The art of blending

Last night (February 13) I sat through another Diageo master class on the art of blending and the importance of blended Scotch Whisky to the overall whisky and spirits market.

In Dr Nick Morgan, head of ‘whisky outreach’ for Diageo, the world’s largest premium drinks company has a quiet, powerful presence who can get his point across with the minimum of hyperbole and brand extolling.

At the Soho Whisky Club, Morgan and Johnnie Walker blender Dr Matthew Crow used a tasting of the Johnnie Walker Directors’ Blend to show off the prowess of the company’s blenders using these exclusive whiskies to demonstrate the quality and diversity of its blends. Crow is the ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ to John Walker & Sons master blender, Jim Beveridge.

These blends, 2008 to 2012 are not for sale. The idea of the Director’s Blend came from David Gates who was the Walker global brand director and now heads up the whole Diageo whisky division. The idea is that only approximately 500 individually numbered bottles are produced. They are given to the directors of John Walker & Sons on a personal basis for them give to others working closely with Johnnie Walker, and to a “very few external partners”. Asked if any had been sold on, Morgan said they were aware of two which had been sold for “four figures”.

The first edition of The Directors Blend was the 2008 (all of the Directors Blends are 46% abv, except for 2009 which was cut to 43% due to some haze that was discerned at 46%). The blend was quite light in appearance, indicting young grain whisky and was creamy and spicy with a hint of pepper on the palate. This blend was essentially about young grain whisky aged in American oak to give a sweet, clean blend. Apparently, the inspiration for that first edition was the ‘discovery’ of a special parcel of casks that had been laid down 14 years ago.

The 2009 edition could barely be more different. Dark, smoky, peaty, with antiseptic notes (TCP). This blend focuses on the trademark Johnnie Walker smoky finish. By blended whisky standards, the 2009 is regarded as “off the scale” and could easily be mistaken for an Islay single malt. Morgan quipped that a colleague had described the 2009 as: “it chews like Coal Ila” (Diageo’s Islay single malt whisky distillery).

The 450 signed bottles of the 2010 edition is marked by the use of sherry casks for a full-bodied flavour of dried fruits, raisins, sultanas, figs and apricots. This blend reminiscent of early 20th century Speyside malts, was the favourite of many at last night’s tasting.

The 2011 Directors Blend was darker again and the accompanying notes state that Jim Beveridge took his inspiration from the oak casks. The presence of both US and Euroopean oak comes across loud and clear. Quite robust and stern, there is a discernable banana note with an oily, syrupy coating.

The 2012 edition is about the flavours from the malt distilleries used in Diageo blends. There are fresh fruit characteristics from young malt whisky. Old grain whiskies have been added to give the malt flavours. The malt whiskies are from the Highland region, chosen for their fruitiness and fragrance.

Work on the 2013 blend started two weeks ago, according to Morgan and Crow.

A fascinating evening, once again demonstrating the skill of blending and underlining the importance of blended Scotch whisky to Diageo’s overall business.