Monday, September 17, 2007

Blending; The Scottish Influence

Among we fans of American whiskey, ‘blend’ is a bad word, connoting both the ‘imitation’ whiskeys of the past and the unedifying American Blended Whiskeys of the present day.

Even in Scotland, where the art of whiskey blending began, today it gets no respect. Real whiskey enthusiasts don't care about Johnnie Walker, regardless of label color. It's all about single malts.

But as my friend Gary Gillman often reminds me, blending gives us an unlimited variety of flavors, some of which are wonderful and can be achieved no other way. As his fellow Canadian Sam Bronfman once said, "distilling is a science, blending is an art."

What I have realized just recently is how influential Scottish blending techniques have been, especially in some unexpected places, especially the practice of combining very flavorful pot-distilled spirit with more neutral column-distilled spirit. This is, of course, the way Scottish, Canadian and Japanese whiskey blends are made, but as I recently learned it also is the way fine rums are blended in the former British colony of Jamaica by Appleton Estate. Different varieties of sugar cane are processed, their molasses separated from their pure sugar content, then the molasses is fermented, distilled in either a pot or column still, and aged in used Jack Daniel's barrels. These different, aged rums are then blended to a desired taste profile, exactly the way Scottish whiskey blends are made, except with rum.

In the United States, where we value straight whiskey above all else, and where pot stills are usually used only for secondary distillation, there are still some parallels. Four Roses makes ten different bourbon formulas by combining five different yeasts with two different mash bills. Everything is aged in new, charred barrels; i.e., everything is straight bourbon. Still, they have ten different taste profiles, more if you factor in different ages, which they combine (i.e., blend) into an ideal final product.

Most American whiskey-makers do something similar, though less ambitious. They make only one formula but they achieve different flavors through the natural process of aging, both through time and warehouse location. They then select and mix (i.e., blend) whiskeys of different ages and from different warehouse locations until they match their brand’s taste profile. The only exceptions are bottled-in-bond bourbons, which are increasingly rare, and single-barrel bourbons, which are increasingly common.

By American law, any combination of straight whiskeys of the same type, made in the same state (why this is important I can’t explain), is still a straight whiskey of that type. Therefore, a mixture of different straight bourbons, even made at different distilleries, is still straight bourbon. Which brings us naturally to Woodford Reserve.

Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select is even closer to the Scottish model, in that it combines pot-distilled straight bourbon with column-distilled straight bourbon and mixes (i.e., blends) them in much the same way as Appleton blends rum. It's no accident that Brown-Forman, whose controlling Brown family is proud of its Scottish ancestry, makes both Woodford Reserve Bourbon and Appleton Rum.

Finally, I learned recently that Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, creator of Old Forester, which was originally (in 1870) a blend of straight bourbons from different distilleries, opposed the part of the Bottled-in-Bond Act that requires bonded whiskey to be from one distillery during a single season. He valued the ability to mix whiskey of different ages and from several distilleries together to achieve the best possible flavor. Old Forester Signature is 100° proof, the traditional proof of American straight whiskey, but it is not bottled-in-bond, as whiskeys of different ages are combined (i.e., blended) to achieve the desired taste profile. Taking this principle even further, Brown-Forman uses different taste profiles (i.e., blends) for its Signature and standard 86° proof expressions. Most whiskeys sold at different proofs are the same profile diluted to different strengths.

As E. H. Taylor said a century ago and in support of the Bottled-in-Bond Act, where American blended whiskey went off the track was by emphasizing cheapness. Though some of the worst practices of that era were eliminated, the typical American blended whiskey today combines a little bit of straight whiskey (about 40 percent) with a lot of grain spirit (about 60 percent). Grain spirit is vodka that has spent a few months in used bourbon barrels, to take the edge off. American blends also have flavoring and coloring agents added, which straight whiskey never does.

Considering the current size of the American whiskey industry—seven companies operating eleven distilleries—blending good straight whiskeys is a way to achieve a greater variety of flavors. Maybe the word ‘blend’ has been debased but the practice shouldn’t be. Blending may also be a way for craft distillers, still struggling with how to make a legitimate ‘craft’ American whiskey, to get into the game, by combining their aged distillate with good bulk whiskey from one of the majors.

We should all keep a open mind.

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