A lesson in the art of whisky blending

on 10 December, 2013

A scotch whisky distiller, when asked recently if he made any blends, was gloriously sniffy and dismissive of blended whisky. It would have been interesting to see and hear what he would have made of the Johnnie Walker Directors Blends, which I got to taste last Thursday (November 28) in London.

There are six of them, starting with 2008 and this year’s is the last in the series. The idea behind them, envisaged by David Gates, the then head of the Johnnie Walker brand was make a special blend which would  be given only to senior Diageo directors for them to hand out to important customers, valued clients etc. The Directors Blends are for drinking and enjoying, not for hoarding and collecting, according to Dr Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach who is Diageo’s gatekeeper for scotch.

Nevertheless, a bottle was sold for more than £1,000 and a complete set went for £23,000 at the Worshipful Company of Distillers' charity auction.

Morgan is leading a kind of crusade for blended scotch whisky. It obviously irks him that so many column inches, or should I say column centimetres, are devoted to single malt whiskies that only represent a fraction of global scotch whisky sales.

Apparently someone commented that there has not been much innovation in blends. Morgan retorts with a list: Johnnie Walker Double Black, Platinum, Buchanan Masters and Explorers Collection to name just Diageo’s efforts.

Frankly, when you look purely at the UK market, it is hardly surprising that specialist writers, geeks, bloggers, whisky anoraks concentrate on single malts. The line up of UK blends comprises Bell’s, Teacher’s and Famous Grouse. After that it is pretty much supermarket own labels. A pretty sorry, neglected, line up that in the main are used for price fighting. If Diageo wants to hoist its flag as the preeminent master blender of scotch whiskies, which it undoubtedly is, Dr Morgan needs to have a quiet word with David Gates who now heads up the whole global whisky portfolio, along with the team guiding Bell’s. Also, Johnnie Walker. Red Label, once the UK’s number one scotch and known all over the world, is all but forgotten in the UK. There is, without question, a job to be done on blended scotch whisky in Britain…

But with my Drinks International hat on, the blended scotch whisky sector globally is a totally different kettle of fish. Johnnie Walker alone is a phenomenal brand. A truly international name that is up there with the likes of Coca-Cola, Apple and Microsoft.

Then when you look at Latin America, blends such as Buchanan’s and Old Parr spring up.  In fact because of the popularity of Buchanan’s in South America, it has become the fastest-growing scotch brand in the US due primarily to the country’s huge and significant Hispanic population.  In Russia, one gathers White Horse is going great guns.

Back to ‘Keep Walking’, Johnnie Walker Red Label remains the powerhouse brand around the world. It is followed closely by Black Label and the launch of ‘dialed up’ Double Black in 2009, gave it further impetus. Then we have the golds, greens, blues, culminating in Platinum and The John Walker. Platinum and the Explorers Collection range have their genesis in the Directors Blends.

Jim Beveridge who heads up the Walker blending team described the concept of Directors Blend as an artist in a studio. He or she could be painting a landscape or a study of a vase of flowers. Large or small, specific or generalised. A study of what goes into the Johnnie Walker blend.

So, 2008 celebrates the ‘role of aged grain’ in the blend. The directors congregated at the Dorchester Hotel in London to thrash out which of Jim’s offerings they like best. This is obviously a fraught time for the master blender as the directors do not always choose his favourite The winning blend comprised a parcel of casks that had been laid down 14 years previously in the mid-1990s with spirit put into ‘active wood’. The resultant spirits was described as “overpowering” hence the need to temper it with a lot of grain. The resultant blend is delightfully delicate and light

It was decided that 2009 would focus on Walker’s smoky finish. I think all but the most educated noses/palates would have said 2009 was an Islay malt in a blind nosing/tasting. “First aid box” was Morgan’s description of the 2009.

The 450 signed bottles of 2010 gloried in the fruits that come from sherry casks. Fruity, sweet, rich, I quite liked the 2010. Beveridge said that the 2010 was “quite old fashioned Johnnie Walker” and it turned out to be the precursor to Johnnie Walker Platinum.

2011 was “a study in oak”. Malt and grain held in newly charred American and European oak hogsheads. This was deemed “less traditional than normal but a bold expression of the blender’s art”. Sweet, honeyed, hints of bourbon with an astringency that well known whisky writer Ian Buxton didn’t take to.

The 2012 was 43% abv while all the others are 46%. It glories in the character of the distilleries that contribute to the blends. It is light, easy-to-drink and very accessible. Not a complex blend. Beveridge commented that the 2011 and 2012 Directors Blends turned out to be the forerunners to the Johnnie Walker Explorers collection.

Finally this year’s blend was inspired by the malt flavours – a “study in aged malts”. Coming mostly from Clynelish and the now closed distillery, Convalmore, this boasts a waxy character that comes from the stills. Beveridge sees the 2012 as a style that could be developed for the John Walker range. For most at the tasting the last was the best of an impressive bunch.

A fascinating tasting and a rare insight into how blends come together within the Johnnie Walker team and the Diageo empire. You could not fail but to be impressed by the blends on offer and the thought and expertise that went into their creation.

It would be interesting to hear what the anonymous sniffy distiller would have made of the Directors Blends.

Afterwards I went to Adnams shop in nearby Bloomsbury for the much anticipated unveiling of their English whiskies: No 1 single and No 3 triple grain, matured in new French oak (No 1) and, No 2, new American barrels. Nothing wrong with them but at just three years old from a novice distiller, relatively speaking, they suffered by comparison. Nevertheless, an interesting and worthy new entrant to the world of whisky. These whiskies will sell out - if they haven't already, such is the worldwide thirst for whisky, particularly scotch whisky.


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