Scotch blends: Whisky symbiosis

08 October, 2018

Johnnie Walker Black Label remains one of the most iconic blended whisky brands on the planet and, with one of the wealthiest investors in the world in Diageo, it is going the extra length to stay at the cutting edge of whisky innovation.


In 2005 Diageo introduced Leven’s Process Liquid Development Area, a small facility north of Edinburgh to focus on improving the production of its whisky. By 2013 the facility had two pot stills, two mills, a mash tun, four washbacks and was officially established as a fully functional distillery – Diageo’s 29th at the time.

The mini distillery is probably the most expensive playground for Diageo’s project scientist, Richard Cowley, who manages the experiments taking place at the plant. The millions of pounds poured into the facility by Diageo is clear evidence of its efforts to keep innovating its existing blends and it has all the latest equipment available to play with – dimple jackets, mash filters, worm tubes and even interchangeable necks on the pot stills, all of which make it the most dynamic distillery on the planet.

Cowley says: “With this setup we now have the opportunity to test everything from grain to oat to rye. Equipment can be tested too. Everything we do here is with the intention of improving the flavour of our whiskies and the efficiencies of the equipment in Diageo’s portfolio of distilleries.

“I would say around 20% of the experimenting we do here is focused on flavour, while the rest is aimed at testing equipment and increasing efficiency.”


Stuart Harvey, master blender at International Beverage, believes grain whisky is important within a blend as it can contribute 60-70% of the whisky. It’s no surprise, therefore, to see the rise in single grain whiskies such as at Loch Lomond or William Grant’s Girvan because of its diversity as a single spirit.

Cowley’s distilling team at Leven works closely with Diageo’s blenders, hosting regular meetings to discuss their latest findings to see what experiments can be scaled up at different distilleries around Scotland.

The most exciting part of the facility for Beveridge is the recent installation of column stills which will be used to experiment with grain whisky production.

Beveridge says: “Grain is terribly undervalued in blended whisky and I’m really excited to see what we can do with the new column stills because there really are no boundaries.”

Cowley adds: “The new column stills have been created by Green Engineering and we specifically asked it not to use its nanotechnology so we can control the temperature more precisely. This means we can keep the yeast alive longer and experiment with more flavours while still increasing efficiency.”


This project at Leven is an indicator that the immediate money is still in blended scotch, with the need to improve production methods to meet global demand. This isn’t likely to slow down either because, from a consumer’s point of view, blends are designed to be easy on the palate and simple to mix. It is no coincidence that, as single malts have begun to rise in popularity, blended scotch brands have been pushing the Highball as their new signature serves – a cocktail for the dummy which is almost guaranteed results with a good blend.

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