The whisky world has a proud tradition, and only products that adhere to strict legal guidelines can truly be called Scotch. But, even within these clearly defined boundaries, the need for fresh thinking and inventive ideas has always been a vital ingredient in its evolution.
Here, we celebrate some notable trailblazers – the free spirits who have challenged tradition and flown in the face of the rules and, whether through indisputable talent or sheer good fortune, pushed the whisky world in a new direction
From distillery founders and clever advertising techniques to new distilling processes and finishes, we pay homage to just some of the truly gifted geniuses and inadvertent pioneers from the past and present whose inventive ideas have, in some shape or form, given whisky drinkers a different way of looking at what’s in their glass.
Some innovations are the result of hard graft and years of tinkering – just ask Sir James Dyson – while other breakthroughs are the result of a happy accident. Elijah Craig’s status as the “father of bourbon” was secured after a warehouse fire charred the barrels he was storing inside. Craig went ahead and used them anyway and, by the time the spirit was floated from Kentucky down the Mississippi to New Orleans, the barrels had imparted a beneficial colour and flavour to the whisky.
Storage for a minimum of two years in a new charred white oak barrel is now a US government requirement for a drink to be called bourbon. When he died in 1808, Elijah Craig’s obituary in the Kentucky Gazette read: “If virtue consists in being useful to our fellow citizens, perhaps there were few more virtuous men than Mr Craig.”
“If you do not advertise you fossilise,” said Tommy Dewar, who saw the value of promotion before anyone else in the whisky industry. Dewar was responsible for the first advertising film for whisky, when he shot “Dewar’s – it’s Scotch” in 1898, and arranged to have it projected onto the side of the Pepper Building in New York.
And, in one of the first examples of sponsored publishing, Dewar took off round the world to promote his product, resulting in his 1896 travel journal A Ramble Round the Globe. Dewar even had a patent for advertising designed into the tread of bicycle tyres that left a message in the snow.
James Espey distills his philosophy into three words: innovate or die. Although he’s associated with bringing drinks such as Bailey’s Irish Cream and Malibu to the international market, Espey says his true love is, and always has been, Scotch.
His first innovation was with Dunhill Old Master, aimed at the Asian market in the late 1970s. Then came Johnnie Walker Blue Label and the Classic Malts package in the 1980s, and in the 1990s the launch of Chivas Regal in China.
Arguably, the introduction of the Classic Malts range was his masterstroke. The selection of a range of single malts from across United Distillers’ portfolio saw the company identify a particular whisky with a particular place, and a picturesque place at that. The idea not only promoted single malts, it contributed to the development of whisky tourism, visitor centres and the sense of a malt’s regionality.
Espey also founded the Keepers of the Quaich, which he describes as “a Scotch whisky knighthood”, honouring people around the world for their contribution to the industry.
Now, along with Tom Jago and Peter Fleck, Espey is marketing the Last Drop, a blend of 82 whiskies, the youngest of which was distilled in 1960. He has enough for just 1347 bottles, with a recommended retail price of around £1,400 each.
It’s the latest venture in a career which has always gone against the grain. “Innovation is not for the fainthearted, and corporate bureaucrats love to say no,” says Espey. “You need to be patient, tenacious, and sometimes ignore research and trust your gut feeling.“
In 1992, Australia’s “godfather” of whisky received the first license to distill whisky in Tasmania for more than 150 years. In what many thought was a crazy idea, he had to be innovative from day one in order to start creating whisky from scratch.
Lark’s notable innovations include maturing whisky in 100-litre quarter casks (Lark favours old port barrels from South Australian wineries) to speed up the maturation process.
“We made a philosophical decision to mature in quarter casks,” says Lark. “Although this is a more expensive way of maturing whisky, it has a number of benefits including faster maturation. But we believe it truly does deliver a richer, more heavily bodied whisky with a big finish, than whiskies matured in larger casks.
“Another major area of innovation that we are proud of is the process of post-malt peating, which means we do not have to add sulphur during the process and we can manage much smaller scales of peated malt.”
Since the birth of the Lark Distillery, Australia now has 11 distilleries operating around the country, with Bill acting as a consultant to many of them.
David Baker, who set up Bakery Hill distillery near Melbourne, credits Lark with helping to overcome legislation dating back to Australia’s Distilling Act of 1901, which stipulated that the minimum capacity of the wash still had to be 2,700 litres.
It is testimony to Lark’s reputation for fresh thinking that he was recently invited to bring his experience of establishing a small-scale craft distillery to the planned Kingsbarns distillery in Fife.
“I could never hope to teach the Scots how to make whisky,” says Lark. “The Scots taught me to make whisky and my involvement in coming to Scotland was a chance to repay the kindness and
support I have received.”
When the malt master at William Grant & Sons was looking to create an innovative new 15-year-old single malt, he hit upon using the ‘solera’ system.
The process is based on a traditional form of sherry production, where a succession of different casks are filled with sherries of different ages, which are subsequently blended as different vintages over many years.
With whisky, it wouldn’t work to add younger spirit to older, so instead Stewart came up with a system of using a variety of casks – new oak from the US, first-fill bourbons, refill casks and
first-fill sherry casks. The casks are vatted separately, stored in different containers, and then brought together in percentages into the solera vat, which is always kept full.
“It was a true innovation – no-one had used this system with whisky before, and as far as I know no-one has introduced it since,” says Stewart. “But it has stood the test of time. People visit the distillery specifically to see how the solera system works.”
Dr Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at Glenmorangie, has a reputation for experimentation and fresh thinking- and rightly so.
Notably, he has pioneered the technique of wood-finishing, using Madeira, sherry and port to impart new flavours to whisky. He has also helped to develop what he sees as the “perfect barrel” for Glenmorangie, using slow-growth American oak which is air-seasoned for a minimum of two years and then treated in a particular way, so that it provides flavours to complement Glenmorangie rather than mask it.
But ask Lumsden about the innovation he’s most proud of, and the answer is simple: Signet. “Signet is the one that means the most to me,” he says.
The inspiration for this complex single malt dates back to when Lumsden was studying for his PhD in what was then called the Brewing and Biological Sciences department at Heriot-Watt University. At that time, he became interested in gourmet tea and coffee.
“I became a particular fan of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. I was looking at the specification of malted barley for both beer and for distilling and I thought it would be quite fun to align it more to the tumble roasting process applied to coffee.
“It took me many years before I was able to put that idea into practice. And it took many more years, by the time the whisky had matured, before I started thinking what to do with it.”
But it was worth the wait. “Signet delivers on its taste promise,” says Lumsden. “So when I say the heart of the recipe is high-roast chocolate malt, you genuinely do get these
flavours of mocha and chocolate and coffee coming through.”
Lumsden says there are plenty more experiments on the go and he’s confident we’ll see the benefit of his work with Glenmorangie and Ardbeg in the near future.
John Glaser says he set up Compass Box, a boutique whisky maker, because he saw the opportunity to take Scotch in a new direction, and to make it more approachable and relevant to a younger market.
Experimentation is a key ethos in Glaser’s philosophy. He has tried all manner of things to shake the whisky world up – from creating his own blends in his kitchen at home to using coopers to create bespoke casks that combine French oak heads and American oak bodies.
Occasionally, he has gone too far – in the eyes of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) at least. Notably, his decision to place additional oak staves into casks got him into trouble after the SWA argued it was a non-traditional method of production. But Glaser remains determined to push the boundaries. An American with a background in the wine trade, he defines innovation as evolution, and says it’s the small, independent distilleries which have the motivation to approach whisky making from a craftsman’s perspective.
“You can’t ignore the fact that the whisky industry is dominated by large global corporations managing large global brands,” he says. “They don’t approach innovation from a craftsman’s perspective, they approach it from a marketing perspective. They’re trying to understand consumer opportunities, trying to map out consumer behaviour theories, and that has nothing to do with making whisky that tastes better.”
Single malt from California? Distilled by a German? Now that’s unusual…
Jorg Rupf left Munich to do research at the University of California 20 years ago, and never looked back. He founded St George Spirits, which initially produced quality digestifs and flavoured vodkas, before launching his own single malt, which has earned international acclaim.
Rupf, who is highly rated as an innovator by John Glaser, experiments with various aspects of the whisky-making process such as adding small amounts of hardwood-smoked barley.
“Our concept for the whisky is based on our philosophy of fruit eau de vie making, which is to showcase the qualities of the ingredients used in distillation. For the whisky, we try to
weave them together into a complex picture.
“Different roast levels of the barley, different types of oak, a small and measured amount of hardwood smoked malt, all contribute to that complexity. We are consciously staying away from peat, because it really has no particular connection to California and because of its sometimes-overwhelming impact on the flavour profile.”