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Blending spirits is an art

Master blender Robert Hicks shares why he has loved every day of his spirited job for the last 47 years.

india Updated: Dec 16, 2011 00:57 IST
Shara Ashraf
Shara Ashraf
Hindustan Times

Not many are blessed like Robert Hicks, who tastes the ‘water of life’ for a living. But the job of crafting a spirit is not as simple as it may seem. The creator of Laphroaig 30 Year that clinched the highest honour of Best Whisky of Show and a Double Gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition 2006, tells you what it takes to create a fine spirit.

"Most people think it’s a job they’d love to do, tasting twenty glasses of superb whisky a day. It sounds beautiful but that’s like daydreaming," says the Scotland-based whisky consultant, who was in the city to launch Teacher’s 25 Years Old Blended Scotch Whisky and Teacher’s Highland Single Malt Whisky.

drinkTalking about his craft, Hicks says, "Blending is a complex task. Sometimes you have to test 700 samples a day. Relying on your sense of taste could leave you with a hangover. So, you need to hone your sense of smell. That way it’s easy to test up to 1000 samples each day," he says.

You also need an excellent memory for aromas. "After 47 years, I am still discovering new ones," says Hicks. But that’s only the beginning. "A good knowledge of single malt and grain distilling and coopering, warehousing, blending, bottling, stock control, sales and marketing are also a must. That means working in all these departments. Now you can see why it’s always such a long apprenticeship," he says.

But most importantly what makes a master blender, he says, is dedication and perseverance. "It takes years to become skilled. You immerse yourself in the job for the next 30 or 40 years of your life. For me, it’s been 47 years and I still love everyday of it."

Among his creations, Hicks is most proud of Laphroaig Quarter Cask that broke the mould for malt whiskies. "There is no age on the bottle. It’s about flavour and quality and the whisky drinkers are mature enough to realise that age sometimes, is just a number," he says.

Hicks wanted to create a designer whisky but with Laphroaig being a powerful malt, there wasn’t much he could do with it. So he used various ages from 5 Year Old to to 11 Year Old to get a distinct flavour. "I then built small 120-litre quarter casks and filled these with that mix of Laphroaig’s and let them mature on the island of Islay.

This maturing changed the style of flavour; it made the whisky smell soft and gentle but taste intense," he shares. "It’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing"! I love to see the surprise on people’s face — the smell says it’d be soft to drink, but the taste explodes in the mouth," adds Hicks.

Hicks describes Teacher’s 25 Year Old as ‘a characterful, rich and smooth blend.’ "Only the finest aged casks of at least 25 years of age are first hand selected, followed by the art of blending — which is more art than science — to craft the finished spirit," says Hicks.

Who a master blender is...

A master blender works out the composition of blended spirits. In the Scotch whisky industry, the master blender picks up single malts and grain whiskies to create a blended whisky. A master blender also checks maturation of spirits, ensures consistency and quality. Blending is a complex and long term job, and requires blenders to stick to one distiller for a long time. Master blenders have apprentices working with them who often succeed them.

First Published: Dec 15, 2011 17:27 IST