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Wednesday
May232012

Matrix of the malt

Jim Beveridge, master blender for Johnnie Walker, walks us through the art of the blended whisky, and reveals the richness of flavour he created for the Diamond Jubilee commemorative blend

Johnnie Walker's Diamond Jubilee whisky, in a Baccarat crystal decanterIn recent times single malt whiskies have sometimes been viewed as innately superior to blends, but 20 years ago famous single malt distilleries were making whiskies for blenders, so I think it’s important to show the value of blends and reassert some of the authority of the blended Scottish whisky. Clearly there are some great single malts but I think there’s actually quite some fabulous blends. But what blending does is bring out flavour in the malt, flavours that can be very intense. In a single malt, the only way you can adjust the intensity is to add water, as you might when you drink it. But that can destroy the structure of the whisky. Grain whisky is a simpler liquid that reveals flavours in the malts by unravelling the matrix of the malt and bringing up flavours that wouldn’t be as obvious otherwise.

The role of master blender has as much history as that of the master distiller. If you think about all the malt distilleries, their existence is dependent on the master blender because the ones we still see today are the ones producing the whiskies the master blenders have wanted for their blends over the years – the ones where the master blenders have intervened with the master distillers to create the malts that we see today. So the master blender knows what is needed in terms of flavours, and the master distiller knows what to do to achieve it. The master blender is like the architect.

The Diamond Jubilee whisky uses traditional craftspeople in every aspect of its creationMost of the time my task is to maintain the consistency of the Johnnie Walker character in our whiskies, but for the Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons, created to celebrate 60 years of the Queen’s monarchy, we really wanted to showcase the craft of blending. Along with Matthew Crow, my apprentice (which is the traditional title – he’s an accomplished, experienced blender), I looked into the archives to gain inspiration about how my predecessors worked, then found rare whiskies distilled in 1952.

We used a fresh, fruity Speyside malt; an Edinburgh grain; and a north country vatting – an old way of blending that gives a smokiness. We then had our coopers produce a new barrel from Sandringham oak for a final period of marrying over the winter, until we bottled the Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons on the day of Her Majesty’s accession to the throne, 6 February, at Royal Lochnagar distillery on the Balmoral estate. For me, the resulting whisky has an incredible gentleness, with an explosion of exotic fruit – peaches, mangoes – and a vanilla sweetness. Then comes more spiciness, before a kind of smokiness as well. In a whisky of that age, it’s a huge achievement to get all those flavours, to be honest.

The heritage of Scotch whisky is bound up with the land, the air and the people of Scotland. There are distillers such as Talisker that’s so remote, it produces an individual style, whereas, in the Speyside distilling community, your neighbours are not far away, so there’s a distinctive style from the valley. And the relationship with the farmers is important – the used barley, the draff, is used as cattle feed so you get this distinctive flavour, for example, to Islay beef. It’s all part of a cycle.

Only 60 bottles (or rather, Baccarat crystal decanters with handmade diamond-studded silver collars in a handmade cabinet made from Balmoral pine and Sandringham oak) of Diamond Jubilee by John Walker & Sons will be sold, at £100,000 each. Profits will go to QEST, which provides scholarships to specialists in traditional crafts. For enquiries, email diamondjubilee@johnwalkerandsons.com