June 16th, 2008
In this instalment of A Rich Pour, Cigar Weekly Managing Editor Doug Kuebler (jazznut) offers up ideas and techniques for creating some very tasty whiskies at home as he addresses one of his favourite subjects, the blending of single malt Scotches.
A pure malt by any other name
What do you get when you combine two or more single malt Scotches together? You get what is variously termed a vatted pure malt or blended pure malt Scotch whisky. I prefer the first term, as it avoids any chance of confusing the product with a blended Scotch containing a quantity of grain whisky in its makeup. Blended Scotches possess their own unique qualities. But I want to focus strictly on the 100% distilled-from-malted-barley commodity. (For the purposes of what follows, however, I will resort to using the terms ‘vatted’ and ‘blended’ interchangeably.)
Perhaps due to the longstanding market penetration of blends, not to mention the increasing popularity of single malts, vatted pure malt Scotch languished behind its brethren as a tremendously under-appreciated type of whisky until relatively recent times. In a rush to extol the virtues of single malts, and to lure additional consumers away from easy-drinking blends while weaning them onto more individualistic whiskies, the industry momentarily forgot that the art of blending together different single malts – when executed with care and panache – could lead to astoundingly complex and delicious spirits second to none. When one considers that even most of the individual single malts in the marketplace result from an attentive selection of a variety of cask-aged whiskies (albeit it from one distillery site), the benefits of blending become a little more apparent.
What’s out there? What’s in your cabinet?
Yes, you can probably run over to your local liquor outlet, purchase a vatted pure malt Scotch right off the shelf and walk away more than satisfied. Johnnie Walker Green Label is an acknowledged and widely available industry leader, and a very composed, perfectly weighted whisky to boot. Poit Dhubh (that’s Gaelic for ‘black pot’, a title once coined for the innumerable illicit pot stills scattered about the Scottish countryside centuries ago) 12 Bliadhna Mac Na Braiche Green Label will handily ward off any winter chills. Compass Box The Peat Monster provides a lip-smacking, peat-saturated whisky of the highest order with a surprising graciousness about it. And Chivas Century of Malts, a remarkable amalgamation of one hundred single malts and a simply brilliant one-off melding of regional characteristics, makes me ponder the possibility that Mozart might have been Scottish. There are many, many others, too.
Commercially available vatted pure malt Scotch is gradually gaining in popularity.
This is all well and good. But I want to motivate you to try your hand at home blending. Why? Because not only will this practice help to highlight for you what really makes each single malt ‘tick’; it will also allow you to have a great deal of fun as you create something totally unique. Take a peek inside your liquor cabinet and see what you have on hand in the way of single malts. Hopefully, you’ll come across a few. If the idea of composing a whisky that has your own style stamped upon it appeals to you, now’s the time to bring out those bottles and take up the challenge!
I've been vatting together single malts for over two decades now, and have reached the point where I can decide on a particular style of whisky, and then intuitively select the different components I'll use (as well as figure out their relative proportions in the blend) in order to achieve that style, or at least come within a hair’s breadth of accomplishing the feat. I'm no Colin Scott, nor do I have the resources of Chivas or Johnnie Walker at hand – this is probably a GOOD thing! But I do enjoy playing around with whatever is at hand and coming up with original and interesting whiskies in the process.
As far as raw material and equipment goes, the requirements are fairly modest...
Two or more single malt Scotch whiskies that you like. Perhaps you even have a single malt or two that you rarely enjoy. Don’t discard these out of hand! They may exhibit the very characteristics that will bring a touch of greatness to your custom blend.
Decanter, used whisly bottle or antique... The choice is your's.
A decently sized (700ml to 1500ml) and clean glass jar, glass decanter or used Scotch bottle with a close-fitting stopper. It’s even better to have both a blending vessel and an empty bottle at hand – one in which to carry out the vatting process and the other in which to store the finished product.
A measuring cup, preferably with finely graduated (5 to 10ml) increments.
The smaller the measurement indications, the more finely you'll be able to control the amounts.
A note pad on which to tabulate the names and amounts of the single malts in the blend.
A good whisky tasting glass.
A good whisky glass is essential for properly assessing your success.
Your own custom-designed label for the bottle.
A spare glass container in which to pour any excess quantity of your blend. This little extra amount of liquor will permit you to carry out a preliminary evaluation without having to immediately dip into the full bottle.
A calculator – a handy device for figuring out the alcohol by volume of your blend, particularly when a number of single malts of varying quantity and differing strength have been used.
You can experiment with vatting together single malts using as few as two or three samples. The key is to settle upon the overall style you’re seeking, be it Sherry wood roundness, Bourbon barrel emphasis, a stronger than normal alcoholic ‘punch’ from incorporating cask-strength whisky, a melding of various regional characteristics or ages of spirit, or some other concept that appeals to you. One strategy might have you balancing the youthful vigour of younger whiskies with the mellow characteristics of older ones. Another could see you composing a meld where the sweetness of Sherry cask matured Highland whiskies plays off the saltiness of coastal or island ones. Then again, you may wish to try enhancing the spicy notes of selected single malts with the smoky tones of more heavily peat-reeked spirits. Imagination is where it all begins.
A pair of reliable single malts to begin blending with
To begin your ‘voyage’ into the world of vatting, I suggest the use of one core single malt as the base. This whisky will be utilized in greatest quantity. The other single malts, added for enhancing the character and complexity of the core malt, will be used in much smaller quantities. Thus, you might try, for example, mixing one part Macallan and one part Lagavulin to fifteen parts Glenlivet. The reason for this tact is that Macallan and Lagavulin would tend to obliterate (each in its own way) practically all evidence of the base whisky, a much milder and subtler spirit, if they were incorporated in anywhere approaching the same amount as the Glenlivet. It’s wise to error on the side of caution when adding more strongly constituted malts to less robust ones. After all, you can always adjust the quantity of the more overtly characterful whiskies upward later. Think of the exercise as painting onto a canvas (a common analogy cited by professional blenders), with the core malt representing the ‘canvas’ and those smaller amounts of the additional malts being the ‘colouring’. The key is to strike a balance between complexity and harmonious integration. You want the final blend to taste like one whisky, but to also have you thinking to yourself, “There’s something fascinating here that I can’t quite put my finger on.”
Island, cask-strength, high proof or well aged? All these choices can mark the beginning of a great blend.
Usually, any noteworthy single malt will display at least one or two aspects that clearly separate it from most of its ‘competitors’, while its remaining characteristics may be more difficult to ‘pick out in a crowd’. When combining this single malt with others, one hopes its unique elements will shine through just enough even as its less distinguishable traits meld seamlessly into the overall tone of the blend. This is why it is so important to decide upon the kind of vatted whisky you’re aiming to create, and only then attempt to select the various single malts (as well as the relative proportions of each of them) available to you that will help you to achieve your goal. Good accidents can happen, of course. Unfortunately though, you’re likely to end up with a jumbled juxtaposition of competing aromas and tastes.
One good way of tackling the issue of how single malts will react with one another when they are combined is to first come to grips with each of them by asking a few questions, such as:
Does the whisky display a decidedly sweet core derived from the malted barley? And does this sweetness persist right through to the finish, or does it fade as greater dryness takes hold? Is the sweetness counterpointed at any stage by sourness?
Is the sweetness oriented toward honeyed or sugared cereal grains, toward fruits, or does it encompass both?
Are there sweet vanilla overtones, which usually indicate maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels?
Sherry cask matured malts impart their own special qualities to a meld.
Do you notice any wine-like notes from maturation in Sherry wood (or another sort of used wine cask)? One caveat... Special wood-finished single malts can present a particular problem in terms of how well their flavour profiles integrate into the overall style of your blend. Why? Because they often show a certain disparity from start to finish between their intrinsic distillery characteristics and the effects of the cask-finishing process. This disparity can result in a ‘yin-yang’ transformation on the palate that, while interesting on its own, might not work quite so well in the context of a blend. If you do elect to use such whiskies in your creation, it’s wise to carefully gauge how those wood-derived notes will influence and meld into your blend.
Do you sense any grass-like, herbal, floral or leafy (yes, even tobacco-like) vegetative nuances?
Are there any underlying hints of minerals or metallic notes? Sometimes, you will be surprised to find stone-like undercurrents or subtle suggestions of copper present. Such characteristics can lend additional complexity. However, you may also come across the odd single malt displaying disconcerting metal-like ‘off’ notes – often an indication of problems in the still-house.
Does the whisky feel light on the palate, or does it come across as full-bodied and sumptuous?
Is the texture crisp and clean, creamy, oily, buttery or sticky and glycerine-like? Sometimes, the fatty texture of a single malt will be allied with nut-like flavour sensations.
Does the alcohol seem enveloped within the flavour characteristics and texture of the whisky, or is there a spirited bite that springs forth, especially on the finish? Clearly, higher proof and cask-strength single malts will be more likely to exhibit the latter characteristic.
Do you taste a hint of salt? This is almost certainly a sign that the whisky emanates from a coastal or island distillery.
A trio of blockbusters guaranteed to heighten the 'fireworks' factor.
Is any smokiness apparent? If so, do the phenols lean toward wood smoke or toward coal smoke? Are they barbecue-like or do they seem somewhat earth-laden? Are there medicinal or marine-like overtones? Be aware that some whiskies may incorporate more than one of these traits. In fact, it’s not unusual to encounter aromatic and taste suggestions of rich farm soil, sandy soil, decomposed vegetation, moss, heather, kippers and/or kelp in moderately to heavily peat-reeked whiskies. You may even come across petroleum-imbued notes of smokiness reminiscent of machine oils.
Do you notice substantial input from the oak in which the whisky was aged? If so, does this contribution lend the whisky greater mellowness, dryness or spiciness? Obviously, the longer any single malt is matured, the more probable it is that the influence of the oak on the overall flavour profile will increase. That said, well-used oak vessels (those that have already been filled two or three times with whisky) will have far less impact on their contents than first or second-fill ones.
Getting it together
As different single malts possess distinct degrees of viscosity as well as unique fragrances and flavours, it’s important to allow them to ‘marry’ for a period of time before you dip into the bottle on a regular basis. A few days is OK, a week or two even better and a month or more ideal – the latter especially so for more complex mixtures. In the meantime, pour yourself some single malt!
A dash of peat or salt can both embellish and help to bind together a blend.
Once you get the hang of the process, you’ll likely find yourself tackling more complicated, adventurous vattings. And it is at this point that you will begin to better understand the role each single malt plays in contributing to the overall tenor of a blend. One of the key roles in more sophisticated blends is played by those single malts that help to tie disparate stylistic traits together. Such ‘binder’ whiskies usually display certain crossover characteristics (such as between different regional styles, different cask maturation regimens or varying flavour thrusts), and they are often complex spirits in their own right.
Three classic 'crossover' single malts
Inside the bottle – a quick primer on the qualities some single malts can bring to your blend
Aberlour’s malt sweetness balances fruit overtones with spicy oak, often mint-like in nature. The standard 10-year old edition provides a solid medium-bodied platform on which to base a complex Highland blend or a pot-pourri of broader regional styles. The cask-strength a’bunadh is, in contrast, a massive, mouth-filling Sherry bomb best suited to raising the ante in terms of wine cask influence and spirited oomph.
Ardbeg weaves countless strands of peat smoke into exceptionally complex bittersweet malt embellished by clean oak. When used judiciously, it can light an Islay spark beneath many a blend.
Arran is a notably clean island spirit displaying a lightly syrupy, oily texture that complements the smokeless and faintly salty nature of the sweet malt thrust to perfection. Its engaging nature makes it an ideal base on which to build a seaside-oriented blend.
Auchentoshan’s malt core arrives on the palate amply imbued with sticky citrus notes, which take on sultry, oiled wood tones as the whisky gains in age. I really like to use the 10-year old as a foundation for composing richly textured vattings that lean to the sweeter side of the Scotch flavour spectrum.
Balvenie’s honeyed malt persona is nowhere more clearly evident than in the superlative vanilla-laced Single Barrel version. This whisky will make Bourbon barrel emphasized blends positively sing. The regular 10-year old, though not quite of the same fire-power, is no slouch either when it comes to breadth of flavour.
Bowmore sets sweet and sour fruit against medium peat intensity and salt. In blends, it can act both as a bridge between more demure and more assertive island malts and as an Islay adjunct to moderately Sherry cask influenced Lowland and Highland whiskies.
A pour of Caol Ila usually sees oil, salt and medicinal peat crashing into sweet malt. This whisky loves being matured in ex-Bourbon wood, and therefore works very well in blends of that ilk.
Clynelish offers sweet grass and fruit sensations set against a backdrop of spice condiments, light brine and demure smoke. Its texture often bridges the creamy to oily spectrum. You can use it to great effect to add complexity and character to a Highland or coastal vatting.
Cragganmore represents a most complex and challenging sort of single malt. At its best, it’s long, balanced and tends to a smoke-tinged stoniness. It works wonderfully well as an accompaniment to other Bourbon barrel matured Highlanders.
Dalmore’s succulent, orange zest-imbued malt core sports a sea-breeze characteristic on the side. Both enlivening and warming, this one will help to flesh out a blend.
Dalwhinnie, a true high altitude Highlander, tastes of mountain fields as well as of honey-smoked apples and pears. Owing to its finely balanced nature, this single malt will prove its worth as the base for a wide range of vattings.
Glenfarclas layers malt complexity with a more than merely discernible Sherry element. Fulsome and lingering, this deserved classic will underpin more assertive blends with panache.
Glenfiddich can appear a little abrasively rousing when young, more honeyed and creamy smooth when older. With its subtle smoke and constantly flitting demeanour, it’s an ideal Highlander upon which to build a wide variety of blends.
Grain sweetness meets root-like, sooty dryness head-on in a glass of Glen Garioch. Whether lightly or heavily peat-reeked (this depends on the particular bottle), this genuinely unique, autumn-like whisky works well as a bridge between sweetness and dryness as well as differing degrees of smokiness in a vatting.
Glengoyne exemplifies clean malt surrounded by toffee and soft oak. Use the 10-year old, possibly along with a Lowlander, as the base for easy-drinking melds, but reserve the more substantial 17-year old and cask-strength editions for more venerable or assertive blends.
Glenlivet transforms from a lightly smoky, floral and herbal whisky in its youth to a deeper fruit-laden richness as it gains with age and exposure to Sherry wood. This versatile single malt is well suited to a primary role in many mixes.
In the lightly textured yet tremendously complex Glenmorangie 10-year old, fruit, floral and spice nuances play off vanilla-imbued oak. This single malt represents an excellent starting point at which to begin assembling many styles of blends.
Glenturret boasts roasted nuts and lightly toasted oak wrapped in plush malt. Tasty as it is on its own, this one can also act to fuse different weights and textures in a blend.
Highland Park has it all – Sherry-tinged fruit overlying subtle salt and peat plus a lovely heather component. Whether you’re formulating a seaside sort of vatting or seeking to increase the depth of a Highland-biased blend, this is one single malt you won’t want to be without.
Jura’s pronounced still-house malt core comes very lightly sprinkled with salt and peat. As such, this characteristic works well to join the potentially disparate Highland and island traits of other single malts.
Lagavulin offers nothing less than wave upon wave of peat-saturated malt. When at its best, it’s a monumental Islay essay. It will certainly deepen the tonality of any blend. But don’t go overboard.
Iodine and marine-like peat come cradled in sweet malt and vanilla-laced wood. What wonderful medicine could I possibly be referring to? Laphroaig, of course! And although the medicine may at first seem assertive, the overlying oak can act to further polish many a coastal or island blend. You just need to handle the amount with care.
Longmorn 15-year old is multifaceted as well as deceptively powerful. This is, as it pours, my kind of whisky. Still and all, I would never hesitate to utilize it in order to bolster and balance out Highland-oriented blends.
Macallan, in the Sherry cask versions, caresses with its Calvados-like notes. Yet just beneath the malt sweetness and fruit rests a more robust layer of spicy oak and faint peat. Macallan counts among those select single malts blenders love to utilize as a top-dressing.
With Oban, a tangy touch of the sea counterpoints the malt. And there’s faint smoke present as well. Here’s another one well suited to bridging regional stylistic variations in a mix.
Old Pulteney delights with its coastal verve. You can use it to perk up a Highland blend or to add a little extra exuberance and malt crunch to a coastal-island meld.
Scapa brings a gentle melding of oiled fruits, peat and sea-salt to the table. This single malt can calm and fill out an edgy island vatting while not compromising the inherent characteristics of the blend.
Springbank represents one of the most beguiling cocktails of sweet fruits, grains and brine. There are even some warming embers lying beneath. It’s an exceptionally refined Scotch, well suited to bringing the widely differing flavours of a more complex blend closer together.
Strathisla, the heart of Chivas, pits fruits and nuts against drying, supple oak and a hint of peat. It’s very, very good, both on its own and in a variety of blends.
Talisker’s pulsating, fiery onslaught of marine flavours arrives encased within oily-rich malt sweetness. If you wish to add a ‘wow’ factor to your blend, a little dose from the Isle of Skye’s famous spirit might just do the trick.
Once you've captured the spirit in the bottle, adding your own label makes for a nice finishing touch.
This list is, of course, a far from comprehensive one. Nonetheless, I hope it will set you on a path of adventure as you take up the challenge of creating your own, custom-designed pure malt vatted Scotches. Have fun!
Doug Kuebler (Jazznut) is an inveterate aficionado and collector
of wines and whiskies from around the world. Doug has organized
wine and food seminars, written extensively on wines and liquors,
and also gained something of a reputation for his detailed analyses
of cigars. His latest book set, The Tumbler's Guide to Single Malt
Scotch Whisky: Desk Reference and Field Guide, is available from
Topeda Hill Publishing.