtesy Of
Japanese distillery Fuji Gotemba's master blender, Jota Tanaka; photography courtesy of Fuji Gotemba

Consistency is as important as flavour

Consistency of flavour is just as important as creating tasty whisky. Tanaka needs not only stability in production, he says, but also a wide variety of component whiskies to do his blending, which he describes using an artful analogy: 

“The wider the colour palette we have, the better for us to achieve consistency with our style of blending. It’s better for us to have 10 or 20 whiskies to pick from than just four or five, in order to hit the targeted flavour profile.”

With that in mind, a blender must be aware of their available warehouse stock when planning for what the future will taste like. In Hyslop’s case, this means laying the groundwork years in advance. 

“Every November I review the formula for every blended whisky and every single malt that we produce, before setting the formula for the next 12 months,” Hyslop says. “When doing that, I am also looking at stocks we have coming of age over the next four years, so I see what’s going to come through and any potential pitfalls that may come my way.”

It is this long-term planning that makes artfully blended whisky stand out against the spirits competition. Thanks to the carefully considered production process, under the eye of expert whisky makers, we can expect great blended whiskies for decades to come. 

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