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I was fortunate enough to be on a Google Hangout with Sandy Hyslop, Director of Blending at Chivas recently ahead of the launch of the Ultimate Gift this Christmas, the Royal Salute festive gift pack, here’s what he had to say about debunking whisky myths and the life of a whisky blender. 

debunking whisky myths

In your opinion, should you add water to whisky?

You will often hear murmurs about adding a few drops of water to whisky, with the traditional perception that either it is a sin – or that it opens up the whisky, unlocking the aromas. When asked, I would suggest trying our signature blend, Royal Salute 21 Year Old, neat first and if you find it to be too strong then add some water. As the water and alcohol combine, a reaction takes place, opening up the whisky and releasing the more subtle aromas allowing you to fully appreciate it. When I enjoy a glass of Royal Salute at home, I will usually add a little water as I firmly believe that it opens up the flavours in the blend and lets me fully appreciate the myriad of flavours in the exceptional whisky.

Does adding water at home bring the strength down?

When water is added to a high strength whisky it dilutes the ABV alcohol strength. Most whisky has alcohol strength of between 40%-46% ABV with water having already been added. Adding water will reduce the alcohol strength of the whisky. By adding a few drops of water to Royal Salute 21 Year Old, this opens up the flavour profile and tasting notes that may not have been present when tasting the whisky neat. Diluting the liquid gives the whisky a softer taste and allows more subtle flavours to come through on the nose and palate.

Is tasting the most important part of the whisky experience?

Although our mouths unlock the appreciation for texture, temperature and taste, they are limited to sweet, sour, acid and salty. Our nose, however, has many more sense receptors and detects thousands of different smells, with the brain trying to associate a word or nostalgic occasion to match the nose’s experience. For this reason, you should start by nosing your whisky before tasting it and giving yourself a preview of what’s to come. For example, our signature blend, Royal Salute 21 Year Old, is a rich, round and silky whisky with fruity aromas in abundance and sweet fragrances of autumn flowers on the nose.

Should you add ice to whisky?

There is no strict rule for this. With ice, temperature reduction gives a new dimension to the whisky and the slow release of water from the ice can develop a whole new range of flavours. Ice can change the whole perception of a glass of Royal Salute 21 Year Old and during the summer months when you are looking for something cool and refreshing, adding ice to your whisky brings a fabulous alternative for your enjoyment.

Are single malts better than blended whiskies?

Blending a whisky is a form of art. Just like single malts, you get different expressions of blended whiskies. Blended whisky is made with grain whisky as well as single malts. Grain whisky should be smooth and creamy and when aged and combined with high quality aged fruity single malts, it results in an excellent blended whisky. Something that needs to be remembered is the amount of time it takes to create some of the age-statement blended whiskies. All the single malt and grain whiskies need to be matured in casks for at least the age stated on the label. So in the case of Royal Salute 21 Year Old, every drop of whisky in the blend has spent more than 21 years maturing in casks. 

Is it true that the darker the whisky, the older it is?

Not necessarily. The distillate takes the vast majority of its colour from the oak casks during the many years of maturation. It also depends on which type of cask the whisky has matured in – for example, an American oak cask will impart more golden/yellow colours whereas an ex-sherry butt will give deeper hues of red.

Is it true that pale whiskies are not as good as dark whiskies?

This can be a common misconception and can easily trip you up.  I am a firm believer in nosing and tasting any whisky to assess its quality as colour is only a very rough indicator of maturity.  The colour of a whisky will not help you identify any off notes that may be present in a cask. Different cask types heavily influence the colour of the whisky. Pale whiskies can be just as robust, or just as sweet, and on occasion are smoother and more balanced than darker whiskies.

If I leave a whisky bottle open for too long, does it lose its flavour?

The glass bottle won’t change the flavour of the whisky. Once it is in there, there is no more maturation therefore it remains the same flavour profile.

How long have you been the Director of Blending for Chivas Brothers?

I have more than 34 years’ experience in the Scotch whisky industry and have worked on Royal Salute for 17 years. I was appointed Director of Blending for Chivas Brothers in July 2016.

Can you provide some insight behind your background and career?

I’ve worked in the whisky industry since 1983 and during my first year I showed an aptitude for being able to identify and memorise different flavours on the nose. Very early in my career I started nosing samples regularly but I also spent time in all areas of the whisky making process to increase my knowledge across the business as much as possible. Being a blender is a role that interacts with all areas of the whisky making journey. Right at the start of the process I am assessing all the new distillate from our distilleries and making sure the quality and flavour is exactly what I am requiring for our blends. I also am responsible for the allocation and quality of all the casks used for the maturation of these exceptional whiskies. These processes are stringent and guarantee the upmost quality of Royal Salute’s future whiskies. I develop all the new expressions of Royal Salute but the biggest part of my job is ensuring the quality and continuity of the existing Royal Salute Blends are maintained at all times. It is a huge honour for me to be responsible for such a prestigious whisky brand and a responsibility I take very seriously.

What exactly does your role entail?

There are many exciting parts of my role as the Director of Blending for Royal Salute. Not only am I responsible for the quality and continuity of our whiskies, but also for the purchasing and quality of all casks for the business. Another important part of my role is the responsibility for the company’s technical centres and laboratories.

The role as Director of Blending is constantly evolving as the industry develops, and innovation becomes more important. Maintaining a consistent taste experience remains a top priority. On top of that, my team of master blenders under my leadership play an integral role in product innovation and developing new flavour experiences for consumers to enjoy. There’s a real art involved in creating each blend, and we use skills that have been handed down throughout the centuries – it’s no simple task. Our blenders are experts on every single malt and grain whisky in our stock, understanding their individual character and how they will come together.

What is your favourite part of being the Director of Blending for Royal Salute?

Royal Salute is an extremely high quality and prestigious whisky brand with an outstanding reputation and it is a great honour for me to be responsible for the quality and continuity of this family of whiskies.  To be part of the history of Royal Salute is incredible and to lay down whiskies now for blending many decades in the future is a responsibility I relish. It is imperative that I have the best quality whiskies maturing in the appropriate quality casks to ensure the quality of Royal Salute long after I have retired.

What inspired Royal Salute 21 Year Old?

Royal Salute 21 Year Old was first created to commemorate coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and the 21 gun salute that honoured her, so it’s been a whisky fit for royalty from its inception.  Drawing from the exceptionally aged range of casks laid down over the years by Chivas Brothers and matured all over Scotland, this whisky skilfully marries the powerful flavours of whiskies aged no less than 21 years. The three different colours of glaze used to dress our iconic porcelain flagons – Ruby, Sapphire and Emerald – were inspired by and symbolise the previous gems on the Imperial State Crown.

What is unique about Royal Salute 21 Year Old?

Our signature whisky, Royal Salute 21 Year Old, was created to celebrate the 21-Gun salute, a tradition of firing guns for special royal occasions. This whisky combines rare malt and grain whiskies aged for a minimum of 21 years and is housed within Royal Salute’s iconic porcelain flagon.

What goes into developing a whisky such as Royal Salute 21 Year Old?

Developing a whisky with the exceptional calibre of Royal Salute 21 Year Old takes a significant amount of time. It involves sampling hundreds of casks and preparing and formulating many different pilot blends in the Sample Room to fine tune the flavour and make sure that not only does the whisky have rich, fruity, sweet flavours but also the balance and smoothness of the blend are perfect.  When developing a whisky as old as Royal Salute, it is imperative the influence of the cask used for maturation compliments the whisky perfectly and does not overpower the blend. Lastly, it is imperative that any blend created has to be repeatable; by this I mean that I need to make sure we have the inventory and quality of casks to maintain this flavour and quality over the coming years and decades to ensure continuity in quality.

How does Royal Salute 21 Year Old compare to other whiskies?

Royal Salute 21 Year Old is the definitive luxury whisky of the portfolio, with an unparalleled richness and depth of flavour. The brand is steeped in tradition and proud of its prestigious heritage while being firmly engaged in the modern world by constantly pushing the art of blending into new, creative and ambitious forms. These elements combined make Royal Salute the ‘King of Whisky’ – a truly exceptional and unparalleled portfolio of expression.

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