Blending from birth
Posted 27 February 2020 by Matt / In Blend
Bottle Name: Blended Scotch Whisky 1979 Royal Mile Whiskies Exclusive
Bottler: Berry Brothers & Rudd
The world outside of enthusiast circles still often views blending with something of an upturned nose. There’s a lack of knowledge, and to some degree a lack of education around what is and what isn’t blending. On a base level, all but single cask releases are indeed something of a blend – the often rolled out adage of “I don’t like anything that’s been blended – just single malts” simply doesn’t hold any water, let alone any whisky. Long held misconceptions can be hard to unpick. But on the flip side, there are instances when blending takes on forms which are outside of the conventional norms even for most whisky lovers. Blending aged stock is one thing – blending from birth is quite another.
A master blender requires a deep range of olfactory and analysis based skills – an aroma and flavour memory, an understanding of the inherent characteristics of liquids and a gut ‘magic’ for simply knowing what is likely to work together sympathetically. The rest is both science and experimentation – whilst two liquids might well marry perfectly, in what proportions should they be combined, at what ABV’s and how long should they be left to harmonise together before bottling?
Blenders work from either a base of consistency, or from a more creative slant of crafting something unique and potentially unrepeatable. They recognise the cues within casks which make them suitable for combining into constantly available products – and at the same time they identify the innate characteristics of different liquids which can be earmarked for moulding into expressions which are greater than the sum of their parts.
But there’s a world of difference between working with a pool of already matured stock – where the traits and qualities are already know and readily available to sample – and of blending constitute makes together before they’ve undergone any maturation. Whilst the qualities of individual distillates and their likely responses to a wide range of cask types and maturation regimes might well be fully understood, when they’re combined at birth prior to maturation all bets are effectively off. Assumptions are starting to be made – there’s just not a huge stock of birth blended whisky out there – especially at higher age statements.
That’s not to say that the practice is entirely aberrant. Indeed, the Lakes Distillery’s Master Blender (or Whisky Maker as he prefers to be called) Dhavall Ghandi is already looking at exactly this. Of distilling new make with particular profiles (heavier, textural, high estery etc) with which to combine prior to cask filling. Speaking to him there’s undoubtedly a science behind it – and it draws much of its basis from the same set of skills and experience with which one would craft any blended whisky with. But, by commencing this process at the outset, it’s possible to create something which is effectively entirely new. And potentially risky. Only time will tell.
This said, there are examples of whisky which has been blended from birth and that’s exactly what we have here today with this single cask blend from Berry Brothers – described as a ‘rogue’ sherry butt – (though being denoted as cask #4, I’m guessing there was/is possibly at least three others) and drawn from Edrington’s stock of malts at the time of its creation on 9th November 1979. But fascinatingly, this isn’t – like many of the Edrington blends that have been knocking around for the past few years - labelled as a blended malt. For the simple reason that it isn’t – there is indeed some proportion of grain whisky in the blend.
Why any of these full term blends have come into existence is really anyone’s guess. Homeless liquid which surplus to existing cask fills? A specific customer request which then long since lapsed or was sold back to the producer? Or just an early foray into blended maturation experimentation – a what if?
The BRR expression was bottled as an exclusive release for Royal Mile Whiskies in the first half of 2018. 385 bottles were produced at an ABV of 53.3% and were originally priced at £164.95 a pop. In no huge surprise these sold out quickly – such is the demand for reasonably priced older things. A few have cropped up at auction since – but not too many – it’s good to see something designed for drinking being actually appreciated for that purpose.
Nose: Impressively vibrant, but with an austere and dusty aspect that only comes from longer maturation. Coffee beans and spent espresso grounds are livened by an array of syrupy tinned fruits – nectarines, kiwi and melon – alongside baked plums dashed with old fashioned orange liqueurs. Oakiness runs throughout – polished, lacquered and with linseed and wax oils. In the background, beeswax, griddled waffles, thick marzipan and chopped walnuts. Reduction initially lowered the expressiveness – though the overall shape returns in time. It adds rosewater and café latte alongside a touch of paraffin and fudge.
Taste: Unexpectedly audacious on the arrival – a wash of oily, weighty spirit that’s packed full of wood and also notably spicy. Well-worn mahogany is joined by cinnamon, pepperiness and a hit of chilli. Then a roiling wave of concentrated juiciness – oranges, plums, blackcurrants and redcurrant jelly - all condensed, all enriched and lifted by a final pang of citric acid. Leafiness follows alongside honey spread over toast, cocoa powder, tanned leather and wisps of golden tobacco. Elegant, but no less impactful for it. Dilution retains much of the spiciness and liveliness of the spirit – though things don’t quite feel as cohesive overall. A selection of steeped fruit and black teas, mentholated oak and souring yellow fruits. Again, after a period of resting the initial structure returns to the fore with a more focussed combination of yellow and white fruits.
Finish: Long with oiled wood panelling, burnt (but still creamy) toffee, pepper, chilli spice and the dying embers of some decades old toasted cask heads.
This BBR blended Scotch whisky ably combines the elegance of age with an incredible amount of vim and vigour. Whilst the nose is all gentle, refined long maturation, the palate is still bold, lively and impactful – the marvels of a finely selected sherry butt. But similarly, whilst the proportion of grain whisky within this blend is unspecified, it is completely integrated to the point of being entirely imperceptible. The constituent malts (likely drawn from distilleries such as Tamdhu and Glenrothes given the 1979 distillations) are highly sympathetic to each other and offer a deep and concentrated combination of both bright fruitiness and perky spicing. Given its long maturation, dilution is not quite as plain sailing – and I’d suggest that the bottling strength of 53.3% has been carefully and appropriately selected here. Exceedingly likeable – and regardless of the circumstances of how these liquids all came to be casked together, a notable success.
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