Here's a bottle and an honest friend!
A Bottle and a Friend
One of the most mesmerising sights of the whole whisky-making process is to watch a Master Blender testing casks. With his assistant at his side, he moves along the rows at a brisk pace, pausing to nose a glass handed to him before passing on like a priest administering communion.
There is a strong sense of ritual as he moves smoothly round the warehouse with his glass, water and velincher, or pipette, drawing samples from the casks. As each is sniffed the residue is splashed over the oak cask before he turns his attention to the next.
Ballantine's Master Blender Robert Hicks can test 15 casks per minute this way, covering a row of 400 casks in a warehouse in around 30 to 35 minutes. During that time, as he lingers for only seconds at each cask of malt whisky, he can assess whether it meets his expectations, or falls short of them. To witness this is to experience a highly-skilled artist at work. Robert has more than 4,000 whisky aromas stored in his memory to recall at will, or call up to compare with the sample he is testing.
Against the four basic taste sensations we have - sweet, sour, bitter and salt - it is easy to see why blenders work almost exclusively by nose, tasting whisky only as a last resort. Aside from the obvious fact that anyone tasting 400 casks in 30 minutes would be rendered legless well before the end.
'If you were going to taste every single sample to pick up the heathers and honeys and all the different flavours, the whole process would take about two days,' our Master Blender says. 'What we are trying to do is to get a feel of the malt, working by instinct, experience and intuition to know whether the whisky is right or not.'
The role of the Master Blender is not simply concerned with striking the right balance of constituent whiskies. His experience and wisdom in the ways of whisky-making are involved in the whole process, checking quality from grain to glass. His sense of smell and taste are so acute that even the slightest variation in the quality of the water supply is picked up as he tests samples of malt whisky sent daily for his approval.
While the day-to-day skills of distilling are left to the stillman, experienced Master Blenders like Roberts Hicks formulate a policy relating to how much of the heart of the newly-distilled run of spirit should be captured. Robert and his assistant Sandy Hyslop have personally visited each of Ballantine's malt distilleries to work out precise individual timings for distillers.
Even the quality of the barley is not overlooked. While distillery managers test each batch to arrive, samples are also sent to Robert Hicks, who crushes the grain between his palms and smells it to ensure it will produce the right flavour.
In routinely testing sample batches of malt whiskies, he also pays particular attention to maturation and the optimum ages at which various malts reach their peak. Some mature more quickly than others and Robert decides which should be allocated more time and which are at their prime for 17 Years Old. Any malts which may not have interacted properly with the wood are left for further ageing.
All these careful tests take place before the Master Blender is satisfied that the malt and grain whiskies in his care have reached the high standard required by Ballantine's.
Purists who take a snobbish view that single malts are the only kind of whisky worth drinking, are not fully aware of the high levels of skill and talent that go into creating the world's great whisky blends. Ballantine's 17 Years Old is regarded as the ultimate achievement of the blender's art - the product of a distinguished dynasty of blenders reaching back to George Ballantine himself. The wisdom acquired by such men, passing on their knowledge to the next generation, made Scotch the international spirit enjoyed today.
'We test each cask to make sure it has matured up to the standard we have in mind,' Robert Hicks explains. 'The system also helps us to pick out the occasional cask which has matured too slowly and may not be suitable for 17 Years Old.'
Robert Hicks Watching Robert Hicks at work is witnessing history and tradition, as he widens his own experience and hands down his knowledge to his assistant Sandy.
Robert's method is to water-down the whisky samples he tests to around 20 per cent alcohol to release the aromatics of the malts and grains. 'If you pour two glasses of whisky at home and add an equal amount of water to one of them, it is like smelling two different whiskies,' he explains. 'Some people test at natural strength, but we always test at 20 per cent alcohol, using ordinary tap water to dilute the whisky.
'People wonder why we don't use something neutral, like distilled water. The reason is simply because it has no flavour or smell. When you sample whisky, you expect flavour and ordinary pure drinking water provides an excellent base.'
His sample room, with glass cabinets and rows of flasks, resembles a cross between a laboratory and a gentleman's club. This small room, hidden in the production complex at Kilmalid, Dumbarton, is the focal point of the entire Ballantine's operation. Here Robert conducts his orchestra of assembled malts, ensuring that week after week each plays exactly the right note and the quality of 17 Years Old remains consistent and unchanged.
He tests each day's production of all the new malt and grain whiskies that will mature to make up 17 Years Old, and other Ballantine's brands, to monitor fluctuations in flavour. And, for a man who can detect changes in the chlorine content of drinking water at one part per million, nothing slips by his inquiring nose.
In addition, the cupboards of his sampling room are crammed with as wide a range of whiskies from America, Ireland and Japan that any connoisseur is ever likely to set eyes on.
'The job of a Master Blender,' Robert explains, 'is not only to guarantee the continuity and quality of his own product, but to continually review and analyse other whiskies from around the world.'
Nothing in modern technology or computer science can take the place of the experience and refined judgement of an experienced blender. And, as yet, nothing has been invented to rival the sophistication of the human nose, though scientists are getting pretty close. The gas chromatograph and similar devices have already beaten some experts in a wine-tasting organised by a magazine. But, so far, the complexities of whisky have confused hi-tech equipment.
'A gas chromatograph can give you a chemical analysis of whisky, telling you what constituents are there and in what proportions,' retired Master Blender Jack Goudy says. 'But there's one thing it can't do - it can't tell you if it's any good!'
Robert Hicks, who has a keen interest in modern developments, tests many analysis machines as they are developed. 'I am working with an "electronic nose" at the moment, and I find it fascinating,' he says. 'I want to know how they function and what they're all about. If they work, fine - they may be a useful tool. If they don't work, we'll throw them away. I am a traditionalist, but with a healthy respect for modern science.'
Unlike hi-tech 'sniffers', it takes considerably longer to develop a nose of the calibre of Jack Goudy or Robert Hicks.
Jack, who recently retired, is one of the great characters of the Scotch whisky industry. Gruff and not known to suffer fools gladly, his trusty nose has often led him into arguments.
'There was one occasion when Jack nosed some new Balblair, one of the malt ingredients of 17 Years Old,' recalls Hector MacLennan of Ballantine's. 'This is a wonderful marzipan-sweet whisky with a hint of nuttiness from a distillery which has been operating since 1790.
'Jack rang the manager, Jimmy Yates, and complained he could detect a slight change in the flavour of the new malt. Jimmy scratched his head because there hadn't been many changes at Balblair that anyone could recall. A few buildings had been added up the hill in 1872. An extra still had been built in 1970; and that was about all . . . Then Jimmy remembered that he had had two feet of copper piping replaced in a section at the top of the still which led into the condenser. The new copper had been enough to minutely affect the flavour.'
Jack entered the industry as an office boy in 1944 and in 1950 began training as a blender under George Robertson, the legendary creator of 17 Years Old who retired in 1959. Jack studied at his elbow, acquiring half a century of skill and experience in maintaining the quality of Ballantine's premium blend.
The perfect pedigree for a Master Blender is the widest possible experience of the industry, preferably working for different companies in a variety of positions, from bottling to all aspects of production, to provide a broad base of knowledge before being apprenticed to a Master Blender. All blenders agree that the knowledge they pick up along the way is highly idiosyncratic and subjective. Even after a lifetime blending whisky, Jack Goudy admits that its smell and taste remain a personal experience. All Master Blenders accept that the aroma of whisky evokes different smell memories in everyone.
'We are working with something very ethereal,' Jack Goudy explains. 'I can't tell you what you are going to smell in a whisky. It is a personal experience.'
Quality is one of the main concerns of a Master Blender. Rather than assess the individual characteristics of each constituent malt and grain, he carries a smell and taste 'picture' of 17 Years Old in his head, mentally holding each ingredient up to it for reference. 'The essence of good blending is to achieve a harmonious whole,' Jack believes. 'We are the conductors, making sure each part plays in tune.'
At 65, Jack still spends one day a month in his beloved distillery as unofficial librarian and curator of Ballantine's extensive label collection. 'When it comes to whisky I have a little knowledge and a lot of experience,' he says modestly.
Like whisky itself, the nose matures with time. But, like the voice-box of an opera singer, great care has to be taken of it, which means keeping the environment as free from pollution as possible.
'No cigars,' Jack emphasises. 'No aftershave or scented soap. No curries or garlic. And the most sensitive work is always done before lunch.'
All completely understandable, but what happens when they catch a cold - does work grind to a halt? 'The funny thing is we rarely do,' Jack says. 'It must be the alcohol that keeps the head clear.'
The skill of the blender is to orchestrate the eye, nose and palate to produce a balance and consistency in the whisky he creates.
A blended whisky will consist of anything from 15 to 50 different single whiskies combined in secret proportions handed down by each Master Blender to his successor. In addition, each of the constituent malts will vary in colour, from a pale shade of white wine to rich oaken amber. Achieving uniformity of colour is also an important part of the blender's art. If anything would cause a Master Blender to wake in the middle of the night, it would be what is known as 'character drift', a blend gradually losing its identity because of variations in the malts or grains.
Robert Hicks, who worked with Jack for 24 years, says that whisky has undergone many changes, even in the course of his career - the degree of peating, installation of stainless steel and glass pipes in distilleries, stainless steel washbacks in place of wood, and a range of new grain varieties have all subtly altered the character of malt whisky.
It is a tribute to the skill of the blender that Robert can confidently say that 'throughout these changes, Ballantine's has stayed the same and we will continue to keep it the same.'
Just as people of different temperaments may be incompatible, so some whiskies of differing character may not blend satisfactorily. Malts and grains are carefully selected to enhance their respective flavours rather than mask them.
The single whiskies of 17 Years Old are brought from their maturation warehouses, tested and pumped into a blending vat. The flavours are 'aroused' by stirring, or with compressed air. Some blenders prefer to vat their malts and grains separately, for up to eight months apiece, bringing the two together before bottling.
'We put all the malts together in one vat and all the grains together in another,' Robert explains. 'Before blending, we test between 600 and 800 casks of malt and grain individually to build up a mental picture, to ensure the quality is there and to see if any fine-tuning is needed.
'Barrels are a natural product. You can't guarantee that each stave in a cask is identical to the next. We have millions of barrels, and no two will be the same. Each cask matures at a slightly different rate, which is why we have to continually test and monitor them.
'Because of the age and high quality of the malts in 17 Years Old, we do not believe they require "marrying". We rouse them, then allow them to rest for a week or two to obtain a completely homogenous mix.'
Robert ensures consistency by blending the malts and grains in large batches - blending vats for 17 Years Old hold 400 barrels (76,000 litres) - dividing the constituent whiskies into small 'parcels' so that continuity of flavour carries through.
The blender's art is to preserve the subtle individuality of each whisky and combine it with others to bring out its best qualities. In doing so he has to create a blended whisky of singular character that never varies from the standard and quality customers have come to expect. And, in the case of 17 Years Old, a whisky that travels well, too, adapting easily to various drinking fashions around the world.
'Whisky, and especially a rare whisky like 17 Years Old, is a gentle spirit which "bruises" easily,' Robert explains. 'Unlike, say, brandy, whisky will absorb surrounding smells of food or smoke which subtly affect its flavour.'The important aspect is the quality and character of the whisky itself. 17 Years Old has a distinguished pedigree which sets it apart. It's what I prefer to call a "sipping Scotch".'