While most people may not necessarily be interested in how their whisky gets made, there are some that enjoy pondering over some of the more bemusing subjects known to man. Of course you will mostly find drinkers squabbling over politics, and indulging in some general horseplay with each other. Then sometimes they stumble into some truly erudite exchanges with far more purpose than one expects.
If at all you find yourself debating a friend, or a group of whisky sipping friends on whether, and how are Master Distillers different from Master Blenders, you will have plenty of talking points after today. You may even have the last word if you play your cards right!
Have you ever wondered if the roles of the Master Distiller and Master Blender are truly different from each other? Or are they merely stemming from the need to embellish roles and designations to add a sense of pompousness to an otherwise common job?
Let us give you a clue – It’s the former, but not by much. In fact, broadly speaking, the roles of the Master Distiller and Master Blender have evolved a lot over the years. Yet the general consensus has remained the same, and the distinctions in their roles at a distillery have endured.
To understand how, and just how different are a Master Distiller and Master Blender from each other, let us learn what they do, taking the examples of some truly great men in the industry. We begin with understanding the role of the Master Distiller.
They are usually employed at single malt, or single grain distilleries. These are places where there isn’t a lot of blending going on since the spirit pretty much only has one kind of identity, profile and characteristics.
Take Alan Winchester as an example. He is the Master Distiller at The Glenlivet, one of Scotland’s most legendary single malt distilleries, and the quintessential Speyside dram. Winchester has tasted enormous success in his job, creating some extraordinary expressions for The Glenlivet, including the sublime hand-crafted marvel, The Winchester Collection – Vintage 1964.
Alan Winchester, the Master Distiller at The Glenlivet Distillery
Alan Winchester’s role at The Glenlivet Distillery as Master Distiller encompasses every little detail right from the beginning of the process of distillation. This includes control and oversight of the production from the mash to the distillation itself. He also manages the maturation, and every other detail right up to the bottling of the whisky itself.
Winchester’s role is a fitting explanation for the roles of Master Distillers in whisky distilleries across Scotland, although some distilleries have delegated responsibilities even further. Macallan employs a dedicated master of wood, Stuart MacPherson, who holds the title of Master Cooper. MacPherson oversees the entire maturation process at Macallan, something Winchester does himself at The Glenlivet, indicating how strong his influence has been over the success of The Glenlivet.
Jeff Arnett, Master Distiller at Jack Daniel’s
Master Distillers at American distilleries such as Jack Daniel’s follow a similar approach with their job profile. The current holder of the position is Jeff Arnett, who took over the role from Jimmy Bedford in 2008.
Fred Noe is the Master Distiller at Jim Beam, another historically successful American whiskey company. The brand was named after the man who led the revival of the company post-Prohibition, and Noe is James Beam’s great-grandson. Fred Noe is the eight-generation of his family to work in the position of Master Distiller, an impressive feat.
Fred Noe, the seventh generation Beam family Master Distiller
Another one of Scotland’s stellar single malts, the Aberlour is produced under the stewardship of Graeme Cruickshank, who became an engineer to pioneer automation in the distillery business. This is an excellent reflection of the Master Distiller’s duties that can simply range from determining the quality of the grains for the mash, to determining which whiskies to marry and create a consistent flavour profile.
Aberlour Master Distiller Graeme Cruickshank at work
Every Master Distiller brings their own touch to their spirit, and since single malts are whiskies distilled, matured and bottled at a single distillery, there is not necessarily much variation they bring to the table. Interestingly, a no-age-statement single malt has the potential for the Master Distiller to showcase their blending abilities more than whiskies with an age-statement.
So now that you know exactly what Master Distillers do, let us scoot over to Master Blenders to see what they’re getting done over at their workplace.
Like the name suggests, Master Blenders usually work with blended whisky brands. They could be blended Scotch, blended Irish whiskeys and even blends from America although they are less common in that part of the world.
Blended Scotch whisky brands such as Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and Johnnie Walker are created by Master Blenders. They have the notoriously difficult task of blending a host of single malts, and single grain whiskies to achieve a phenomenal taste that is also consistent.
This means working with countless recipes with innumerable different proportions constitutes most of their time at work. Colin Scott, the man who rose to the pantheons of greatness with his exceptional work at the Chivas Brothers is tasked with creating and ensuring the quality and consistency of Chivas blends.
Legendary Master Blender Colin Scott
Scott has had a long, illustrious career with Chivas, having created some of their most astonishingly successful blends like the Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, and the re-released star of the family, the Chivas Regal 25 Year Old. He also created the newly released Chivas Regal XV, the replacement to the classic 15 Year Old Chivas Regal. The XV is matured in Grande Champagne Cognac barrels, which is another important aspect of a Master Blender’s job.
Selecting barrels to finish their blends, and deciding what proportion of spirit aged in which kind of barrels must be used in a blend and many other important decisions are all made by the Master Blender.
Billy Leighton, Master Distiller at Jameson’s New Midleton Distillery has a similar job. Jameson is a blend of single pot still and grain whiskeys which have to be blended to maintain the quintessential Jameson character. That is precisely what makes Jameson the world’s bestselling Irish whiskey, and to preserve this legacy is what Leighton does!
Another one of Scotland’s great Master Blenders is Sandy Hyslop, who works at the house of Ballantine’s. Let us explore another interesting facet of a Master Blender’s job through Hyslop’s career.
The Ballantine’s Finest, one of the world’s bestselling Scotch whisky brands is developed with a recipe that has remained unchanged since 1910. In addition to creating new blends for Ballantine’s, another important part of Hyslop’s duties as Master Blender is to meticulously maintain this brilliance. He does it quite well, and more importantly, has worked hard to add the oldest Ballantine’s blend to the family, the Ballantine’s 40 Year Old.
So Are Master Distillers and Master Blenders the same?
No they aren’t.
In order to simplify things, let’s say a Master Blender works with the spirit produced by Master Distillers. Master Blenders often work with finished products, created by Master Distillers, to create proprietary and legacy blends.
Their jobs might be different, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Without the Master Distiller and the Master Blender, many of our favourite whisky brands wouldn’t be the same, and many would simply never exist.
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