Master Blenders have existed as far back as blended whiskies have, and for centuries, these are the people who have endeavoured to create something we love to cherish and enjoy. Frankly speaking, Master Blenders are the people who indulge in trial and error, combining whiskies from different regions, types and ages to make something sublime. They are the people who make mistakes so that we don’t have to.
Whisky blending is no easy task, and it takes not just hard work on a daily basis, but also requires many years of experience, a natural talent for delving into the nature of a whisky, and finally, it requires the endless pursuit of perfection. If you have always wondered what a Master Blender does, here is your chance to find out how they do what they do so well.
A Good Nose
Colin Scott, the legendary Custodian Master Blender from Chivas Regal
No it’s not a beautifully shaped nose that you need, although it wouldn’t hurt to have one. ‘Having a good nose’ refers to how sensitive your sense of smell can be. Picking up, understanding and recognizing each and every aspect of a whisky is something every Master Blender must be gifted with. If you want to make it big in the industry, your sense of smell must be impeccable. Former Ballantine’s Master Blender Robert Hicks was well-known for having one of the best noses in the industry.
"The art of the master blender in understanding the many different flavours in scotch whisky is like the work of a composer: not only do you need to completely understand the musical characteristics of every instrument, but you must also understand how to combine them to build an unforgettable, spellbinding symphony."
Colin Scott, Custodian Master Blender at Chivas Brothers
Master Blenders must have a terrific sense of smell since it is what empowers them to know the true nature of a whisky. This is not only crucial for a Master Blender’s job at quality control, but also when creating a new blend. Most Master Blenders rely heavily on their nose to know a whisky because tasting hundreds and thousands of them every day would make their job slightly difficult.
“It’s an easy job, sticking your nose in a glass of whisky. My job is just... smelling whisky. A normal day you’d do about 800-1400 samples. But you can’t taste that many, or you’d be in trouble.” Robert Hicks
A Long Learning Curve
Having a ‘good nose’ can only get an aspiring Master Blender so far. The next step every Master Blender must go through is a long, arduous apprenticeship under an experienced Master Blender. Robert Hicks, the man with one of the best noses in the industry, trained under his mentor, Jack Goudy for more than 24 years!
Many aspiring Master Blenders even start out doing menial jobs at a distillery, gradually moving towards blending if an opportunity arises. Even Master Distillers sometimes undergo a surprisingly long mentorship before arriving at the top job. Alan Winchester, Master Distiller at The Glenlivet Distillery started out as a cleaner for the wooden vats at the distillery in 1979. He only became the Master Distiller in 2009!
Back to Master Blenders; Sandy Hyslop, the current Ballantine’s Master Blender is also one of Jack Goudy’s prodigies. Hyslop trained under Goudy at the same time as Robert Hick, and had a substantial amount of experience before he accepted the role of Master Blender in 2005.
Master Blenders not only have to learn the tools of the trade, but also hone and sharpen their existing skills of nosing and tasting the whisky. This includes gaining an insight into the different characteristics from whiskies distilled in specific ways, the influence imparted by different types of wood, and the aromas and flavours developed by a whisky at different ages.
These activities still do not reflect the most important part of a Master Blender’s job – Blending. How different source whiskies combine to produce something different is a key function in their job description.
Maintaining A Blend
One might assume a Master Blender’s job is quite exciting since they get to create new and interesting blends by using all the whiskies at their disposal right? But that is clearly not what occupies a larger portion of a Master Blender’s duties.
Unless they are the very first Master Blender at a place, their job is to maintain and recreate the quality and tasting notes of the existing blends produced by the brand. Take the Ballantine’s Finest for instance, which Sandy Hyslop has to work hard to meticulously recreate several times. The Ballantine’s Finest is based on a recipe that has remained unchanged since it was first created in in 1910, and more than 200,000 bottles are sold worldwide each day! All the Ballantine’s blends currently in circulation have to be recreated by Hyslop, and that takes up a substantial amount of space on his plate.
Creating New Blends
This is perhaps the most exciting aspect of a Master Blender’s job, and it is known as creating ‘pilot blends’. This means creating original blends, from scratch which will be their own legacy. Over the years, many stellar original blends have been released by whisky brands throughout the world.
Over in Ireland, Jameson Master Blender conducted one of the most radical new experiments to give the world one of its best Irish whiskeys ever made, the Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition. Leighton lent Jameson barrels to the Franciscan Well Brewery to age their stout beer, and used these barrels to mature Jameson’s whiskey after they were returned by the brewery.
Other extraordinary blends such as the Ballantine’s 17 Year Old, was created by George Robertson after the end of Prohibition. It is still considered one of the best ever blended Scotch whiskies ever made, and is one of Ballantine’s most valuable blends. The Ballantine’s 17 Year Old has survived through decades. It blissfully embodies the balance between the perfections of the past, and strive for innovation that has preserved Ballantine’s identity as pioneers of the blended Scotch whisky industry.
The Master Blenders’ job isn’t an easy one, and often, their hard work, expertise and perseverance might go unnoticed but our love and respect for what they have created shall never diminish.
The next time you find yourself drinking a phenomenal blend, don’t forget to raise the glass in honour of the Master Blender who may have created it.