Guest contributor James S spent two years working as brand ambassador for Chivas Regal and The Glenlivet before joining the Chivas Brothers’ blending department. Since 2019, he has been a whiskymaker for Compass Box. He has kindly shared some of his experiences with the Water of Life.
By the start of the second week of term at the Academy for Whisky Blenders, you grow used to being woken up by your Blind Tasting Professor, brandishing four glasses of sotol and the threat of no breakfast should you fail to correctly identify their villages of origin. As a 7-year-old living away from home for the first time, however, this is initially rather traumatic.
As the terms progress, you gain confidence and discover that everything is indeed made that little bit more delicious with a splash of Clynelish. That you would never dream of asking someone to the end-of-term dance without conducting GCMS (gas chromatography – mass spectrometry) on their saliva first is one perhaps somewhat suspect behaviour life at the Academy gradually normalises.
Final year PE allows you to demonstrate all your learning. One student is given a light spritz of Guerlain’s Shalimar and a two-minute head start, before the rest of the class hunts them throughout the school like vermin. The winner is the first to lay eyes on the quarry and scream ‘GET OUT OF MY SAMPLE ROOM!’
Such is blending’s arcane curriculum. Without a Diploma from the Academy of Whisky Blenders, and at least a Masters in biochemistry, you’re as well forgetting about combining distillates for a living.
Fortunately, I made all that up. If you want to be a blender, the key to the castle isn’t to be found in a school with curious rituals (blenders are not wizards or cabinet ministers). Nor do you need a specific food science or distilling degree to blend well, although this formal training certainly won’t hold you back. Apply for jobs in whisky; if you’re passionate enough, and your nose works, a blender might just give you a chance in the sample room. You almost certainly won’t start off blending, but that is part of the apprenticeship. It was for me.
‘Master Blender’ is about as rarefied a role as you can get, but I want this article to show that the fundamental abilities the job requires are common, practically universal. We are born with them, and they can be honed.
If you have ever created a cocktail that friends ask for again and again, or prepared a novel but delicious sandwich, you know how to blend. If you then spent two to three months refining that sandwich, tweaking all the elements to nudge them closer to your vision of sarnie excellence, you are a blender.
Blenders have a fascination with enhancing flavour, and a willingness to chip away at an idea until something beautiful emerges. When creating a Compass Box limited edition, we typically choose one especially interesting parcel of casks from one distillery. As we accent this whisky, deepen it, alter its structure almost beyond recognition, we aren’t consulting any analytical instruments beyond our own noses and palates. A computer printout of ester content confirms only what is. Our imaginations suggest what could be.
When you know that humans have creatively intervened with a whisky, used their senses and minds to shape the way it performs, you should expect a more engrossing experience. Dhavall Gandhi at The Lakes Distillery, or Angela D’Orazio with Mackmyra, are people delivering just that.
The process continually surprises, and you have to be okay with often unanswerable questions: What happens if we take this route? Can we double back? Is this finished? Is anything ever finished? When you start blending, you realise there is no destination; each iteration is simply another point of departure. It’s vital to be both open-minded and bloody-minded.
I started off blending Scotch whisky in my living room. As rabbit holes go, it’s rather fun. Noticing changes and intuiting which changes you need to make will come in handy if you ever want to make a career from it. Some tips for blending at home:
- Taste every spirit you can get your hands on. Exploring rums and brandies has expanded my understanding of how to balance spirit and oak.
- Note down every recipe before you start mixing the whiskies together. For goodness’s sake, change only one thing at a time.
- Good grain whisky is like a sprung dancefloor or a mirror glaze on a cake: it makes everything pleasingly bright and squidgy. Start with a malt blend you enjoy, then add 10% grain whisky. Up that to 35%. Notice how the flavours have been reorganised, given new textures and shapes.
- Anything more than 15-20% heavily peated whisky is going to taste stridently smoky. At around 5%, that peat character will drift into view and gracefully retire again like an 18th century valet.
- Believe in 2%. Just 2% of something contrastingly flavoursome can bring shade or highlights to your blend.
- Purchase sample bottles and use a measuring cylinder. Decant your blend, add the required quantity of water, and revisit it the next day. We allow all of our prototypes 24 hours’ resting time before evaluating them.
- An infinity bottle – a single container which becomes a ‘solera’ as you alternate between adding dregs of other bottles and drinking – seems like a good idea but is more Excel gymnastics than it’s worth. There is no better metaphor for the chaos of the human subconscious than a ledger-less infinity bottle.
So please, go forth and blend. We are all blenders by instinct – you have it within you. Should you want to take things further, the major distillers and blenders in Scotland require passionate people with good noses in a variety of roles; moving between departments is common. It’s a better option than waiting on the summons from the Academy for Whisky Blenders.
Image credit: Horst Friedrichs