What’s your background in whisky?
I’ve been in the whisky industry now for 15 years or so. For the first three, I worked in a whisky shop while I was at university. I worked there between term times, surrounded by whisky and literature about whisky. I remember reading a book by Pip Hills early on, called Appreciating Whisky, which I still think is one of the best books on the subject that I’ve read. That was really the first time that I had heard about the SMWS. After university I got a job as a bartender at The Vaults in Leith. I started there in November 2008 and since then I have held various positions throughout the company. I looked after our UK members’ tastings for a while, I was in the wider events and member services team. Since 2014 my focus has been on spirit, wood and quality, so I manage the Tasting Panel, do some blending and bottling management, look after some of the production side of things as well So it’s quite a wide remit. No day is ever the same but it’s really good fun.
How do you source the whisky that ends up in the Society’s bottles?
We source from all over, really. We have direct relationships with many of the distillers, but there is also a long tradition of brokerage within the industry, so we get some casks through brokers, if they are of interest. We also buy from private cask owners, so if anyone owns a cask and is interested in offering it to us, we’d be happy to look at that! There are loads of different avenues that a cask can take to get into a Society green bottle.
Does the SMWS have its own warehouse where you store the casks?
We store in around 50 different locations, mainly in Scotland, but we have stocks in the US, some in Ireland, some in England, some in Wales, based on what we’re buying at the time. I’d say about half of our stock is at a central warehouse near Glasgow, which is where 99% of the samples for the Tasting Panel come from, it’s also where we would transfer from cask to cask for additional maturation, so that’s really the hub. The other locations are where we store the younger stock that we are not ready to look at yet. It will be moved as it comes of age to be assessed by the Tasting Panel. We’re filling stock every year as well as buying at all ages, so in the past few years we’ve bought everything from zero years old and put it into our own wood, right up to 45-year old stock – if something like that crops up, which is quite rare these days, you’ve got to jump at the chance.
The SMWS does some additional or secondary maturation – what are the reasons for that?
In the past six years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit cooperages in France, Spain and the US. To be able to work with them and take advantage of their expertise in order to create layers of flavour, you know you can pull things in different directions and you can also ensure quality of course. So these are the three things, variety, full flavour and quality.
It also give us the chance to be part of the story of some of the casks, their journey to bottle, so for example we recently bought a whole solera system from a family run bodega in Jerez and we’ve done a mixture of fillings with those. We’ll also be doing some additional maturation, and when we come to bottle those casks, when we have that sort of back story, we’ll give it alongside the release. We’re talking to this bodega about maybe having tastings alongside their sherry, it adds to the whole depth of the experience for Society members, as well as to the complexity of the whisky.
Does the Society reuse casks that you’ve already previously used?
Yes absolutely. We’ll reuse whisky casks as well as rum, armagnac, we obviously have our Single Cask Spirits range as well. Generally we’d give a cask 20 years of useful life, so that’s what we’d deem it as being active enough to contribute flavours for the kind of bottling that we do. Obviously, industry-wide they might be used a lot longer, and that’s perfectly appropriate, but for us we put a 20-year marker on it. And actually when we’re buying in new wood we’ll record a ‘wood vintage’ for it. So say we fill a sherry cask for the first time in 2018, when that’s emptied in two years or four years or whatever, we know it’s a 2018 first use. So we look at the 20 years and decide how active it still is and how we want to reuse it. You might see an additional maturation for two years – which tends to be the minimum that we aim for everything, except new oak, which is much more active. You might see a two-year use, you might see another four or five year longer-term additional maturation, and then we may do a full term which takes up the remaining useful life but could coast on for another 20 or 30 years or whatever we deem necessary.
We’re looking at bar coding systems so that we can scan a cask at the warehouse and know exactly which cooperage it came from, which whiskies have been in it. We can trace all that at the moment but it’s over a lot of different systems and spreadsheets, so we’re aiming for a streamlined wood future!
Did you ever come across a certain cask that really surprised you, that was different to what you expected?
Yes, all the time. Based on what we were discussing about record keeping and traceability, I think in the past in the industry it wasn’t too good. So what you tend to find is that if we have an old refill hogshead – not one that we were in control of the filling of – and you order it in and on paper you see that it was probably fairly inactive. But if it’s of a good age, it’s probably got a nice balance of oxidative style of maturation and the wood influence, but you sometimes just find that they are incredibly dark, really fruity and you think, that doesn’t make sense. One that really sticks out in my mind is a cask from distillery 27, which we had when I was working behind the bar in The Vaults. It said ‘refill barrel’ on the label but it was bright red in colour and really rich and fruity. We dug about and eventually found out it was a full-term red wine maturation. So these things crop up all the time and nothing is ever as expected, but always interesting.
How do you choose the different flavour profiles for the whiskies?
The flavour profile is attributed by the Tasting Panel, and it’s the last thing that we discuss. We go through the whisky, we look at colour, nose it, taste it, then reduce it and nose and taste again, then we all discuss it. Interestingly, now all of our assessments and Tasting Notes are popped into a web app that we made, so as of January 2019 we have a web-based solution that has every single panellist’s remarks and scores on every single whisky. That’s great, instead of having bits of paper filed away. At the end of this, after you’ve taken all of your notes and had a bit of discussion, the Panel will settle on a flavour profile, although you tend to find that some of them could fit into two or three flavour profiles. If you had a really peaty whisky, but it was 30-years old, it could be Old & Dignified or Peated. Or you could have a strong, tropical bourbon cask style – it could be Juicy, Oak & Vanilla, but it could also be Sweet, Fruity & Mellow. There tends to be a little bit of toing and froing, but generally we tend to agree quite quickly with what’s what.
What’s your favourite flavour profile?
It’s a difficult one, I’d say I started off as an absolute peat freak, but I’ve moved more and more towards Speyside, a really tropical gentle style, so I’d say Sweet, Fruity & Mellow, maybe a Speyside dram over 20-years old, that’s my ideal kind of dram. But the first whisky I tried was a Laphroaig that my dad let me try, I loved that, and I’ve been going on family holidays to Islay since I was a kid, so it’s quite an evocative place for me. And sherry casks as well, I love those. So everything all at once!
This month’s Outturn theme is all about food pairings, what do you think is the trick with food pairings with whisky?
I’m not an expert in this area but I’ve had plenty of nice experiences of food and whisky, I think the key is probably to experiment, cause that’s the most fun. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t really matter! Generally you’ll find your gut instinct is pretty accurate. Try either a complement or a contrast – if you’ve got something like Scottish smoked salmon, you might find that a Sweet, Fruity & Mellow flavour profile goes well with it, or equally an Oily & Coastal, so you’ve got different approaches you can take. It’s like anything, the more you do it, the more you get a handle on it, see what works and try something else, exploration is what it’s all about.
Do you have any favourite food pairing?
I think something sweet with something spicy. I would be thinking one of the sweeter flavour profiles, that could even be a Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits, along with something peppery, steak with peppercorn sauce or haggis, something that’s really peppery and spicy and feisty – that’s my favourite kind of style.