Blending In

By: Tod Stewart

It’s been said that spirit distilling is a science, and spirit blending is an art. As I am neither a scientist nor an art-ist, I prefer to simply enjoy the end result of the distiller’s science and blender’s art.

  That being said, in the interest of science (possibly art), I’ve subjected myself to the organoleptically humbling “blending exercise” on several occasions, trying to duplicate house styles with the Metaxa Master Blender in sunny Greece; with the Mount Gay Rum Master Blender in sunny Barbados; with the Appleton Estate Master Blender in sunny (sort of) Jamaica; and with the Brand Ambassador for the Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky in the bowels of a definitely un-sunny bar in Toronto. I’m sure there were more. Most have been men-tally blocked, as the mind can only tolerate a finite number of crushing failures.

  So, acquiescing to the reality that I would never enter the sacred realm of Master Blender, I chose instead to live vicariously through the lives of those who have, in an effort to understand more about the art and science of blending.

  Enter Cécile Roudaut, Master Blender for St-Rémy, the French distiller of one of the world’s most popular brandies. To her mind, distilling and blending are equal parts art and science, but the approach to each differs slightly.

  “For me, both distillation and blending are arts, but they are expressed differently,” she said. “I think that the art of distillation requires a lot of know-how but also intuition, and depending on what you want to achieve…inspiration.” When it comes specifically to blending, Roudaut said that “the olfactory notes are a bit like music notes, they must be harmonious and not discordant. Blending is the art of harmony of notes; there is a part of intellectual, of artistic property.”

  To me, the art/science/frustration of spirit blending is twofold. First, it aims to create a sort of liquid gestalt, where the blend turns out to be something magically different than its component parts. Secondly, it seeks to do this consistently, day in day out. Most spirits are, in fact, blends. Whether you’re blending whisk(e)y, brandy, rum or tequila, you’ll be shooting for a common goal, though you may go about it somewhat differently.

  “The common objective [in blending] is to obtain a product that conforms to a standard,” said Karina Sanchez, Global Brand Ambassador for the tequila producer Casa Sauza. “For a specific [type of] spirit, the blending process has unique details related to customs and legal constraints, production and warehousing processes, ap-proval criteria and so on.”

  These blends are typically closely guarded secret recipes, sometimes passed down from hand to hand. Could someone who’s not a part of the covenant of the Master Blender/Knights Templar/Masonic Orders in general ever be able to duplicate a successful blend? Maybe it isn’t possible. Maybe trying to replicate a blend is a mug’s game.

  So I asked a few Master Blenders this: Is trying to replicate a blend a mug’s game? To which they replied: “Yeah, pretty much.” See, even if you had all the exact component liquids and mixed them in the exact propor-tions, you still wouldn’t get the correct mix down in a blend-off competition that might last an hour.

  Here’s a possible reason why.

  Spirit blenders have been likened to marriage counselors in many instances, or at least in one instance I know of for sure. In the book Goodness Nose, Richard Patterson, Master Blender for Whyte & MacKay scotch, revealed this about whisky blending: “Not all of the whiskies will immediately fall in love with each other. Indeed, some may be totally incompatible. The boisterous, younger malts may simply flirt, only to go their separate ways. The chosen whiskies must be given time to court, time to sort out their differences and to make the necessary compromises before a perfect partnership is achieved.” Obviously, all this cohabitating, marrying and getting-to-know-each-other isn’t really doable during a blending exercise that may only last a half-hour or less. Before that stage, the professional blender’s task is not only to select the spirits that will best work together to create a final product but also to ensure that there is sufficient stock of the components on hand to recreate this product in the volume required regularly.

  “I believe that blending is about controlling all phases of the rum-making process,” said Nelson Hernandez, Master Blender at Diplomático rum. Hernandez explained that crafting what he calls the  “Diplomático style” calls for a combination of elements and processes, including the final blending of distillates extracted from three distinct stills.

  “We have a continuous distillation system we call Barbet. It was designed in 1959 exclusively for our distillery, with a very particular internal shape that allows us to obtain a light but very aromatic distillate. Another unique system we have was imported from Canada. It is called a Batch Kettle, and we adapted it to get a semi-complex distillate. Finally, we have a discontinuous copper system, which was used in Scotland until 1959 to produce malt whisky. These distinct distillation systems allow us to obtain three completely unique and exclusive distillates, which we then age for different durations and blend them to achieve our specific expressions.”

  Be it rum, whisky, brandy or tequila, once the blender is satisfied with the profile of the new blend — or the proximity to the “standard” is so close that no differences can be detected — the blend is ready to be replicated on a commercial scale. However, given the advances in modern science and technology, I wondered how im-portant the human senses are in the finalizing process, especially when it comes to duplicating a pre-existing blend. Surely in the world of gas spectrometers and the like, this task would be best handled by machines. Or so I thought.

  “The Whisky Mastery Team at The Macallan are a truly unique group of individuals whose abilities to blend single malt whisky have put them at the forefront of the industry,” said Cameron Millar, The Macallan Brand Ambassador. “The human element of whisky making is largely down to the use of a whisky maker’s nose or olfactory sense. This team of whisky makers will nose each and every cask selected for use by The Macallan, providing a quality check that no machine or technology could ever replicate.”

  In fact, of the half dozen or so Master Blenders, Cellar Masters, and Brand Ambassadors I spoke to, all were unanimous in asserting that while technology can offer assistance, it is ultimately human senses that dictate the final blend. “So far, there is no modern technology that has managed to replace the talent of men and women Cellar Masters,” confirmed Anne Sarteaux, Cellar Master for French brandy producer De Valcourt. “Of course, there are analyses that ensure the organoleptic components serving as support for the daily work, but only the human palate identifies the subtlety of the Eaux-de-vie which make up the final blend.”

  Hernandez concluded that, from a strictly human perspective, a Master Blender has to have an exceptionally good memory for aromas and flavors. Probably a bit of an understatement.

  Once the ultimate blend has been settled on, it’s time for the Master Blender to unleash it on a thirsty world. This basically involves recreating the blend by the barrel rather than by the beaker. But it’s not quite as simple as a straight swapping of millilitres for casks.

  “To start, each blend is elaborated in our laboratories with graduated test tubes,” Sarteaux said. “Then we select the available blends that we regularly test. We then develop the blend on a larger scale, always testing the or-ganoleptic quality. Each selection is then tasted. Lastly, we test our brands blind with an independent and expert consultant.”

  Constantine Raptis heads up perhaps one of the most intricate blending regimes. As Metaxa Master, Raptis blends spirits, wines, and a special aromatic component together to create the signature spirit of Greece.

  “I create Metaxa by bringing together aged distillates, Muscat wines from the Aegean islands and a secret bou-quet of May roses and Mediterranean herbs,” Raptis said. “Every blend is created following the same philoso-phy. The first step is to collect, evaluate and record all the information (years of aging, origin, organoleptic characteristics) of every cask where distillates are left to age. Then, based on my experience and — sometimes small-scale tests — I decide which cask will be used for the specific blend. The content of the casks is emptied in a tank and stirred. The new blend is then tested, and if needed, I may add some specific distillate to achieve the final character of the blend that I am looking for. Usually, my blends are 20,000 or 70,000 litres, depending on the Metaxa style that I want to create.”

  Consistent flavor is what a blender aims for, but just as different casks bring different nuances in flavour and taste, color consistency also has to be considered and typically adjusted. Raptis said, “Every blend is created with distillates of different aging that may have certain variations in their appearance. Therefore, every final blend may present slight colour variations that are adjusted by the addition of natural caramel colour. This step is important so as to maintain stable all the other organoleptic qualities of the blends.” Note that the addition of natural caramel color is standard practice in the blended spirits industry and has no impact on the final taste of a brown spirit.

  Sometimes, for blenders to offer something truly unique, a break with traditional practices (and mindset) is re-quired. Canada’s Alberta Distillers Ltd. releases an annual, limited edition Alberta Premium Cask Strength Rye Whisky. In blending the final product, a bit of “coloring outside the lines” is necessary.

  “To create our award-winning Cask Strength Rye whisky, Alberta Distillers Ltd. breaks from the traditional blending technique that other Canadian distillers are known for and selects only pot stilled liquid that is aged in new white oak barrels,” said George Teichroeb, the distillery’s General Manager. “Once matured and drained directly from these barrels, nothing is added to the whisky. Additionally, we use both pallet and rack style warehouses during maturation. This, coupled with the unique weather we experience here at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, offer distinctive nuances to this coveted whisky.”

  Like the end product itself, the art and science of spirit blending are complex. But whether they are mingling whisky, rum, tequila, brandy or exotic elixirs like Metaxa, the aim of the blender is the same — consistency and uniqueness in aroma, flavor and color. The Master Blenders and Cellar Masters use both talent and time to en-sure that, as a spirit aficionado, you can be confident that the second bottle you buy will be every bit as enjoya-ble as the first one.

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