Across Scotland, one will find a wide variety of distilleries. There are wee ones like Benromach, more traditional ones like The Balvenie or Springbank, and powerhouse ones like Strathclyde or Cameron Bridge. Old or new, big or small, Scotland has the full gamut.
One of the newest distilleries I had the chance to visit recently was the Glenburgie operation in Speyside. While there has been a distillery at the site since 1810, in 2004 its owners (Pernod Ricard) decided to tear it down and start from scratch. This has resulted in a thoroughly modern space, which now produces 5.5 to 6 million litres of spirit a year, much of it for the Ballantine’s range.
Because of the rebuild, the company was able to increase capacity by 50%, which helps the fact that Ballantine’s sales have soared in recent years. According to the company, in 2005 there were around 4.8 million, 9L cases sold, whereas now that figure has increased to 6.2 million 9L cases. A large expansion for any business.
The distillery itself is laid-out across one main floor, with the 7.5 tonne capacity mashtun, 46,000 litre washbacks and six stills all on the same level.
While there, I met up with the master blender for Ballantine’s, Sandy Hyslop who ran myself and a group of whisky writers through the intricate process of blending to discover how Glenburgie – and the rest of the whiskies that make up Ballantine’s 12 – fit together.
For Sandy, one of the most important aspects of his job is around quality control.
“The most challenging part of my job is ensuring that the correct whiskies have been filled each year into the appropriate casks to guarantee the quality of all our brands in the future. Some of the whiskies that have been laid down this year I will never see blended, as they will be used long after I have retired from the business. It is all the more important that I make sure all the maturing stock used is of the best possible quality for the next master blender to use,” he told me.
In order to maintain that, each Tuesday he and a team of experts (each of whom is tested every year on their abilities) nose all the distillate to come out the previous week from each of the distilleries used in the making of the Ballantine’s products.
“We must never, ever underestimate our customer. There are people out there who know our blends as well as I do,” he said.
After that distillate has been nosed, it is then vital to ensure the right casks are in place to help with the maturation.
“It’s very easy to make the mistake that a cask is just a container to mature whisky but you need to have a robust arrangement of your casks, to manage how many times they’ve been filled and to know how old they are,” he added.
Marry the two elements together and it should result in a quality product 12 years down the line.
“If you get the right spirit to start and the right casks you shouldn’t have to look at it until it’s ready,” he explained.
Each November, one of Sandy’s other jobs is to review the casks in the warehouse and come up with the formula or recipe for the following year.
“There are some years where we can’t get the whiskies we want. It’s about then building up a flavour package based on your stock,” he explained.
To build the blend for Ballantine’s 12, for instance, Sandy takes 800 casks of malt and vats them together, and then separately vats 800 casks of grain whisky together. Those are then tested and married together in the right ratio to make the final blend.
In short: it’s a complicated task and one that can potentially get overlooked in a world dominated with commentary and coverage of single malt whiskies.
Asked whether or not Sandy feels the skill of blenders and complexity of blends is focused on enough, he said: “In my opinion the flavours of blended whisky are far more complex and multi-faceted and give a wonderful drinking experience when blended correctly. Having said that, if you like the predominant flavour produced by a single malt whisky you will always be drawn back to that particular flavour.”
He also added that the importance of grain should not be underestimated in this job.
“It’s like building a house: the grain is the foundation and it doesn’t matter how beautiful your house is, if the foundation isn’t there, it will fall down,” he said.
And key to everything is being able to nose and taste when a whisky has the right balance.
In order to help you, Sandy has provided his best practice advice on how you can become better at analysing whisky in these steps, below.
“My first bit advice would be to start with some proper glassware. A tulip-shaped glass is ideal for nosing whisky as it allows the natural curve of the glass to funnel aroma.
“Pour a measure in your glass and reduce the whisky to around 20% ABV with some water at room temperature (50/50 if the whisky is 40%vol). Gently nose the whisky very soon afterwards as the addition of water to the whisky will immediately give off some wonderful aromas and can often tell you a lot about the whisky straight away (this is an exothermic reaction which takes place between the alcohol and the water). Let the whisky sit for a couple of minutes and settle. Then go back and nose it again.
“I am a great believer in nosing the samples in my sample room several times so I can see how the flavour develops in the glass and also to see how the whisky holds up over time when reduced with water. This is also a very good indicator of how well put together the blend is. I would also recommend using a glass cover on your glass to trap the flavours in the headspace therefore increasing the concentration of flavours and making it easier to identify them on the nose.
“Flavours and memory of flavours are all about your own life experiences. Everyone has their own way of describing flavours. It is something you will need to work at to build the link between flavours and linking them with personal experiences but once you have mastered this and tap into the myriad of flavours in your whisky I firmly believe you will appreciate and enjoy your whisky even more.
“Comparing your tasting notes with others online may also help you understand what it is you can smell. Even if at first you find it difficult to identify individual notes, a bit of patience and persistence will help you train your nose – practice does indeed make perfect!”