In the blending room at the Glenfiddich Distillery in Scotland, master blender Brian Kinsman has placed some 20 samples of rare cask whiskies on a bench.
As the guardian of the whisky ledgers, or recipe books, for William Grant & Sons, the revered Kinsman is responsible for maintaining the traditional flavours of not only Glenfiddich, but also Grants and Balvenie, among others.
Yet the samples he has put before me and five other Australians have been selected from the private collection of casks that Peter Gordon - the great, great grandson of William Grant who built Glenfiddich some 130 years ago - and the broader Grant-Gordon family began collecting in the 1960s. Some are from 'ghost' distilleries - ones that are no longer around - and are pieces of history.
Behind permanently closed doors
Parts of Glenfiddich are open to the public, but the blending room is not. This is one of Kinsman's workplaces, after all, and today each of his guests has a job to do. We will attempt to create a blend in front of one of the world's foremost whisky experts.
I'm surprisingly nervous, and eyeing a dram of one of the pre-blended Scotches before we get started to help evaporate the unexpected sweat building on my palms. With an effort of will I resist.
Kinsman, just the sixth master blender at William Grants, pours samples into glasses, raises one of the rare single malts to his nose, and invites us to do the same. Kinsman only noses all the whiskies he samples and crafts. It's a highly developed and admirable skill. While some of the other lads taste, I want to follow the master's lead.
After a discussion of flavours, Kinsman, a trusting soul, sets us loose on the whiskies. Despite the temptations I take my time selecting the liquid ingredients, make brief notes about the peat and sherry varieties, then pour small and (hopefully) considered amounts of rare whiskies into a narrow test-tube like glass.
Let's call it creative
I don't have the skill to do subtle and clever, and go for something a little more … let's call it creative. But I get horribly lost in what may be minutes. When I smell my blend, all I get is peat and alcohol.
I hold one palm over the opening of the tube, tipping it quickly upside-down so a dash of whisky wets my hand. I rub both hands together to run off the alcohol as Kinsman suggested.
I smell again and try to dissect the flavours in my palm. But this alternative form of nosing hasn't helped. Nuanced my blend is not. Too much sweat, perhaps. I feel I have no choice but to taste.
I didn't lose much alcohol in the rub; there is still a caskload of it there, and it bombs its way around my mouth. I don't have the answers to make peace.
After some 20 minutes, Kinsman makes his way around the room, commenting on the blends, mostly doling out praise. "One of the genuine treats for me is sampling casks that may never have been sampled," he says. The man is unfailing polite and refreshingly without ego.
When it comes time for him to analyse my creation he takes a shot of smell, just enough perhaps to clear any sinuses. "Oooh, that's bold," he ventures with a smile.
Bold but not beautiful
I think I can read the grin: given a choice he would rather nose the armpit of one of the brilliantly skilful and hard working coopers we had earlier watched working, than take a second whiff of my effort. "If it's too strong you'll be missing a big part of the flavour," he says later.
After sampling all the amateur efforts, Kinsman produces three creations he made from Gordon's stash of casks before we arrived. All of us taste the bespoke blends. One will be released in Australia.
The five men in the room, winners of an Australia-wide competition, will select one of the three for release into Australia in May 2015. There will be just 3000 bottles for sale across the country, and this will be only the second time William Grant & Sons releases a Rare Cask Reserve.
Mostly Kinsman's work involves creating whiskies that adhere to a distinct flavour profile. Creating new blends is an opportunity for him and his colleagues - there is a nosing team of some 20 people at Glenfiddich - to break away from the shackles of consistency.
"[It] gives us an opportunity to do something genuinely different because the whole point is that there is no flavour profile," he says. "We can create a product [that] in a lot of ways is more professionally exciting; arguably [it's] the opportunity to make a blend taste exactly the way you want to taste it, to show off all the individual flavours rather than focusing on one."
Kinsman has been master of all at William Grant & Sons since December 2009, but in 2012 he announced himself to whisky scholars the world over with Grants 25-Year-Old, a blend of 25 malt and grain whiskies.
It is a complex yet perfectly balanced whisky. The Rare Cask Reserve the five prize winners chose is similar but 21 years old.
The artistry of the blend
During the afternoon in Kinsman's company, my preference for single malt is also distilled. "In some people's eyes single malts are slightly more elevated [compared to blends], but blending is much more about taking the best of single malt distilleries and grain distilleries and trying to create something better than the some of the parts," Kinsman says. "The final blend takes all the nuances of the individual parts and should really showcase them as an entity, as a whole."
I feel privileged to peek into the artistry and skill involved in a blending process, one that allows a whisky master to express his knowledge and creativity. I am reawakened to the idea that blends can be a pinnacle of whisky.
Before parting ways with Kinsman he puts a cap on the tube of my "bold" effort so it can travel home with me. A pinnacle of whisky? Maybe not, but there is not another in the world like it.
Greg Clarke travelled to Scotland as a guest of William Grant & Sons and Dan Murphy's.
- Sydney Morning Herald