I’m still surprised by how many people turn their noses up at blended whiskies. Not only are blends the oil that keeps the wheels of the whisky industry turning (selling more than single malts globally many times over), but they’re oft-times far from boring bottom shelf glass filler. Any yet, adding grain into malt still always seems to turns off a certain constituent. Baffling snobbishness in my view – there’s more than enough exceedingly high quality blended whisky to win over any waverers should they really want to waver. Nevertheless, the art of blending is far from well understood, even by the folks who do enjoy the broad diversity of styles that whisky has to offer.
Most people think of blending as taking constituent liquid components and marrying them together in a way which feels sympathetic. In essence, taking the different aroma and flavour cues from individuals malts and grains and combining these to add layered complexity – where each individual element both shines and merges together as a cohesive whole. Ack – who am I kidding. Most people think of blending as taking a big pile of barrels and trying to make a continually homogenous product batch after batch, year after year.
It’s fair to say there’s plenty of work for consistency blenders – the big brands pump out millions of cases each year – and they’re only able to achieve those levels of global sales through having a highly stable product. But, at the other end of the spectrum, within niche and batch blending, there’s a wealth of incredible talent – and this, to my mind, is often where inspiration comes to play – particularly when there are limitations to work around.
A blend of Port Ellen, Brora, and Malt Mill would undoubtedly sell quicker than water in the dessert – but there’s no guarantees that the final blended malt would be anywhere approaching balanced or even agreeable. An even bigger problem of this example - sourcing any Malt Mill outside of the handful of minis which occasionally circulate is seemingly impossible. So you’re not able to make this blend even if your wildest dreams wanted to. No matter the high ideals, blending is inherently limited to the components that are at hand.
Sometimes blenders have access to broad palate of base malts and grains, other times there’s a more limited selection to work. There are always restrictions of one type of another. In the case of larger producers, there are parameters and boundaries by which their blended whiskies need to be made – they need to feel like a cohesive offering which ties into the overarching brand, or that favours a particular style or base distillate. And that’s a rare talent – taking an incomplete set of recipe ingredients and moulding them into something greater than the sum of their parts whilst still producing what feels like a connected and unified product. There’s a dark art behind achieving balance with a blended whisky – different distillates with a myriad different options for age, cask maturation and underlying flavour profiles – it’s far from simply adding X to Y and giving it a good shake.
Door number 9 of the 2019 Boutique-y Whisky Advent calendars offers up batch 3 of Boutique-y’s Blended Whisky #2 – a 22 year old. The release is bottled at 41.9% ABV with 1,650 bottles available for £63.95 from Master of Malt. This particularly floaty hand jobbie is a familiar sight – it was the opening dram in the 2018 Advent calendar. As such, I’ve saved my liver for a day and adapted my notes from last year for you.
Nose: The grain component is doing much of the heavy lifting here – but it’s well-aged (older than 22 perhaps?!) and rather graceful. Varnished and lacquered wood alongside dusty golden cereals, desiccated coconut and cashew nuts. The malt brings richness to the party – milk chocolate, sponge cake and vanilla panna cotta. Just a few drops of dilution (being mindful of the starting ABV) brings out some fruity character with apple pie and turnovers. It also reinforces the cereal aroma with some multi-grain bread.
Taste: The arrival is sweet and nutty – burnt toffee, buttered popcorn, toasted oats and cashews. The grain is providing structure here – there’s a surprising level of texture (for 41.8%) and bundles of natural cereal sweetness – both are harmonious. The mid-palate moves towards the oak spectrum – part musty and old, part straight down the line ex-bourbon with vanilla and coconut. The back-palate reveals just a tinge of sharp acetone, and a gentle, but developing wispy white pepper. Reduction again adds fruitiness - toffee apples and creamy milk chocolate. It also emphasises the cask adding some dryness.
Finish: Medium in length, with toasted bread and fresh baked buns.
Blended Whisky #2 is all about equilibrium – malt and grain in near textbook synchronisation. It ably demonstrates what’s possible when expressive grain meets sympathetic malt. Unexpectedly (given the low starting ABV), I found this takes a few drops of water really well – immediately unlocking bright fruitiness on the nose and a creamy character on the palate. Lots to like here and quite reasonably priced for the quality on offer.