Friday, December 11, 2009

Blending and unblending

Through a interactive hook-up held earlier this week at Astor Center in Manhattan, a dozen or two journalists watched Bob Dalgarno, the master blender at Macallan, toy with various beakers of Macallan in his sample room in Scotland. It was around midnight there, and Delgarno's voice, a crackling burr that can be hard to keep up with in person, was occasionally compressed by the digital hook up into plosive hiccups. It was a tiny bit distracting, but getting a chance to taste with him, even at some distance, was worthwhile, especially given the premise of the event: even single malts are "blended" and for good reason.

In this case, we were presented with 12 or so glasses of various 20 and 18 year old barrel samples. Some had aged in puncheons, others in butts, and one in a hogshead - the first two holding 500 liters, the puncheon squatter and made with broader staves, and the latter only 250 liters Their flavors landed all over the flavor map, except for those smokey quarters, and while some seemed unmistakably Macallan in their rich oiliness, others appeared insipid, almost, meant only for filler in a blended whisky. From these and other barrels, Delgarno derived the latest 18 Year Old Macallan, and sampling them made clear he had a lot more to do then watch the calendar, dump and bottle. My notes say "Amazing how different the casks are - while many share the expected Macallan characters of heavy, oily lusciousness, a few are indifferent malts unsuitable for the job most Macallan is charged with - as a 'top dressing' for blends." 

As Delgarno led us through the various vials, I kept thinking of an email exchange I'd had with a curious stranger about the ultimate effects of barrels on whisky. He'd been told that it was the wood itself, not the spirit or wine the barrel had once held, that was the primary agent in the aging of whisky. I've been advised by some blenders about the importance of source, quality and consistency of supply of barrels, and also the importance of the supply's ultimate effect - the emergence of an unpleasant sulphur quality in some whiskies clearly lies there. But surely some whiskies - Macallan, for the most obvious instance, but also Glenmorangie and others that hang their hats on wood-finishes - expect and receive a quality that depends on the sherry-ness of the barrel.

It was clear that some of the samples we tasted this week had better merged that oily and dense Macallan quality which comes from their squat stills with the richness and dried fruitiness of an oloroso. Even the new make spirit had a heavy and oily quality, with dried fruits and spicy, malty notes considered characteristic of Macallan.

This is a long way of explaining why I think tasting older malts poses more questions than it answers. Sure, I learned that sherry butts add more spice and sherry puncheons a creamy and cooked fruit quality. The one hogshead we tried had a lanolin quality I don't associate with Macallan, and also a lot of vanilla and bananas. But I now wonder what would happen if Macallan used some amontillado or palo cortado barrels to go along with the oloroso containers they get from Gonzalez Byass. And need to go back and try the Fine Oak range alongside the traditional Macallan to see how much of that sherried quality really comes from sherry.

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