Chivas is undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent Scotch blended whiskies, even after the disastrous year they had in 2020. They launched the first luxury blended whisky in 1909 (!) and their current Chivas Regal 12 Years is a staple. They also have a more experimental range, called Chivas Extra 13. They’re all aged to 13 years and selectively finished (more on that later) in different ways; Rum, American Rye, Oloroso Sherry and Tequila.
Today I’ll be reviewing the Chivas Regal Extra 13 American Rye Cask, but last year I spoke to Chivas master blender Sandy Hyslop about the range. Specifically I talked to him about the Chivas Regal Extra 13 Tequila, because at the time they were one of the few (and still are) larger whisky brands to have had released such a whisky. As you may remember, tequila casks became legal to use by Scotch whisky distillers only recently.
I thought it’d be interesting to share some of Sandy Hyslop’s thoughts about his blending process. Keep in mind that all his quotes pertain to the Tequila release, but much of it can be extrapolated to his team’s approach for all the Chivas Regal Extra 13 releases.
The real work for Hyslop and his team of blenders begins with sourcing the casks and inspecting them for quality. They’re making sure the casks haven’t gone sour, or checking them for sulphury notes or strange creamy off-notes. Once all that’s done, the selective finishing process begins, which means only part of the whisky was finished.
Doing any sort of finish is a very hands-on, old fashioned process, even for a company like Chivas that sells millions of cases a year. Hyslop and his team start by filling casks and initially sampling them every seven days. “Me and my team were checking them against an organoleptic standard that we had set of the original whisky that had gone into the casks, to see how that flavor was moving. I can’t stress enough that it was all about balance.”
“The easiest thing in the world is to just chuck whisky in an exotic cask, leave it and will become completely overwhelmed. We didn’t want that. We still want to have that signature, sweet orchard fruit Chivas Regal style, but complemented with an extra dimension coming from the cask. It’s not an exact science. Any selective finish is judged by the blending team if they’re ready to go into the bottle. You need to keep a close eye on how that finish is going.”
To Hyslop a selective finish “is more sophisticated.” It gives him more control, which quite obviously is a key point of being a master blender. “We had a double control over the flavor that the cask was bringing. We controlled the samples, but I also had the flexibility to say: We’ll only use so much of that finish with our standard blend to get the balance just perfect. I’m completely obsessed with making sure that people who drink and enjoy Chivas still get that DNA. It has that foundation of Chivas but with an extra dimension.”
Hyslop can’t imagine a better job than being a master blender and having responsibility for a brand like Chivas. It’s something he takes very seriously. “To become a bit melancholy about the whole thing, at the end of the day Chivas has a fabulous reputation. It has only had very, very few master blenders. God almighty, I don’t want it to go wrong under my watch. I don’t want someone to go: Oh my god, remember that Sandy Hyslop, he knocked out that tequila which was horrendous. That would be my worst nightmare.”
I’m fully confident the Chivas Regal Extra 13 Tequila isn’t horrendous, but I can’t testify to that, because I’ve not tried it yet. Instead I’ll settle for another from the range.
Chivas Regal Extra 13 Rye Cask (40%, OB, 2021)
Nose: Rather fresh and inviting with notes of pickled orange peels and cider, but also classic grain whisky notes in line with wood glue and varnish. A whiff of cinnamon and black tea. Taste: Some soft spices (cloves, black pepper) as well as honey, walnuts and biscuits. Some vanilla and cinnamon too. Finish: Pretty short with a whisper of oranges, vanilla and a spicy kick.
Palatable and with a bit of a kick at the end there, the Chivas Regal Extra 13 American Rye Cask a decent whisky but probably not capable of holding my attention for an entire bottle. I really should've tried this with the other whiskies from the series, which would've made the experience much more interesting. Maybe some time...