Chivas Regal is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of high quality whisky, which is a damn shame. Founded by the Chivas brothers in the 1800s, Chivas Regal was daring during its time, introducing the world to blended whiskies back when single malts were king. It’s made in the Stathisla Distillery in the Scottish Islands, and has widened its reach globally in the two centuries since somebody first poured themselves a glass of the stuff one cold Scottish night.
The blend that’s arguably reclaiming the brand’s place in the spirits world is the Chivas Regal 12. It is a unique blend, different from your average scotch. Most whiskies are dark and go down in a fiery fashion, with the fruitiness feeling more like acidity. The harshness of whisky feels like an obstacle one needs to hurdle to get to its finer fruity notes. But the 12 is gentler—hints of vanilla and orange come through, the bitterness is a complement to those notes instead of a barrier, and the finish is as smooth as a swig of non-fat milk.
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But tasting is only one side of the story. In order to fully appreciate the work that goes into such a blend, we were invited to take a whisky masterclass. The task of making liquid gold in a bottle is normally left to experts, but Chivas Regal gave me and a few participants the chance to blend our own whisky and, in the process, hopefully recreate the flavor profile of the 12.
A whisky blending kit is laid out on the table in front of us. There are five whiskey “essences” in small bottles that each represent a specific flavor or note: “Creamy,” “Fruity,” “Smoky,” “Citrus,” and “Floral.” A pipette (basically a long dropper) is there to extract the essence from their bottles to put into and stir in a beaker. There’s one empty bottle for each participant to fill with their best approximation of the Chivas 12, or at least a final product that suits their personal tastes. Bonnar Fulton, brand ambassador and alumnus of the Chivas Regal International Graduate Program, is tasked to facilitate the master class, and give us some tips along the way on how to appreciate a glass whisky and bring it down from its pedestal.
Fulton advises us to go extra easy on the “Smoky” stuff. However much you think you’ll need, make it less. “Smoky” is the spiciness of the whisky, the stuff that, if applied in excess, might make your drink taste like metal and ghost peppers. But applied with finesse and subtlety, it gives your drink just a bit of heat and kick. Whisky without smokiness just feels dishonest.
For that smooth finish though, you’ll want to emphasize the “Creamy” aspect of it. That essence is supposedly where the hints of vanilla come from. Blended properly with every other essence, that sweetness can almost taste like honey. That balancing act however can’t be mastered in the span of a couple of hours. The taste of “Floral” is like dried petals, “Fruity” doesn’t clue me in on any specific fruit, “Citrus” is acerbic and tart.
Other factors come into play. Does the whisky smell welcoming or too sharp? Is it good as is or better diluted? It’s this sort of tasting and mixing process that makes you think about how whisky can be enjoyed. Most puritans will tell you liquid gold is meant to be taken neat—anything else is blasphemy. But whisky on the rocks is refreshing in a sweltering afternoon. Whisky with water gives you spiked tea. Even adding soda water is a good idea, just ask the Japanese and their highballs.
I tried to amp up the creaminess of my blend without neglecting the smokiness, but even then, the entrance and finish ended up spicy and a little harsh, with all other notes of fruitiness and sweetness hiding behind the fire. Still, that’s an entirely valid blend, and might appeal to drinkers who like some sharp edges in their swig. Some drinkers don’t even know what they like at all, and will just swallow what they get without thinking about the profile, afraid that what they’re detecting with an untrained tongue might be off the mark.
But millennia of human evolution have turned our tongues into fine instruments. We know what we like, even when we can’t always put it into words. And though I didn’t necessarily come away from that masterclass with a bigger vocabulary, I gained a deeper understanding of my preferences. I like my whisky kind of velvety, with very little heat, strong hints of honey, and slightly watered down. I’m not wrong for it. And however you like your whisky, Fulton and the rest of Chivas will say, neither are you.