So, what exactly does a Scotch blender do, anyway? A Q&A with Johnnie Walker's Andrew Ford
Sniff and taste Scotch all day and get paid for it? Hello, dream job.
That's at least in general what Andrew Ford does as a Scotch blender for Johnnie Walker in central Scotland. He's one of four blenders who work with master blender Jim Beveridge at the world's most widely distributed brand of blended Scotch whisky. A single malt is whisky from one distillery; blended Scotch is a mixture of grain whisky and single malts from various distilleries throughout the highlands, lowlands, glens and islands of Scotland. A blender ensures consistent flavor and quality so that, for example, your Johnnie Walker Blue Label (or Chivas or Cutty or Grouse for that matter) tastes the same 20 years from now.
Johnnie Walker is sold in just about every country, with annual sales of more than 130 million bottles. That's a lot of Scotch to blend. And somebody has to help make sure it remains consistent. Ford was in L.A. recently to explain the art of blending and kindly answered a few questions.
What are the day-to-day duties of a blender?
We do a lot of nosing and some tasting. Some is to check maturing malt and grain whiskies and, of course, we check every batch of blended whisky before it is bottled. ... We also create new blends or re-create old ones and that's the best part of the job, I think.
We have to be very careful not to allow drift in the flavor. We always compare the latest blend batch with previous batches. We have to look out for the possibility that each batch is the same as the previous one, but over months or years the flavor could drift. So we must check against batches from a long time back to ensure we do not get drift.
Another difficulty is ...
that we cannot really know, for example, how much Black Label we will need in 12 years' time. So we have to work out ways to keep our options open as much as possible. So when we fill a cask with malt or grain spirit, we may have a plan as to where it will be used, but that plan can change. A malt may go into Black Label in 12 years' time or into Green in 15 years' or Gold in 18 years', etc., depending on the demand in the years to come.
Has Johnnie Walker Black Label recipe always been the same?
Yes, it has. However the recipe is not as prescriptive as you may think.... It tells us what flavor styles we need and in what proportions but we have some discretion in how we achieve that. So there are certain malts and grains that are interchangeable depending on available stocks -- so long as the flavor of the finished blend does not change. This is at the heart of what blending is all about -- it's part science and part art because only the human nose and mind can make these decisions. We are always trying to be faithful to Alexander Walker's intention and we think of him standing at our shoulder.
How did you stumble into being a blender?
Stumble is the right word. I don't think any of us had a master plan. The Johnnie Walker blenders currently all have a science background and I think that helps when dealing with volumes, strengths and proportions. But the main thing is you have to enjoy working with whisky. A good nose is essential, but it's not about having a superhuman sense of smell, it's more about long experience so we know what we're looking for, we know how to describe it and we know what's right for the blends we make up.
What is better about a blend than a single malt?
Of course single-malt whiskys can be wonderful and they are full of interesting flavors. The idea behind a good blend ... is to combine many single malts from different types of casks to create a balanced flavor in which nothing dominates but each style gets a chance to shine through. Grain whisky is important in that it gives the blend sweetness, and shows off the malts to their best advantage while making the blend easier to drink. I think there is an analogy with making a good meal: You want the best ingredients and a great recipe and not all the ingredients should have powerful flavors.
What would be your fantasy blend?
There is one other blend that was created by Jim Beveridge (head of all Johnnie Walker blending) and master blender Maureen Robinson. It is called Johnnie Walker 1805 and it contains some of the most precious rare whiskies in all of our stocks. I can only dream about owning a bottle of that. [Only 200 bottles were made and retail for about $30,000 each.]
-- Betty Hallock
Photo: Andrew Ford. Credit: Johnnie Walker