As whisky drinkers rediscover blended whisky after the meteoric rise of the Single Malt, guest writer Colin Hampden-White muses on the magic of old blends.
Knowledge amongst the whisky drinking fraternity has developed in leaps and bounds over the last decade. In the first years of the resurgence of whisky there was a great deal of snobbery. Whisky was all about single malts and was never to be drunk with water, let alone in a cocktail. These were the domain of blends which were considered inferior to the single malt. The whisky aficionados forgot to recognise that over ninety percent of the whisky drunk in the world was blended.
Thankfully we now live in enlightened times, and most whisky drinkers have embraced blends and appreciated their importance and the pleasure they give within the greater whisky story. Historical blends are now also having their day, with many whisky drinkers buying bottles of blended whisky bottled decades ago. Many of these have lost a lot of their vigour owing to bottle age where the capsule hasn’t been completely tight. Occasionally, an old bottle is very good and gives us a view into the past, a glimpse of how whisky was created and blended all those years ago.
There are now many thousands of new releases of whiskies each year. With single malt whiskies being released at great age, and the rise of interest in grain whisky higher than it has ever been in the past. With these peaks of popularity, there has been whisky created which brings all these interests together. With very old single malts and grains being released in their singular form, it seems a natural progression to have them blended. Blended whisky in the past was never really bottled at great age. Some of the major brands now have 30-year-old blends, but to be able to taste blends which are carefully created and have an age of over 50 years is extremely rare, and always a thrilling prospect.
Excitingly, this is what The House of Hazelwood has created today. Their whisky blenders have taken very rare and old single malt and grain whiskies and created blends with them, as well as bottling blends that have been marrying in cask for many decades. This gives us unparalleled access to flavours which have never been tasted before.
The Flavours Within Old Blends
Old grain whiskies have fabulously creamy sweet flavours, very like crème brûlée, and often have tropical fruits in their profile. With great age, fine oak and furniture polish can frequently be found as well as dark chocolate. The House of Hazelwood has taken one of their whiskies a stage beyond this in complexity and rarity by releasing a single grain whisky that was blended with a single malt whisky from the same distillery, to create a single blend. Highly unusual, this whisky, distilled in 1963 and named A Singular Blend, has the sweetness of aged grain with butterscotch and honey mixing with more ethereal flavours of malt whisky including old, polished leather, dark chocolate and a touch of soft spice.
Many of these flavours can be found in old whiskies and give added pleasure to drinking whiskies made in a bygone era, in an age where stills were directly fired, and the magic of wood maturation not really understood at all. Few of these rare casks still exist, and many of those that do, will not be of a great enough standard to blend in the manner the House of Hazelwood is achieving.
Beyond the pleasure of drinking old whiskies, I find it fascinating to think of the times in which they are created. In the year A Singular Blend was distilled, President Kennedy was assassinated and, more happily, the Beatles released I want to hold your hand. Just two years later, in 1965, the whiskies were being distilled for Blended at Birth. This is a highly unusual whisky, in which the component spirits were blended as new make spirits, before being placed in casks and left to rest. We will never see this practice again as it is forbidden by the laws that govern blended Scotch whisky today. This whisky has wonderfully complex dried fruit and fruitcake flavours with plenty of tannin giving structure and body. Sweet orgeat syrup flavours mix well with herbaceous notes, giving a balanced whisky that tastes like nothing else can.
Many old whiskies released today become a purely cerebral experience, and whilst this still has its merits, there is something magical about drinking a whisky which has the depth and complexity to make it that cerebral experience but is also simply delicious. It’s these rare expressions of Scotch whisky which give the greatest pleasure, and none express themselves in this way as well as The Cask Trials. It is very unusual for grain whisky to be matured in anything except ex-bourbon barrels. The vast majority of grain whiskies are destined to be blended whilst still quite young, and these barrels give great flavour for the spirit to be used in this way.
Occasionally, some grain whiskies make it to an old age, but in the case of The Cask Trials, the whisky was matured for 53 years in a sherry butt. Sherry butts are rare and expensive and usually only used to mature single malt whiskies, but in 1968, someone had the forethought of filling a sherry butt with single grain whisky. This cask has passed through the decades and now we get to experience the resulting whisky.
Behaving very much like a malt whisky in style, The Cask Trials has an underlying richness and sweetness which subtly gives away its grain origin and that, mixed with the classic aged flavours the sherry cask has provided, gives great pleasure as well as a myriad of flavours to contemplate.
The old adage “when they’re gone, they’re gone”, can be overused in the world of whisky. But in the case of the House of Hazelwood, this is absolutely true, as the resulting whiskies created by them were made with techniques and materials that are never used today. They are a pleasure and a privilege to experience.