Whisk(e)y Men

December 22, 2009

Most whiskys (the Scottish and English spell the name of the drink without the American “e” in the middle) are blends. Famouse Grouse and the inestimable Johnnie Walker both are; oddly, most single malts are too. What we call single malts today are blends, but from casks of whisky in the same distillery.

Blenders, blending.

Blenders, blending.

Blended whisky was invented by Scots who realized that strong spirits went down smoother mixed with grain alcohol. The Irish, ever slow to change, clung to the stronger spirits and eventually Irish whisky lost ground to blended Scotches. Houses like Dewars and Johnnie Walker lead the revolution, but quickly came up against the same problems anybody who mixes things for a living comes up against: how to keep a consistent product, from bottle to bottle. So the Scottish distillers became expert mixologists also, judging blendable spirits by aroma and palate, adjusting for cost while retaining quality. Master blenders like Tom Aitken of Dewars, David Stewart of William Grant & Sons, and John Ramsay of Famous Grouse became sought-after commodities and honed their skills over decades.

As each blender gets on in years, he turns his craft over to apprentices. Aitken recently turned over the reins to Sophie MacLeod, Ramsay to Gordon Motion, and David Stewart to Brian Kinsman. Stewart, though, won’t retire: he’ll stay on as master blender of The Balvenie, a single malt whisky. The Balvenie is the first single malt to be finished in a separate wooden cask than the one in which it was started. He’s also the man behind the Glenfiddich Solera Reserve, and the blender responsible for choosing and blending the whiskys used in the landmark Glenfiddich 50 Year, an acknowledged masterpiece of the blenders’ art.