The Whiskey Issue: Vat's all, folks
Blended Scotch and even vatted malt sometimes play second fiddle to their highfalutin cousin, single malt. But the varieties have more in common than most drinkers realize: Even single malts are blended, sometimes containing whisky from hundreds of barrels. (The "single" in single malt refers to a single distillery, not a single cask.)
"The true craft of single-malt whisky is the blending of it," Jeff Topping explained. "A master blender is a person who determines which casks will be blended together to make the signature taste of that single-malt Scotch. A single-malt Scotch is just a flavor from the distillery, it's by no means the essence of what that distillery tastes like."
Topping's Wild Scotsman 15 Year and Black Label are vatted malts - blends of malt whisky, without the grain whisky found in typical Scotch blends.
The Wild Scotsman 15 Year is a blend of 10 unique barrels from 10 distilleries representing each of the five distilling regions of Scotland. The vatted tasting tour prompted Topping to adopt the slogan "The history of a nation in just one dram."
The Black Label is a blend of just four barrels, including a malt aged in an ex-sherry cask to add the sweet nose and bold flavor Topping wanted from a cigar-smoking Scotch.
Of course, whether you're using four or 10 or hundreds of barrels, the art of blending is deciding which barrels to use and how much of each goes into the mix. To create the 15 Year, Topping spent two years nosing and tasting hundreds of malts, mixing and experimenting with the blend until he was satisfied.
"And then you just hope that your notes were right," he laughed.
Topping bottles his whisky at 92 proof, instead of diluting it to 80 proof. Wild Scotsman is not artificially colored (unlike a lot of 80-proof whiskies), and it is not chill-filtered.
Whisky that's not chill-filtered can appear cloudy, but it retains the fatty acids and oils that add flavor and a full mouth-feel.
These quirks are what make craft whisky unique, compared to the standardized sameness of name-brand bottles. "My next shipment of Black Label will be a little darker [than the current bottling]," Topping said, "because it's been in the cask for six months longer."