Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Ewen Mackintosh — In 140 Or Less

Friday, October 31st, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers. Ewen Mackintosh is the new managing director (CEO) of Gordon & MacPhail, the renowned independent whisky bottler based in Elgin on Speyside and owned by the Urquhart family. Ewen will be the first non-Urquhart for four generations to be running the company. 

 

What’s the view from your office window?

Today: beautiful blue skies and Boroughbriggs Football Stadium – home to Elgin City FC.

No need to buy match tickets then. What’s it like living on Speyside?

It’s a great part of Scotland – sandy beaches in one direction, mountains in the other and peppered with golf courses and distilleries.

Paradise for many. You’re going from Chief Operating Officer to Managing Director. Please explain the differences, task-wise.

No, I remain as COO for the business. However I do take on more Executive responsibilities, such as Export Trade.

20614_G&M_001_-_smlSo it’s basically the same but more. You’re the first non-Urquhart family member in charge for 4 generations. Any nervousness?

Nervous, no. Excited, yes. However, it will be business as usual, no point changing a winning formula.

True! Sounds like a nice place to work. You went there straight from university. Was whisky already in the blood and what rôle did you start in?

Niblick Bar in St Andrews must take some credit for introducing me to malts as a student.Actually started with G&M as a student during summer holidays.

But first post-university role?

First permanent role was implementing Quality Management Systems.

And on from there, obviously. G&M sales/turnover/profits all well up this last year. Some of the big guys seeing some brand/country downturns. What’s your secret?

We have products to suit all wallets/purses — from our entry level 8YO malts, up to the 70YO, and of course Benromach continues to grow.

Malts are so popular so is it easier or harder to get casks fillings from other producers these days for your own bottlings? Or just more expensive?

We have good, long standing relationships. Filling our own casks ensures highest quality. Important to us that we complement official bottlings, not compete.

You’ve done that well for a long time. You must be thrilled with the success of Benromach. How was that achieved?

Our desire was to re-create a traditional Speyside style from the 1950s and 1960s — this character has proved very popular.

Indeed it has. 100º Proof is new. Organic, Peat Smoke, Heritage and more. Are you allowed to tell us what’s next?

We’re still catching our breath after introducing all the new packaging, however there are some wood finishes on the horizon.

On the G&M side: Connoisseur’s Choice, Generations etc. — about a dozen ranges. How do you choose what stock goes where?

A very good question and one difficult to explain in Twitter length! For example, some labels are historical…

Maybefor a longer interview another time but please go on…

Certain labels are agreed with particular distillers, others are for styles (cask strength and wood finishes). Generations is right at the top for the oldest.

I hear you like sport. Care to elaborate? Player or spectator?

Much more enjoyment playing than watching. Unfortunately my rugby days are behind me and so golf is the passion.

More of a spectator myself. Told other interests are travel, food & drink and socialising. Does that mean you’re a party animal?

No — definitely quality not quantity. Enjoy visiting new places, trying new things. Inevitably when people find you’re in the whisky business, socialising follows!

Gordon_&_MacPhail_Directors_250413_0162_-_smlA lot of us would agree with that last bit. Do you like to pair whisky with food or is that a step too far?

Certain things work for me, cheese and chocolate pair well with whisky. It’s all about personal tastes, I never see whisky replacing wine at the dinner table.

Nor I, despite my whisky industry background. Still like it though. Travel — most of it for the job? When travelling — books or music?

For holidays, definitely a book. For work travel, mainly music. Unfortunately the emails never stop, so these generally replace the book.

Sounds familiar! Future ambitions for the company?

Benromach – keep telling our story, introduce new people to it. G&M – many “independent bottlers” out there. Want to ensure people understand what makes us different.

Unfulfilled ambitions for yourself — what’s on the bucket list?

Personally, the list is quite long, however right at the top is getting my golf handicap down to single figures.

All sounds achievable. Nothing scary there!
Lastly, what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

The golf handicap is quite scary! I’ll take my golf clubs and a few bottles of Linkwood with me to the desert island.

The Templeton Case: let’s talk to a lawyer

Friday, October 10th, 2014

Author - Fred MinnickIn 2011, I visited Templeton, Iowa, to cover this hot rye whiskey that Al Capone supposedly liked. At the time, I knew they were purchasing bulk whiskey from what was then called LDI, the former Seagram’s facility that gave the world beautiful 95% rye mashbills, but I had never approached the company about this. Going into the interview, I half expected them to be confrontational. Keith Kerkhoff, one of the founders, played college football and tried out for an NFL team; and let’s just say, his lineman shoulder could crush my spine.

When questioned, the founders, Kerkhoff and Scott Bush, were honest about the sourcing process and I later found their sales reps disclosed the whiskey origins. Templeton even disclosed this fact on its Website, producing a video captured at the Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and openly discussed the fact on social media. But for whatever reason, the company never disclosed the state of distillation on the label. Instead, Templeton sold the small town’s infamous Prohibition heritage.

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

Templeton Rye facility, Templeton, Iowa

For years, even before my 2011 visit, hardcore whiskey geeks called foul on Templeton’s marketing efforts and even the locals didn’t care for Kerkhoff’s and Bush’s attempt to bring unwanted attention to the town. (Illicit whiskey makers are still very much in business in Templeton!) All of this would be chalked up as noise or slightly bad publicity for a brand that became a consumer favorite.

But all of that changed in late August when a class-action lawsuit was filed against Templeton in Cook County, Illinois, citing “deceptive marketing practices” and that Templeton violated consumer protection laws. The plaintiff claimed he was led to believe that the whiskey was made in Iowa. This lawsuit was given the green light to proceed and two additional class-action suits have been filed, with the most recent one being filed this week in Iowa. Tito’s Handmade Vodka faces a similar class-action lawsuit.

To understand the depths of the suit and how it might impact the future of the spirits business, I reached out to attorney Joel Ard, an alcohol attorney specialist with Foster Pepper PLLC in Washington.

 

Templeton’s labels were approved by the TTB. How are they vulnerable for a lawsuit?

That’s a surprise often to a lot of people, certainly among smaller craft producers, but even among larger industry participants. This idea that a government agency has approved their label and then they can get called on it for alternative reasons is often a bit of a surprise.

But isn’t the TTB to blame for not catching an improper label?

The reality is that the TTB is the Tax and Trade Bureau. It’s not a Trademark Office. It’s not an advertising office. It’s not a consumer protection office. They collect excise tax on ethanol and their primary concern about labels is the Surgeon General’s Warning is on it, in the right font, in the right size and that the percent alcohol by volume is accurate.

There are a bunch of regs about no obscenity, no nudity. Just start looking at wine labels for what stuff gets through. There’s a lot of stuff that can get through because they’re pushing through an enormous volume of labels; it’s not primarily a place for judging the accuracy of advertising or the consumer protection statute.

On to the Templeton lawsuit; what kind of case is this?

This is the kind of lawsuit where an enterprising lawyer dug up a more or less imaginary plaintiff and sued somebody and he’s going to pocket the proceeds in the lawsuit. Pick a consumer protection statute, find a target and sue them.

Will this become a trend? Will enterprising lawyers start dissecting alcohol labels for violations of regulations?

I’m sure that somebody could come up with a particularly creative claim that somehow a person was harmed because a wine bottle had the American Flag on it and that’s forbidden by regulation. Hard to imagine what the claim would be. What’s the harm to the consumer?

Now, you might say, where is the consumer harm that Tito’s Vodka is actually not made by hand; and Tito’s lawyers and the California consumers will fight over that, maybe there’s no harm, maybe it’s really bad.

It seems like a lot of this could be fixed if the TTB had more authority to police labels for accuracy.

I’m not sure it would be the best thing to try to give them more authority. A few years back, the label approval backlog was huge. If you are a startup distillery, you need to get a label approved pretty quickly. You can’t afford to wait for your label and don’t have the resources to have an army of lawyers push them through TTB. So, my concern would be if you were [adding] authority, it’s going to hurt the little guys. The big guys have plenty of resources to get their labels approved. The way the TTB runs now, there’s very little legal involvement.

The TTB right now is a decent balance of making sure that people aren’t misled about alcohol content, poisoned by strange distilled spirits, or blatantly obviously lied to on labels. For the broad run of the rest of it, most of the time the market’s going to sort it out. If you put bad stuff in a bottle, it doesn’t matter how cool your label is.

Jackie Thomson — In 140 Or Less

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers Jackie Thomson, manager of Ardbeg’s visitor center and the Old Kiln Café. Known for her deep commitment and passion for her role and brand, Jackie tells us a bit about herself and the business there…. but she won’t say what her invention is.

What’s the view from your office window?
Glorious blue sky and puffy clouds and the pagoda from the West Maltings. Delightful.

Where are you from originally?
Originally Glasgow but moved to the Highlands when small. Consider Inverness my home and have great affection for this part of the world.

Jackie Thomson 2I hear of an exotic work past. Your career path and intentions before arriving at Ardbeg?
Was a wanderer. Burning desire for journalism, but missed university entry date so changed direction. Never totally career focused, but lots of life experiences!

Such as?
Oh, the Middle East, radio stations…

What were you doing in the Middle East and how did that come about?
Intrigued by kibbutz living; went with a friend. Backpacked, erected greenhouses in Gaza, dived in the Red Sea. Fascinating times; when ignorance really was bliss.

Radio stations: are you Islay’s best/only DJ?
No. Worked at Moray Firth Radio in Inverness; sold advertising space but read the Highland League results too. Big footie fan then. But Islay FM has a ring to it. [Highland League is a soccer league]

 Ardbeg did “quirky” as a brand and website long before others. Are you all flattered by others following suit?
Love all the connotations which quirky captures — cool, smart, witty, intelligent — sum up Ardbeg. Not flattered, but proud.

You personally, the manager, and the whisky have all won awards. How much do they mean?
The awards are always for the team: quietly chuffed to bits. A dinner in London: even better!

You run the best distillery café EVER and I wish I could get there more than once a year. How do you keep standards up?
By keeping things simple, fresh, and making sure the service is just a little better than it could be. We pride ourselves on making good whisky-drinking food!

The team puts all into Ardbeg Day at the Islay Whisky Fest. Where does all the creativity come from?
From all of us via lots of juicy meetings. We love being able to have fun with the festival. We are on the last day so much of the serious stuff has been done.

How many members does the Ardbeg Committee have now? Plans for growth/running the world?
Over 100,000 members all over the world. Ardbeg is many things, but essentially a wonderful dram and we will continue to fill people with Ardbeg’s spirit.

Shortie

Shortie

Presumably literally and figuratively. How did you acquire Shortie and to whom does the lovely wee dog belong?
By default:  he lived near the distillery and spent much of his time outside the visitor center sniffing, licking, and greeting visitors!

Not many places where you get licked by the staff! How are reservations going for Ardbeg’s luxury cottage?
Great this year. Has taken a while for word to spread, but feedback is hugely positive. I would love to live in Seaview Cottage.

So would I; in middle of house improvements here. What are your interests outside work?
A spot of over indulgence — eating, drinking, fishing, walking, reading, inventing — nothing in moderation.

You probably never need to leave Islay then. Fishing: are you skilled and does your catch make it to the café?
Definitely need to leave sometimes. I get stir crazy! Our wee boat, Catch 22, has seen some action. I am very adept with a spinner, but keep my catch for our dinner table!

Cooking: assume you don’t do it all for the café? Any particular thing or style?
Certainly not; we have great chefs doing culinary gymnastics in the cafe. I love a small glass of wine and creating.

Reading…being on Islay with no bookstores, are you a Kindle girl?
Very recently converted, but love the smell of a good book. Classics on Kindle, contemporary fiction on paper, works for me!

Jackie Thomson, Ardbeg Visitor Center ManagerWhere do you find time for all this and being Chair of South Islay Development group? [South Islay Development runs community projects and is raising some of the money toward the setup of a new community center for Port Ellen.]
Sometimes I swim and occasionally I sink. Time is a luxury but I really thrive on being busy. Have tried to slow down, but it doesn’t work for me.

And being a chairperson?
I don’t know if I am a good chairperson, but I really enjoy being one and the challenges it brings. We quietly try to make things happen.

When will we be able to buy Ardbeg Kildalton online and how much has it raised so far? [Kildalton, created by Dr. Bill Lumsden to aid the project, is currently available at the distillery only.]
No total yet. Plans for it to be available online later this year. Proud to be part of this project to raise funds to set up a community hub to benefit all in Port Ellen.

Is there anything you enjoy that Islay can’t offer? Do you crave retail therapy?
Not for clothes or shoes, but for food choice and big supermarkets! Love to go to Europe and wander the huge hypermarkets.

Seems reasonable. You’ve been at Ardbeg a while now. Of what are you most proud?
It has been a great privilege to watch a brand grow and flourish. Working alongside the team — past and present — who care deeply about the distillery.

Any unfulfilled ambitions for a) Ardbeg Visitor Centre (growing your own cafe produce?) and b) yourself?
To have the Old Kiln Café stand alone as a great eating place. To write a book; see my invention make me millions; watch my boys grow into confident, peaceful young men.

What would be your desert island dram? Only one, mind, and it doesn’t have to be an Ardbeg!
Foraging for food, would be incongruous but delightful to procure elegant, sophisticated Ardbeg Lord of the Isles. Could read the historical insert whilst sipping!

Whisky Auctions to Return to U.S. in 2015

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Jonny McCormickSkinner, Inc., of Boston will host dedicated whisky and rare spirits sales commencing in 2015. Joe Hyman has been appointed to the position of fine spirits consultant to oversee this venture, which is likely to be welcomed by whisky collectors in North America. One impetus to expand into this area was Bonhams’ exit from the whisky auction scene in New York this summer, leaving an absence of any specific auctions for vintage spirits in the calendar.

I caught up with Hyman to mull over his time as head of whisky and rare spirits at Bonhams, NY, to talk about his new endeavor, and to discuss his perspectives on the auction prospects for different categories of collectible whiskies. Straight off, he corroborated the reasons given to Whisky Advocate by Bonhams that the auction house pulled out of whisky auctions in New York for failing to meet their own financial targets.

Why couldn’t they make it work? “It’s different in the States compared to Europe because of all the regulations around alcohol,” explains Hyman. “All the interstate commerce rules, licensing and warehousing issues…everything here has to be under bonded, secure warehouse space, which costs a lot of money. There’s such a layered system that each layer cannot step on any other layer’s toes, so to speak. You’ve got your distributors, your retailers, the auction houses, and shipping agents, so there’s a whole complex web to deal with, that most people in the auction business don’t want to bother with. The big places with huge wine sales, they’ll take whisky if you have $10,000 bottles, but they don’t want to have to deal with it otherwise. I can understand the viewpoint but it’s at a point where it’s growing. I did what I could.”

Joe Hyman

Joe Hyman

Meanwhile, auction houses in Europe have been courting American collectors to consign with them, making offers to ship their whisky collections overseas. Previously, some well-known shipping companies would only insure consignments up to a value of $1,000, inadequate for the needs of collectors consigning dozens of rare bottles, which left U.S. auction houses rather hamstrung.

Hyman has been striving to offer solutions. “I’ve made inroads with the shipping companies and international freight companies that deal with alcohol,” he said. “We can have collections shipped to us to our licensed warehouse, here in Massachusetts. We’ll continue to do the traditional live auctions with phone and online bidding, but we’ll also mix it up with online auctions like the European model.”

“That way, we can handle not only the really cool, expensive items that people get excited over, but we can help people who are looking for old-style whiskies for head to head tasting comparisons,” he explains. Connoisseurs will pay a premium for 10 to 18 year old whiskies from 10 years ago over the ones being produced today, because the flavor profile has changed or the availability of specific wood has altered.

“That environment can create more of a secondary market that the U.S. hasn’t had until now,” Hyman hopes. “Until a couple of years ago, it was eBay, Facebook, or Craigslist, but there is no real go-to place for the secondary market here. We can develop something like that. The $100 bottles and upward are ideal for the online auction environment.”

Skinner held a successful Fine Ales and Spirits online auction last April that included rye, bourbon, scotch, and Canadian whiskies. Furthermore, around 100 bottles of quality whisky are expected to comprise a section of their forthcoming wine sale this fall, before a full whisky sale next year.

What is his assessment of the market potential for whiskey, bourbon, and rye? “It’s going to continue to rise. People have continued to discover bourbon and rye over the past decade. The gains in recent auctions have been outstripping the pace of scotch. A lot of the old bottles are surfacing out of peoples’ basements, closets, and out of walls from the Prohibition era. We’ve not had the same turmoil and looting of basements that there was in Europe during the World Wars. Every time a bottle of significance comes up, then more people go searching through their basements and come up with things.”

What else is hot? “You’ve got the closed distilleries of Japan which have become the Golden Fleece of whisky collecting right now; the Karuizawas and the Hanyus,” he says excitedly. “People can’t get enough of that stuff right now, and it’s escalating. They’re going up at an astronomical rate.”

Canadian whisky has yet to have its moment in the sun as a collectible, but Hyman believes this will change. “People are starting to rediscover Canadian whisky, so that could be the next thing to go up,” he says. “I have bought Canadian whiskies like Canadian Club and Seagram’s VO at auction and they don’t go for anywhere near the same amount of money. I’ve taken these things to whisky events and people are amazed about how good they are.”

What about scotch then? “Even Macallan with their M has become a collectible whisky,” says Hyman. “It’s NAS, but it’s Macallan; not everyone can do this. Your collectibles of tomorrow will be the bottlings with age and vintage statements today. That stuff won’t be available in the future.”

Finally, looking back over your time at Bonhams, what was your proudest moment? “The Cognac 1762 Gautier was the stand out bottle for me, just because of the rarity of it. It was the highest price paid for a Cognac at auction outside of Asia.” Hyman is referring to Lot 947 of the April 30th 2014 sale where the Cognac sold for a hammer price of $50,000. I wonder, does he still dream of a bottle that he would love to auction one day? “Ardbeg distilled in 1815 maybe!” he says with a chuckle. “As a whisky enthusiast, I think a Springbank 1919 would be pretty exciting.”

The Skinner Fine Wine sale will be held on October 28th/29th 2014 at 6pm ET

Automated Whisky Dispense at Grane in Omaha

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

Lew BrysonHow do you like your whisky? I don’t mean whether you like it neat, or watered, or in a cocktail; how do you like it socially, how do you like it served?

Grane, a new bar in Omaha, Nebraska, has a completely new way to serve whisky: by automated machine. Grane’s founder, Daniel Matuszek, explains that the whole bar is built around the system, developed by WineEmotion, a European company that developed the technology for wine dispense.

“We went to them over a year ago and told them about the growth of whisky,” Matuszek recalls, explaining that they were looking to use the technology for whisky instead of wine. “They resized and retrofitted the pistons that push the liquid. They used the same technologies, but remade for whisky bottles. We got an exclusive arrangement for spirits dispensing with this for a year, global exclusivity. We’re the first and only place to use this; not Chicago, LA, or NYC, not London: Omaha.”

Grane has a “speakeasy feel,” according to Matuszek, but the whisky dispensers are sleekly modern, hard-edged technology. A customer buys a smart card (see the video, below) and “loads” money onto it. It’s whisky, so you probably want to load heavy. Then you take a look at what’s on offer; there are currently 35 bottles available at any one time. “We have a world whisky machine, a bourbon machine, two Scotch whisky machines, and a high-end machine,” Matuszek says.

You choose a whisky, press one of three buttons (½, 1, or 1.5 ounce) above that particular spout, and the whisky pours into your glass. It’s quick, it’s accurate, and you can see the bottle directly below the spout. It’s all customer-operated; no bartender involved. “It breaks down some of the barriers,” he says about the direct operation. “People can read about the whiskies, and then they can try by themselves, at their own pace, their own judgment.”

You’re probably wondering the same things I was. Is there potential for the whisky to be harmed, or changed, or contaminated? Keep in mind that the same issues for whisky are there for wine: contamination, oxidation, and — prime importance considering the cost of whiskies — waste. The whisky is pushed by food-grade argon gas, with the uptake from the bottom of the bottle; the headspace fills up with argon. The spout will drip two or three drops, but cut-off is precise. There is very little to go wrong here.

“The majority of people have been hitting that half-ounce button; they want to try things,” Matuszek notes, which must not surprise anyone who knows whisky lovers. “We don’t keep them on for months at a time. we have a barrel of Dickel 9 year old we selected, and we’ll keep that on. But we go all the way from the biggest baddest Ardbeg to Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. We’re teaching people about Japanese whisky, Canadian whisky, and all that.”

Will people like getting whisky without a bartender? (Grane’s bartenders are fully employed making cocktails, of course.) Will automated dispense catch on outside of Omaha? Will this be the next thing where people will say they can taste the difference? Would you buy auto-dispense whisky?

Happy 60th anniversary, Jimmy Russell!

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014
Young Jimmy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Young James Cassidy Russell: all-Kentucky basketball player

Sixty years ago today, in 1954…

 

Jimmy Russell started working at the Wild Turkey distillery, at the age of 18.

We at Whisky Advocate, from founder John Hansell on down, our entire staff, would like to say: Well done, Jimmy!

We’ve talked to Jimmy over the years. Here’s some of his story, as we’ve reported it in previous issues.

“Really, my wife, Joretta, was working here before I was,” Jimmy recalls, “and my dad worked at the Old Joe distillery here in town. There were four distilleries here at that time. It was us, then where Four Roses is now was known as Old Prentice, the Hoffman distilling company, and Old Joe distilling, where my dad was. I was fortunate enough to get on here and haven’t been able to get away yet.

“This is really the only full-time job I’ve ever had,” he says. “It wasn’t hardly the same as it is now. They called it ‘Quality Control.’ Now you do Quality Control and people bring you samples and you sit there and run them. Back then, you went and got your own samples, and then you might be unloading a truck of grain after you run them. Unloading it with a shovel!”

Jimmy learned distilling from Mr. Bill Hughes (that’s how Jimmy always refers to him). “Mister Bill was a seven-day man,” as Jimmy puts it. “He lived up on top of the hill, and he was here seven days a week. He’d worked before Prohibition, here at this distillery.”

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

Real Wild Turkeys, real Jimmy Russell

“When I started, about all bourbons were bottled at 100 proof, bottled in bond,” Jimmy notes. “But theirs had to be at 101, and it stuck, because that’s what they liked on this turkey hunt.”

The turkey hunt is the origin of the Wild Turkey name, enshrined in the brand’s back-story. The McCarthy family owned the distillery in the first half of the 20th century. Some of the McCarthys would take bourbon from the warehouses along on an annual turkey hunt with friends in the late 1930s. The friends asked for more of “that wild turkey whiskey,” and the McCarthys decided to sell it under that name.

That probably seems too easy, a story created in the marketing department, but Jimmy remembers hearing the story directly from Thomas McCarthy, who’d been on the hunts. Until the late 1970s, that 101 proof bottling of Wild Turkey was the only product the distillery made.

Jimmy Russell - high res in warehouse

Jimmy is perhaps best know for keeping Wild Turkey made the way he wanted it made, the way he learned to make it from Mister Bill. He has stuck to his guns, and while there have been some changes — additional products, like the rye, the Rare Breed and Kentucky Spirit bottlings, and the whole Russell’s Reserve line — and the entry proof has been nudged up just a little to 57.5%, largely, Wild Turkey is still made the same way it has been for 60 years.

“Any time you have to add [water],” Jimmy says, “you’re going to reduce your lighter flavors. But, you know, all of us have different ideas, and we all make good bourbon.” He pauses. “But that’s how we make ours,” he said.

60 years ago, it was made the Mister Bill way. Now it’s the Russell way.

Author - Fred MinnickThat was then; this is now. Fred Minnick reports on a ceremony last week that honored Jimmy with a lifetime membership in the Kentucky Distiller Association, just one of the celebrations that have been taking place this year.

Wild Turkey master distiller Jimmy Russell thought the Kentucky Distiller Association’s September 2 board meeting was just another meeting. He was wrong.

As Russell walked down the long, sloping Wild Turkey lunchroom entrance, a surprise-party audience stood on its feet, roaring, clapping, and ready to commend a friend, a bourbon legend, an iconic Kentucky figure who could win the state’s governor position if he ran. (At least, that’s what Kentucky governor Steve Beshear said.)

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

Jimmy and plant manager Rick Robinson

The first to embrace the “Buddha of Bourbon” was his distillery sweetheart and wife, Joretta Russell. “What are you doing here? What’s going on?” Russell asked, embracing his wife to the sound of joyous clapping.

Russell was being honored with the KDA’s Lifetime Honorary Member Award, making him only the sixth person since 1880 to receive the honor. It’s the latest honor bestowed upon Russell. He’s in the Bourbon Hall of Fame, the Kentucky legislature passed a Resolution to honor the distiller, and Wild Turkey’s parent company, Campari, has practically shifted all of its 2014 Wild Turkey marketing dollars to promote Russell’s 60th anniversary. This private event was the industry lobby’s chance to recognize Russell, who joined the KDA board May 16, 1978, and remains Wild Turkey’s alternate director.

“If there was a Mount Rushmore of Bourbon, Jimmy Russell would be one of the first faces on it,” said Eric Gregory, the executive director of the KDA.

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

Jimmy and his brother, Dickie Russell

After a round of thoughtful remarks from KDA members, a few laughs and a documentary dedicated to Russell (see above), where I learned Russell was thought to be Kentucky’s best athlete during his youth, I caught up with the legend to ask a few questions.

Was this really a surprise?

This is one they put over on me!

What does the Lifetime Honorary Member Award mean to you?

This is unbelievable. Seeing all these distillery people, this is something I’ll always enjoy. Being here in Kentucky and in the bourbon business, we help each other all the time.

This honor is about your KDA role. Give me a KDA story.

There are a lot of them. Over the years, I’ve been a member for, gosh, I don’t know how long. But a lot of things went on. They’d get rowdy at times, but we all ended up agreeing with one another.

Any really intense meetings?

There have been several intense meetings over the years. When they had the sales tax in Kentucky, they first put it on the distributor. And then five or six years ago, they put another sales tax on the consumer. We went to the Capitol steps in Frankfurt, Kentucky, and poured out bourbon all over the steps.

Over the years, the KDA has been involved with lawsuits with Sazerac. What has it been like being a board member during these situations?

It’s one of those things. We all have disagreements we get into, but we’re all still friends in the business. Some people want to do it one way, some want to do it another way. Usually, the KDA resolves their problems and ends up working everything out.

What does the future of bourbon look like?

I hope great. If not, we’re in deep trouble. Our company spent more than $100 million over the last five years, and we’re putting away bourbon we’re not going to sell for another eight years. If it doesn’t keep going, we’re going to have a lot of bourbon seven to eight years from now.

 

 

Jimmy's family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

Jimmy’s family: his wife, Joretta, and two sons: Mike (on the left) and Eddie

We’re lucky to have him. Perhaps the greatest tribute to Jimmy is the one his son Eddie pays him in the video. Here’s what he said. “The question I got when I first started going out on the road was, ‘How are you going to fill those shoes?’ And my complete and honest answer is, ‘I’ll never fill those shoes.'”

And Jimmy? We’re going to see him for a while, of course. He’ll be at WhiskyFest in San Francisco and New York this fall: he’s the only person in the industry who’s been to every one…and there are only three of us on the staff who can match that record! But when the celebrating and the honors of his anniversary year are over, he’s going to keep on working, making Wild Turkey whiskey the best way he knows how.

“I hope that’s the way it is when I leave here,” he says at the end of the video. “I’ll come to work that morning, and that afternoon, when it’s time to leave, just walk out. That’s the way I’d like it to — it’ll never happen that way, I think, but that’s the way I would like for it to happen.”

We hope you get your wish, Jimmy. You’ve earned it.

Georgie Bell of Diageo – In 140 Or Less

Friday, August 15th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Georgie Bell, Diageo’s luxury brand ambassador (Mortlach’s her main focus). Georgie’s boundless enthusiasm ran us close to the wire on some answers, but we managed. 

 

Where are you based and what’s the view from your office window (if you have one)?

The center of Edinburgh; I have been for the last 8 years. The sun is streaming through the window (a rarity for August) and I have a cup of Vietnamese coffee to hand.

Sounds good: explain Vietnamese coffee, please. And the view from the window?

Picked up some incredible coffee from a Saigon market: very strong, extremely aromatic. View: cobbled streets, old town houses in the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town.

Georgie B 3And I’m sitting with some bottled water. Won’t ask a lady her age but you are youthful. Background: what brought you into whisky?

Cocktail industry! Worked in Edinburgh bars for 5 years. Found I had a particular interest in whisky. When I graduated from university I thought, why not give it a go!

Good woman. Career path to here?

Firstly the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (similar to the other Diageo Georgie!): worked with them for 3 years as a bartender, then their global brand ambassador.

And then?

Fueled my ‘geeky’ interest by gaining IBD* diploma in distilling. Then joined Diageo in January 2014 as luxury malts ambassador, looking after rebirth of Mortlach.

Quite intensive. Congrats on the IBD diploma, that’s commitment. It’s been less than a year on Mortlach. Enjoying it so far? 

7 months, still standing! It’s been fascinating working on the launch of a whisky – no 2 days are the same – and everyone in the company and out has been very supportive.

Georgie B1Well, I’ve enjoyed our tasting meetings. What does the job largely involve day to day?

Very varied. Working with markets on launch plans; both at a distance and in market (off to China soon). There’s more…

Okay then: fire away.

Spending time with the whisky creation team, in archives researching the distillery history, special Mortlach tastings & dinners. It’s a lot of fun! I’m very lucky.

You have my dream job. What are your most and least favorite aspects of it?

Least…I’m not a huge fan of hotel laundry services (I prefer to wash my own intimate apparel!), everything else is fantastic.

Such as…?

Love traveling, new cultures, seeing overseas friends, breaking stereotypes, introducing people not only to Mortlach but whisky as accessible & versatile spirit.

You’re so right on accessible/versatile.  The “new” Mortlachs taste great. Any quick insight into how those 4 were arrived at to offer to consumers?

To show distillery character at its best: highlighting unique 2.81 distillation process. All 4 so individual and decadent but a common strain of flavor throughout.

And those characteristics and common flavor strain are….?

A distinct umami note (savoriness), rich, ‘thick’ in body and viscosity and muscular with an underlying succulent fruitiness.

The distillation system there is quite complex, on paper at least. Is it easier if you can get to see it?  Mortlach Ambassador Georgie Bell

I think it’s easier if someone explains it to you. I spent 4 days working there and it wasn’t until the final hour that I actually ‘got’ it; it’s quite something!

Does that system make it more expensive to produce? If so, how? Nothing wrong with expensive; just trying to understand.

Not at all! Just a different pattern of distillation from other places. Distilled it this way since 1896. We’re replicating the 2.81 process in the new stillhouse.

Will look forward to hearing more. Scotch generally: some lovely but expensive packaging for older or special ones. Going too far and overshadowing the whisky?

No, it’s giving the whisky the attention/care deserved. Think how pretty you feel in an extra special dress or coat. Whiskies ‘dressed’ as such are extremely special.

Good answer and, as a marketeer, I agree. In that case do you think industry pricing for such things is about right or do you not get much time to notice?

I try to focus on the whole category so if you take account of other factors (18+ years in cask is taking a gamble), the prices reflect the whisky’s rarity and specialness.

True: not everyone gets the high costs behind the long maturation process. You’re enviably slender and one interest is sport. Anything in particular?

Thank you, but beg to differ! Running (a half marathon soon, a great way to explore a new city); general gym work. Spin classes & bikram yoga: exercise keeps me leveled.

That’s not exercise, that’s full-on training.  Is this because you also love food?

I do love food and also spend a lot of my life traveling. Being in shape helps combat any stress of traveling and keeps my energy levels high for presentations etc.

Any particular dish or style of cuisine?

Anything and everything! I love spicy Asian food. I tend to try and stay away from anything too rich though.

I understand you bake. Do you have competitions with Georgie Crawford at Lagavulin?!

I would love that! Although I’m sure she’d win: my attempts recently haven’t been too successful. ‘Freestyling’ a baking recipe isn’t advised…

Okay, maybe we have a bake-off challenge here. The Great Scottish Bake-Off!
You also love travel,  just as well. Favorite country for a) work and b) leisure? Why?

What is leisure?! I’m joking – I’m a beach baby at heart so anywhere sunny – I also love to dive.

And for work?

The U.S. (specifically DC & NYC – lots of friends there); Sweden (incredible quality of living); Canada; Singapore – I haven’t yet been to a country I haven’t enjoyed.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of competitors – others in this series have. Only one, mind!

Drams match memories. Had an incredible BenRiach 1988 after Victoria Whisky Festival; Mortlach 25; Monkey Shoulder; anything from Clynelish: I can’t just pick one!

It’s compulsory – one only, please!

Mortlach 25 – decadent, beautiful – for a luxurious desert island retreat!

And we’re done. Thank you.

 

* Institute of Brewing & Distilling

John Campbell of Laphroaig – In 140 Or Less

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from Laphroaig distillery manager John Campbell. (This was a special one for me, as the brand’s former marketing manager from some years ago.)  

What’s the view from your office window?
I have a great view, looking out over Laphroaig bay and it’s a beautiful day today on Islay.

Lucky you. We know you can get all 4 seasons in one day! Did you always want to be a distiller?
Yes, we can have variable weather, and nope:  I wanted to be a mechanical engineer first!!

Really! What was your career path to becoming Laphroaig’s manager?
Well, I started off on that path when I was 16 but it was too soon, became a lobster fisherman on Islay, then a distiller.

So did you ever expect to be Laphroaig’s manager, then?
No, not a chance.  I started off stenciling the numbers on the barrels, but have just kept sticking my hand up as time passed.

A serial volunteer, then.  Islay distillery managers seem to be more involved with consumers/visitors than the mainland ones? Would you say that’s right? If so, why?  
I am not sure, we probably are and it’s because we have much more charisma.  Oh, and we are nosy!

John Campbell and his son Murray.

John Campbell and his son Murray.

 

Very honest! You seem a very quiet person. Do you enjoy all the public facing part?
Ileachs [Islay natives] are very open too…I am quiet and understated, just like Laphroaig….but I enjoy meeting people and having fun. Who doesn’t?

True. Under Beam there were more new expressions of Laphroaig. Will this continue under Beam Suntory?
Not sure if the strategy will change under new ownership, we will be integrating shortly, then we will know.

Of which expressions, from your tenure as manager, are you most proud? Do you get involved much in the creation process?
Yes, sometimes involved.. so Triple Wood, PX or An Cuan Mor are the best. Had to choose all 3!!

What have been trade and consumer reactions to Laphroaig Select and An Cuan Mor (I prefer the latter)?
We generally get positive reviews. These 2 are for different types of consumers. Select is for novices, not purists.  An Cuan Mor gives fantastic European oak effects.

And it goes well with food too. Friends of Laphroaig now has over 600,000 members and is quite an online community too. Are you aiming for world domination here?!
Yeah, whisky does work well with food. FOL has given us world domination in peaty whiskies, yes… Ha ha – you guessed!!

I was just thinking you might take over and run the world from Islay. What about John Campbell off duty. I hear you play golf – much time for that?
Islay is the center of the universe, right? I used to play a lot of golf, not so much now…run a little and muck about with my kids.

The running: just for fitness or marathons?
Just fitness right now, but I will see where it goes, never know… if my knees last.

I’ve just spent a week walking round Paris; no knees left. I’ve noted family and travel as other interests. What do you like to do as a family?
Well, I like to take my boys and do fun stuff, so live sport is always good, football, rugby, American football, and generally just have wee adventures.

Sounds magic. I have little nieces but they live overseas so we don’t see them often to do stuff. Favorite place to travel for a) work and b) leisure?
So, fave place I have been to for work is hard! I like the U.S. a lot and I will say Seattle and for leisure I love Portugal – food and weather are great.

I liked Seattle too. Lovely relaxed feel to the place. Where will the next Laphroaig Live online broadcast come from (if there is to be one)?
There is and I am not sure if I can say yet. It will be in Sweden tho!!! Whoops ☺

The frozen north! Any plans yet for the distillery’s bicentenary in 2015 or are those a secret?
Not secret, just not fully completed yet, but we’ll have stuff throughout the year to celebrate with.

So we’ll look forward to hearing more before 2015 and for next year’s Islay Whisky Fest. Social media – friend or foe?
Social media is instant, so can be both… but mainly positive I feel.

Lastly, what would be your ideal desert island dram? It can either be one of your own or from somewhere else.
Bit boring and maybe predictable with desert island dram, but it has to be 10 year old Laphroaig. It has a depth of flavor that you get in only 3 or 4 other single malts.

George Grant of Glenfarclas – in 140 or Less

Friday, May 9th, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from the Glenfarclas brand ambassador. George Grant is the sixth generation of the owning family to work at Glenfarclas.

Here we go: what’s the view from your office window?

Glenfarclas No.1 Duty Free Warehouse door, in our beautiful red.

Sounds cheerful! What’s happening at Glenfarclas this spring?

At this rate, we will be doing a rain dance. Winter never happened at Glenfarclas.

Soggy for the visitors, then. But good for the distillation. You’re in a family business. How old were you when you started?

Joined the payroll in 1997 at 21. But I was working for Muntons Malt, Inver House, and Fine Vintage Far East Ltd in Hong Kong. I started at Glenfarclas in 2000 aged 23.

That answers my next two questions! You travel a lot. How many weeks each year are you away?

I would say I am away 6-7 months a year, it works out about 15/16 days a month. Some months are obviously worse than others.

GSGsndSGHard. How does family life fit in round that?

Grab it as you can. I have 2 girls and off to Crieff Hydro at weekend. Still all the usual activities to squeeze in: swimming, tai kwan do, tennis, Brownies, ice skating…

Lovely. I know they’re still little. Is either of them interested in distilling yet?

Luckily not yet: 2 and 7 years old. 7 yo knows what Daddy does: “Makes whisky.” One of her first words was “Glenfarclas.”

Chip off the old block. In future will Glenfarclas be owned/managed by women? As some were in 19th and early 20th century?

Will have to wait and see. Wouldn’t be the first time. Granny Grant used to run this place.

And other women ran/founded others, not to mention champagne houses. What are your key markets for Glenfarclas?

All markets are key! Just at different times. Our current markets UK, U.S., Canada, Taiwan, Russia, Oz, and powerhouse Germany.

Quite a spread; no wonder you travel so much  and so far. On website, you say your favourite is 21 YO. Does that ever waver?

Yes, when we put the website up it was the 21, now my tipple is the 15 YO or 40 YO. Liking my whisky more at 46% nowadays.

Our palates do change and new expressions do come up. What about the Family Casks? I have one from my birth year. They seem to go well.

They continue to go from strength to strength. Currently 1954 to 1999, 52 and 53 gone. We are currently doing 28 new family casks for years we’re currently out of.

Do you mean in terms of bottled stock?

Yes, out of bottled stock currently with 28 years. Will be back in end of summer.

We’ll look forward to hearing more then. Do you acquire your sherry casks from only one source? Can you say where? (Don’t just say Jerez!)

Our casks currently come from Jose y Miguel Martin. We have used the same family owned bodega since 1990. All oloroso sherry. Prior to that bought where we could.

Your washbacks are steel, not wood. How long ago did you change over? And why? 

Dates get hazy. Switched to stainless steel 42-45 years ago, for consistency. We get the same result every time from steel. Wooden ones have more variables and risks.

Point taken. A number of distilleries are being expanded. Any plans that way?

We are quite a large production plant. We can produce 3.5 million lpa. Last year we were around 3.3m.

So no expansion, then.

No plans for physical increase. We still sell to blenders. Simply reducing what we sell to them increases what we make for ourselves.

Yet, you’re perceived as a small and beautiful operation. You were visitor center pioneers and offer great tours. How is the new 5 Decades one shaping up?

People sometimes get a shock ref. capacity when they visit. We also do a 7 decade tour now. The customers get a dram per decade from 1950’s – 2010’s. Quite mind boggling.

I’m in for that one! What are your ambitions for Glenfarclas?

Continued growth, maybe not at the speed we have seen in the last 5 years. Developed in new markets. To get every whisky drinker to know the name Glenfarclas.

You celebrated the 175th birthday in 2011. Plans already in hand for 200th?

Yes, date in the diary and an access ramp for the warehouse so I can roll in my father!

Hope he appreciates that!

2015 also special for us – 150 years since my great, great great-grandfather bought the company for £511.19s. Will just be a quiet celebration!

4Z9F9553Well, that was a bargain! Changing tack, you shoot game birds in season. Do you cook them yourself too?

Of course. We sponsor the game menu with Shooting Times so lots of great recipes there. The slower you cook them, more tender they are. Can’t beat an Aga to cook them on.

I’ll just turn my normal ovens right down. After family life, lots of work and travel, plus shooting, any time for anything else?

Not a lot currently. Looking forward to my youngest being out of nappies then envisage we travel a little more as a family. Have 2 Labradors that also take up a lot of time.

Dog walking and little girls must be compatible. Social media: fan or foe?

Mmm, fan, I think. Don’t think I use it for all it’s worth but certainly do have some fun with it. We are now 10,000+ on Twitter and 8,000+ on Facebook. Both @glenfarclas.

It can take up time. And what’s your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be one of your own…

First distillery I ever worked at was Knockdhu so An Cnoc 21 YO has a special place. My McDonalds Whisky is JW black label (can get it everywhere).

And from your own: is it the 15 or 40?

Every day 15, once a week special 40 YO.

Bill Lumsden of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg – in 140 or Less

Friday, April 25th, 2014

Author - Caroline Dewar Another in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. As always, it’s 140 characters or less (we don’t count the spaces) in the answers from the director of distilling, whisky creation, and whisky stocks at the Glenmorangie Co., Bill Lumsden. He’s understandably quite busy, but took time out to answer some nosy questions.

What’s the view from your office/lab window?

I am lucky to have a splendid view of the Balmoral Hotel and in the background…Edinburgh Castle! Oh and the lovely St. James Centre! [The Centre is a 1970s concrete monstrosity shopping mall.]

Sublime to ridiculous! What was your route into the whisky industry?

Studying for my Ph.D., I discovered the sublime taste of malt whisky. That was it; no other choice. First job was with DCL (Diageo) as a research scientist.

And from there to here was…?

Working in all aspects of whisky production; you name it. First job at Glenmorangie Co. was Glenmorangie distillery manager, then the predecessor of my current role.

Lumsden's obsession: wood

Lumsden’s obsession: wood

Well rounded then. I assume no typical day. What tasks might take up your time?

Absolutely no such thing as typical – with an incredibly low boredom threshold ‘typical’ would irritate me. Most days involve some organoleptic analysis of whisky.

Nosing and tasting then! Or just nosing? How much time do you get to spend at the distilleries?

Both nosing and tasting (but of course I don’t swallow in the office). Not nearly as much as I would like but basically at both at least once a month.

And how much time travelling? You pop up all over the world.

Hard to be precise but probably spend about 25% of my time in the markets. Usually do 2 trips a year to both Asia and the U.S. and some trips to Europe, London, Paris etc.

Do the public appearances take up lots of time? Are they enjoyable?

Out in the market sometimes I barely have time to sleep/eat/shower but it is still enjoyable. Genuinely gives interesting consumer insights into the whisky world.

Where does family life fit in?

All I will say on that one is that it costs me a fortune in presents from my many trips away.

You’re renowned—among other things—for work on maturation wood. What drives you there?

An understanding from early in my career that it doesn’t matter how good the raw spirit, if it’s not matured in good quality oak you simply cannot make good whisky.

Anything else?
Yes, the laws governing production of Scotch are so strict that the oak barrel is one of the most successful ways of playing tunes with the flavor of your whisky.

And you’ve played some great tunes. Still sourcing oak from the Ozarks?

Absolutely, it’s one of the key cornerstones of the quality of Glenmorangie. I have recently doubled the quantity of this type of wood we use for our top marques.

Presumably not a cheap option, then.

A very, very expensive option, but critical to the taste profile I am trying to achieve.

Do you like or use European oak?

I like European oak for some of my whiskies, but will typically use it for a limited part of the maturation, due to the higher level of tannin.

So the U.S. oak works better for you…?

I prefer American oak for the base maturation, as I particularly like the soft, sweet, creamy flavors it imparts (for both Ardbeg and Glenmorangie).

Any other elements/ingredients in Scotch production still largely unexplored or unexplained?

Trying to create new products; some people are looking at aspects of primary production.
I believe the fermentation offers the most potential for new flavors.

Do go on, please…

Ha ha! Not going to fall for that one. However, there are other strains of yeast out there I think could give an exciting alternative range of flavors to our products.

No trick intended! Your parent company owns champagnes, and so yeast. Any ambition for a sparkling Glenmorangie or Ardbeg?

From my experiences of drinking whisky champagne cocktails, I’m not certain that this would be a good idea!

I’ll just have to play with Ardbeg as a Kir base then. Kir fumé anyone?

I am very partial to a Mosquito (an Ardbeg-based mojito), and even, believe it or not, an Ardbeg Bloody Mary, but I haven’t yet tried it in a Kir.

Bill Lumsden TaghtaWe’ll all give it a go and let you know. In photos your suits always look immaculately cut. Is tailoring/clothing important to you?

Sadly, utterly obsessed with it, particularly the cut/fabric of suits. At any one time, I’ll have at least twenty clothing items still in their wrappings in my wardrobe.

Not sad; just particular! Ever thought of a modeling career? Seriously, though, what else do you enjoy outside work?

Modeling? Ha ha, very funny, Caroline! Interests: walking, wine, jogging, wine, cooking, wine, gardening, wine, etc.

Just a thought as an alternative career! I’m sensing a wine theme here. Anything in particular?

Very eclectic tastes and enjoy all sorts of wines. But my favorite whites, by some distance, are white Burgundies, and Cab Sauv is probably my favorite red grape.

It’s white Burgundy for me too. You cook: any signature dish?

Not really any signature dish per se, but I guess the dish I cook most is grilled rib eye steak with a blue cheese sauce.

All your fine whisky creations: any one of which you’re most proud and why?

I guess my magnum opus would be Signet, which is a very personal product to me, particularly given the length of time from when I had the original idea.

Do tell us more.

Idea from student days and disliking coffee: better aroma than taste. Led to considering the roast of the beans. A short leap to maybe roasting barley the same way.

Any favorite country to be in a) for work, and b) for pleasure?

Work: Japan. Just love the fact that the culture, the cuisine, the people are so different from the West. Pleasure: so many places but my top 3 are France, Italy, and U.S.

Lastly, what’s your desert island dram (you’re allowed to appreciate the work of others if you wish)?

My desert island dram would have to be my 1981 Glenmorangie Distillery Manager’s choice, which was bottled from my favorite single cask (ex-bourbon).