Blending whisky certainly is an art. The perfect balance within our iconic blended Scotch whisky range is down to decades of experience and experimentation, alongside a flair for flavour. Chivas Regal Master Blender Sandy Hyslop explains why we blend whisky, what makes a professional blender and how to drink whisky.
WHY BLEND WHISKY?
“What we’re trying to do with blended whisky is take many different flavours and make something greater than the sum of its parts. Single malt whisky can have a lovely individual flavour, but it’s one dimensional and doesn’t have many facets. You can produce something far more complex with blended whisky. For example, a single malt may have a fruity pear-drop flavour but when blended, the end result could be fruity pear-drop flavours complimented by floral notes and finished with a wisp of bonfire smoke. Blending whisky is like cooking: the ingredients are all unique but when those ingredients come together, you can create something extraordinary and complex.
People should know that as well as blending the right whiskies together in the right proportions, flavour is hugely influenced by the cask maturation – nearly 50% of the end flavour comes from the cask influence in an expression like Chivas 18. You can take the same whisky, put it in two different casks and create two completely different whiskies! American oak enhances the vanilla flavours, sherry casks bring out spicy raisin fruitcake flavours; the list is endless. We experiment with a lot of different casks to come up with such a diverse range.”
WHAT IS A MASTER BLENDER?
“A Master Blender is someone that has a fantastic sense of smell. Your nose is by far the most important tool as a professional blender. To put it in context, I probably nose 1,500-2,000 samples a week yet taste around five. There are far more flavour receptors on the nose – almost 5,000 of them in fact!
As well as having a good sense of smell, being able to describe and identify those smells is incredibly important. Everyone’s life experiences are different, and everybody describes smells slightly differently. For example, if I asked you to think about what grass smells like, you’ll have an image in your head of a certain time, whether that’s when you’re young in the garden or on holiday. That picture will match up to a specific smell in your head, and everyone’s is different. That means it’s very important to be able to articulate that smell. Rather than saying you can smell apple, you need to distinguish the type – say, soft red apples rather than crisp granny smith apples, or sweet toffee rather than creamy toffee. You need to paint a picture using your own words and use those descriptive words consistently across whiskies.
Being a Master Blender is a huge team effort – it’s not just down to one person in the role. When I first became a Master Blender I was blending the stock that the previous Master Blender had laid down for me. Patience is important here, as it took time to be able to blend whiskies with the stock that was put down under my tenure. You also have to make sure to leave the house in good order; that is, to leave the right stock for the next Master Blender. I’ll get to see some whisky blends through from start to finish, but the older whiskies that I’ve just tasted to lay down for a long time will be for the next Master Blender.
Being able to experiment is incredibly important, as is being prepared to fail in some of those experiments. I’m lucky that I can experiment to my heart’s content! With whisky, there’s no instant outcome – you have to try something with a small amount of stock, then wait years to see the result. If you like that result, you then have to do the process again on a grander scale.
While people think I’m hidden in the blending room like a magician, the biggest part of being a Master Blender is making sure that a brand with incredible lineage like Chivas remains the same consistent blend that people love, year after year.”
HOW DID YOU BECOME A MASTER BLENDER?
“I got into the whisky industry by pure chance! In 1983, I had a place to study chemistry at University after finishing school. My father really didn’t want me to go on to further education– he said it was a waste of money! He saw an ad in the local newspaper about a job working in a whisky sample room and said that I should apply for that. I was working and earning money, and then one day a week I was released to continue my studies. Working in the whisky sample room was fabulous! I had a lot of opportunities to try lots of new things and build my experience. Working in a small company then also gave me opportunities to work across the whole whisky-making process.”
WHAT IS THE CORRECT WAY TO DRINK WHISKY?
“How you decide to drink whisky is absolutely a personal choice. People should experiment with how they drink whisky to find their perfect serve: with different amounts of water, different amounts of ice, or with soda and lots of crushed ice. The great thing about Scotch whisky is that it’s hugely versatile and there are so many options. Don’t let anyone tell you it should only ever be drunk neat – there’s no need to limit it to one thing.”
WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE CHIVAS BLEND?
Choosing my favourite Chivas blend would be like choosing between my own children! I do love Chivas Ultis though, as being able to introduce something new to the range like Chivas Ultis was a highlight. It’s a beautiful whisky!”
Try blending your own whisky at home with the Chivas Regal Blending Kit.
Interested in the whisky-making process? Read about how whisky is made at Strathisla distillery.