Lauren and I consisted of Team Lahore, the name we conjured up by combining our names. We were tasked with blending a scotch with a superficial resemblance to the Ballantine’s sample that lay before us. Since this followed an intense day of being guided through sniffing and tasting 14 different whiskies at the Strathisla and Glenburgie distilleries, we should have been up to recognising some distinguishing features. Was the sample fruity? Creamy? Did we get floral fragrances? A nutty taste? Was it spicy? Honey?
In front of us lay seven drams of whiskies that we had to blend to arrive at the equivalent of Chivas Brothers’ master blenders. Whisky making is simple , at least in theory. Malted barley is ground into coarse grist, to which natural spring water is added along with yeast, which is then drained as new spirit and casked in wooden barrels over a certain number of years to create single malts. While few know that casked whiskies from the same distillery are blended to make up cases of single malt, several dozen of them go into the making of blended whiskies that we recognise as scotch.
Scotch making traces its origin to 1494. Records show that the king at the time ordered the making of this “water of life” (Gaellic for whisky). But till two centuries ago, Scotland’s finest was distilled illegally and prone to excise raids and smuggler attacks. The charming Strathisla distillery, set up in 1786, resembles something out of an Asterix comic, while the Glenlivet distillery, once tucked out of sight in the highlands from the probing eyes of officials, has been replaced with a gleaming new distillery with giant washback tanks and copper stills surrounded by picturesque low hills and meadows.
At the heart of the Chivas Brothers empire is its Strathisla distillery, Scotland’s oldest, but the scale and size of operations vary from the Aberlour distillery — quaintly eccentric, located next to a stream — to the Glenlivet “factory”, which is a mammoth operation.
Bonded warehouses store the whiskies being aged in American bourbon and French sherry casks, to bring out flavours and characteristics that will finally be expertly blended to keep the world in high spirits.
Our learning is being tested. We know that the foundation of a blended scotch is grain whisky. We use a generous volume of it to build a foundation, but its complexity is disabling. Nosing the whiskies, we arrive at our formula — the Miltonduff single malt is soft on the palate with a buttery, dry-fruity taste; the Glenburgie single malt is reminiscent of vanilla, honey and oak; the Speyside blended malt has spicy, honey tones; the highland blended malt is saucy and complex; the lowland blended malt has a light hint of something floral; the Islay is — what else? — smoky.
Identified rightly or wrongly, we have the unenviable task of figuring out the volumes we will need to mix and match. Do we want more spice, or more sweetness? A drop more of the Islay could ruin the mellow structure we’re aiming for? Too sweet will render it unfit as a whisky. We break up the taste by high, medium and low notes before measuring out accurate quantities and submitting the blend to the jury. How wrong have we got it?
Fortunately for us, Team Lahore trumps the competition. We’ve managed “sweetness and depth”, a judge tells us, but before we can congratulate ourselves on our experience as master blenders, we’re informed that our result is light years away from the sample. I guess we won’t be getting job offers any time soon.
To be continued...
—The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator