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Uisge Beatha: Water of Life

Just back from two days up in Scotland. Chris Coe, one of the founders of the ‘Travel Photographer of the Year Awards’ very kindly took me up to Glasgow to meet the people at Cutty Sark Whisky where, with the expert guidance of Master Blender Kirsteen Campbell, I was to blend my own whisky as part of the TPOTY prize.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Whisky story and have photographed in a number of distilleries over the years so the opportunity to learn about the blending process and tour the bottling plant was a honour beyond words.

So…cue the pictures.

First up, Kirsteen in the blending room, all wood panelled the way it should be – apparently the room was moved piece by piece from the original blending room in a beautiful old Georgian building in the city to the modern HQ and bottling plant up the road.

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The alchemy begins….

Cutty Sark is blended from a mixture of fine grain whiskies and famous single malts such as the Macallan and Highland Park. Chris and I were taken through a ‘nosing’ and tasting test with Kirsteen explaining and demonstrating how the different liquids affect the blend. The range of flavours and nuances was extraordinary – whether it was the different grains, the level of smokiness imparted by the burning of peat under the malting floor or type of cask in which the whisky has been matured. Of the samples we tried I was astonished at the difference the same whisky exhibited after maturing for the same length of time in either American oak casks or Spanish oak casks – totally different flavours imparted from the different wood.

To me the difference between the grain whisky and the malt whisky was very identifiable and so we began by blending only the malts to establish the basic taste that appealed to me. Like a scientist in the coolest science lab you’re ever likely to see, Kirsteen led me by the hand, blending 10 mls at a time of various single malts to get to a really tasty blend with just the right level of smokey peat and a slight sweetness from a malt matured in American oak casks.

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Then it was a question of balancing the flavour of the malts with the grain whisky to bring a smoothness to the overall blend. CEWhisky60

OK, here I am pretending to know what I’m doing (but fooling nobody, I imagine)…

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With the vast range of whiskies, casks, strengths, peatiness, etc. etc. the blending process is an art that takes years to learn. Of course, I was never going to be an expert in one day, but it was made a lot easier for me by the fact that we blended from a narrower range of malts selected by Kirsteen based on the type of whiskies I like.

Each different variation we worked on was marked down in chalk on the slate worktops and only with constant comparison with previous versions was I able to arrive at something which I am really proud to call my own. I do have a note of every malt, type of cask and quantity of each that went into it, but of course I’m going to claim that as a ‘commercial secret’ so don’t ask. Suffice to say it tastes bloody lovely!!


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With Kirsteen and my final blend…
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and the little sample bottles that Chris and I were given to take away with us whilst Kirsteen makes up the full quantities for bottling.
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An enormous thank you to Chris and Karen Coe at Travel Photographer of the Year and to Wendy, Jason and Kirsteen at Cutty Sark.

What a privilege!

Craig

all photographs ©Chris Coe 2013

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Look what arrived in the post this morning…..

Well, how about that. A BIG thank you to the good people at Cutty Sark Whisky who have very kindly sent me a lovely package to ‘introduce me to the brand’, before I head up to Scotland to meet Kirsteen Campbell, the Master Blender, to learn all about the whisky blending process and to shoot a commission for them. All part of the TPOTY prize and something I’m really looking forward to. In the first instance however, I think I better unscrew these caps and begin the voyage of discovery…

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