Follow the recipe? Or make it up as you go?
When I find, for instance, a recipe that results in a killer cake, I can happily make it forever with little change. Why mess it up?
But this sort of mindset doesn’t advance culinary innovation. And it also runs counter to our own human nature.
As Professor Barry Smith (in “Why Blend?” from his The Art and Science of Blending series) observes, humans have been experimenting for eons and it’s in our nature to combine two things to produce something new. But you can’t just throw anything together.
Smith notes that:
the success of a blend lies in its ability to unite separate elements into a seamless whole – or, a harmonious and unified arrangement of parts. (Smith 2019)
Okay, of course my cake is technically a successful blend of disparate ingredients, but with no effort on my part to create something uniquely new. So really, there are two threads here:
- a blend that is consistent and successful, and
- a blend that creates something that hasn’t been made before
In considering alcoholic beverages, Smith addresses single source vs blends.
With “single origin” being all the rage right now, it’s easy to overlook the fact that many premium products are blends, as Smith points out, citing Johnnie Walker Black Label whiskey, Veuve Clicquot’s Yellow Label wine, and even single malt whiskeys, which are likely to be blends from different casks. Careful and controlled blending ensures specific and consistent results.
Teas are similar.
There are, of course, single-origin teas, and there are blends:
- of different teas, such as English breakfast, which combines various black teas
- of tea with a flavor, like the ever-popular Earl Grey, in which bergamot oil is added to tea leaves
- of tea with herbals, like Arabian Days tea, a mixture of green and black teas and flower petals
Many Japanese teas are intentionally blended so that the product is very similar from year to year. For instance, a blending, or refinement, house, will blend sencha from various tea gardens to produce the sencha that is sent to the market.
The possibilities are quite staggering.
So what happens when an expert craft distiller and an expert tea sommelier talk about blends?
For one thing, they are both highly skilled at knowing the flavor nuances of any given individual ingredient.
Further, they understand how each ingredient will react with others, knowing what will combine into that “seamless whole” vs those that will work against each other. This is part chemistry and part art, knowledge and experience blended with intuition, curiosity, and “just maybe.”
Additionally, the ability to taste and evaluate crosses over. Having developed the palate, it matters little if it’s a fine bourbon or a fine tea. By knowing the flavor profiles of each, they can calculate how to combine them into something new.
It takes time for innovation, experimentation, sharing ideas.
You get this:
And you get “how about?” and “let’s try this” and “more of that?” and “almost.” You get ideas tossed about, glasses passed around. You get ideas acted upon, expanded, altered, perfected.
You get Smith’s “harmonious and unified arrangement of parts,” an elegant blend of creativity and expertise. And you get two of human’s longstanding indulgences, spirits and tea, beautifully melded.
Source: Smith, Barry C., “Why blend? Exploring the art and science of blending,” BBC News, April 22, 2019.