Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

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).

A Revealing Chat With WhistlePig’s Raj Bhakta

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Author - Davin de KergommeauxWhen Robert Simonson alerted me recently that the makers of WhistlePig rye were finally ready to “come clean” and confirm that the whiskey* they bottle is from Canada, I was skeptical. However, in an article written for the upcoming summer 2014 issue of Whisky Advocate, Simonson quotes WhistlePig’s master distiller, Dave Pickerell, saying that the original WhistlePig came from Canada’s Alberta Distillers (ADL), and that some of it still does.

Here’s some of what that piece will say:

“It’s fairly common knowledge that that’s where we started,” Pickerell said of ADL. “What’s not common knowledge is that’s not where we are now. We are growing our own rye on site and contracting whiskey from three distilleries in the U.S. and two in Canada.” One of those Canadian distilleries, however, is still ADL.

Has several years of badgering from American whiskey bloggers softened the stance at WhistlePig? Finally, Pickerell has stated for the record that at least some of the whiskey is from Canada. He also went on record in 2010 that this is the very best rye whiskey in the world.

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

Raj Bhakta and Dave Pickerell at WhistlePig Farm

When WhistlePig was released in 2010, the firm’s publicist was blunt that they did not want people to know that the whiskey was Canadian. So I was surprised when WhistlePig brand owner Raj Bhakta contacted me last week wanting to talk. Speaking of his whiskey’s Canadian heritage he was quick to say, “That’s not something I’ve shied away from,” although he did later concede that might not have been his approach in the beginning. In any case, he is talking now, and is completely candid that the whiskey they are bottling today is still from the same single Canadian source, not five distilleries as Pickerell implies.

“Yes, we’ve been growing our own grain,” he continued, “and we have been contracting others to distill it for us. We wanted to see how it turned out. That whiskey is currently maturing on the farm in Vermont, but it is not yet ready for release.” And the whiskey in the bottles? It’s still all Canadian rye whiskey, and will be for years to come.

“We’re deeply in bed with Canada, it’s just not our lead,” he continues. “WhistlePig is a Canadian-U.S. collaboration to the core. The latest batch has spent four years on the farm in our own barrels, so much of the flavor is from wood we put it into in Vermont.”

Shortly after Bhakta bought WhistlePig farm in 2007, he began casting about for business ideas. A mutual friend introduced him to Pickerell. He had found what he called “the best rye whiskey in the world,” in Canada and wanted to bottle it. However, try as he might, Pickerell could not convince any of the big players to sell Canadian whiskey at a premium price. Bhakta, meanwhile, wanted to create “America’s first luxury rye.”

Rye growing at WhistlePig Rye Farm

Rye growing at WhistlePig Farm

“Dave had the product and the pedigree, I had the entrepreneurial gusto,” he told me. But after so many rejections, Pickerell wasn’t sure how to tell people the whiskey was Canadian.

“I’ve never not wanted to disclose,” Bhakta told me, citing what he called “the Templeton debacle.” But, he added, “you don’t start out saying, ‘This is Canadian whiskey.’ It’s looked down on. It’s been an interesting navigation. It’s a tricky piece—the people who react are the geeks of whiskey—but we don’t want to confuse the general public.

“Look, I’m a salesman with a bit of P.T Barnum in me,” Bhakta continues, “and I like that.” According to Bhakta, rather than talking about the Canadian connection, they decided to focus on their long-term vision of making rye whiskey in Vermont. “We’re not trying to dance around the issue, but how do you navigate this?” he wondered.

“We have the opportunity to sell younger whiskey,” he noted, “but we are storing our stocks and doing barrel experimentation. Five years from now the critics will come to see there was a much greater vision here. I feel I am getting attacked for building the thing the right way.”

One thing is certain from my conversation with Bhakta. There are no stills at WhistlePig. Although they have applied for a permit to open a distillery, they are still awaiting approval. For now WhistlePig is a farm, pure and simple, and not a drop of the whiskey bottled under the WhistlePig label was actually distilled by Dave Pickerell: sourced, selected, and approved, but not distilled.

 

*Rather than switch back and forth between the American “whiskey” and Canadian “whisky,” this one time we decided to just use the American spelling. Davin, no shy Canadian, approved, for which we thank him.

Georgie Crawford of Lagavulin Distillery — In 140 or Less

Friday, March 14th, 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 distillery manager of Lagavulin. Georgie Crawford left Islay at thirteen to live on the mainland. In her work life, among a few other places, she spent some time at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before joining Diageo. She returned to Islay a few years ago to take over the management of Lagavulin.

What’s the view from your office window?

Today it is blue skies and green rolling fields full of sheep. I can also see my house, and now it’s sunny I can see I need to clean the windows!

Get a little man in for that! What’s happening at Lagavulin this week?

Really busy on distilling as usual, but focusing on pulling together final details of our Fèis Ìle program before the tickets go on sale.

What’s happening for Fèis Ìle [Islay Festival] at Lagavulin this year?

Can’t say yet, BUT the staff have outdone themselves with great ideas to entertain our loyal visitors. We are finalizing the Fèis bottling too; another cracker in 2014.

GCrawfordWe’ll hear more soon then, on your website. You’ve been there a few years now. Anything changed in the distillery or company in that time?

We have focused our efficiency and are making more Lagavulin than ever. With the growth in whisky it all counts so we are glad we will have more whisky for the future.

Sounds great. You were looking at re-use of waste energy, etc. Progress?

There’s a new project on this in the pipeline (no pun) and we have optimized the stillhouse energy. I’m happy with the results to date.

What do you mean by optimized here?

By managing distillation temps we can get better heat transfer in our pre-heat heat exchangers, which saves the steam usage at site.

I was going to say ‘cool,’ but not if it’s steam! Very efficient. I’ve met your new female colleague, also called Georgie. A new Diageo hiring policy?

Georgie Bell. We haven’t met yet as she had to call off her visit due to winter gales. She also worked at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society which is just spooky!

Some mainlanders who now live on Islay run back every couple of months for some R&R. You?

No! I love the islands so much that this year’s trips are Orkney & Iceland! It’s the year of the seafaring Vikings in our house!

I know you like to travel. Are those destinations for work or pleasure?

Both for pleasure; you need to leave the whisky behind sometimes. (Or maybe pack a little bottle in your luggage.)

Sounds reasonable. You traveled far this last year, I hear. Where and why?

China on holiday for the culture and heritage. I will remember the view on top of the Great Wall forever. The Terracotta Warriors were also amazing.

What else fills your non-work time?

Our new puppy Sidheag (means wolf) is taking up most of my free time of late. She is driving me and poor 8 y.o. Jock, the Westie, mad!

Fabulous. Another Westie? And I was going to ask how Jock was enjoying island life…

She is a lab cross wire-haired pointer who will hopefully be a gun dog down the line. Jock is standing his ground and loves the longer walks!

Jock not bossed around then. You like cooking; any signature dish? Are your Lagavulin chocolate truffles in the shop there?

I can’t poison the customers! I make a mean lasagna, its bacon that’s the secret ingredient. Can’t beat my homemade shortbread with a cup of tea.

You were going to be starting a vegetable garden…

We should all have aspirations in life and try to live our dreams but if you saw my cauliflowers you would say, “Stick to making whisky!”

Okay, we will. Are there any distillers you particularly admire (anywhere)?

Pre-Diageo, I was just a whisky anorak. I will always remember John MacLellan spending time with me. Billy Stitchell [at Caol Ila] was my in-house go-to.

What would be your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be Lagavulin!

Only one – impossible! Lagavulin Jazz 2010 from home or Longmorn 15 yo, Talisker 18 yo or Balvenie 12 yo depending on my mood and the weather!

Great choices, if too many. And it’s all over! Hope that wasn’t too testing and thank you so much.

Billy Walker of BenRiach Distillery — in 140 or Less

Friday, February 7th, 2014

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 CEO of BenRiach Distillery.

Author - Caroline DewarWhat’s the view from your window at HQ?

Edinburgh airport. Unfortunately, I don’t just get to see the planes – I hear them too.

But I understand you’re up at The Glendronach today…

Yes, it’s looking fantastic. Weather staggeringly good for the time of year.

You’re originally a chemistry graduate. Did you choose the whisky industry or fall into it?

I chose it, but a bit of inevitability, coming from Dumbarton, home of J&B and Ballantine’s blending and bottling.

What’s been your career path?

Pharmaceutical research; Ballantine’s; Beecham’s; Inver House; then Burn Stewart: bought that out and after 20 years bought BenRiach.

BenRiach ‘04, GlenDronach ‘08, Glenglassaugh ‘13. All Highland/Speyside. Ambitions for more, other regions, new build?

Not new build. If something came up adding balance to the business, we’d consider. Hard at present as many from outside interested in a hot industry and raising prices.

BenRiach: 6 ranges, quite comprehensive. Any more to come? New finishes maybe?benriachMDBillyWalker

No…might be a bit of rationalization.

What of the distillations since you bought it? It’s been 10 years now.

We’ll definitely do something to recognize the 10 year milestone.

You found peated stock on buying it. How much of a boon was that?

Quite a lot. It let us do something not done before on Speyside. Those creative enough to do it years ago were revolutionary. It’s a different style from the islands too.

The GlenDronach – a pity the previous owners removed the coal-firing of stills?

Oh, sure, but they were made to do so by Health & Safety people. But we do get a more even heat distribution with indirect firing – and it hasn’t impacted on quality at all.

You’re doing great things with it. A smaller range than BenRiach – so far.

A more traditional range.  It was very visible for years then marginalized for 10 years to ‘08. It has an uncluttered footprint with the sherry, just us and Glenfarclas.

I loved the 1968 years ago. Has your bottling sold out?

Not yet but it will soon. We have a few more casks of it and the strength is holding up well. Good news!

Future plans there?

Emphasis on brand build. Infrastructure / cosmetic changes, we’ve done those. The location makes it look good. We replaced old wooden washbacks with new ones.

Glenglassaugh: your new baby. What’s happening?

We found the distillery ran very well. We’ve done up the dunnage warehouse, mended roads, landscaped, converted maltings to warehousing.

Is there a stocks gap, and how are you dealing with that?

Now running at full capacity. It’s a long play. We’ll feed out vintage stock and continue Evolution and Revival. A 20 year gap but due to vintages we can get a good income.

Still bottling on site?

No. Need a good sheet filter or whisky loses brightness. No chill filtering but still need brightness. We bottle existing Octave casks too, but we don’t sell any more.

Anything more?

More to come. One will be a blend to commemorate the distillery’s founder, Colonel James Moir, with Glenglassaugh as the base.

Will we see big range development here too?

No, we’ll take time to allow brand’s personality to develop. We’ll see where the journey takes us.

Your brands are at a lot of whisky festivals. Do you speak at them yourself?

I’ve done some and enjoy it. Might do 1 or 2 this year but I don’t enjoy the traveling so much now.

I’m told your interests are football and cricket. Any particular football team?

I’m a Rangers supporter, so there’s a question over whether I’m still a supporter or not!

[For non-UK readers, Rangers was one of Scotland’s top clubs but was demoted a few leagues after some financial scandals. Now having to win their way back up.]

Cricket: might seem odd for a Scotsman but my Dad loves it too. How did that come about?

School, our physical education teacher was an enthusiast. It was part of the sport curriculum and I liked it.

So are your key markets linked to countries with cricketing prowess?!

No, but we’re in South Africa and Australia, and SA is key! UK is important too, as are Europe, North America, and Taiwan. No one place dominates.

Are you still intent on not selling via supermarkets and large chains?

Yes. We support private, independent retailers. They support us and have done for a long time.

What’s your desert island dram? You’re allowed to appreciate the work of others!

Either BenRiach Authenticus or The GlenDronach 18 year old. If not possible, I’d be comfortable with a vintage Caol Ila, north of 20 years old.

And we’re done – thank you.

Bruichladdich’s Duncan McGillivray — In 140 Or Less

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

Author - Caroline DewarAnother in our occasional series of Tweet-style interviews. Here’s Bruichladdich general manager Duncan MacGillivray, who was interviewed just before Christmas.

What’s the view from your office window?

Out across Loch Indaal to Bowmore. Nice view of Bruichladdich pier too.

Better than mine, even if it is my garden. What season of weather is it today, given it could be any one of four on Islay?

It’s rather grey and unusually calm, late autumn. Damp, but not wet.

What’s going on at the distillery today?

We’re distilling Octomore spirit. The last mashes before the Christmas break. Then we will have a maintenance period.Capture-Duncan

I read that on the web. Why do you expect a lower yield of alcohol per ton of barley from that?

The phenolic content affects the efficiency of fermentation, resulting in lower yield.

And why take the middle cut at a different point, for those who don’t know your process on this one?

You can alter the strength and character of the spirit by altering the middle cut. We have an unusually short middle cut which gives us better quality spirit.

Are you still being whisky mavericks (that’s a bit Wild West!) under the new ownership?

It’s business as usual at Bruichladdich. No change in attitude or approach!

Glad to hear that. You’re general manager, not distillery manager. What’s the difference? 

I am able to take a broad overview of operations rather than attending to the day to day needs.

What do you mean by broad overview? Can you expand/give an example?

I take a more ambassadorial role now. I don’t have to worry about the day to day running of the plant as we now have a manager, brewer, and engineer.

In that case, any inclination to travel as much as Jim McEwan or do you do that anyway now?

[At this point Duncan had to go – called to the Laddieshop. We waited while he did manager things. And…he’s back!]

Jim loves to travel. He has just done Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Canada, U.S., and Germany and is heading to [Australia] and NZ in the New Year.

But that doesn’t answer my question – how about you?

I may travel more next year – but not to the extent Jim does… He loves it.

I hear you’re a Gaelic speaker. Get to use it much?

Speak Gaelic with Alasdair in the bottling hall pretty much every day.

What’s this about a passion for tractors? Tell us more.

I have restored a David Brown 880 (1964) and a Massey Ferguson 135 (1966).

That’s impressive, though tractor models not my area of expertise! And the old lorry you rebuilt. What’s the tale behind that?

The lorry is a Ford AA 1 ton truck (1935) restored by David McLellan and myself. It has spent its whole life on Islay.

I heard it was the first lorry to come to Islay; is that correct?

We believe so. It was driven up from Ford’s Dagenham by original owner Willie Christie of Islay Woollen Mill.

A great story. Any new expressions coming soon of The Laddie, Octomore, or PC coming that you can tell us about now?

We have Octomore and Port Charlotte releases distilled from Islay barley coming. No release dates yet.

Any unfulfilled distilling ambitions?

We’re just enjoying the exploration of different barley varieties and provenance from around Scotland. It’s a fascinating and ongoing project.

Fascinating indeed. No plans for vodka or Islay rum from local sugar cane fields then! And the Port Charlotte distillery?

Port Charlotte distillery was halted by the financial crisis. Remy Cointreau have not decided what they are going to do with it yet.

I sense you won’t have trouble filling your time if you ever retire. And you adore seeing your grandchildren. Are they on Islay too?

I love seeing the grandchildren, but they live in the Scottish borders. I get to see them often though. No intention of retiring; always seem to have something on the go.

Social media and the Internet: fan or foe?

I suppose it’s a necessary evil. I do look at Facebook etc. for the family now and again. I don’t’ really get involved though.

What would be your desert island dram (it doesn’t have to be one of your own!)

Bruichladdich 15, 2nd Edition: one of my all-time favorites, finished in a very good Sauternes cask. I’ll take that to my island. If unavailable, then a Highland Park.

And we’re done. Thank you!

Cutty Sark’s Jason Craig — In 140 Or Less

Monday, November 25th, 2013

Caroline DewarWe’re all Tweeting, expressing ourselves in 140 characters or less. This occasional series asks whisky luminaries to express themselves in the format, but all in one place. Here’s Jason Craig, Global Brand Controller for Cutty Sark. (We gave him the spaces in his answers for free, so they may go a bit over 140…)

What’s the view from your office window?

The River Tay on one side and a large tree covered hill on the other side; the sun is low and the colors are gorgeous.

Not bad; better than a car park, unless you’re fibbing. You take guitar lessons. Frustrated rock star?

Always! Love the idea of it; really annoying that my young daughter makes me look bad though. In 10k hours I would be Slash from Guns n’ Roses; if I had the time, obviously.cutty sark

Might not take that long. You like listening to music and audio books. Compatible with all your travel but running a youth soccer team and going to movies aren’t.

Long haul = movies and work. Driving a car = audio books. Air travel means showing up for football matches in a suit sometimes; lots of abuse, i.e. “check Mourinho out!”

So cruel! You’re a sociable guy: good choice for a brand created for making cocktails. Lots of nights in bars necessary? 

Cocktail bars, late nights, interesting drinks and people: all for understanding the consumer and the trade. Sometimes wish my family or friends were there though.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles! Cutty Sark has great history. Good to see a brand promoted for mixing and cocktails. Do you have a favorite?

I think that classics are classics for a reason. I love an Old Fashioned. Got to be made the old school 6 minute way though…if I have the patience.

Old school way? Tell us more.

Not using gum syrup: taking the sugar, crushing it and letting it dissolve in the glass. Love the theater and anticipation of it. Bartenders don’t get enough credit!

Agreed. Some great cocktails on Cutty’s website, classics and new. Where did all the recipes come from?

We have a lot of pals associated with Cutty, the brilliant Maxxium Mixxit team – Wayne, David, Amanda, plus Gary “Godfather” Regan in the states who makes good soup too!

Cutty in soup might be nice! I’d like to try some of these myself but don’t know what size of measure a “shot” is. Any idea?

The only thing that goes in soup is a spoon or fresh bread… A shot is 25ml in grown-up countries or the 2 fingers approach in less formal places…I much prefer the latter.

Great – we’ll all try that size. Does Cutty’s usage message for mixing mean younger drinkers than average? Does that depend on market?

Most brands’ target audience age is 25+. Cutty drinkers, men and women, are already that age. Our approach aims to keep it that way! Blow away the Scotch whisky cobwebs.

I endorse that, wanted to see it for ages. A lot happening on Cutty in recent years. New pack, age extensions, Storm, Tam O’Shanter, Prohibition. Biggest challenge?

Our brand is young and cool, offers so much, loved by millions and the quality is exceptional. Biggest challenge is not taking it too seriously.

Certainly an old brand but a cool image. Some fun promotions too. The giant crate? Please tell more. Was it only London?

Cutty Cargo. Giant wooden crate, London, 380 writers, consumers, influencers – 9 acts, great food, brilliant drinks – the best emerging talent from London – NYC next.

Terrific. And Speed Rack for women bartenders. Open to misinterpretation?! Or intentional wordplay? It’s a nice idea.

I think they are brilliant. Speed Rack is a cute play on words, they raise money for breast cancer and are up front about it. We love them.

Seems the older whiskies = dumpier bottles. Tam O’Shanter pack very different from main blend, as is the whisky. What were you seeking to achieve there?

Start with the story behind the name. Dumpy allowed the etched illustration to wrap round the bottle, liquid and pack awards enhance the whole brand. Maleficent dram.

Assume you mean the Cutty Sark reference in the poem. But where did the liquid take the brand? I bet [master blender] Kirsteen Campbell had fun.

Yes the name comes up in the poem. Kirsteen, please blend 25yo Macallan, Highland Park and Glenrothes and several others…the result proved we are “A” league whisky.

Indeed they did. Cutty Sark is back in the UK after some years’ absence. Why now?

Blended scotch growing, cocktails are growing, Cutty Sark is  a perfect base for mixed drinks and classy cocktails: we asked, they said yes! Long overdue – sorry UK.

Seems reasonable. Cutty Sark Prohibition is about to reach US shores. Any big launch plans? And going forward?

Prohibition is landing (legally now) in the US and many other markets too. Launching in our Cargo Crate in NYC early 2014. Might be some fedoras and passwords needed!

Maybe follow up with Gangster’s Moll and St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Seriously, any other expressions coming?

Oh hell yeah, we have around 6 killer ideas all being tested just now. Our “Spirit of Adventure” means that we can play at the edges of the category. Watch this space.

Will do. On a different tack (but marketing and personally relevant too), social media: friend or foe?

Definitely friend, gotta play there, gotta speak to our consumers, gotta embrace their world, not make them embrace ours. I love technology which keeps you in touch.

You travel a lot. If not living in God’s own whisky country where would you be? Why?

I love cities and mountains/lakes but need technology.  Love Japan: they combine all that, have great food and ancient history. Be like “Lost in Translation” though.

And they drank whisky in that movie! Your desert island dram? Doesn’t have to be a brand you’ve worked on!

Ouch! Hard question. Which of your kids do you love more? Highland Park 18yo. Loved it before I worked on it and still do. Orcadian Nectar….and it is in Cutty 18yo too!

And we’re done. You’re a star – thank you. Any few last words you’d like to add?

Just that our mission is to ensure Scotch whisky is for everyone and to blow up so many of the rules and regulations.