Spend enough time immersing yourself in the consumption of just about any grown-up beverage — beer, wine, or spirits — and a young man’s fancy inevitably turns to thoughts of, “Hey, I bet I can make this stuff at home.”
Even casual beer snobs dive happily into homebrew, and making your own wine in the garage isn’t that complex of an undertaking, either.
The ante is raised, though, when it comes to the hard stuff. Making vodka, rum, or whiskey at home requires a still, which is complicated and prone to exploding if operated incorrectly. And unlike homemade beer and wine, home stills are almost completely illegal in the United States (although a few rare exceptions exist). Anyone wanting to make his own whiskey will have to be an extremely devoted scofflaw. Even then, a home whiskey (something more sophisticated than moonshine) is likely to take years of careful barrel-aging to become palatable.
So consider the next best thing: Blending your own whiskey from ready-to-drink stock.
You can do this at home tonight if you’d like. Gather up a handful of your favorite whiskys (stick with all scotch) and pour a bit of each into one glass. How’s it taste? It could be a delight. It could be awful. (You can do the same experiment with wine, too.) But either way it will probably be very expensive and difficult to repeat the next time out. What’s an enthusiast who just wants a wee dram he can call his own to do?
Enter Whisky Blender. Operated by Drew Nicolson and Andy Davidson with the aid of Master of Malt John Lamond, this Scotland-based outfit lets anyone in the free-drinking world make his own blended whisky. The company has stocks of seven whiskys (some are single malts, some aren’t, and none are revealed by name), which you mix and match to develop your own customized blend, 10 ml at a time. The catch is that you only have Lamond’s tasting notes to go on, and these are all both fanciful and delicious-sounding. (Who could turn down “creamy smooth with a taste of buttery vanilla?”)
Being turned loose in the Whisky Blender website is both like Christmas morning and terribly daunting at the same time. Now, I have blended whiskeys on several occasions, but always with live samples you could nose and taste and tinker with as you went along, adding this or that or starting over if things weren’t working out. That’s hard enough. “Blending blind” is far trickier.
I went back and forth on my blend several times, second-guessing myself in a way that must hardly be unique: Whisky Blender has shipped 600 bottles, but 16,000 custom blends have been made using the site. After my blend had already arrived, Davidson gave me some advice that any of you reading this story would be wise to consider: “Pick one of the seven whiskys and go heavy on that,” using it for up to half the bottle. “Trust your instincts and don’t overthink it. And don’t be afraid of making something bad.”
Turns out it’s pretty tough to make a disaster using these spirits, though Nicolson notes that mixing 100 ml of each of the seven whiskys will result in a less-than-stellar blend. To date, the company says it’s received only one negative response to a whisky creation, and even then the customer says he “knew where he went wrong.”
Another helpful tip: If you’re not thrilled with your whisky at first, drink a bit, then put it back on the shelf for a few weeks. A bit of air in the bottle plus some time will help the different spirits to marry, and Whisky Blender says your first dram from the bottle will likely be significantly different than the last.
As for my very own get-gadget Blend (see makeup in sidebar), I took one of my favorite whiskys, Highland Park 18-Year-Old, as inspiration, while knowing full well I would never be able to nail the same experience exactly. Choosing from the seven whiskys to build it is tough stuff, mainly because Lamond’s tasting notes sound really great all around. Ultimately I chose to focus on the Touch of Spice (“buttery cereal notes… with a delicate chocolatey oak”) whisky with Vanilla Fudge (“medium-sweet with a light floral note”) and Burnt Puddin’ (“dark chocolate with just a hunt of sweetness”) as backup. I used all the other whiskys in progressively smaller doses, notably adding a light touch of peat smoke to the finish (Smoke on the Water, I’m told, is a top-shelf Islay).
The results, I feel, were good but not great: The color is a lovely amber. The nose — surprisingly — starts off with fresh apples, offering fresh grain, banana, and then nougat and shortbread character. Sipping brings similar notes: perhaps less apple, plus a touch of chocolate and, of course, peat smoke on the finish. (If I did anything right, I think I nailed it on the Islay proportion.)
The blend is ultimately a mild whisky, and for sure, it evolves in the glass. But I felt the balance of the whisky was off a bit — my fault, I’m sure, for using all seven spirits instead of just four or five, even in small proportions. Maybe in a few months things will have changed. But the bigger issue, I thought, was in the whisky’s body. All the single malts I compared the get-gadget Blend to had a much fuller, rounder body, while my blend was comparatively a bit on the thin side.
That said, I’m satisfied with the quality, and so are most of Whisky Blender’s customers. Whether they use two whiskys or seven, “Most people are so amazed,” says Nicolson, with what they end up creating. It’s all a question of approach. “Some people want to make a budget version of Johnnie Walker Blue Label, but we try to convince them to create something of their own.”