About 6 weeks ago I got an email from a chap from William Grant’s: Ludo Ducrocq. Ludo is a lovely bloke, he started working at Glenfiddich as a tour guide years ago and worked up through the company to his current position as Brand Ambassador for Grant’s. I’ve known him for a couple of years just, his enthusiasm and passion for his work is obvious, endearing, enviable and his palate is seriously impressive. Not only that, we seem to share tastes in whisky. Or so he says, maybe just humouring an enthusiastic amateur…
Anyway, Ludo wanted to ask me something – would I be interested in coming up to the distillery to help recreate a 100-year-old blend? Now, knowing precisely squat about blending, this was something of a worry. Would I embarrass my myself? Would I look like a dilettante or, worse, just a twat?
No matter, I couldn’t refuse. So on the 11th of June 2012 I found myself at Glenfiddich with Ludo, Brian Kinsman (who needs no introduction, surely? Malt Master, Master Blender, Apprentice of David Stewart, Keeper of the Quaich and creator of Snow Phoenix) and some of the better whisky bloggers out in the whiskyweb.
Ludo & Brian, hard at work:
Let’s step back a bit first though.
Last summer, Paul Kendal – the Grant’s Archivist – found the very first blending book, dating back to June 11th 1912. In this wonderful tome there is detail of every whisky that went into every batch, in exact proportions:
The challenge that day was to use this ancient ingredient list to recreate the blend, no problem eh?
Well, at first glance, you might think it would be easy enough but let’s have a closer look at that blend…
Port Dundas? Cambus? Cale? All closed a few years back.
Sherry grain? Well that’s not helpful. Where from? What kind of sherry? 1st fill or refill?
How peated was whisky 100 years ago? Definitely more but by how much?
How different were Glenfiddich and Balvenie?
It’s absolutely clear that a lot of care went into this dram, it’s imperative that we respect that and try our best to honour these pioneering artists.
Some interesting things to note from this blending book:
1. Even in 1912 the sizes of casks are very varied, from Octaves to Quarters to Hoggies to Butts (but no American Barrels?)
2. In Stand Fast the ages of contributing drams are from 2 to 14 years old. 14yo? That’s some pretty old whisky given that over the years blends have progressively got older. Generally it’s understood that whisky was drunk younger than nowadays…
3. 36% sherry and 5% of Highland Park, this was no simple blend of whatever was available – Mr Grant Esq was looking for fruit, honey, weighty spirit and a balance of smoke with delicate malt and the grain.
We started with grain, which would form 60% of the finished spirit before the reduction.
I have to get on my soap-box here and say that I love grain whisky. I’ve only tried 15 or 20 single grains but the majority have been wonderful, complex drams. Why then do people dismiss grain (and blends for that matter) as inferior spirits? Arse. Give any whisky snob a JW Green blind and let them talk about what a great single malt it is… Or a single cask North British from SMWS:
Right, rant over.
Two or three blends of grain were all it took to establish the base of our blend and now is a good time to talk about Brian Kinsman. I was lucky to be standing to his left so each time he nosed a sample it came straight to me. He’s s small guy: quiet, unassuming, modest. But he spend two seconds with a sample, perhaps three – and knows if it’s right. If not, he knows exactly what it needs. The man is a prodigious talent and a thoroughly likeable fellow to boot.
The malt master:
So that’s the grain sorted. Next comes the malt – Glenfiddich and Balvenie including two extraordinary heavily peated young drams taking the place of the Highland Park.
The profile we were aiming for was something recognisable as a vintage William Grant’s: honey and malt, sherry fruit and old-school peat and I think we nailed it.
One last thing… We’re blending single casks of grain and malt whisky here – they’re cloudy by their very nature.
Now, I’m no expert but the process of chill filtering grates on me. Personally, I don’t give a shit if my whisky is cloudy. Frankly I think that little bits of charred oak shrapnel in a bottle are nice things to have – a little cloudiness doesn’t bother me in the slightest. Brian Kinsman says that distillers who claim that filtration affects the character of whisky just aren’t doing it right. I’m not going to argue but I still be quite happy if my whisky was left as it was when it departed the cask… Apparently I’m in a tiny minority though!
For the sake of tradition, this whisky obviously isn’t going to be chill filtered but some form of filtration would be needed. Egg whites are what are needed:
Apparently the egg whites attract the fatty acids which cause the cloudiness and after a few days the whisky can be passed through a particle filter to separate the eggy gunk from the good – and clear – booze. Any chemists (Will P?) care to help me out?
The day was nicely finished off with a superb meal in the new Grant’s “Family Home”. Great food, great surroundings, great company and, last of all, a decanter of some great whisky : 2012 Stand Fast.