What does a Master Blender do?

Malin Åberg

On a day in November I met Angela, my fantastic colleague and Mackmyra’s Master Blender, in her lab in the Whisky Village. Among bottles, test tubes, papers, medals, even more test tubes and squeaky dog toys, I asked her to unpack the question she gets at least once a week: what does a Master Blender actually do?

Hi Angela, you work as Master Blender here at Mackmyra. What does your job involve?

Well, it involves coming up with new recipes, monitoring, planning and developing the maturing stock and whisky maturation. Trying out casks for new bottlings, providing training and being responsible in sensory terms for flavours and recipes. Playing a part in developing new projects for the company, such as Lab Organic Gin. I work with more or less all departments but answer directly to our founder and CEO Magnus. I also travel around a bit as Mackmyra’s representative, visiting manufacturers and distilleries, take part in beverage competitions all over the world as judge, give presentations on Mackmyra and my job as a Master Blender, visit and train people in the industry, journalists, exhibitors and visitors to exhibitions and trade fairs. I make whisky and drinks for Mackmyra in the planning stage … and so on!

You probably get this question several times a week, so let’s get straight to it: how much whisky do you actually drink in your job?

I don’t drink much at all – when you work with spirits you don’t tend to. You use your taste buds to make assessments rather than drinking yourself. When the evening comes, I’ve tasted so many casks that I’m often not interested in drinking any more strong alcohol. You actually spit out everything you taste. I assume that many people enter this business thinking that life is one long party, but that’s not what it’s like at all. I don’t think I’d appreciate being in a job like that all the time. When it comes to the relationship with alcohol in general, I’d guess that if in my position you did have a tendency towards being fond of the bottle, I don’t think you’d last very long working in a place like this …

Do you never get tired of the taste of whisky?

No, because then I wouldn’t be in this job. But I’ve heard that you can sometimes get a little tired of your kids (in my case, whisky casks) even if you love them …Luckily, I’m never forced to taste whisky – I can almost always wait until the next day if something needs to be tasted. And if perhaps I’m away on a trip, I can always ask a colleague to do the tasting for me. The only exceptions are cases where casks with a new blend of whisky have to be produced – then of course I take my responsibility and step up to the plate. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it, ha ha!

How does it work when you’re deciding on the flavour/blend of a new whisky? Take us through the process!

I either base things on an idea – or on which kinds of casks we have. If I’m doing the former, I write the idea down, guess which casks should be used, order samples, blend them and then gradually make adjustments so that we move in the direction of the idea. If instead I’m basing things on us having a bunch of casks that are to take the starring role, I taste all of these and decide on what would enhance them and allow them to really come to the fore, so to speak. Then I bring out all the remaining casks and do tests.

If the idea is completely new, I’ll do small-scale tests firsts – maybe I’ll fill a 30-litre cask with something exciting that will then be left to mature for three months before testing. Then each month I make sure that we’re now getting the optimum flavour from the cask. I sometimes use my colleagues as guinea pigs – put a glass under their noses and ask them what they think and watch their spontaneous reactions. If enough of them think it’s good, I’ll present the idea to the marketing and management teams.

It’s important to take into account the lead times of a new whisky – there’s a difference between testing a small cask and filling several hundreds or thousands of litres of cask with a wine, or buying in one or more new oak casks. So in projects large and small, there are more and more of us involved in the whisky journey.

Do you put water in your whisky or have it neat?

Each bottling is of a different size – more exclusive ones such as Moment have maybe 5 or 15 casks while a Svensk Ek has around 60 casks, all of which need to be produced and tested. I always nose all casks before adding water, but then I test most of them with water. I find whisky to be ideal at around 30–35% ABV. But if I’m only testing a single cask, it can initially be neat – if instead I’m testing several, I taste them with water in immediately. Otherwise, it numbs the taste buds too much!

Do you use an aroma wheel or any other typ of “aid”?

No, not any more – the wheel’s in my head so to speak …

Are you involved in the process of coming up with new products or do you just get a brief?

I’m often the idea creator, and sometimes the co-creator. I’ve still never only received a brief. I guess that day will come too.

Your title is, in any case among us whisky nerds, one of the better ones in the world: Chief Nose Ocer. How good would you say your nose is? What is it that makes its characteristics and your sense of taste and smell unique?

It’s a cool title, isn’t it! In the beginning, it was more of a pun (CFO, CEO and CNO …), but it developed into a real title. The idea that you can’t use perfume at work is a myth – I think most male blenders I know all use some kind of aftershave, actually. But it’s the same as smoking or not smoking – as long as you’re consistent, your body will recognise things.

But if you want to create something brand new, it’s a good idea to keep away from strong smells and tastes before tasting.

There’s probably nothing supernatural about my sense of smell – I think it’s mostly that I’ve undergone unique training that makes me sensitive in the areas I work in. In my private life, I’m most sensitive to artificial and strong perfumes, and people who marinate themselves in perfume or aftershave instead of dabbing on a few drops. It feels like they’re invading my space, you could say. I’ve also always been extremely sensitive to people’s individual smells behind perfume, shampoo and skin cream smells. Can be a disadvantage at times …

What do you do if you get a cold or are ill when you have to do a tasting? Do you arrange cover for such situations in advance?

In all these years, it’s only happened ONCE that I’ve had such a bad cold that my senses of taste and smell have disappeared and haven’t returned for almost a month. It was scary, especially considering that my father lost his sense of smell one cold winter in Sweden many years ago … but luckily after quite some time it returned!

What’s the best thing about being a Master Blender?

Being involved in creating exciting products together with the team. The fact that it’s a very varied profession that involves a lot of great meetings with new people. Getting to create things that other people can enjoy!

Which of our core-range products are you most proud of?

Svensk Rök is the most complicated creature and I’m very fond of it – a fantastic evolution from the Preludium 06! Seasonal whiskies that I have a little extra love for include Sommartid, a wonderful version of Brukswhisky, but with a cloudberry finish and with all whisky from 2008 in the blend (which was not mentioned in the marketing when it came out). Fantastic casks that I have tasted during the process include the one I have in front of me right now – a Swedish oak cask (no. 15233) that I’ve just tasted – new Swedish oak, gently spicy and … totally amazing! One of the perks of the job is to have such luxury in front of me.

What do you do apart from working as Master Blender at Mackmyra?

My main hobby is to dance Nia, which I have a black belt and give lessons in. I have between four and six classes a week in Stockholm and Gävle. It’s a form of exercise to music that combines martial arts, dance arts and healing arts, developed for all ages and body types. The antidote to no pain no gain, it’s instead no pain, all gain – with the joy of movement at its heart. Choreography with a bit of guided freestyle dance. A number of whisky people have actually tried Nia through me! My outdoor classes in the Whisky Village have meant that visitors have sometimes had a go, and visitors from far and wide sometimes join in my classes …For me, Nia has provided the perfect balance in my life, giving me the physical component that was missing. I’ve also trained to become a coach/mentor alongside my other activities in recent years – combining this with both whisky and Nia – which involves supporting people in their most important project: themselves.

How do you become a Master Blender?

Maybe a combination of being in the right place at the right time, a passion for what you do and a willingness to work hard?

Are there any courses you can recommend?

There’s a course in distilling and brewing at Edinburgh University that it may be good to attend if you eventually want to become a Master Blender … but you still have to be curious, hard-working and perhaps someone who’s tasted many whiskies over the years … Good characteristics are not having a proclivity for drinking itself, keeping tabs and being open to a lot of different drinks, qualities, and so on. It’s important to have the courage to use trial and error and be something of an experimental alchemist:a headstrong artist who perhaps doesn’t always know exactly what they want but in any case knows what they don’t want – and heads in that direction.

/ Malin Åberg, Marketing Coordinator