Mixing and mastering: Scotland’s new blended whiskies

Single malt is the jewel in the crown of Scotland's whisky industry but a handful of craft producers have begun producing small-batch blended whiskies that demonstrate just how compelling the style can be. Johanna Derry Hall talks to the innovators

Words by Johanna Derry Hall

‘Being in control of the process means we can create the flavours we want; flavours you don’t always find in blended whiskies,’ says Daniel Fisher, co-founder and head of operations at Sweetdram

It was perhaps 20 years ago. Peter Allison was at a tasting event with whisky polymath Dave Broom. Broom shared a secret final bottle. Everyone there made appreciative comments and tried to guess – was it Caol Ila? Cardhu? Maybe Port Ellen? Finally, he performed the great reveal: it was Johnnie Walker Black Label.

‘That was the moment I thought, “blending is awesome”,’ says Allison. It stayed with him and, in 2021, along with Nick Ravenhall and Duncan McRae, he launched a line of innovative blended whiskies – Woven.

They’re just one of a cohort of start-up blenders to emerge in recent times, quietly demonstrating again that blends can be as interesting and attention-worthy as single malts.

Alisdair and Gordon from Turntable
Alasdair and Gordon from Turntable with two of the brand's blends and the records that inspired their names

Sweetdram, for example, released their Blend #1 in 2019. Around the corner from Woven, the Leith Export Co., sister venture to the Port of Leith distillery, launched Perpetuity this February. And in April of this year, on the opposite side of the country, in Glasgow, brothers Gordon and Alasdair Stevenson released three blends from their new Turntable Blending House.

‘Blending brings an incredible opportunity for innovation and flavour development,’ says Turntable’s Ally Stevenson. ‘The consistency the big blending houses offer is incredible but that’s not our priority.’

Freed from the need to produce a long-running consistent blend creates possibility, which all four businesses are exploiting. As Stevenson explains: ‘Within the blending world there can be caution about using certain casks, even if they’re incredible, because it wouldn’t be possible to recreate those flavours. We put quality and innovation over consistency.”

Four whiskies for blended whiskies
‘Blending brings an incredible opportunity for innovation and flavour development,’ says Turntable’s Ally Stevenson

For Turntable, this translates into three limited edition releases of small batch blends, with more to come. Woven has a similar approach. With 15 individual limited editions released so far, the number of bottles of each is dictated by the volume of spirit they’re able to acquire. Woven edition number 4, for example, consisted of 27 bottles. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.

‘Our philosophy is that flavour follows texture,’ says Allison. “We try to have as much texture in the whisky as we can and blend towards that.’ The freedom to take and use small parcels of whisky, he explains, also helps them overcome the difficulty of access to casks.

‘Beginning to source casks was an interesting experience,’ adds Sam Travers, head distiller at Port of Leith. ‘Casks are currently scarce and there are many gatekeepers who are wary of new players with all the cask investment schemes around.’

Casks in the Sweetdram distillery
The distillery at Sweetdram, one of the small, craft producers reinvigorating blended whisky in Scotland

Yet rather than baulking at the challenge of sourcing casks, the idea of delicious and unusual blends has driven all four to find clever workarounds that add to, rather than diminish, the final result.

The team at Sweetdram, for example, have taken the blending process right back to the start, buying in new make spirit that they age and finish themselves. Doing it this way gives them autonomy. ‘We can control the type of spirit we get because as a small company, we don’t have the buying power to access the kinds of casks we’d need for the price we can afford,’ says Daniel Fisher, Sweetdram’s co-founder and head of operations. ‘Being in control of the process means we can create the flavours we want; flavours you don’t always find in blended whiskies.’

Turntable range
Turntable Brewing House is based in Glasgow and released three blended whiskies in April

Likewise, Perpetuity is also not tying itself to a particular set of flavour profiles to blend with, applying a solera-style method to the blending – with a twist. As Travers explains: ‘Solera ageing often means younger or substandard vintages are blended with mature stock for consistency and homogeneity. Perpetuity is more like the concept of an ‘infinity bottle’.’ Each edition will become a component part of the next, blended for balance as it evolves. ‘We wondered: “What if we turned the Solera concept on its head and used it instead for metamorphosis?”,’ he continues. ‘Where the Solera system is all about sameness, Perpetuity is all about progression.’

Progression is key to all four ventures. Plucky and small, led by flavour, curiosity and passion for interest, they’re stretching the boundaries of what blending can be. And, perhaps, this new cohort will be the ones who finally gain blends the credit, alongside single malts, they’re due.

Four of the best new blended whiskies to savour

Woven whisky

Woven, Experience No.11 Peachy

Taking inspiration from the pastel shades and easy vibe of Miami, this blend is peachy on the nose and fresh on the palate. Soft fruits and Georgia peaches, pineapple and lychee – it captures the fuzzy warmth of late summer evenings.

£51.25, www.thewhiskyexchange.com

Sweetdram whisky

Sweetdram, Blend #1

North British single grain whisky aged in virgin oak, sherried Invergordon and peated Ardmore come together to make a round and complex dram. Finished in barrels seasoned with Tawny port from Douro, Portugal, it lands somewhere between Scotch and bourbon.

£36, Sweetdram

Perpetuity whisky

Perpetuity, Batch 1

The first batch of Perpetuity brings together a nutty Deanston malt, with two grain whiskies and an Oloroso-finished Glentauchers to make a dram that’s like apples and buttery pastry, toffee, and crème brûlée.

£39.95, www.masterofmalt.com

Turntable whisky

Turntable Spirits, Track 2: Firestarter

The smoke of campfires and the sweet char of barbecued fruit give rise to the name of this blend. Spirits from Caol Ila, Cameronbridge and Invergordon blend with a Benrinnes Chinkapin barrel, which adds a toffee apple note to this bonfire dram.

£69, www.masterofmalt.com