Add water to your whisky: Colin Scott
The Chivas Regal master blender on zero-spice food, shutting down the olfactory senses, and why water brings out the best in Scotch
When you know a man’s nose is insured for a large sum of money, the temptation to stare rudely at it has to be sternly vanquished. So when I met Chivas Regal master blender Colin Scott, I resolutely kept my mind on his fascinating tales of barley and barrels. Now also a marketer and ambassador for the brand, Scott travels around the globe educating audiences about everything Chivas at interactive blending evenings, one of which I attended in Delhi recently.
On the table were bottles, beakers and a long pipette, alongside miniature bottles of malts from the various regions in Scotland—Speyside, the Highlands, the Lowlands, Islay—as well as a bottle of grain alcohol. We started our tasting with the Speyside, aromatic and nutty, like spring. Highland was like mild tea, a bit heavier. Lowland smelt a bit like a musty carpet to me, and I did not enjoy it. Islay was smoky and ashy. Finally, we tasted grain, light and dry with notes of vanilla.
Amidst all that excitement, I also managed a conversation with Scott on the art of blending. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What does it take to become a master whisky blender?
There are three important parts to being a blender. One is the nose that’s above average (sensitive), which you train in the world of whisky. The second is to take the time to gain experience. The third is a passion for old Scotch whisky. Luckily, I have grown up with whisky.
Right, your grandfather and your father were blenders too. When did you start drinking?
Oh well, you know, there are the old granny tales of a finger of whisky to put you to sleep. So I don’t know when that started (laughs). (But seriously) my father was very strict about alcohol and taught us at a very early age to respect it. We were introduced to wine and beer and spirits at 18. And at that age I didn’t even like Scotch.
Being in India and its overpowering scents, do you ever suffer from “chronic nose fatigue”?
Generally speaking, one tends to shut down one’s nose and only pick up things one likes or dislikes. Even in London, there are various situations where you could be assaulted by smell: a woman’s perfume, a man’s cigar, croissants at a bakery, the fresh ink from a newspaper. They are there, but you don’t think about it. So you can blind your nose and not think about these smells.
That’s the wonderful thing in India—you can take your nose out of standby. India is not just about eating spice and curry, it’s about the flavours. Your nose is working all day.
Given how strong the smells and flavours in our country are, do you ever think you could have a blender from India?
Sure, an Indian blender can work but can’t eat spicy food during the week. As blenders, we don’t eat garlic and spices during the week. We don’t smoke. We don’t use after-shave. We eat spaghetti, fish...just no garlic. We can eat onions when they are cooked. We train our noses to cut back. They are so trained that if you put on aftershave and you pick up a glass and put it down among 100 glasses, we can still pick out your glass. We can do the same with people who smoke. The oil is left on the glass and we can detect it immediately.
So there is this whole debate about drinking Scotch. Do you need to add water? Or drink it neat?
Absolutely add water. We taste everything at 20% volume. We feel it maximizes the release of all the character and aromas and flavours of the Scotch. This removes the aggression from the alcohol that can mask flavours because of its strength. So add 50% water.
And what about the glassware? Do particular shapes bring out the flavours?
Here in India, you use highballs, because you like a nice long drink with water or soda. At home we use a tumbler. Just use a tumbler to drink it. As a consumer, you are not going to spend time nosing. With a tumbler, you don’t get a lot of aromas.
If you want to nose and discuss it, get a tulip. It’s wide at the bottom and short-stemmed, so you are not warming it with your hand. If you add water, the Scotch warms up. The adding of water is called cutting. So you might nose it after cutting it. As blenders we could let it alone for 20 minutes after cutting it and maybe nose it when the water comes to room temperature. Sometimes we even leave it overnight before we nose it.
Much is said about wine grapes and the seasons. How does it work for barley?
With grapes they rely on nature, terrain, slopes and weather. Nature grows our barley, but we don’t get involved with the farmers any more. We get our malted barley to a quality specification at our distilleries. So the farmers deliver barley according to our strict quality standards. And then we malt the barley.
When you don’t drink Scotch, what do you drink?
Well, the great thing is to go to the pub and have a local beer. It’s all about your mood. If someone comes around and I offer him or her a drink, and they ask, “What are you drinking?”, I just say, Ribena. In reality, I am drinking Chivas.
But it’s not about drinking what someone else is drinking. It’s about what you feel and what your mood demands that day. That’s very important. You’ve got to lead, not follow.
Maybe they are looking to you for recommendations?
So they should say “What do you recommend?”, not “What are you drinking?” (laughs).
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