Whisky Advocate

Don’t like your whisky? Then make it better!

January 3rd, 2009

If you’ve been drinking whisky long enough, somewhere along the way you purchased a bottle of whisky you weren’t happy with. Chances are, you have a bottle right now.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you know that I started a thread a few days ago about being disappointed with a bottle of 1970 vintage Aberlour that I waited more than 15 years to open. I was saving it for a special occasion, which turned out to be this past Christmas Eve. The whisky spent more than 30 years in bourbon oak. It was a quality whisky (e.g., it wasn’t aged in bad wood), but it was just showing too much oak, with a particularly long, dry oak finish.

After sharing it around with friends and family members over the holidays, I was left with about half the bottle. Still disappointed with the whisky and what I hoped it would be, I decided to take matters into my own hands and blend in other Aberlour whiskies in the bottle to make the whisky better. I have several open bottles on hand, including the new 12 and 16 year old, along with a bottle of a’bunadh and an 18 year old.

The majority of what I added was from a limited edition Aberlour 18 year old bottling that I had about a half a bottle of. This whisky was released several years ago and was aged exclusively in sherry oak. A very good whisky in its own right, I was hoping that the sweet, fruity sherry notes would help to offset the dry spicy notes of the 1970 vintage. After blending in the 18 year old, I also decided it could use a bit of youth and vivality to cut through all that oak, so I added a small amount of Aberlour a’bunadh–another heavily sherried whisky, but younger and more vibrant.

The marriage worked perfectly. I now have a full bottle of mature Aberlour whisky with great depth and balance that is not too tired on the palate. And it is still very special, given that it’s bottle #1 of only 1. I don’t feel guilty about what I did.

I have done this many times in the past, for reasons personal and professional, and I think you should consider doing it too. There are a few prerequisites you will need to consider. First, you’ll need enough whisky on hand to make your special blend. (You might be able to do it with just a few different bottles open, as long as they are diverse in flavor.) Second, the whisky you are attempting to improve must still be a good quality whisky, just somewhat out of balance (too woody, too sherried, too old, too young, too smoky, too bland, etc.).

If what you are starting with is a bad whisky (aged in crappy wood, distilled improperly, etc.) then there’s probably nothing you can do with the whisky other than attempt to hide its imperfections. You run the risk of wasting a good whisky by blending it in with a bad whisky that’s impossible to fix. You don’t want to do that.

I’m sure that some of you have already done some whisky blending. Why don’t you share your experiences with us. For those of you who haven’t attempted this yet and have a whisky you aren’t happy with, why don’t you give it a try and let us know how it worked out.

Start small. Instead of mixing a half a bottle each of two different whiskies, start with an ounce of each. That way, if your experiment fails, you can cut your losses.

19 Responses to “Don’t like your whisky? Then make it better!”

  1. Greg Gilbert says:

    John,

    This wasn’t a success but nonetheless surprised me. I conducted a tasting consisting of various decades of Old Forester. After the tasting we blended a small amount of all five offerings into a single glass. The entry was somewhat bland and the finish was non existent. I mean, it dropped off completely. I had never experienced an entry without the finish and in this case, the whiskey’s in effect, canceled each other.

  2. Todd says:

    This is fun topic and anyone who has a stock of open bottles can play. I’ve been vatting different single whiskies for years and my most successful experiments have tended to be like yours, using different expressions from the same distillery. In the best case, I’ve found it possible to create something magical out of ordinary, or even sub-par parts. By this measure, my most satisfying vatting was a marriage between two single cask Glenturrents both distilled around 1981 and bottled in their mid-teens, one from Whyte and Whyte, which by itself was overly bitter although complex and rather wood driven, the other bottled by Murray McDavid, which by itself was flabby and sweet, but lacking structure. The product was magnificent and I enjoyed the vatting for years. I’ve had a few good vattings made from singles from different distilleries, but have yet to hit gold doing this.

    Rather than rescuing a bad malt, the vatting game is less risky if you start with malts that are all high quality so long as you vat with small amounts. Along these lines, my next planned set of vatting experiments will focus on Ardbegs, marrying newer expressions (10 yo OB, Uigedail, vintage 1990) that retain their peaty punch with older sherried expressions bottled in the 70’s that lack peat and proof, but have mature wood influence.

    Last, I would like to note that a bad malt in a vatting can continue to dominate no matter how many good good malts you throw at it. Over-aged but complex singles are easily fixed by adding a good sweet malt, but if there is a flavor component in a malt that is unpleasant, it can be very hard to mask. I remember a vatting of Islay malts that contained a nasty oily malt that tasted like diesel fuel and after adding 6 or 7 magnificent other malts, the vatting still tasted awful. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses.

  3. Harvey Fry says:

    if you weren’t into censorship, i probably would’ve been willing
    to share my extensive (some 50 liters finished & over 100 still
    in development) experience (more than 3 years) creating what
    i call my concoctions. B.J. Reed, Bill Meyers, John Navarra &
    a few others (who i believe have contributed to this blog) have
    tried (at our tastings here in D.C. or at Burns’ BD in Spokane)
    & liked what i put together. as it stands, you probably won’t
    hear from me again before Chicago. then, if things go better
    than i expect them to, maybe we’ll take it from there. perhaps
    one day i might even offer you an article on this unusual sort
    of mixology.

    for now, just believe that i believe i’ve learned more about
    what’s actually IN the 1800+ single malt (strictly for drinking)
    expressions in my collection since i began playing alchemist
    than i ever did in all the many years of hosting elaborate
    tastings (usually 10 or more expressions by region, distillery,
    age or whatever, several times a month & sometimes 2 or 3
    days running) + the seemingly endless solo attacks on my
    liver. it’s a lot of fun &, as you’ve indicated, possible with as
    few or many elements as you wish. also, it’s a great way to
    resurrect bottles about to give up the ghost.

    whatever. if you can’t print this more or less as it is, please
    send me back a copy before you delete it. thanks^

    Harvey Fry

  4. John Hansell says:

    Greg, I too have had experiences where blending actually had a negative effect. Several years ago, there was a bunch of Bowmore samples I had lying around, all 18 years old or older, and I thought I would put them into one bottle. It was a mistake doing this, and I learned from it. Now I am much more careful and methodical in what I do and how I do it.

    Todd, looks like we both learned that sometimes a really bad malt can’t be salvaged, not matter what efforts we take to do so. Like you (and I) advise, experiment with small amounts and cut your losses when something doesn’t work out.

    Harvey, I am not into censorship. In fact, I despise censorship! In the year and a half that I have been doing this blog, I have only deleted one posting: yours. That’s because it was off-topic and excessively negative. (And before I deleted it, I emailed you explaining why.)

    Your comments (and everyone else’s comments) are welcome here. I encourage heated discussions. Just look at the thread on my Bruichladdich “Progressiveness” posting. Stay on topic, formulate your opinions in a respectable manner, and I will always post them up for everyone to read and enjoy.

  5. JC Skinner says:

    Talk about the glass half-full! I’m impressed with your positive response to your holiday whisky disappointment, John.
    I utterly concur that people should experiment with their own blending from time to time.
    After all, we all add condiments to our food to taste.
    While the master blenders at the distilleries are obviously experts, they should be considered akin to fine chefs – brilliant at preparing a top-notch product that generally appeals to most palates, but not necessarily always going to produce exactly what a particular individual palate desires.
    In other words, we’re all different with different palates, and know what we personally like better even that the best distiller.
    And with a little practice and a little judgement and luck, anyone can end up with their own personal blend that perfectly matches their taste.
    But you were brave to seek to improve on an Aberlour of such vintage, and I’m delighted the results worked out so well, John.
    As for Harvey, I think he could do with a nice dram.

  6. Gary Gillman says:

    Well done, John, it sounds very good. I have done this too, for many years, taking my cue from, i) almost universal distillery practice of mingling make of different ages and other characteistics to produce a single malt, ii) merchants’ practices of combining (vatting) different single malts, and iii) accepted ways to combine grain and malt whiskies to make blended whisky. We are doing the same thing, it isn’t rocket science and one can often get great results. (If you don’t build a Rob Roy or Rusty Nail out of it, but you can hardly go wrong in this game ultimately, see below).

    An off-tasting malt will obtrude in a mingling, vatting or blend unless many whiskies are used. I have gotten rid of some old musty or rubbery-tasting whiskies that way. Just use 50 and not too much of the rough stuff!

    I have, currently, a kind of solera blend which is mostly single malts and is really good, rounded, rich, complex. In my view, only the final (taste) result matters. You can certainly blend old and young and every which way around. If it tastes not right, keep adding more ’til you get it right!

    I do it with Canadian whiskies and bourbons and ryes, too.

    Generally I won’t mix these national types but sometimes you can, e.g., a mild Canadian will stand in nicely for a grain whisky in a Scotch blend.

    Happy New Year.

    Gary

  7. John Hansell says:

    JC, & Gary: I have had some of my new Aberlour vatting every night since I put it together and I just love it. It makes sense really. No one knows what we like more than we do, right?

    Gary, I haven’t really done much with mixing national types. But I think it’s worth trying. Canadian and Scotch Grain sounds very logical. Anyone else out there dabbled in inter-country blending? Harvey, care to contribute?

  8. DavidG says:

    I tried and really enjoyed blending Bush Pilot (single barrel Canadian) with Ardbeg – the mouthfeel was delightful and IMHO it was the best blend I ever had (was it “Serendipitous”? – well I own up to doing it on purpose) and it tamed the smoke while making it fuller, fatter on the palate. It was a complete lark and was delicious.

  9. Dear John,

    Harvey’s concoctions are truly wonderful & Harvey has used his knowledge of various distilleries & bottlings to create some amazing vatted malts. I should mention Harvey’s concoctions are all at cask strength, which allows people to add water to taste.

    On a separate note, your experiment is similar to one of my favorite break-out sessions from WhiskyFest Chicago 2008, where Ian Millar brought samples of Glenfiddich (aged 12 & 18 years in 1st fill bourbon, 1st fill sherry & European oak – all at cask strength) and we were allowed to create our own vatted Glenfiddich – wonderful. If only Wm. Grant would sell these in 200ml six packs to allow consumers to experiment at home.

    I’m looking forward to many great malts & great events in 2009.
    Cheers,

    Bill

  10. Gary Gillman says:

    In the 1930’s a whiskey was marketed in the U.S., a version of Jameson I believe, which combined (a probably young) U.S. straight whiskey or whiskeys with aged pure pot still Irish. It does not appear to have lasted that long in the marketplace, but it shows that the idea even of such blending is not new. To me, both types are so distinctive that they might not match well, but I am open to trying an example because I think someone might come up with the right formula. For example, some straight rye seems to have a character somewhat akin to pure pot still whiskey.

    I find Irish single malt – Bushmill’s, that is – and pure pot still work together very well. Irish single malts (i.e., including Cooley’s) and Scots single malts blend well too since they are so similar to begin with (for this purpose).

    In fashioning a Scotch blend, a 1940’s book I have advises to use half or a greater or lesser amount (depending on quality) of grain whisky, half the rest Lowlands, and the remainder mostly Highlands with a little Islay or Campbeltown. I think then Campbeltowns were more numerous and big and pungent. But it is evident, and the book recognises, that the formulas are flexible and each producer as we know has its own particular approach. I find that if you use 10%-20% grain whisky you can get a very good result. The grain really does “display” the malts as the Scots blending masters say.

    I will usually use a good quality commercially available blended Scotch to provide the grain component or more than one. When the blend hits 30-50 whiskies you can often get a rich, balanced quality and one can see by such experiments how the blending industry got going. But (again in my experience) the matter is dependent not so much on a fixed formula than how you actually confect it. I’ve had great examples of 5-whisky vattings and 50-whisky blends.

    If you blend Canadian whisky and bourbon or straight ryes, you come up with a kind of American Whiskey (i.e., the blended counterpart to Canadian) since the Canadian stands in well for, if not better than, GNS and supplies a little flavoring whisky (single-type) of its own.

    This is really a do-it-yourself thing and the boundaries are few. Even where exceeded, at worst you will end up with a cocktail not a whisky blend but it might taste great!

    It’s fun to do and it’s good to see that others enjoy it too.

    Gary

  11. John Hansell says:

    Great comments guys. Your experiences will be useful to the rest of the readers who have not dabbled with blending and want to give it a try.

  12. Louis says:

    Hi John,

    As I am a big fan of Compass Box Whisky, one thing I do for fun is to try to replicate John Glaser’s creations. My biggest success was re-creating the taste of the original Monster, which I preferred to the Peat Monster. Using the Signatory Un-chillfiltered 11 year old Ardmore, 14 year old cask strength Signatory Caol Ila, and a bit of the distillery 18 year old CI, I nailed it. But using the current Ardmore Traditional cask was less succcessful in this application, I ended up closer to the Peat Monster.

    My next project is to use some of the Canto Cask 46 to turn the Eleuthra into the Flaming Heart. It looks like I will also have to blend my own Eleuthra at some point when my stock runs out, as it has been discontinued.

    BTW, I told John about all of this at Whiskyfest a few years back, and he suggested I let my versions marry for 1-2 months. I gave him a funny look, and told him that 30 seconds int he glass was about as much patience as I could manage.

    Slaite.

    Louis

  13. butephoto says:

    Great story there. I’ve done this a couple of times – made little vattings of malts at home – but never really paid too much attention to what I was doing. I’ll need to make the effort to try and mix some more and take note of the changes and what works and what doesn’t.

  14. butephoto says:

    Further to my last comment I remembered the 1L cask I have at the bottom of a cupboard that I primed with port before filling with Glen Grant 5yo that I brought back from Italy in the summer. After many months the port is still overpowering the light whisky and I think that I may top the cask up with something a little more robust from Islay to counterbalance that. Lots of experimenting ahead!

  15. melvinl says:

    I’m not an expert so I’ve never had the courage to try a blend. It will be very much a hope experiment.

    But I have on occasions enjoyed a “double malt” by finishing a single malt with another of a contrasting character. Any such pairings you would recommend, John? Especially if its to improve on the qualities of one or the other.

  16. John Hansell says:

    melvinl, I think a good rule of thumb is to mix contrasting flavor profiles. For example, you can use a lighter malt to thin out a heavy (or peaty) one, or vice versa. You could also take a nice sherried Speysider and mix it with a smoky whisky. Or you could take a very sweet whisky and blend it with a dry, spicy one. I think you get my drift here.

  17. [...] of my other open bottles to pep them up a bit (see a very interesting discussion on this subject here), but it is a bit annoying. Bruichladdich 16yo & Campbeltown Loch [...]

  18. Rich says:

    my first reaction to this post was: heresy! my second reaction, after thinking it over, was: this could be a very useful idea. last year, my dad bought a cask strength independent bottling of teenage Bruichladdich, partly at my urging, that he ended up not liking much. i felt a bit guilty, and i’ve since learned to stick primarily with sherry-casked Speysiders with my dad. so when i went over last Sunday afternoon for scotch and golf, i snuck into his pantry and saw he still had half a bottle left. i secretly mixed a small dram of the Bruichladdich with a shot of the Tullibardine sherry cask i bought him for Christmas. then i had him to taste it and asked what he thought. he loved it! actually, i did too. it had a lovely sherry vanilla approach, and subtle island earthiness on the finish. when i told him what i’d done, he was relieved that his scotch snob son had been the one to break the custom blend barrier… lol

  19. John Hansell says:

    That’s the spirit Rich. If you don’t like something, than make it better if you have the means to do so.

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