First taste of single malt and making my own blend of whisky
This week’s special treat is a guest post from Sai Raje who works on my team and recently returned from a trip to UK and Scotland.
I was never a whisky lover who could wax eloquent about the finer differences between a whisky and a whiskey. But blending your own whisky at a Scottish Highland distillery is just the sort of thing that turns you over to the other side.
I know that ‘I had stepped into a scene from a Hans Christen Andersen fairytale’, is not the sort of tacky opening line you’d expect in a description of a distillery. But what else can you say about a 175-year-old distillery that has a cosy little cottage with wisps of smoke rising from its chimney for an office and a gurgling stream behind it thrown in for good measure?
The whisky distillery that displayed no external signs of being one had a definite appeal to someone like me who doesn’t get too excited about the golden stuff. My encounters with whisky have been few and far between, limited to a sip (only tried a few cheap, Indian blended whiskies so far) and usually followed by a grimace. When it comes to wine, I can fully appreciate the toffee, vanilla, citrus, smoky, flowery and what other notes have you; no such luck with whisky.
But then, at the risk of sounding absolutely snooty and highhanded, I suppose you have to be at a true blue Scottish Highland Single Malt distillery and be offered a tour and tasting by their master blender to know why they worship single malt or why whisky is fondly called ‘liquid bread’.)
I had read about how seriously the Scots take their whisky but fully understood what that meant on two occasions. The first was when our fiercely Scottish tour guide in Glasgow, in a dramatic tone, as if he were reading poetry, sighed and pronounced whisky ‘the water of life’. And the second was when our trip coordinator who was half-Scottish, told us how her sister’s great love for whisky was jokingly attributed to her mother filling her ‘doodoo’ bottles with single malt instead of milk when she was a toddler. ‘But jokes apart, Scots get a first taste of whisky quite early,’ she said.
At the Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Whisky distillery, north of Glasgow, where we were in for a distillery tour and a master blending session, 1.1 million litres of highland single malt whisky are produced every year. I had a taste of the fine stuff as soon as we reached the distillery as we were greeted with a small glass each on arrival. It was super smooth, subtle yet full of flavours, which I am not connoisseur enough to describe in precise adjectives here and certainly the most fantastic thing you could be offered to warm you up on a typically cold, grey and rainy Scottish morning. Must pick up a bottle from duty-free for dad, I thought.
The distillery, which is known for producing the world’s best highland single malt whiskies, needs about 100 litres of water to produce just one 750 ml bottle of this special whisky. For any whisky to qualify as single malt, it needs to be produced in one distillery and aged for a minimum of three and a half years in oak casks, among other things. Glengoyne’s youngest single malt is aged for 10 years and they use special European red oak casks that have previously held sherry to draw in its colours and flavours into the whisky as well. A blend of single malt and several grain whiskies (which don’t have a production method as stringent as single malt) from different distilleries is what is called a blended whisky. This has a much lighter flavour than single malt.
Now single malt may be valued much more for its rich, pure flavour and complex characteristics as opposed to a blended whisky, but that does not really make money sense for the distillery. While a bottle of blended whisky costs as much as 10 pounds in the UK, single malt costs upward of 25 pounds. Glengoyne’s 10-year-old single malt costs 71 pounds or Rs 6,000 and their 40-year-old costs 3000 pounds, which is about Rs 2,40,000 (hmm…must abandon plan of gifting dad a bottle).
There just aren’t enough people buying single malt as there are buying blended whisky. As the master blender at Glengoyne tells us, only 20 per cent of their single malt is bottled and sold. The other 80 per cent is just sold to blended whisky distilleries. That’s where their profits come from.
Blending single malt with several grain whiskies is a complex process as well. The master blender really has to know the characteristics of the whiskies well before he/she decides which flavours are best married in a blend. And that’s what the master blender’s session at the Glengoyne distillery takes us through.
We mix 60 per cent of single malt with 40 per cent of our choice of four grain whiskies. I choose the grain whiskies based on the flavours mentioned on each of its labels and a fair amount of sniffing and tasting happens before I decide on the varying amounts of four grain whiskies that make up 40 per cent of my blend. I am partial to the ones with the apples, vanilla, toffee and fruit notes and I ignore the ones high on the cereal, oak and smoky flavours. I carefully bottle 200 ml of my blend into a tiny bottle, which I label carefully with my surname prefixed with ‘Glen’, as is tradition.
The bottle even has a dainty, blue ribbon tied on its neck. Perfect memento for dad. As the folks at the distillery tell us, Scottish single malt has the flavour of the land, with oak, sherry and even the scent of the wind in it.
It’s a whole country in one glass.