March 17th, 2017/ BY Tod Stewart

Blending your favourite bottle of booze to perfection

I was sure we nailed it.

A careful selection of the component spirits painstakingly sampled in laboratory pipette measures into a graduated cylinder. The millilitres recorded before the contents added to a beaker. Then swirled and emptied into a waiting tasting glass. The contents nosed to determine the experimental blend’s proximity to the “real deal” — the “control sample” in the other tasting glass beside me. A little heavy on the caramel/honey notes, I judge. A squirt of a smoky malt, and a dollop of another with a grainier/cereal quality to counterbalance.

Smell. Compare.

Getting there … definitely getting there, but still a touch on the heavy side. Just a smidge of a lighter, more neutral sample to tone things down a wee bit.

Smell. Compare.

Ah, okay … so close, but off by just one or two notes. Where’s that component sample with the slightly fruity, pear-like note? Right … a little of that. “Careful,” my blending partner (BP) cautions as I, with a slightly shaking hand, administer but two drops (two drops!) directly into our final amalgam.

Smell. Compare. Smell. Compare. Pass to BP.

Smell. Compare.

“I can’t tell the difference. I think we nailed it!” Pass to a bystander in the crowd who’s been watching all this go down. “Wow. That’s pretty good. You’ve pretty much nailed it!”

Pass to the judge. Smell.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have even expected I’d be able to replicate the blend that makes up The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch whisky. They say that spirit blending takes the work of both an artist and a scientist. I am neither.

Now, I’ve been subjected to the organoleptically humbling “blending exercise” on several occasions. With the Metaxa Master Blender in sunny Greece. With the Mount Gay Rum Master Blender in sunny Barbados. My first-ever blending exercise (and, as I recall, one of my first ever professional wine events) was trying to duplicate the “recipe” for the German wine Blue Nun [see page ??] in Toronto (where I recall it being at least partially sunny). I’m sure there were more. Most have been mentally blocked, as the mind can only tolerate a finite number of crushing failures.

The Famous Grouse Defeat (henceforth, TFGD), however, was the last pipette (as it were). I will no longer participate in such sadomasochistic “exercises,” no matter how sunny the locale or how gracious the host.

I mean, seriously, even the dreaded “blind” wine tasting offers more opportunities for a possible ego inflating win than a spirit blend-off. “I guessed the colour right!” can, at the end of it all, count as a victory. In any case, it got me wondering as to whether anyone could replicate a spirit blend close to perfectly. (Yeah, yeah, okay … the guy who did come out primo must have done a fair bit better than me. Ditto for the guy who came secondo. And, like, no, I’m not saying the judge could have been bribed or anything like that.)

Consider: the point of the art/science/frustration of spirit blending is twofold. First, it’s to create a sort of liquid gestalt, where the blend turns out to be something magically different than its component parts. The second is to be able to recreate this consistently, day in day out. Most spirits are, in fact, blends. And whether you’re blending whisky, brandy, rum, or tequila, you’ll be shooting for a common goal (though you may go about it somewhat differently).

“The common objective [in blending] is to obtain a product that conforms to a standard,” confirms Karina Sanchez, Global Brand Ambassador for the tequila producer Casa Sauza. “For a specific [type of] spirit, the blending process has unique details related to customs and legal constraints, production and warehousing processes, approval criteria, and so on.”

These blends are typically closely guarded secret recipes, sometimes passed down from hand to hand. Could someone who’s not a part of the covenant of the Master Blender/Knights Templar/Masonic Orders in general, ever be able to duplicate a successful blend?

Maybe it isn’t possible. Maybe trying to replicate a blend is a mug’s game.

 

 
So I asked a few Master Blenders this: Is trying to replicate a blend a mug’s game?
To which they replied: Yeah, pretty much.

See, even if you had all the exact component liquids, and mixed them in the exact proportions, you still wouldn’t get the exact blend. Here’s why:

Remember when you were a kid? And you had a hamster? And you got another one? And you wanted to introduce Hamster A to Hamster B (for whatever reason)? And your parents told you that first you had to put their cages together so the two rodents could “get to know each other”? And how instead you just dumped the two into one cage and were treated, for a few fleeting seconds, to the spectacle of a single, eight-legged squealing, spitting, flailing ball of airborne claws and incisors before being rewarded with a more or less immobile lump of shredded fur and hamster tartar? Right? Remember? Okay, if you just dump a bunch of spirits together in a beaker or vat, the same thing will happen. Okay, not really the same thing. Okay, not the same thing at all. But my point is, the spirits have to get to know each other by spending some time together. They have to “marry.”

Spirit blenders have been likened to marriage counsellors in many instances, or at least in one instance I know of for sure. In the book Goodness Nose, Richard Patterson, Master Blender for Whyte & MacKay scotch, reveals this about blending: “Not all of the whiskies will immediately fall in love with each other. Indeed, some may be totally incompatible. The boisterous, younger malts may simply flirt, only to go their separate ways. The chosen whiskies must be given time to court, time to sort out their differences, and to make the necessary compromises before a perfect partnership is achieved.” Somehow my hamster analogy doesn’t sound so goofy anymore.

“The blends have to marry or mature before being bottled,” explains Michel Casavecchia, Cellar Master for Château de Cognac (the distiller of the Baron Otard and Gaston de Lagrange cognacs). “We need to ensure the components of each blend will get together and achieve the balance we seek for the final blend. The older the ingredients of the blend, the longer this marrying period will be.” He points out that this period can last anywhere from three months to over a year, depending on the age of the components. Kind of like people, I guess. The older you get, the more time it takes to find a harmonious relationship.

Of course, all this marrying, conjugating, getting-to-know-each-other stuff happens after the blender has worked his or her magic. Before this stage, the blender not only has to select the components that will best work together to create a final product, but also ensure that there is sufficient stock of the components on hand to recreate this product in the volume required on a regular basis. And while general blending principles pretty much apply to all blended spirits, there are subtleties. A blender of scotch will typically work with a range of malts of varying ages sourced from a number of distilleries, as well as more neutral grain whiskies. A Canadian whisky blender typically works with only his own distillery’s stock, but still has to determine the ratio not only of ages, but also of the proportion of “base” whiskies mixed with more intense “flavouring” whiskies.

It’s worth noting, at this point, that even “single malt” whiskies are, in reality, blends. However, the blend, in this situation, would be made up of stock from a single distillery’s warehouse. Should the whisky carry an age statement, that age indicates the youngest spirit in the blend. An age statement of “10 Years” does not preclude there being some much older whiskies in the blend. As always, though, there are variants depending on the spirit being blended.

“At Mount Gay, we don’t rely on physical age to determine the aromatic quality of our blends,” reveals Allen Smith, Master Blender for Mount Gay Rum. “Rather, we rely on the maturity level of the rum in each barrel in the warehouse.” Smith notes that for a rum like Mount Gay Black Barrel, he looks for rums that generally fall in the two to seven year range. “However, if there is an older rum, say an eight year old in physical age, but has the characteristics that we seek in Black Barrel, such as the right peppery, vanilla, or smoke nuances, we will absolutely use it for the blend.”

Martine Pain, Cellar Master at St Rémy, the French brandy producer with roots stretching back to 1886, echoes Smith’s sentiments, noting, too, that with brandy, “each producer’s secret recipe determines the proportions of all the eaux-de-vie that comprise the final product,” and that outside of the legal requirements surrounding age statements, “no rule applies” when it comes to the development of the final blend.

While there may be no set “rules,” blenders work much like chefs — or composers for that matter. Each spirit brings a unique note to the final composition. The talent of the blender is being able to select between a wide range of aromatic and taste profiles — dictated by sample age, wood types, alcoholic strengths, and so forth — and craft them into a liquid where no single note dominates.

 

 

Be it rum, whisky, brandy or tequila, once the blender is satisfied with the profile of the new blend — or the proximity to the “standard” is so close that no differences can be detected — the blend is ready to be replicated on a commercial scale. However, given the advances in modern science and technology, I wondered how important the human senses are in the finalizing process, especially when it comes to duplicating a pre-existing blend. Surely in the world of spectrometers and the like this task would be best handled by machines. Or so I thought.

“The human nose is our most important tool as no technology is able to replace it,” emphasizes Nicolas Villalon, Edrington Portfolio Ambassador (Brugal Rum, Highland Park, The Macallan, The Famous Grouse). “We do use some technology in order to the determine the quantities of various components of the whiskies but, ultimately, each batch has to be approved by our Master Blender’s nose and, subsequently, palate.”

In fact, of the half dozen or so Master Blenders, Cellar Masters, and Brand Ambassadors I spoke to, all were unanimous in asserting that while technology can offer assistance, it is ultimately human senses that dictate the final blend. “So far, there is no modern technology that has managed to replace the talent of men and women Cellar Masters,” confirms Anne Sarteaux, Cellar Master for French brandy producer De Valcourt. “Of course, there are analyses that ensure the organoleptic components serving as support for the daily work, but only the human palate identifies the subtlety of the eaux-de-vie which make up the final blend.”

Once a final blend has been settled on, it’s time for the Master Blender to unleash it on a thirsty world. This basically involves recreating the blend by the barrel, rather than by the beaker. But it’s not quite as simple as a straight swapping of barrels for millilitres.

“To start, each blend is elaborated in our laboratories with graduated test tubes,” explains Sarteaux. “Then we select the available blends that we regularly test. We then develop the blend on a larger scale, always testing the organoleptic quality. Each selection is then tasted. Lastly, we test our brands blind with an independent and expert consultant.”

Constantine Raptis, Metaxa

Constantine Raptis heads up perhaps one of the most intricate blending regimes. As Metaxa Master, Raptis blends spirits, wines, and a special aromatic component together to create the signature spirit of Greece.

“I create Metaxa by bringing together aged distillates, Muscat wines from the Aegean islands and a secret bouquet of May Roses and Mediterranean herbs,” Raptis reveals. “Every blend is created following the same philosophy. The first step is to collect, evaluate and record all the information (years of aging, origin, organoleptic characteristics) of every cask where distillates are left to age. Then, based on my experience and — sometimes-small-scale tests — I decide which cask will be used for the specific blend. The content of the casks is emptied in a tank and stirred. The new blend is then tested, and if needed, I may add some specific distillate to achieve the final character of the blend that I am looking for. Usually my blends are 20,000 or 70,000 litres, depending on the Metaxa style that I want to create.”

Consistent flavour is what a blender obviously aims for, but just as different casks will bring different nuances in flavour and taste, colour consistency also has to be considered, and, typically, adjusted. Raptis explains:

“Every blend is created with distillates of different aging that may have certain variations in their appearance. Therefore, every final blend may present slight colour variations that are adjusted by the addition of natural caramel colour. This step is important so as to maintain stable all the other organoleptic qualities of the blends.”

The addition of natural caramel colour is standard practice in the blended spirits industry, and it has no impact on the final taste of a brown spirit.

Like the end product itself, the art and science of spirit blending is complex. But whether they are mingling whisky, rum, tequila, brandy, or exotic elixirs like Metaxa, the aim of the blender is the same — consistency and uniqueness in aroma, flavour and colour. The Master Blenders and Cellar Masters use both talent and time to ensure that, as a spirit aficionado, you can be confident that the second bottle you buy will be every bit as enjoyable as the first one.

 

 

brandy

De Valcourt Napoleon Premium French Brandy ($24)

The nose shows hints of almond, vanilla, prune, toffee and caramelized brown sugar and a whiff of cracked pepper. Smooth and dry in the mouth with suggestions of marmalade, caramel and fruitcake. Dry and peppery on the warming finish.

Gaston de Lagrange Cognac VS ($42)

All Cognac is brandy, but not all brandy is Cognac. Indeed, the brandies of the Cognac region stand out for complexity and finesse. This is a great introduction to one of the world’s best brandies. Lots of intense orange peel, clove, vanilla and flower blossom on the nose. Silky, fruity, mildly spicy and with hints of candied orange peel and sweet oak notes on the long, mildly spicy finish.

Baron Otard Cognac VSOP ($80)

Those seeking a crash course in top-quality French brandies should pick up and compare the three examples reviewed here. As the pedigree and age levels increase, so does the complexity (and, sorry, price). This is very elegant stuff, with layers of sweet citrus fruit, exotic vanilla bean and Asian spice, buttressed by suggestions of new leather, fresh oak and orange zest. Smooth, clean, very long and spicy/fruity as it tails out.

scotch

The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky ($28)

While it’s always the blender’s secret as to what malts and grain whiskies make up the blend, The Famous Grouse (the best-selling scotch in Scotland for quite some time now) is owned by the Edrington Group — which also owns The Macallan and Highland Park. So, just sayin’. Floral, honeyed heather notes, with a dash of lemon oil and malt. Fairly gentle and smooth, but with some nice fruity/grainy/malty nuances and a dash of spice on the finish.

The Black Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky ($30)

If you like The Famous Grouse but want to step up to something a touch more aggressive, The Black Grouse should fit the bill. A good introduction to more heavily peated scotches, there’s a whiff of brine/iodine mingled in with the fruit/malty overtones. Moderately viscous on the palate, it’s still smooth and approachable, but the additional touch of smoke adds an assertive edge.

Laphroaig Quarter Cask ($70)

Even single malts are blends of different years and casks. In this case, the whisky is “double matured,” first in standard-size barrels, then in barrels one quarter of the size. Peat smoke, lemon oil, kelp, brine, mild iodine and cocoa all feature in the aroma of this assertive dram, along with hints of toasted barley and nuts. Warm and smoky in the mouth with traces of buckwheat honey and a very long, peat-tinged finish. Assertive yet balanced and harmonious.

tequila

Hornitos Black Barrel ($35)

The newest offering from Hornitos takes añejo tequila (oak aged for 12 months) and introduces it to deeply charred barrels for 4 months, then into toasted oak barrels for a final 2 months. The result is rather unique. Whisky notes are definitely there (caramel, toasted oak), but they don’t mask the baked agave aromas. Cherry/vanilla cola, ginger, nutmeg, and pepper also make appearances. Zippy spice in the mouth, along with sweet/smoky oak, tobacco leaf, caramel, and cooked agave nuances.

rum

El Dorado 8 Year Old Demerara Rum ($30)/El Dorado 12 Year Old Finest Demerara Rum ($36)

It’s an interesting exercise to compare the two expressions of this beautiful rum side-by-side. The 12 year is (not surprisingly) noticeably darker to the eye. Aromatically, it shows notes of walnut, wood polish, nutmeg, marzipan and a slight earthiness. The 8 year is fruitier, with candied orange peel, vanilla, toffee and singed brown sugar. In the mouth, the younger version is mildly spicy, with traces of crème caramel, vanilla and nougat, whereas the 12 year is silkier, nuttier, considerably more complex, and longer on the finish. But take whichever one you can get!

Mount Gay Black Barrel Rum ($40)

Having undergone its usual aging and blending regime, Mount Gay’s newest offering is then aged a second time in charred bourbon barrels. The charred bourbon is evident in the rum’s definite smokiness, but Master Blender Allen Smith ensures that, in the end, it’s still most definitely rum. Vanilla, caramel, marmalade, cloves, nutmeg, and charred oak on the nose. Big and peppery, with smoky dried orange peel, caramel, vanilla bean, and a hint of sweet bourbon. A nice mixer, to be sure, but try as you would a whisky — neat with a few drops of water.