Back in the December '14 / January '15 issue of Whisky Magazine "the battle of the century" was about to commence as we were advised of an upcoming, 8 round, "Heavyweight Championship Bout".
No, Whisky Magazine had not suddenly decided that a little coverage of pugilism was required to beef up their publication, but rather this was the beginning of a serious battle of two heavyweights of the whisky world.
Dave "The Rummager" Broom and Neil "Copper Dog" Ridley were being brought together to put their considerable whisky knowledge to the test and to battle each other in attempting to create the perfect blend.
Starting off with identical 20 litre, first fill, American oak casks, which would be toasted and seasoned with a high strength neutral spirit, the contestants would kick things off by seasoning the casks with whatever liquid they so desired before commencing their blend.
A few ground rules were also set out:
1 - The first fill of each cask would be 1 litre of Clynelish, from the Highland region.
2 - All regions of Scotland had to be incorporated and there was no order as to their use.
3 - Each bottle used in the blend had to be commercially available in the UK and cost under £50, apart from a wildcard bottle.
4 - At least one grain whisky was to be used with no restriction on it's origin.
5 - One wildcard was to be used. This could be a whisky from anywhere in the world but, again, had to be commercially available in the UK and cost no more than £150.
6 - The blend was to be under 50% ABV when finally bottled.
7 - A minimum of 15 litres of blend had to be prepared.
8 - There was no restriction as to the amount of each whisky category that could be used.
9 - The blend was to be completed by 1st September 2015.
As the contest got underway the first task, as mentioned earlier, was for the contestants to season their 20 litre casks. Dave Broom opted for a rum seasoning whilst Neil Ridley went for a homemade blend of sherries consisting of Oloroso, Manzanilla, PX and Palo Cortado.
Over the course of the next 8 / 9 months the readers followed along as Dave and Neil battled with the components of their respective blends. There were highs and lows as each blend ebbed and flowed with balance and flavour.
In the end the blends finally came together and what had been created were two blends packed full of diverse whiskies that were sure to challenge each other and fight for dominance in any drinkers glass.
Dave's blend included whiskies from Clynelish, Teaninich, Girvan, Cameronbridge, Greenore (Cooley), Caol Ila, Aultmore, Springbank, Kilkerran (Glengyle), Ardmore and Glenkinchie.
Neil, however, went for whiskies from Clynelish, Aberlour, Dailuaine, Nikka (Miyagikyo), Auchentoshan, Glenkinchie, Highland Park, Arran, Bowmore, Overeem, Hazelburn (Springbank) and Springbank itself.
With both blends completed a winner had to be found and what better way to decide on one than by getting the readers of Whisky Magazine to sample each blend and submit a vote for their favourite.
Not knowing how many samples would be available I stuck my name in to volunteer and luckily enough I was one of the many selected.
The samples arrived, courtesy of "Drinks by the Dram", and I set aside a night to really give these the serious tasting they deserved.
I'd like to point out that at the time of tasting, those of us, who had volunteered to sample the blends, had nothing but a "Blend A" and a "Blend B" in front of them. The tasting was therefore "blind" and truly fair.
However, at the time of writing, the results have now since been published and I have also shown which contestant blended which sample.
Onto my notes:
Blend A - 42.1% ABV - Now known to have been blended by Neil Ridley
This was marginally the darker of the two blends.
Nose - Green apple leading to waxy smoke. Becomes more sherried with some dried fruit and hints of tropical, over-ripe, pineapple. Pine wood / pine sap which then softens out with oak vanilla, orange marmalade and a little dustiness which hides just underneath. A little note of BBQ wood chips comes through and with time a mellow sense of oak effect appears.
Palate - Sour arrival but quite smooth. On second tasting there's a little more of a kick from the spirit with sweet malt, lemon drops, black pepper, vanilla and more wood sap. Juicy with apples and still get a sense of the dusty wood. In terms of smoke, there's just a little lurking in the background.
Finish - Quite good, a little bit of length with nice, dry wood spice. Stewed oranges and apple crumble. Quite lip smacking.
Blend B - 43.5% ABV - Now known to have been blended by Dave Broom
Nose - Candied fruits leading to light smoked bacon. Smoke continues with dried wood smoke. Quite spirity and a little bit hard to get into. Does begin to open up with a little orange and lemon. A little dried fruit and cinnamon. After a little longer a coastal note comes through with mineral peat. The longer this spent in the glass the more the peat came to the fore but all the time the nose retained it's spirit feel with a little added vibrancy from more lemon.
Palate - Youthful with orchard fruits and a little chilli heat. More orange but to be honest a little one dimensional. As with the nose the peat eventually comes along and is a nice change of direction. Combines with the zesty lemon to give a salty lemon note, think aftertaste of a tequila shot minus the overpowering nature of the tequila spirit.
Finish - Just ok and, in fairness, maybe a little too confused. Still not coming together and possibly the peat has cancelled the other elements out without being enough on it's own.
Overall this was every bit the "ding-dong" contest you would come to expect from an actual heavyweight boxing bout.
Blend A started off much the better with it's openness, and accessibility, being the highlight while it's counterpart remained very much closed up and difficult to get into. This despite Blend B showing off some nice notes of peat.
Moving onto the taste, Blend A carried through it's flavours from the nose nicely whereas Blend B, initially, went along a one dimensional route and, as I waited for each to develop in the glass, Blend A brought along mellow notes of sherry and wood sap whilst Blend B refused to budge.
It was towards the end that Blend B began it's fight back. As Blend A showed overall balance, and tailed off with some nice dusty wood, Blend B went a totally different direction offering up delicious peat which was mineral, coastal and earthy in nature.
With the finish, Blend A remained balanced, and well rounded to the end, but it has to be said it carried this off with little excitement throughout.
Blend B's last minute injection of peat was a nice surprise but was also to be it's ultimate downfall, as this led it's finish to feel somewhat confused.
With these final thoughts it was clear which blend had come out on top - Blend A.
Looking back now, I am drawn to the amount of grain used by Dave Broom combined with his choice of rum seasoning for his cask. In my humble opinion this appears to be where the problem of Blend B began. The use of 3 different grains possibly caused a lack of depth and allowed the Caol Ila element to dominate too easily. The use of rum also seems to have been an issue as Neil Ridley's choice of sherry was noticeable throughout his blend and seemed to bind it together with depth of flavour.
Whether I am even remotely close with this evaluation, or not, is somewhat irrelevant, as either way this has been a great experience which has taught me a thing or two about blends and how different flavours can work together, and also how they can not.
I have to take my last moments to congratulate Whisky Magazine on a quality feature. To have a running article that allows readers to follow along and ultimately take part in the finish is outstanding. It has been an absolute joy to be part of this experience and am already looking forward to next years contest.
If Neil Ridley is to come back, to defend his crown, then he will bring with him a far greater insight into what is required to make a blend work and I can only see the quality of the blends becoming better and better.
Similarly, Whisky Magazine will also be able to see what rules worked and what other rules they could maybe add in the future to allow for a greater test of blending skill.
Until next time,