Whisky Gurus

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For December, instead of our usual licensee interview – and to celebrate all things whisky – we asked various people across the industry, and who champion whisky, to tell us about themselves. 

We talked to Brendan McCarron, Master Distiller at Distell; Blair Bowman, Whisky Consultant; Licensee, Derek Mather; Mark Thomson, Ambassador to Scotland – Glenfiddich Single Malt Whisky of William Grant & Sons.  Here is what they had to say.

CAN YOU GIVE ME A BRIEF, POTTED HISTORY OF YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH WHISKY AND HOW YOU GOT INTO YOUR ROLE?

Brendan-McCarron-015-JSBrendan McCarron: As a Scotsman I first started drinking whisky when I was at university. One of my best friends was into it before me and I got swept along by his passion for it. My plan originally wasn’t whisky, which was always a personal choice at the bar, but it made sense to bring that into my working life.  I was in chemical engineering – and I joined Diageo’s graduate scheme. For my first role I was asked where I wanted to go and I said wherever the best job was. Malt distilling was ramping back up from the decline of the 80s. There were big things afoot and I got positioned in a maltings. A decision was made to build the first distillery in 40 years at Roseisle, then it was a fast track. I was surrounded by clever and experienced whisky people. I got the bug and realised this is what I want to do. I have worked as a blender, distillery manager, group of distilleries, whisky makar, stocks and inventories manager – I’ve covered every single part of the whisky-making process. Now I get to put it all together at Distell. Across everything. It’s brilliant. It’s a lot of fun – busy but a lot of fun.

Blair-Bownman profile GUS 1052 x-1Blair Bowman: I’m from Edinburgh but went to Aberdeen University and became a founding member of Aberdeen Whisky Society in Freshers’ Week 2008. I saw an opportunity to create World Whisky Day while studying in Spain – I was inspired by World Gin Day. Four years after launching World Whisky Day I sold it and catapulted myself into the industry. I haven’t looked back. I started to experiment with flavour when I was only 18, and that summer I had my moment, trying Laphroaig for the first time and being blown away. I didn’t know if I loved or hated it but I hadn’t tried anything like that!

Derek Mather: My love for whisky started when I was 16 when my dad bought me my first bottle of malt after he found me stealing his whisky from his drinks cabinet (a bottle of Glenlivet 12yo ) and said to me once that bottle is finished then you can buy your own.  After working for many years as a chef in many Scottish restaurants I was always pissed off at the selection of whiskies they would offer – usually the main 6 brands that you could buy at the supermarket and a couple of blends.  So when I opened Artisan Restaurant I put 60 bottles of my own collection on the gantry and after 14 years of steadily adding to the selection that we offer we are now at 3000+ bottles.

Mark Thomson: My journey began over 20 years ago whilst  managing bars and restaurants in Glasgow and London. My first passion was actually wine and I studied for a few years to hone my skills in that category – but whisky was always a personal choice at the bar so it made sense to bring that into my working life.  I fast established a reputation for delivering passionate and educational tasting across many brands whilst working independently, with William Grant & Sons a client of mine. When the permanent role for Glenfiddich arose in 2013, I jumped at the chance – Glenfiddich was the very first whisky I ever tried and I’d always held the brand in high regard.

WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT WHISKY AND/OR THE WHISKY INDUSTRY?

Brendan: I do love whisky. I am a whisky drinker first and foremost and love he variety, first and foremost. It’s such a well-regulated process that when it says Scotch you know there’s no way to cut corners in ingredients or quality. With just three ingredients you can make a myriad of different products.  Another thing I like is that I’m from just near Glasgow and it has got me to know my own country so well. Mull and especially Islay, where I lived. I love the variety of flavour and also the variety of locations and where the distilleries are. We meet lots and lots of interesting, fascinating people who work in the whisky industry. Pretty much the people you meet are as passionate about whisky as I am and I get a lot of energy from that. It’s just an interesting subject. Even though it’s my job I still love to go and have a whisky in a bar. It’s still my passion.

Blair: It still blows my mind the fact that making single malt all around the world involved making whiskies of high quality, but using the same ingredients we used hundreds of years ago, using the same processes. There is so much that can be explored and discovered and that’s what keeps me excited about whisky.

Derek: I really love the whisky industry as we are all out to do the same thing which is to promote how diverse, exciting and tasty each and every dram is, and from only three ingredients and different barrels and time.

Mark: Oh where to begin! For the drink itself, there really isn’t anything like it – its vast array of flavours and styles, its history, the stories, the heroes and the villains of it all – from malt of the month at your local to eye -wateringly high auction prices, whisky really does cover all the bases. And on top of all that – it brings people together like no other. Stories are best when whisky fuelled. And then there is the industry – I’ve been lucky I feel, to be involved in the industry for so long and have met so many incredible people along the way – many of them I now call close friends.

A recent trip to the Whisky Show in London just highlighted what a friendly, welcoming bunch we all are – irrespective of your brand – when we get together, we are all pushing forward for the same great cause and are happy to offer up recommendations across the category because, well, why wouldn’t we? I don’t just drink Glenfiddich after all!

WHAT DO YOU SEE HAPPENING WITH WHISKY IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

Brendan: I think there’s a huge drive for sustainability. It’s the number one thing that people want from whisky, in what they buy. I think there’s a responsibility for all distilleries in Scotland to be more sustainable in energy use, as well as packaging and every aspect. At Bunnahabhain we run electricity from a turbine and there’s way more innovation to come in how we power and market and manage our whiskies. It doesn’t change the ingredients but there’s a lot that can be done in the production side of whisky.

The other part I see is that it’s an incredibly rich, heritage-heavy product. The ability to go as geeky or as knowledgeable as you want, and that will remain, but it’s also becoming a wee bit more fun and a wee bit more enjoyable to drink whisky. That’s being reflected in what’s available. Casks you’ve never heard of before, new flavours and better communications from distilleries on what whiskies are being made and what to know about them.

Blair: I think there’s a huge amount of untapped experimentation to be done, despite us having more restrictive rules in Scotland, but seeing fascinating things happen. All places are dealing with their own differences, local barleys, local woods, local environments. People are now coming into whisky through cocktails. Ten years ago brands just didn’t realise that promoting whisky in a cocktail was a way in. That’s what I was doing in World Whisky Day . There’s going to be a whisky out there for everybody, even if you don’t like the first one you try.

We are also slowly getting away from the baggage of whisky as being a drink you must drink neat. At the end of the day this is just a drink. We only live once, enjoy your life, enjoy the flavours and experiences that you like, don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. There’s a lot of snobbery but we’re moving away from that. I don’t mind ruffling feathers. Whisky is an old school thing, it was very stuck in its ways, I’m thankful to say that has changed and is continuing to change.

Derek: I think we will see a lot more distilleries looking at sustainability, more barley types, reducing their carbon footprint and being more environmentally friendly in the future  I’m a big fan of wine finished drams I just think it makes a good dram a little more exciting so I’m always looking for different finishes ( don’t get me wrong I still love my traditional drams also).

Mark: Who knows what the future holds – the marketeers will give us figures and projections of low and no, less drinkers but better quality etc – I think looking back a little to the lockdown days we saw a big shift in how we talked about whisky, how we can make it more transparent, more open and welcoming to all.

And how we deliver those talks has changed – obviously the digital age has helped and I can see a blend of the two (in person and online) happening at tastings and events where perhaps not all the members at a whisky club can make a specific date so they get sent the drams to their home and join a zoom call in live time. I also saw a change in the consumer knowledge – in a really positive way. I think this may also be a result of lockdown where people could order up tasting kits and really get to delve into the brands with master distillers, blenders and the like – and not just once every three months, but once a week.  At the first shows I attended post lockdown, I really noticed how consumers were more aware of flavour, not so hung up on age, would be more open to try new styles – it really was rather refreshing to witness.

Oh – I tell you what I’d like to see – that we stop talking about regions with whisky – its far too restrictive now and although maybe five years ago it gave newcomers to the category a sense of place, I feel it actually just confuses many now – lets scrap it – think flavour, style and character instead. That’s not to say that I want to end tradition – of course there is a place for that, but in a modern whisky world, with so many cool experiments (and distilleries) popping up all over the place, we should be more forward thinking in our language regards the dram in hand.

At Glenfiddich, we have always had a maverick attitude , looking for new ideas, styles and flavours – our experimental series showcases some of these successes, but the warehouses are filled with others- some not actually deemed “whisky” because they fall outside of the SWA regulations – but we keep them – you never know, as a regulation relaxes or changes we can be fast moving and stay ahead of the curve. I think its this approach to everything we do that keeps us independent and under family ownership.

HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC AND THE SHUTDOWNS AFFECTED WHISKY/ WHISKY EVENTS? DO YOU THINK THERE HAVE BEEN ANY POSITIVES?

Brendan: I think there has been a positive. There have of course been negatives. Once these things are thrust upon you, you work out different ways to do things. I stayed in touch with whisky drinkers around the world with whisky events. With online tastings there’s no restrictions on numbers, not like in a room, and with the tastings I could have been stationed anywhere. It has been easier to have a chat with a much more diverse group of people. People who are new to whisky, who don’t even know why they’re there, all the way up to experts. If not for the pandemic people wouldn’t have done it. There would be no strategy for that. And before the pandemic, it might not have worked as people said it’s better in person.

But doing stuff on zoom is only a tiny drop in quality and we can do it so much easier and quicker.  If it’s just a question of going into an office with a green screen and doing a 20-minute chat about a whisky that’s just come out, you can do it and everyone knows it works. That’s the biggest change, how easy it is to connect with consumers, whereas in the past it would have been an official event. That to me has been a massive positive.

Blair: I think one of the positives is that people were very quick to adapt and get master blenders a zoom account. People were able to have a genuine connection with people who usually would only be wheeled out for big events. Suddenly you were connected to people who were considered to be whisky rock stars.

Distilleries were able to adapt quickly and give virtual tours and send out tasting packs which wasn’t a thing before. Now there are distilleries that were putting on a virtual tour and tasting, every Friday night. That was pretty cool, a new level of interaction.

Derek: The pandemic was a real blow to all of the hospitality industry and to a lot more businesses too. We all had to diversify and go out of our comfort zone. there were so many zoom tastings and zoom interviews but it was a good thing for us because we got to talk to many people that we normally don’t get to interact with. Online retailers did well too as we could not get out to the shops to buy anything.

I think most of the industry are looking forward to all festivals starting back up and talking to the customers face to face again and with the festivals it has a knock on affect for the local community and businesses with more revenue being spent in the area that the festival is being held.

Mark: Ooops Think I’ve answered this already. Yes, lots of positives. It gave whisky an opportunity to reach a new and wider audience.

I know that many of the online tasting sessions I conducted for organisations such as Waitrose and Harvey Nicholls that a vast majority of the audience were tuning in to whisky for the first time – or were at least at the beginning of their journey. They were not having to commit to an evening out of the house – they could drop into the chat for 60 mins, try some whiskies in the comfort of their own home and when it was over, close the laptop and carry on with their evening. It just made everything so easy I think. I, for one, was fairly happy to have a lot less travelling.

IS THERE ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH PUBLICANS ABOUT WHISKY FOR 2022?

Brendan: As much as the pandemic has allowed a lot of people to adjust to drinking whisky at home and doing online tastings, and buying whisky from stores and off-licences, you can feel it already – with business opening back up and people opening up again you can remember how great it is to sit in a great bar with some friends and drink a great whisky. I’m looking forward to that becoming a more regular occurrence as we move into 2022.

Blair: I’m really fortunate to be selected by Scotland Food & Drink to be an ambassador. It is a two-year position to champion Scottish Food and Drink & Hospitality. My role is to help hospitality staff have more confidence when it comes to serving whisky. My aim is to help encourage confidence and understanding in FoH staff so they’ll be able to upsell and help customers choose whisky.

I’ve been accused of sounding like a broken record. But if you go to another country all the local staff can speak confidently about local beers, wines, spirits, here it only happens if that person has an interest. Investment in training is sorely needed. I’m hoping with this extra hat I can help staff find out about whisky.

There are people coming here who know a lot more about whisky than the person standing behind the bar and I would like to change that. At the end of a meal, staff take an order for coffees and teas, and everyone orders one their own way. We all have our preference as to how we drink it. Nobody says “that’s weird”, not even the service staff would challenge it. But as soon as we do that with whisky, the serving staff might say “I don’t know if you can do that”. I find that really bizarre. Nobody judges each other with coffee, but everyone does with whisky. Why is it wrong to put soda or lemonade in whisky?

Derek: Going forward I would just like to wish all the publicans who have managed to re-open after the shitshow of 2020/21 a fantastic festive season and I hope they manage to get some funds back in to their accounts and hope that there is no more lockdowns.

Mark: Be brave and mix things up when it comes to whisky. So many new drinkers are coming into the category and its our job to make it as simple and approachable as possible. If you have a malt of the month on, try putting two on at the same time, maybe a different style or a higher value. Staff picks are also a great revenue generator and keeps the staff sharp on knowledge about the whiskies you offer.

Get rid of regions! I bet if you have a wine list in your venue, there’s a good chance that it is listed via flavour profile – never mind regionality or even country. Why do we still feel the need to pigeonhole whisky? Recently, I was chatting to a friend about Bunnahabhain – and they said, oh, I don’t like Islay whiskies, I can’t get my head round them – just don’t like the smoke. Twenty minutes later, they were exclaiming that BH12 was a belter of a dram (because I bought it for them) and they’d been missing out thinking all Islay whiskies are peated. Anyway – can’t you tell I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about this?

Oh – and remember to keep a space on the back bar for the new Glenfiddichs coming out in 2022 ….can’t tell you what they are yet though. Top secret.

 

 

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