SCOTLAND IS HOME to a little over 100 whisky distilleries. Yet, there are well over 5,000 brands of Scotch whisky in the market.
And this is not a novel development. Indeed, it led one early nineteenth century whisky writer to rather poetically ponder from ‘whence comes this monstrous multiplication?’.
The answer is blending.
Single malts – those distilled at one distillery from barley- can be ‘vatted’ together to create a blended malt.
The addition of grain whisky – that made from ‘lesser’ grains such as wheat – makes the whisky a blend. Still following?
A suitable analogy may be that of the classic musician. If single malts are the soloists, blends are the orchestras.
And for the conductor? That would be the master blender.
They’re often found flanked by hundreds of test tube-esque sample bottles of spirit and well-thumbed production records.
It’s the blenders who pull together parcels of spirit from across Scotland to bottle an ensemble that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Neil Macleod Mathieson is one of them. For years he has scoured Scotland, hand-selecting casks and bottling them under the Mossburn name.
He now also distils his own single malt, having founded Torabhaig Distillery on the Isle of Skye. It was there that we met him, with hand-drawn samples from Torabhaig’s first ever casks, to talk all things whisky.
Blending and bottling Scotch for a living can’t be a bad gig. How did you get into spirits?
At university – 40 odd years ago – I wrote a few letters to various folks in the drinks trade. I was offered a trial gig for a cognac house in France and joined their production team.
Once back in the UK, I started importing, buying and blending stock for the home market. I’ve been doing that ever since.
Mossburn is known for experimental maturation, including using what have been termed “franken-casks”, casks hand-built with staves and cask ends from different barrels. How did that come about?
As a relatively small outfit in the trade, and as one (healthily) obsessed with the impact of wood on whisky, we looked for new ways to age spirit in smaller stock batches.
That meant either filling small numbers of many different cask types or combining those wood types together by rebuilding the barrels. We chose the latter.
Doing so means that we can – to the extent possible with whisky – ‘design’ the maturation journey of each cask of spirit we lay down. It also affords us a continuity of flavour development; we know what certain cask compositions deliver and can distil accordingly.
Conversely, it also enables experimentation; we’re free to adapt with different toast, char and seasoning levels on the staves and heads to suit our needs.
When bottling those casks, you disclose how each component has been matured – previous cask usages, wood type, cask size and so on – details which are often not disclosed. Are Scotch drinkers increasingly expecting more transparency and detail as to what is in their dram?
I think so. There’s now an immediacy to knowledge which allows us all to ‘kick the tyres’ on where our food and drink comes from. We can quickly suss out how something is made and compare it to everything else on the market.
As for our own part, we’re more than happy to share the details and tell the story that enables folks to make that comparison.
In fact, having those conversations ensures that we’re not just making a whisky for ourselves. We can bring people on board, tell our story and then listen to how that story lands with others. We can then go back and constantly re-work and shape how we craft whisky and who we’re doing it for.
And now you have a distillery of your own; Torabhaig is the Isle of Skye’s second ever licenced distillery and crafts a heavily peated style of malt. Why Skye?
My family background, I suppose; we are MacLeods from the Isle of Lewis and Isle of Skye. We chose Skye for many reasons, not least because it has a bridge.
What is the Torabhaig Legacy Series?
It’s a series of bottlings which each contain whisky distilled in our first two years of production.
We know that our maturing spirit will irreversibly change over time, meaning that it'll be impossible to blend these whiskies again and get the same results.
So, we wanted a release that captures it at its most youthful. The series means that we’ll be able to open those bottlings and be reminded of how our ‘house style’ tasted and felt at the very beginning.
It also means that we can take drinkers on a bit of an adventure; they can literally taste how time and circumstance shapes our spirit.
You have just worked with Richard Seale, the master distiller of Foursquare – the Barbados-based rum distillery – to craft a rum cask matured Scotch whisky. How did you select the rum casks for that collaboration?
Blending a whisky to suit a particular cask type is not the industry norm. Indeed, it’s something we’d usually run a mile from given the production variables involved.
But here, working closely with old friends to test our own ability to marry spirit and wood – something we’ve always backed ourselves to do well – was too good of a chance to pass up.
In this case, we looked for a well-seasoned, ‘active’ cask to fill with a blend of Speyside malts that had ample weight and florality to temper the tropical influence of the rum seasoned wood.
Richard suggested barrels that had contained older rums. By nose and feel, we chose a small number of those to ship over from the island the moment they had been emptied. And as we had already taken a number of whisky cask samples out to Barbados to build a ‘blend in miniature’, we knew roughly how our whisky would mature in Richard’s casks.
Gratifyingly, it seems to have worked. The rum influence is unmistakable – aromas of banana skins for starters – but the whisky has kept its structure and doesn’t yield but stands up to the rum.
Favourite all time bottling by Mossburn?
When bottling casks from dozens of distilleries, one certainly comes across gems from time to time. In terms of single malts, a six-year-old Hazelburn and a seven-year-old Clynelish stand out. Both show that age isn’t everything; top quality spirit matured in exceptional casks and bottled young can take on much older releases.
I also have great hopes for a blend we’re working on. We’ve codenamed it ‘The Last Dragon’ for its combination of fiery, muscular whiskies with more delicate, lightly smoky spirit. Depth of flavour and complexity of structure is added by forty to fifty year old grain whiskies. It’s in the final finishing phase as we speak and I may want to save some for my retirement!
Best way to enjoy a whisky?
My current choice is Torabhaig Batch Strength, straight with one large ice cube, or in a Smoked Boulevardier.