I Blend Scotch.

Love bourbon but still enjoy an occasional foreign whisky pour as well? Discuss some of your favorites here.

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I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Tue Sep 29, 2009 6:29 pm

A few years ago I attended a rum blending seminar with the master blender from Appleton. We used four different blending rums. Today I attended a webcast with the master blender of Johnny Walker, Andrew Ford, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Black Label. They gave us seven blending whiskeys and all of the other necessary apparatus: a nosing glass, a measuring beaker, and a funnel. The blending whiskeys were all 12 years old and 40% ABV.

They were: grain, lowland malt, Speyside malt, sherry cask malt, highland malt, island malt, islay malt.

One thing I learned is that blenders normally work with the whiskey at 20% ABV.

As blended scotches go, Johnny Black is probably my favorite, so I found it interesting to break it down into its component parts. Andrew said grain whiskey is normally about 50% of the blend (for all blends, not just JWBL). I got a blend I liked using 40ml grain, 10ml each of lowland, speyside and highland malt, 15ml sherry cask, 5ml Island and 5ml Islay. With the Islay especially, a little goes a long way.

The grain whiskey is aged in first refill bourbon casks and has a lot of bourbon character. By contrast, the Islay is aged in 2nd or 3rd refill casks, so it is very light and has very little barrel character. It's there for the smoke. A surprise was how important the sherry cask malt is to the blend. I started with just 5ml and when I went to 15ml it made a big difference. Andrew said it's not the sherry you're tasting, but the European Oak, which gives a very different flavor than the American Oak.
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby Mike » Tue Sep 29, 2009 7:07 pm

Interesting and entertaining post, Chuck.

Having tried all the JW blends side by side in a blind tasting, JW Black was also my favorite, I could not find the merit in the very expensive Blue Label, but what do I know? I am a Scotch novice (and only what I would call an advanced amatuer with bourbon). Among my favorite Scotch's these days are the Cask Strengths because of their deeper flavors and richer taste. But that has something (I think) with the faltering of my taste apparatus as I get older.

Still, the whole blending and vatting scene (Scotch or Bourbon) is helpful in revealing one's own taste preferences.
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Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Wed Sep 30, 2009 12:25 pm

I apologize to Johnnie Walker for constantly misspelling his name. Sorry, guy. Next round is on me.
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby DeanSheen » Wed Sep 30, 2009 12:37 pm

Such a tough job Chuck!

That kit looks like fun. I used to drink Johnny Black on the rocks as my standard bar pour for years. I never liked the Red though.

Did you taste any of those bottles individually?
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Wed Sep 30, 2009 11:56 pm

I'm not sure what you mean by "blending agent." Do you mean the grain whiskey, often referred to (at least by me) as base whiskey? I know there are compounds that help a blend hold together but I know very little about them and yesterday's event did not touch on them at all.

We were able to submit questions in writing during the event. I asked about the mechanics of scaling a lab blend up to production level, but that question wasn't selected by the moderator, perhaps for being a little too ... I don't know what ... technical?

In terms of my own mechanics, I at first found using the graduated cylinder and funnel awkward, but I got into a rythmn with them. I found the proportions very interesting. I knew most blends were mostly grain whiskey, but didn't really have a feel for how the other components would be proportioned. It was almost in the order presented, larger quantities of lowland malt, Speyside malt and sherried malt, very small quantities of the Islay and Island malts. The Island and Islay malts are used sparingly not because they are more dear, but because they are so pungent they can easily overpower all of the other flavors. That's the main thing I learned from the exercise.

They wouldn't tell us exactly what whiskeys we were using but they likely are all things you can go to the store and buy, more or less. These were all 12-years-old and only the one specified as sherried was sherried, so it might be tough to buy them exactly, but you can more or less do the same thing on your own with bottles you can buy at the store.
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Oct 01, 2009 6:13 am

This approach is consistent with what I have read about how blending is done, notably in The Earnest Drinker, Oscar Mendelsohn, 1946, written by an Australian professional chemist who combined a technical perspective with a connoisseur's interest in drink. He was describing what distilleries normally do and the approach is almost exactly the same. Mendelsohn referred also to using very small amounts of Campbeltown whiskies, with or as an alternative to Islay whiskies for the pungent element. At the time, there were more Campbeltowns than today and they seemed of a more pungent character than surviving examples.

I know that some blended Scotches use spirit caramel. In my view, this is a kind of blending agent, if enough of it is used anyway, because some scotch whisky seems to disclose a taste attributable to this element.

I do not know if U.K. law allows blending agents to be added in the sense of sherry or brandy or fruited concentrates of some kind.

While by the 1940's it had become settled that approximately half of a blend (sometimes more) was grain whisky and a good part of the rest Lowlands, which is relatively bland due to a more thorough distillation method and lack of peating, earlier on higher quantities of malts were sometimes used, for luxury blends. (And that still may be true for certain brands today). I have experimented by simply adding more malt to a given blend, to lower the grain whisky component. Oddly perhaps, I have not found a blending agent necessary, I think this is because what I added often included sherried whiskies which is not dissimilar to adding sherry as a blending agent. But also, if a blend is well made, you don't need a blending agent, I think where still used they are often added mostly to ensure a standard color.

Here is a modern discussion of whisky blending written from a whisky technology standpoint:

http://books.google.com/books?id=Iukpfh ... ky&f=false

The writer refers to use of spirit caramel by some blenders but does not mention blending agents as such for scotch whisky production.

I have my favourites in the range of Johnnie Walker but all its blends are excellent products, all the age expressions. I have found particularly good samples of the Red Label in recent years.

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Oct 01, 2009 11:35 am

Answering this for my part, grain whisky is rather neutral in taste since it is distilled over 190 proof. Still, the companies claim it is made in a way to retain some whiskey character (i.e., from co-products allowed to remain in the product). Then it is aged, for at least as long as the malts are the lowest age of which is on the label (this never made sense to me but never mind, it is a historical accident in a sense because of how whisky types developed). So what does that taste like? Very much like wood-aged vodka with a bit of whisky flavour. That taste is one which is fairly close to a lot of Canadian whisky since so much of it is composed of a similar high proof-distilled neutralish-but-aged base. Black Velvet is perhaps an example, it is a light Canadian whisky and when I have tasted all-grain Scots whiskies (some are sold 100% in that form) they remind me of Black Velvet or certain other light Canadian whiskies. The base element in both cases are made from varying combinations of corn, wheat, unmalted barley and other grains (rye), the composition not mattering that much when you get to such high rectification levels.

Putting it a different way, if you took, say, a mild-tasting 10 year old Canadian whisky and added half as much Lowlands and half as much again single malts at least 10 years old, it would taste a lot like a Scotch blend.

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:52 pm

Jeff, actually they are distilled higher than 190, I just used that as a rough guide. It would be closer to 194 or 196, from what I have read - GNS territory, but each producer has a technique apparently of retaining some co-products (esters perhaps or other congeners) in the brew to lend it character.

It is true that all new make will have differing characteristics even at such high distilling-out levels. But they will be subtle differences. And when combined in a blend, surely those differences will be hard to detect (given whiskies of the same maturation level) except possibly by some experts.

Regarding why they don't distill it at a lower proof: because they want (in my view anyway) a largely neutral character. I believe they want this because they want the final palate to be not over-assertive, thinking most consumers do not want a strong whisky taste.

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Oct 01, 2009 12:55 pm

I have some Johnnie Walker Red around and will put a taste note in later. It is a famous brand and (in this case anyway) there is a reason for its success, it is very good.

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Fri Oct 02, 2009 1:55 pm

Since the grain whiskey is distilled at such a high proof and aged in first refill bourbon casks, I expected it to taste like bourbon. It didn't. The barley character was still very apparent, it tasted like scotch with overtones of vanilla and caramel from the wood. But it was pretty bland. Nice color, though. It didn't taste like white dog and didn't reek of alcohol.
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Oct 02, 2009 3:44 pm

I am not sure about the composition of this particular grain whisky, but most of it is distilled from wheat or corn (maize). Unmalted barley is sometimes used but that would be exceptional. Of course, malt from (barley) is part of the mashbill but in a small amount and it would be rendered fairly neutral in the distillation. It may be though that some types of grain whisky do show some grain character. In the book below, the statement is made that at 94.5% ABV (one run in a single column), the distillate has a "relatively strong flavor". (To take the spirit beyond that to vodka level requires further purification which means more equipment and/or other rectifying techniques such as charcoal filtering. One can see that there is a range of flavour on this continuum, subtle as it may be, and at some 194 proof, which is where grain whisky is distilled I believe and is higher of course than the said 94.5% ABV, some flavour may subsist).

http://books.google.com/books?id=iG3wx9 ... ky&f=false

I have wondered too why Scotch grain and Canadian whisky wouldn't taste more bourbon-like from resting long in ex-bourbon barrels. The barrels are rebuilt I understand for Scotland and are burned often (re-charred) which probably burns away the bourbon left in them if any. Canadian whisky does have a scent of bourbon about it but it is fairly mild. Good discussion from a whisky technology standpoint:

http://books.google.com/books?id=ApxUed ... nd&f=false

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Fri Oct 02, 2009 9:40 pm

I'm just saying what this particular grain whiskey tasted like and it tasted like scotch. If the scotch character didn't come from the grain, where did it come from? The water?
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby gillmang » Fri Oct 02, 2009 9:52 pm

I was just reading up on scotch whisky and found a reference that whisky (in Britain again) must be distilled by law at no greater than 94.8% ABV. Of course the pot still (single malt) element will come out at much less, but the grain element therefore will come out at something close to the flavour-retaining single column proof I mentioned earlier. This explains I think the flavour one finds in Scots grain whisky. If that is what you found (that it resembles scotch), then it must be coming from the malted barley component. It can be upwards of 20% of the grist for grain whisky, or much less than that. Maybe your sample used a fairly high malted barley content and that informed most of the taste (just as rye will in an American whiskey).

I believe the base for Canadian whisky is distilled out at higher than 94.8% although practices may vary amongst distillers here.

The fact remains, and I have tasted grain whisky (from Scotland) numerous times, that it is a relatively mild taste and I have found it very similar to Canadian whisky 90% of which is composed of a very similar material (corn or wheat- derived mostly, aged in reused wood, no peat, continuous distillation, etc.).

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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby cowdery » Sat Oct 03, 2009 2:33 am

One difference in rules that may account for a higher percentage of malt being used in grain whiskey is the Scottish prohibition on the use of supplemental enzymes, which are permitted and used in the USA.
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Re: I Blend Scotch.

Unread postby shoshani » Sat Nov 21, 2009 11:20 pm

cowdery wrote:They wouldn't tell us exactly what whiskeys we were using but they likely are all things you can go to the store and buy, more or less. These were all 12-years-old and only the one specified as sherried was sherried, so it might be tough to buy them exactly, but you can more or less do the same thing on your own with bottles you can buy at the store.


Well, more or less is probably apt. Just keep in mind that it's not at all uncommon for a distillery to concentrate on a single, specific style for their single malt bottlings, but have a wide variety that gets sold for blending. Macallan is justly famous for their all-sherry-cask single malt, but they also mature in bourbon cask for blending. (A friend of mine once complained to me about his bottle of Famous Grouse. "It says it has Macallan and Highland Park, but I can't detect them". I had to explain to him that a) the blend may be getting whisky that's vastly different from the single malt in both flavor profile and age, and b) you aren't SUPPOSED to detect them. That's the whole point of a blend, creating a harmonious tapestry in which the individual threads are not to be distinguished.)

Just out of curiosity, did Andrew mention whether or not the blended whisky is then aged before bottling? My understanding is that standard practice is to return the finished blend to casks for further aging once the malts and grains have been disgorged and mingled.
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