Our story started in Scotland with Ballantine’s Master Blender Sandy Hyslop, taking us through the challenges of blending a whisky for zero gravity. Listen to a special podcast with Sandy explaining the intricacies of the blending process and how he approached blending a whisky for the connoisseurs of the future.
“In space we know astronauts miss the taste of home, so by adding a fruitier, more concentrated and more floral blend, really adds to this story.”
- Sandy Hyslop, Ballantine’s Master Blender, 2015
“Get the blend right and you’ve got everything right.”
— George Ballantine, Ballantine’s Founder, 1827
As only the fifth Master Blender in their near two hundred year history, Sandy Hyslop is the guardian of a rich whisky heritage that was established in 1827 by George Ballantine. Capable of identifying over 10,000 different scents and the merest whiff of imperfection in an instant, Hyslop’s creativity, instinct and intricate understanding of whisky and the art of Master Blending, has been honed during a meticulous twenty year apprenticeship. Ballantine’s heritage has taken nearly two centuries to establish and yet one bad batch under his stewardship could undermine his four predecessors and their revered traditions in an instant. A visionary in the truest sense, Hyslop’s unrelenting devotion to quality means he is already establishing a carefully considered whisky tapestry for future generations to embrace.
“I think whisky connoisseurs are always looking for something different; something that they have not tried before and something that can broaden and expand their experience.”
This alchemist, artisan and craftsman will not be privy to the 40-year-old blends he is already painstakingly creating, which means his devotion to quality is paramount to Ballantine’s richly layered legacy. To coincide with the launch of Ballantine’s Space Blend, we spoke with the company’s primary custodian to explore the art of whisky connoisseurship, the challenges he faced in creating a bespoke whisky blend adaptable for space travel, and what could and should have influenced the final form of the Space Glass design, including the elegance and the theatre of the whisky drinking ritual.
What are the key elements a whisky connoisseur or a relative novice are looking for?
If you are venturing into Scotch for the first time, you need to choose your whisky carefully. You don’t want to start with something that is too powerful, heavy or too malty. It would absolutely shock your palate and you would be better off trying something delicate, smooth and light. Once you have embraced whisky then you can start experimenting with different flavours and styles in order to find the ones you like. Its very similar to going for a curry. You might begin with a mild one, then venture into other territories. There is a very similar thought process with whisky. Whisky is hugely varied in concentration, intensity and how much power they have.
Mixing any new whisky blend starts with best practice, as has been the Ballantine’s way since 1827.
How does one go about choosing a whisky?
If they know about whisky and have enjoyed whisky for a long time then many will have cultivated a portfolio of whiskies and a benchmark style that they like. But I think whisky connoisseurs are always looking for something different; something that they have not tried before and something that can broaden and expand their experience.
In wine connoisseurship, they tend to look at the legs on a glass, and the aromas and the way it impacts on the palate, but what are the key aspects of whisky connoisseurship?
An experienced whisky drinker will look at the colour of the whisky, but they are first going to put the whisky into a glass that they feel is best suited to them. A glass that will get the best flavours and tastes from the whisky. A glass which enhances the whisky’s profile.
“As soon as you get out of earth’s gravity, liquids don’t behave as liquids should.”
They are probably going to have a quick nose at it, to gage its natural strength straight from the bottle. Professionally, if you are looking at whisky and grading it, you would add water to open up the flavours. When you add water to alcohol an exothermic reaction occurs where heat is omitted. That omission of heat throws some of the flavours into the headspace of the glass, so its going to make it even easier to detect the flavours in the whisky and its going to temper the alcohol effect as well. Your senses almost become anaesthetised so you subsequently get the full hit of flavours from the whisky.
What is your favourite feature of a whisky glass?
I love a whisky glass that can sit in the palm of my hand. The warming element from hand to glass is very important to me because the whisky warms up while you are drinking it. There is also something very evocative about that connection. There are two separate glasses that I use; the first is when working professionally and I need to nose the whisky. In these instances quite a small aperture is required, almost like a tulip shape. But when you are actually drinking and enjoying whisky recreationally, you need an aperture that allows your nose to go over the top of the glass as you drink it. This allows you to become almost immersed in the flavour as you are drinking the whisky. The circumference of that glass has to be wide enough for you to put your nose into it as you are sipping it, so you get the whole taste and smell experience. It all comes back to how you intend to nose the whisky.
So the headspace within the glass plays a fundamental role during the whisky drinking experience?
I would certainly be advocating that anyone involved in tasting whisky uses some kind of cover to trap the vaporised alcohol in the headspace. This makes it more concentrated and even easier to detect those flavours. When we are doing this in the sample room that is the way I do it. You would always have a cover on your glass. You put your whisky in a glass, add water and then you would put the cover back on and just give it a second, because it will heat up quite quickly. Then, at least from a professional blending perspective, it is much, much easier to detect the flavours. It makes the job simpler and quicker.
It’s different at zero gravity but alcohol and the flavours of alcohol can travel really quickly. If you pour a glass of whisky at the other side of the room, particularly a really fruity whisky, then you will smell it quite quickly on earth. Ten or twelve feet away and you will smell it very quickly. Again, I would suggest that is another beautifully evocative experience of enjoying whisky; that anticipation prior to savouring it.
When you are tasting whisky for professional purposes do you swill it around your mouth in the same way you would wine?
Yes absolutely. Just a small sip and roll around your mouth to pick up all the flavours. Wine tasting professionals tend to spit it out, but with whisky you should swallow it in order to see how long it takes to dissipate and to see how long the finish is. With whisky that is really important. The older it is and the better its blended, in addition to the quality of the casks, all these factors have a deciding influence on the finish. You want to create a whisky that someone can drink but you want that experience to last for a long time. If the tasting experience finishes quickly, you are going to be drinking it swiftly again, which tends to mean you won’t be savouring the elements. Whisky is all about sitting back, relaxing and enjoying the flavours.
“We are trying to give them, the people drinking this in space, something as close to the earthly experience as is humanly possible.”
How important is the olfactory experience when tasting whisky?
I would say that smelling is fundamental to the whisky experience. Your nose can contribute to 40 or 50 percent of the overall experience. The nose is actually more sensitive than the palate. When you have a cold your taste diminishes because you can’t smell it. Its an integral part of the whole experience of eating and drinking things, and because we know this diminishes in space we have changed the blend in order to compensate for this. We have made the blend weightier. We have increased the Speyside influence and brought up the fruity notes to heighten the concentration in order to give you the same experience as you would on Terra Firma. It would have been difficult to take a normal Ballantine’s blend to space because the conditions would make it seem lacklustre.
“A good experiment for you to do is to try whisky as normal, then ten minutes later try it again but hold your nose.”
What if the whisky glass aperture had to be closed in space?
Once the whisky is in your mouth, the flavours and smells are picked up by your nose anyway. When you taste whisky on earth you generally bring the glass up to your nose in order to get a smell as you sip it, and this is part of the experience. But once you’ve sipped it the alcohol goes in your mouth and the vapours go up your nose anyway. So you still get some of the flavour but how this is suppressed at zero gravity was another factor we had to consider.
A good experiment for you to do is to try whisky as normal, then ten minutes later try it again but hold your nose. The difference is enormous and illustrates just how important your sense of smell is during the whisky tasting experience.
What is whisky’s natural alcohol by volume?
Whisky’s natural strength is normally 60 percent, maybe a smidgeon below, but we reduce that to 40 percent volume for bottling. You need to bear in mind that if you start with a whisky at 60 percent and you reduce it down with water, you risk the whisky going slightly cloudy because it won’t have been filtered. You can’t filter whisky at 60 percent volume and keep it clear at 40 percent because there are fatty acid esters in the whisky that come out of the solution at that particular volume.
Is that like Glenlivet Nàdurra?
Glenlivet Nàdurra is unfiltered, exactly. So if you add water to Glenlivet Nàdurra you are going to get a cloudy element. If you take a Ballantine’s finest at 60 percent and add water to reduce it to 40 percent you’re also going to get a cloudiness in the whisky. You can filter whisky at 60 percent but it will not lose that cloudiness. The cloudiness only abates below 40 percent, so thats why they reduce it, chill-filter it, process and bottle it. Its possible to start at the higher mark but you’ve just got to remember that you may encounter issues with the clarity of the whisky. The clarity of the whisky is purely cosmetic though and won’t affect the taste.
What is the optimum whisky drinking temperature?
I don’t normally go out with a thermometer and dip into my whisky but part of the experience for me is actually holding the glass in your hand. By holding the glass in your hand you are imparting heat into the whisky, and its actually warming up the liquid as you are drinking it. So these were all factors that had to be considered; how to mirror the warmth of your hand so that it would add to the experience. Obviously the temperature in space is completely different, so this had to be exaggerated.
How many sips is sufficient to experience the whisky?
Its different for everybody and its purely a personal thing. If you think about a miniature on a plane how long does it take you to drink that? If it takes maybe six or seven sips to drink that then its 50 millilitres divided by six or seven, so its under ten millilitres. We were cautious about it being too much because it would be overpowering.
At what temperature does whisky start to cloud?
At 40 percent it shouldn’t go cloudy at all because its been chill-filtered and that’s why we needed to design a bespoke blend for this, rather than playing around with the strength. Changing and creating a bespoke blend to compensate for the fact that whisky is going to be drunk in these special conditions certainly added to the narrative of this story. The conditions in space are obviously very different and they needed to be respected.
Could the alcohol by volume have an impact on any sediments and particles within the whisky?
At 40 percent volume there is no sediment because some of the esters in the whisky have been removed prior to bottling. If we had decided to do this at a higher strength and added water, then we may have got that cloudiness and perhaps sediment, but it was still unlikely.
Is there a risk that the whisky could become infected by bacteria, given that bacteria loves space?
Bacteria might love space but it hates alcohol and at 40 percent volume we are fine. The strength of alcohol negates most of the bacterial issues so we were less at risk, certainly when compared with drinks with sugar. I was supremely confident that whisky at 40 percent would combat the bacterial issues. If the water gets added at the point of drinking there isn’t a problem.