The past few months, I’ve spent much time talking about blends. From pieces on blended malt (like this one on Monkey Shoulder) through to classic blends (like these on Johnnie Walker, Ballantine’s, Cutty Sark and Jameson) and more rambunctious offerings from newer blenders (such as Compass Box), I’ve tried to show that blends have a wide scope and should get a good deal more attention paid to them than they may do because there is an incredible skill which goes into their construction.
But it wasn’t until a recent event that I stopped and realised just how often the idea of blending can be put towards different crafts that sit outside of the realm of whisky.
The evening of note saw a large group of people gather at a townhouse near Baker Street. While the evening was hosted by Johnnie Walker, the focus was less on the whisky and more about the skills that blenders put into their various crafts.
The non-whisky related blenders came from five categories: perfume, tweed, chocolate, tea and cocktails. We were also joined by the humble but expert Jim Beveridge of Johnnie Walker to finish the night off discussing whisky blending.
The group I was with started the evening by listening to expert perfume maker, Angela Flanders – once a BBC costume designer with a penchant for aromatherapy, who ended up getting into her line of work later in life and opened a shop on London’s Columbia Road.
For the evening, she was tasked with creating a perfume that would remind one of the scents found in whisky, which suited her just fine.
“I always liked whisky. I like the flavours, those smoky and honey notes. I told my father that and he said, ‘It’s not really a woman’s drink is it?'” she told us, laughing.
To create the perfume – called Aqua Alba – she tried many of the whiskies which go into the various Johnnie Walker blends and began thinking how she could construct a perfume that would have notes of “the Highlands and Islands, that picked up on these wild places” without making someone “go around smelling of whisky” itself. One of the key ingredients Angela chose to use was Agar wood, which she said helped to impart a woody sweetness that one often picks up in whisky.
“I thought, where do I go from here? It was either going to work or I was going to abandon ship and start again but amazingly, everyone loved the initial version,” she said.
Next up on the night was Kirsty McDougall, a tweed maker from Dashing Tweeds, a London-based bespoke tweed maker. Kirsty, once destined to be bio-chemist, became fascinated by tweed and showed us attendees how the wool is blended together to create beautiful coloured patterns that eventually go on to be used in the clothes.
“There’s something quite magical about seeing it appear and come together before your eyes as you blend it,” she said.
The evening’s third speaker was Chantal Coady, founder of chocolate specialist Rococo chocolates, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. While she studied textiles, it was a job at Harrod’s selling chocolates in the food department that got her fascinated in this work. As a creator of bespoke chocolates, she has spent years sourcing fairly traded and properly produced cocoa for her bars and truffles, including buying a cocoa farm in Grenada and working with locals to improve livelihood and sustainability.
For her, blending is about bringing all the various ingredients together in a package which will be intriguing and appealing.
“When it comes to a flavour, I see it in my head and then try to come to that image in my final blend,” she explained.
We tried a basil and Persian lime chocolate that was a perfect melange of earthy sweetness and sharp sour notes, and a stunning passion fruit and rosemary chocolate that had a gorgeous balance between the two powerhouse flavours. They were entirely divine.
Attention was then turned back to alcohol, with award-winning mixologist Nick Strangeway showing how he views blending in this sphere.
“I like to take a classic and tweak it,” he explained.
As we enjoyed cocktails (such as one made with Johnnie Walker Platinum, heather honey syrup, sugar cubes with a dash of seed oil and Prosecco) Nick took us through his experience of blending ingredients to make cocktails that have gained him notoriety in his field.
The final guest of the evening before we got to the whisky was Henrietta Lovell, also known simply as The Tea Lady. As a tea blender, she sources tea from single estates and interesting places around the world to make her own blended tea.
“There is nothing ordinary about English Breakfast,” she exclaimed, before taking us through various samples of tea which she had blended to make something more special than your ordinary cuppa.
Finally, Jim Beveridge walked us through the various individual whiskies which make up Johnnie Walker Black label. There was a classic Speyside, with apple and pear notes, and a fruitier sherried dram that was all dark raisins and oranges on the nose. We also sampled a grain whisky that was a super vanilla powerhouse.
“What grain does is it works with the malt to help break apart the flavours in it and reveal notes that you wouldn’t normally notice if the grain wasn’t there; it plays a very active role in a blend,” he explained.
As we sipped our final drams of the night, I felt I had seen a new side of a whole set of various industries. It was fascinating to stop for a moment and think about how much work and effort can go into blending ingredients (whether they be Agar Wood and Patchouli, strands of various colours of wool or the flavours in your favourite truffle) and I, yet again, doff my cap to those people who take the time to understand the elemental nature of those ingredients to make an end product that is alluring and enjoyable.
My thanks to the Johnnie Walker team for inviting me along and to Story PR for organising such an interesting evening. Canapes, it should be mentioned, were provided by the fantastic Signe Johansen, whose food is delicious and full of a blend of flavours. More about her here.