A sure-fire place to start is Scotland, where the great scotch distilleries – and distillers – have been based for centuries. We spoke to three master blenders working in the country about their work, their love of whiskies and finding a balance between science and art.
Rachel Barrie, BenRiach, The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh
Rachel Barrie has been in the whisky business for nearly three decades, having joined The Scotch Whisky Research Institute straight after completing her chemistry degree before going on to prominent distilleries Glenmorangie, Morrison Bowmore and, most recently, BenRiach, Glenglassaugh and The GlenDronach. Her passion for whisky, however, goes back to a younger age. “I fell in love with the place, the stories and the character of whisky whilst growing up in rural Aberdeenshire,” she says. “I recall visiting the shop at GlenDronach distillery in 1976, and it had the same feeling as my grandparents' stone-walled cottage, with pear and apple trees, a vegetable garden and the subtle smell of smoke, barley and berries”.
Today, Barrie combines her scientific background with an appreciation for artistry when making the perfect dram. “As I always say, 'the nose knows', meaning senses and intuition work in harmony with hard data to make strategic decisions and create,” she says. The best whiskies, according to Barrie, “are highly integrated, complex and balanced and always have a richly satisfying finish”. As far as personal favourites go, she names GlenDronach 18 years old Allardice, “also my Dad's favourite malt”, and Glenglassaugh 40 years old, whose “taste is an expansive symphony of luscious fruit and oak, reminiscent of the waves in Sandend Bay”.
Nick Savage, Bladnoch
For Nick Savage, the beauty of whisky-making lies as much in the people as it does in the product. After completing a PhD in mechanical engineering, he began work at Diageo, where his eyes were opened to “everything that goes into it” and “the romance behind it all”. He has since moved to William Grant & Sons, Macallan and then Bladnoch, but his feelings remain intact. “It never ceases to amaze me that you can pick any whisky and it's probably had 10 craftsman touch it, evolve it, make it better and it's probably taken 20 years to do it,” he says. “When you appreciate that, then all of a sudden you start to think: wow, this is pretty cool.”
Savage saw Macallan through some of their most successful years in recent history, including the opening of a new distillery and the breaking of several world records last year. At Bladnoch, he is focused on nurturing what has been a smaller brand and building a legacy for the future – creating whiskies that can appeal to different “profiles” of drinker around the world. “If you've got flexible stocks, that's the key to making a sustainable long-lasting drink,” he says. He enjoys a Samara 10-year-old when at a summer BBQ and a Talia 26 year old when “it’s snowing and the fire is on and it’s just me and my dad”, and says experimentation is key when searching for your perfect whisky experience.
Billy Walker, GlenAllachie
Billy Walker is a true whisky veteran. Over the course of a career spanning more than 40 years, he has held posts at the likes of Ballantines and Inver House, as well as owning BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh distilleries, which he sold in 2017 before purchasing GlenAllachie. Like Barrie, he grew up around whisky and has a science background (spending four years as a pharmaceutical research chemist). His first “really pleasurable experience with whisky was unquestionably Ballantines, which continues to be a great blended scotch whisky,” he says; and he doesn’t see whisky as a job, rather “a hobby, an obsession.”
When it comes to making the perfect whisky, Walker says “there are no shortcuts to quality”. “You want to make the best new-fill spirit you can possibly make, and then choose top-end wood and find a spirit going into it that can marry and react and live with rich wood,” he says. “If you can do that you'll end up with a stunningly good product.” Walker’s mission is to make GlenAllachie the best whisky in the Spey Valley, and his malt of the moment is the “GlenAllachie 15-year-old, unquestionably. Just keep your eye on that one.”
160LotTHE MACALLAN FINE & RARE 60 YEAR OLD 42.6 ABV 1926The Macallanthe macallan fine & rare 60 year old 42.6 abv 192624 October 2019 | Sale price: 1,452,000 GBPEstimate: 350,000 – 450,000 GBP24 October 2019 | Sale price: 1,452,000 GBPThe Ultimate Whisky Collection24 October 2019 | 10:00 AM BST | London
208LotBENRIACH GORDON & MACPHAIL PRIVATE COLLECTION 44 YEAR OLD 56.1 ABV 1966Benriachbenriach gordon & macphail private collection 44 year old 56.1 abv 196624 October 2019 | Sale price: 1,694 GBPEstimate: 750 – 1,000 GBP24 October 2019 | Sale price: 1,694 GBPThe Ultimate Whisky Collection24 October 2019 | 10:00 AM BST | London
260LotTHE GLENDRONACH OLOROSO SHERRY CASK 33 YEAR OLD 40.0 ABV NVthe glendronach oloroso sherry cask 33 year old 40.0 abv nv24 October 2019 | Sale price: 2,057 GBPEstimate: 700 – 1,000 GBP24 October 2019 | Sale price: 2,057 GBPThe Ultimate Whisky Collection24 October 2019 | 10:00 AM BST | London
207LotTHE BENRIACH ORIGINAL BOTTLING 33 YEAR OLD 49.0 ABV 1972Benriachthe benriach original bottling 33 year old 49.0 abv 197224 October 2019 | Sale price: 702 GBPEstimate: 400 – 580 GBP24 October 2019 | Sale price: 702 GBPThe Ultimate Whisky Collection24 October 2019 | 10:00 AM BST | London