Techniques: Blending with a plan

by Matti

So, you want to start blending whiskies (you do, really). Good on ya, mate. I suspect by now, however, reality is slowly sinking in and you’re realising that you have no idea where or how to start. Oh, of course you can just randomly put some whiskies together (the ‘blend-n-pray’), and while that can net surprising results at times, most of what you produce will be… not so interesting.

A better way to go about it is to have some sort of plan. Decide beforehand what type of blend you want to end up with. You can opt for a single dominant taste: for instance a sherrybomb, a blend with the sweet vanilla characteristics of bourbon barrels, a coastal or peated blend or any other taste you prefer. On the other hand, you can also use contrasting flavours: a bit of peat to spice up a sherried whisky, some sherry to deepen the taste of a delicate Lowlander or a dollop of spice to add a mysterious twist to a floral Speysider. Or, and this is the most fun, come up with your own plan of attack.

Now all this is assuming you’re starting with decent whisky already. When you’re trying to recover a bad whisky, things are slightly different. Here your specific aim is to either mask a flavour you don’t like or add flavour in an area where it is missing in the base whisky. You will have to be a bit more bold and, especially when masking a flavour, the choice of which whiskies to use becomes less ‘instinctive’. Often, you will have to bring out the big guns (heavily peated/sherried, very sweet or very bitter, even ‘bad’ whiskies which are overwhelmingly one flavour) to knock the misbehaving dram into submission. These may not have to be used in large quantities, but need to be able to not just hold their own but truly dominate the offending flavour.

The bottom line is: have an idea of what you want the blend to taste like before you go do the actual blending. Having a clear concept will help you when selecting whiskies for the blend as well as when tasting freshlymade blends and deciding which ones show promise. If you know what you are looking for, you will nose and taste more accurately and end up with a better result.

The tricky bit of course (especially if you have limited experience) is finding the right whiskies to achieve your blend exactly as you envisioned it. Don’t worry though, and permit yourself to screw up every once in a while (or quite often, as the case may be). If you screw up though, nose and taste the blend as rigorously as you would have tasted the one you were actually going for. It is these ‘failed’ blends that can teach you the most about which flavours complement or mask each other, which whiskies overpower others and all the other little bits of knowledge you will need to acquire to become a better blender.

In the next Techniques I will go into methods of screening new blends, selecting the best for marrying (and why marrying blends is a good thing) and using good blends as building blocks for even better ones.