Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Master of Malt Blending Challenge

master of malts blending packA couple of weeks ago, we received a package from Master of Malt, the online whisky retailer. This followed on from an exciting email that we received from them, which invited us to take part in something very special. We were being asked to create our own blended whisky using the ingredients contained within the package. We were excited about the prospect and honoured to be asked to take part. However once our euphoria started to wear off, one problem was staring us in the face - what did we know about how to blend whisky? Hmmm, not much actually ...

Master of Malt have been retailing for 25 years. The business is based in Tunbridge Wells in Kent and started life as a whisky shop, before expanding on to the internet. The company's website is now one of the UK's leading online sites for whisky, and also includes other spirits such as Cognac, gin, rum, tequila and vodka. The site is built around a vast core range of whisky and also contains plenty of other whisky related facts, information and tips. They are industry innovators and this is shown by their Drinks by the Dram range, which allows you to purchase 3cl samples of most of their whisky catalogue to try before you buy the full bottle.

master of malts 'drinks by the dram'So, here is the idea ... Master of Malt have asked ten whisky blogs/publications to produce their own version of a blended whisky - the participants are listed below with links to their sites - from the same set of core ingredients (these are again listed below with some basic tasting notes). We then return our recipes to them and they will make all ten, which they will then sell in a special Drinks by the Dram ten pack. Anyone buying the pack will get a 3cl sample bottle of each blend and be asked to vote for their favourite. When all of the votes are in, Master of Malt will then produce, market and retail the winning blend. The same ten participants will then also come up with a name for the blend and the label design.

The other nine participants > Cask Strength, Connosr, Dr Whisky, Edinburgh Whisky, Glasgow's Whisky (& Ale), Guid Scotch Drink, Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society, WhiskyCast and Whisky Magazine.

The blending pack that we received included a few scientific-looking bits of equipment (glass measuring beakers, pipettes etc) plus the selection of whiskies listed below. We decided to sample each of the whiskies individually before doing anything else and we have included our basic tasting notes next to them. The identities and ages of the whiskies were not revealed to us, so as to avoid any prejudice or preconception of what we were using. We could use some or all of them and in any combination.

selection of master of malts from the blending packThe whiskies included were >
A grain base > perfumed and fragrant, almond, vanilla, bittersweet, fresh, gristy cereals, sultana.
A malt base > caramel, sultana, toasted nuts, hint of dried grass, obviously sweet and buttery.
A Lowland malt
> very delicate, coconut, honey, fresh pears, white chocolate, vanilla, fresh oak, dried grasses.
A Highland malt > malty cereal grains, bitter almond, orange oil, honey, chocolate, coffee, wood spices - especially cinnamon.
A sherried Speyside malt > caramel, dried fruits, grains, brown sugar, orange peel, nuts, wood spice, Christmas cake, prunes.
An Islay malt
> burnt rubber, damp earth, moss, burnt cereals, vanilla, oatcakes, bonfire smoke, chilli, salt.
An old Speyside malt > woody, cereals, oatcakes, grassy, raisins, sultana, butterscotch, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg.
An old sherry finished Highland malt
> burnt sugar, cedarwood, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, biscuity, heavy cereals, espresso, milk chocolate.
A very, very old grain whisky
> heavy cereals, white chocolate, fresh coconut, wood spices - oak, cinnamon, vanilla, icing sugar, bitter finish.
A very old Islay malt > floral, malty cereals, ashy smoke in background, biscuits, salty brine, rich in mouth.

Once we had sampled each of the component parts, we set about trying to match things together that would compliment each other in the final blend - this was not as easy as you would think. We quickly discovered that two or three whiskies that we thought would go well together, actually didn't work as well as expected when mixed. This led to a long yet enjoyable session of trying different combinations and amounts of the component whiskies, until we had something that was starting to resemble what we wanted for our final blend.

However, this needed refining and the breakthrough came when we met Sandy Hyslop on our recent trip to Scotland. Sandy is the Master Blender for the hugely popular Ballantine's blended whisky range and he told us a few of the basic things to consider when constructing a blended whisky. Thanks to his tips and another long but enjoyable blending session, we finally had a whisky that we are proud to put our name to. The 'Karen & Matt Blend' describes our whisky taste and preference at this particular point of time. The recipe has now been sent back to Master of Malt and we are eagerly awaiting the next part of the process where ours and the other nine are recreated. What will the others taste like? We will let you know ...


M. Jack said...

Care to share Sandy's tips?

Matt C said...

Hi M.Jack

Thanks for your comment - Sandy's main tip was to use the grain whiskies as the foundation to build the blend on. He stressed the importance of getting the balance of this right and then using the single malts to create further complexity and the required characteristics of the final blend. He also told us to use the smoky malts and older malts very sparingly, as they are more highly flavoured and could therefore overpower the blend very easily if used too much.

Matt @ WFE