Posts Tagged ‘art of blending’


This is my third post about the Johnnie Walker Art of Blending webcast event with Johnnie Walker Master Blender Andrew Ford. Why am I still blogging about it? I realize I’m probably providing more coverage than a lot of people are interested in, but I thought I’d try to give a full account of the webcast, as different bits of information might be of interest to different people. This post will cover the final two-thirds of the webcast, where Mr. Ford walked through the 7 samples that were provided in the blending kit. I’ll share Mr. Ford’s insights, as well as his answers to questions that were posed along the way. Finally, I’ll provide some of my own notes about the samples.

Regions and Flavor Map

After discussing the history of Johnnie Walker, Mr. Ford briefly went over the regions of Scotland, and the types of whiskies you’re likely to get from those different regions. From the Lowlands, you tend to get a light style whisky, while the Highland whiskies are more robust. The west coast and islands is where the smoky whiskies usually turn up. Speyside is the region with the most distilleries, and the location of the first distillery purchased by Johnnie Walker, Cardhu. He didn’t discuss Campbelltown or Orkney, but that’s not particularly surprising given that Diageo doesn’t own any distilleries in those areas. 🙂

Scotland Whisky Regions

Scotland Whisky Regions

Mr. Ford referred to the Single Malt Whisky Flavor Map throughout the webcast. This flavor map is provided by Diageo, but it does contain distilleries not owned by Diageo. It attempts to place distillery profiles on two scales, from Delicate to Smoky and from Light to Rich. Click on the image to view a larger version.

Single Malt Whisky Flavor Map

Single Malt Whisky Flavor Map

The Whiskies


Mr. Ford stressed the importance of using a nosing glass when assessing whiskies, and not something like a tumbler. He also said that blenders typically assess whiskies at half strength (around 20%).

Question from audience: Why half strength?

Answer by A.F.: The flavors come out from the liquid, into the empty space in the nosing glass, presenting themselves more clearly. It also allows you to focus on the flavors and not be influenced as much by the alcohol itself.


Grain whisky, which uses grains other than barley, came to the whisky blending industry in 1832 when the Coffey still was invented. The Coffey still produces a very light spirit, and even after 12 years in a cask, the flavor is still quite light. Mr. Ford stated that it probably wouldn’t even show up on the Flavor Map. He likened Grain whisky in a blend to pasta or rice in a food dish, serving up the flavors of the single malt, and providing drinkability and sweetness.

My Take: I thought the grain sample tasted ok, but it’s definitely not exciting, and there is an aftertaste that I’ve noticed in blends that I’m not thrilled about. Actually, though, I wonder about potentially selling inexpensive grain whisky to compete with vodka for making mixed drinks. Why not?

Single Malt Scotch

He did also mention that the pot stills used in the production of single malts are very inefficient, and not a good way to make alcohol for mass consumption. The pot stills are about making flavor, not alchohol. Another thing Mr. Ford brought up when talking about scotch is smoke. According to him, smoke is the signature of scotch whisky. That’s what tells you that a whisky is from Scotland. He also said this is a key component of Johnnie Walker blends. The smokiness comes from drying barley with peat smoke, sticking with the spirit through the distillation process, through the aging, and arriving in the final product. Today, there are many ways to heat barley, so the use of peat smoke is more of a calculated flavoring process today than it was before more modern methods of heating were available.


The lowland malt is still light, but more flavorful than the grain whisky. You’ll find grassy flavors in a lowland malt, along with sweetness and some vanilla. Lowland whiskies will show up on the lighter, more delicate part of the flavor map. While tasting the lowland sample, Mr. Ford talked a little bit about the casks used in aging. Scotch is always aged in previously used casks…typically ex-bourbon, port or sherry. The reason for doing this is that they don’t want scotch whisky to be quite as sweet and woody as a bourbon. By using an ex-bourbon cask, like this lowland sample comes from, you still get the toffee sweetness and vanilla flavors that the American oak imparts, but it’s not quite as intense as you’ll find with bourbon.

Question from the audience: Is this sample Glenkinchie?

Answer by A.F.: That’s a good guess, but I’m not telling.

My take: I’ve never tried Glenkinchie, so I can’t say, but I have a 200ml bottle on the way and will post an update after I compare them. [Update: I got my bottle of Glenkinchie, and it seems to be a match. Pleasant vanilla and a very easy drinker, with some nice oak on the finish to keep it reasonably interesting.]


According to Mr. Ford, Speyside malts are traditionally fruity (fresh fruits like apples, pears and maybe bannanas), along with some grassy notes. You might pick up a tiny hint of smoke in some Speysides, but you’d need a very sensitive palate to pick it up.

Question from audience: Is Cardhu a large part of Johnnie Walker blends?

Answer by A.F.: There are a number of Speysides in the blend, but Cardhu will always be there as well.

My take: I’ve never tried Cardhu, but does it taste a lot like Cragganmore? Because that’s what this sample reminds me of…at least on the nose. The palate seemed a bit more mellow.


Mr. Ford stated that he went to great lengths to get the sherry cask sample (from Speyside) included in our blending kits. The flavor is pretty robust, and very different on the palate from the previous samples. Very mouth coating, full bodied and rich. It also has a longer finish. It belongs close to the right-hand side of the flavor map. Not a lot of smoke, but lots of rich fruit flavors like dried raisins and figs. Another note about casks during this segment, was that the “sherry” flavors are not coming directly from sherry left over in the casks, but rather from the European oak used to make the casks. This is where sherry gets some of the same flavors.

Question from audience: How does the size and type of the cask influence the flavor?

Answer by A.F.: Bourbon casks tend to be about 200 liters and are charred and toasted. The charring removes pungent flavors from new make spirit, and the toasting adds flavors like vanilla and coconut, and also adds color. The smaller the cask, the more wood influence, and the shorter maturation time needed to get that influence into the spirit. The sherry casks tend to be bigger, around 500 liters. Sherry casks tend to only be lightly toasted, and not charred.

Question from the audience: Does it matter if your mouth is opened or closed during nosing?

Anser by A.F.: Whatever suits you. The J.W. blenders seem to close their mouths.

My take: I enjoyed the sherry cask sample. It reminds me of Glenfarclas 10 on the nose, and Glendronach 12 on the palate. It’s not as rich and fruity as the Glendronach on the nose, but it does have some of the spiciness of the Glendronach on the palate that I don’t get with the Glenfarclas.


Our sample is a west coast Highland malt, and offers a more robust flavor than the Lowland and Speyside malts. This is where you start to get more of a smoke influence. People also talk of maritime flavors in coastal highland malts. How maritime flavors get into the whisky they don’t know. In fact, malts distilled in coastal distilleries are not always matured there by the ocean. They’re sometimes shipped to inland warehouses for aging.

Question from the audience: How long does it take to produce peat, and are we in danger of running out?

Answer by A.F.: It takes hundreds to thousands of years to product peat, and there is plenty of it. The scotch whisky industry doesn’t use a high proportion of peat. People actually use it more for gardening. There is no danger of running out any time soon.

My take: Hmm…a west coast Highland malt from a Diageo distillery. It must be Oban, right? Well, I’ve only tried Oban once, so I don’t have a very good frame of reference. However, like with the Lowland sample, I’ve ordered a 200ml bottle of Oban 14 and will compare that to this Highland sample soon and post an update. [Update: Yes, I’d say this is Oban. The sample seems a little weaker than the 14 year, but perhaps that’s because it’s at 40% vs. 43% for the retail bottle. Some nice hints of peat and smoke, but seems weak on the palate…like a heavily diluted Bowmore 12.]


Island malts are malts distilled on the islands off of the west coast of Scotland. Smoke now becomes much more evident. You will also find spicy and maritime flavors, and pepperiness. On the flavor map, it’s in the smoky region. Perhaps somewhere in the middle on the richness scale. Mr. Ford really seemed to enjoy this sample.

My take: This sample is Talisker, I’m sure of it. Mr. Fords comment about it being peppery helps to give it away, too. Interestingly, the sample tastes closer to Talisker 18 than Talisker 10, in my opinion. He said they try to stick pretty close to 12 years for the JW Black whiskies, but I wonder if this sample of Talisker is a bit older.


This is the final sample from our blending kits. Islay is an Island off of the west coast of Scotland, but it’s treated as a completely separate taste profile region because of the strong peat influence associated with Islay malts. You get lots of smoke, sometimes an antiseptic note. Whiskies from this region tend to be polarizing. Mr. Walker noted that a little Islay goes a long way, and they’re very cautious with it as a component of the JW blends.

Question from audience: What can you say about the color of whisky?

Answer from A.F.: The color comes from the casks used to mature the whisky. First-fill bourbon casks impart significant color, but as they continue to re-use the casks a second or third time, you’ll see less color. European oak sherry casks also tend to impart a dark color. He also noted, interestingly, that a pretty good portion of the Islay malts used in Johnnie Walker are going to come from refill casks, which allows the distillery profile to shine through.

My take: On first nosing out of the sample bottle, I thought there was some Lagavulin-like iodine. However, upon pouring it into a nosing glass and trying it, I’m almost positive this is Caol Ila 12. Consulting the Malt Whisky Yearbook 2009, I see that Caol Ila IS a standard component of Johnnie Walker blends.

Wrapping up

Mr. Ford concluded by taking a taste of Johnnie Walker Black, noting that you’re going to find all of the flavors we’ve been discussing to some level. The whisky samples that we got comprise the big building blocks of Johnnie Walker Black. He then encouraged us to play around with the samples and create our own blends.

Some guidance for blending by Mr. Ford: Keep in mind that a little Islay goes a long way…10% Islay whisky in a blend will make it “very” smoky. He recommended using half grain, and a decent portion of sherry cask whisky. However, you have to be careful with sherry cask in much the same way as the Islay malt because of the sherry richness.

Question from audience: Do you have a favorite single malt?

Answer from A.F.: Talisker tends to be a favorite. A full-on whisky with lots of flavors and just the right amount of smoke [for him].

Question from audience: Are there casks that will be used exclusively in JW Black Label and are not available as single malts.

Answer from A.F.: Yes, that will happen. However, almost all of the distilleries offer single malts now, but some of them are hard to come by, perhaps having to go to the distillery for some of them.

Question from audience: How did you come to be a Master Blender at Johnnie Walker?

Answer from A.F.: Interestingly, he came from the scientific side, and did research on the influence of casks. Over time, they came to realize that they couldn’t turn whisky making into a science, and his time analyzing cask influence eventually led him to blending.


That pretty much covers the webcast. I haven’t come up with my own blend yet, but I’ve already typed over 2000 freaking words in this post, so perhaps I’ll do that as a separate exercise. If you want to hear Andrew Ford for yourself, check out the Episode 220 (October 3rd) of WhiskyCast for an interview from the same day as this event.

Previous post: The Art of Blending webcast – Part 1

Read Full Post »


JW Black Centenary Pack

JW Black Centenary Pack

Is that a long title or what? That was the title of an event put on by Diageo’s Johnnie Walker brand on 9/29/09 as part of a celebration of 100 years of Johnnie Walker Black Label. The host of the webcast was Andrew Ford, Master Blender for Johnnie Walker, and they aired the event from the Brandy Library in New York City. It was an interactive webcast, with participants able to ask questions via web form during the presentation. Attendance was by invitation only, owing to the “Art of Blending” kit sent to each participant (details below).

So, how did I get an invite? I don’t know how to put this, but I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I’m very important.

Ok, so maybe that Anchorman quote doesn’t apply…I’m nobody, and definitely not a big deal. However, the guys over at WhiskyParty.net apparently ARE a big deal, and they got an invite. I was fortunate enough to have them give my name to their PR contact at Johnnie Walker. I exchanged emails with the JW rep on Sunday before the Tuesday event, and my “Art of Blending” kit arrived via FedEx an hour before the webcast. Thanks Mike and Dan!!!

The Art of Blending kit

"The Art of Blending" kit

"The Art of Blending" kit

The blending kit sent to each webcast participant included the following:

  • 1 200ml bottle of Johnnie Walker Black
  • 7 sample bottles containing 100+ ml of whiskies representing each region (plus an extra first-fill sherry speyside sample and a grain whisky sample)
  • 1 Spiegelau whisky snifter (nosing glass)
  • 1 measuring device
  • 1 funnel
  • 1 empty sample bottle for storing your own blend
  • A tasting map
  • A map of the whisky regions of Scotland
  • A USB thumb drive with Johnnie Walker Black Label 100th Anniversary press materials and bio of Andrew Ford
Kit contents

Kit contents

The Whiskies

JW Black 200ml plus blending samples

JW Black 200ml plus blending samples

The sample bottles provided with the blending kit only contain high-level descriptions of region or type. They did not divulge the distilleries during the webcast, although there were a couple of hints, and possibly some facial expression give-aways by Andrew Ford during Q&A. Also, all of the samples are representative of whiskies that would go into JW Black (which contains 40+ malts and grains), so they’re at least 12 years old.

Unfortunately, I’m recovering from a cold, so I’m saving full tasting and blending experimentation until my nose and throat are back to normal. My sinuses did clear up enough to be able to somewhat enjoy nosing them, and I did taste a couple.

About the sample bottles:

  • Grain whisky – A very sweet, mild whisky with a definite “grain” aftertaste. Mr. Ford talks about grain whisky being important for blends, providing sweetness and drinkability. He likens it to rice or pasta in a food dish. I don’t know that I’m buying it. If it cost the same to produce a grain whisky and a single malt, would they really still choose to put the grain in the blend? I know it’s possible to create sweet, light, consistent tasting single malts these days.
  • Lowland – This is almost certainly Glenkinche, given that there are very few lowland distilleries (even taking into account closed ones) associated with Diageo. Mr. Ford also gave something of an acknowledging smile when somebody guessed that it was Glenkinche.
  • Speyside – Again, Mr. Ford seemed to almost give away the speyside distillery. He talked about Cardhu being a cornerstone malt for the Johnnie Walker blends. This is one that I tasted side-by-side with JW Black, and you could tell that it’s a big part of the blend.
  • Sherry Cask – A very strong sherry smell that reminds me of Aberlour a’bunadh. He mentioned that it was a speyside malt. Possibly a Mortlach?
  • Highland – A big clue was given for this one, when it was announced that our Highland sample was from a West Coast distillery. Oban jumps right to mind with that geographical reference. I tasted this one as well, but I’ve only had Oban once before. I need to get  a bottle to have on hand for reference. It kind of reminded me of Clynelish (from memory), but that’s on the East Coast.
  • Island – This one sure smells like Talisker, and wouldn’t you know that is a Diageo distillery and one that is known to play a big part in JW blends.
  • Islay – I figured this would be Caol Ila, but nosing it as best as I could with my cold, it sure seemed to have the Lagavulin iodine in it. Score! I can’t wait to taste this one. [Update: I poured a little into a nosing glass and tried it, and I’m pretty sure it’s Caol Ila 12]

The webcast

Webcast with Master Blender Andrew Ford

Webcast with Master Blender Andrew Ford

Tomorrow, I’ll post a full review of the webcast presentation by Andrew Ford. I’ll also share some of the questions and answers from the event. Then I’ll probably do a third post about the whiskies once I’m healthy, and share the recipe and tasting notes for my own custom blend.

In the mean time, you can read an excellent overview of the webcast on the WhiskyParty.net web site, or check out the live blogging post by Liquor Snob.

Next Post: Part 1 of the webcast

Read Full Post »