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Interview to Alistair Walker (A. W. Whisky Company)

How did you fall in love with whisky, how did everything start?

Obviously there has been a whisky connection in my family for a number of decades, with my father Billy having been in the industry for such a long time. So there were always some interesting looking bottles around the house, although as a child I was more interested in the velvet drawstring bags that the Pinwinnie Whisky used to come in, as they were great for keeping your marbles in! It was never my intention to have a career in the whisky industry, I just kind of fell into it, and for that I blame my father! When I left university in 1996, aged 22 years old, I needed to get some work experience on my CV, so my dad suggested I should go and work with him at Burn Stewart for a year – I stayed for 6 ½ years! That was my real introduction to the world of blends, malts and liqueurs, and that is really when my relationship with whisky started.

Which was your career in the whisky world, and how did you decide to become an independent bottler?

I started at Burn Stewart in 1997, initially working in the marketing team, before moving in to sales. At that time Burn Stewart had two malt distilleries – Deanston and Tobermory – aswell as a big portfolio of blended whiskies, liqueurs and other spirits. It was great fun, and a fantastic learning experience. When the company was sold to Angostura in 2003, I left, and went back to university to study for my Masters Degree. Whilst I was splitting my time between the library and the pub, my dad was involved in the drawn-out process of trying to buy a whisky distillery – BenRiach – and once my studies were complete towards the end of 2004, I found myself back in the whisky industry, this time working for The BenRiach Distillery Co. This was a whole different ball-game to Burn Stewart; we were a very small operation at the start, with maybe 12 people across the distillery and the office, and we were entirely focused on single malt Scotch whisky, with just the one distillery and brand to put all of our efforts into. The timing was serendipitous – to me the malt category really started to take off around 2006, and we had been fortunate enough to acquire a great distillery at a good price 2 years prior to the start of the malt boom. Over a 12-year period, that business grew to become quite a sizeable beast, with the acquisition of a bottling hall and two more distilleries – GlenDronach in 2008, and Glenglassaugh in 2013 – before it was eventually sold to Brown-Forman in 2016. At this point I decided that my part in that particular story had come to an end, and I departed a few months after the change of ownership. I took about a year out, and was trying to decide what I wanted to do next. My dad had moved onto his new project – GlenAllachie – and I suppose some people may have assumed I would end up there. However, I had become interested in setting up something on my own, taking my destiny into my own hands. I wanted to remain in the whisky sector, and independent bottling seemed like a good option. The last 2 years have been a massive learning experience, and not without their challenges, but so far, so good.

How did the whisky industry change since when you first started working in it?

It’s a different world. When I started it was all about blends, with very little interest in single malts. There were no whisky festivals or master class tastings that I can recall. I’m only 45, but when I started at Burn Stewart the internet wasn’t widely available, so online shopping and internet whisky forums didn’t exist. The enthusiasm for the single malt category today would have been very hard to predict in 1997 (if I had any inkling, I would have taken out a large bank loan and started buying casks back then!). Consumers have become incredibly knowledgeable, passionate and curious about whisky, especially single malts. The number of festivals, tastings and societies is staggering. This has really driven the category forward. As a result, there are more releases from distilleries than ever before, showcasing more variety and greater experimentation, and the boundaries of what is allowed are being pushed. The demographic of our customers has altered significantly too. Previously whisky was perhaps the domain of the mature gentleman, often bearded (!), but today we see a much more diverse consumer profile, with a younger generation, male and female, joining the original enthusiasts. There are still a lot of guys with beards, but many of them are in their late 20s / early 30s, and apparently they are called hipsters! Pricing has increased, and some expressions have moved from mere whisky bottlings to designer labels! Whisky, both in bottled and cask form, has become an attractive investment, and many whisky auction sites have emerged. People queue outside distilleries for hours for the chance to get their hands on a special edition! Much of what we say today in the industry would have been completely unimaginable when I started out. It will be interesting to see what the next 20 years will bring…

How did the liquid change since when you started drinking whisky? The production techniques and the tendency towards consistency brought to a flattening of differences or rather to a higher average quality?

This is an interesting question. I would say a higher average quality. So much has been learned over the last 20 years about wood management, and how different components of the production process influence the final spirit. I would guess that the level of attention to detail being paid to every component of the production process, from barley varietals all the way through to maturation, is as high as it has ever been. For consumers, the number of choices available to them is greater than it has ever been, and possibly quite daunting. Almost every distillery will have a comprehensive range of core bottlings topped up with special releases, and then you have the independent bottlers (and the number of these is growing) on top of that. With so much competition out there, distillers and bottlers need to be at the top of their game, and that means creating good spirit and filling into quality wood.

What are you looking for in a cask, before deciding you’re going to bottle it?

One thing – quality. It’s no more complicated than that. You have to be confident in every cask that you bottle, as it will have your brand name on it, so make sure it’s good. In terms of the range, and our inventory, we are also always looking to add variety. That can be through different distillery makes, or through re-racks and cask finishes, but it is important to have some depth in your inventory – you want to have difficult choices to make when you are selecting casks for your next batch. We also like to have some variety in each batch of Infrequent Flyers – in terms of age, region, flavour profile and price point.

How would you describe your philosophy? Since you’re a young company, how many bottlings are you planning to release every year?

There is no over-riding requirement to hit certain targets each year in terms of volume or revenue, so our Infrequent Flyers release programme will always be driven by the stock – how the casks are maturing, when have the re-racks reached a point when they are ready, etc. This means we won’t bottle a cask prematurely just to hit a sales number. We are not in any rush… In terms of how many bottlings per year, there are two strands to this. Firstly, we have the batch releases, which we split across all markets. In 2019 we did 2 batches, totalling 17 casks. The plan is to release 3 or 4 batches per annum from 2021 onwards, with anything from 6 to 8 casks per batch. This year we will probably only release 2 batches, as the pandemic has curtailed our plans a little. Batch 3 has just been released, and Batch 4 will come out around September. I’m not tying myself too rigidly to any of this, as it’s all driven by the stock. The second strand is market exclusives – we will have a programme where we offer a small number of casks to customers and markets on an exclusive basis. In the early years, I can’t see us bottling more than 50 casks per annum, but let’s see how things evolve.

We know you come from a ‘school’ that brought reracking and cask management to a form of art: how much does it count, for you, a second maturation?

It’s certainly something that we will be heavily involved in. We did some amazing wood finishes at BenRiach, and we tried all sorts of different cask types, so you get a feel for what works and what maybe didn’t. Then, at GlenDronach, we worked intensively with sherry casks, and that creates a style of whisky that I really like. So you will see a lot of re-racking, wood management, finishing, 2nd maturation – whatever you want to call it – from the AWW Co going forward. We started our re-racking programme early 2019, and it is an ongoing process. We actually do all of our re-racking up at GlenAllachie, so when I purchase stock I usually relocate it to GlenAllachie, so that it is in place when we decide to transfer the contents into a sherry puncheon, port pipe, rye barrel, etc. There is a significant investment there – the wood is expensive, and there is the labour component aswell – and of course you then need to leave the whisky in the re-rack casks for a decent period of time. So you are adding some significant cost, however it is an investment in the whisky, and surely that is a wise manoeuvre? Cask finishing is one of the most rewarding parts of the job – for one, you get to put a little of your own influence on a whisky which, let’s face it, was made by someone else. Secondly, it’s exciting waiting to see what happens and how the whisky will evolve over time. With our Infrequent Flyers releases going forward you will start to see the results of some of the re-racking – there will be a balance between original casks which capture the distillery character, and the wood finishes from the re-rack programmes.

Do you have any ‘special’ cask in your warehouses, that you have great expectations on?

Getting access to some older whiskies is pretty difficult these days. We have managed to pick up a few, and these will be released sparingly over the next few years. Some of them have been left as they were, and some have been re-racked. There are always surprises though, casks that develop differently to your expectations, and sometimes these are the real gems – but you cannot predict them! Unfortunately I can’t reveal too much more than that! Independent bottlers always play their cards very close to their chest when it comes to details of their inventory, that is one of the first things I learned!

Ok, we won’t insist… So changing topic, which are you favourite “hidden” distilleries?

I don’t know if it qualifies as hidden, but I have been really impressed with some of the Glen Keith stock I purchased – indeed, the very 1st cask we bottled was a 26YO Glen Keith. I also think Ben Nevis is a great whisky, and Linkwood is also very good. You get some real surprises too from lesser known distilleries – we recently bottled an Auchroisk and a Macduff that were superb – not household names, but great casks none-the-less.

Which are your three best whiskies ever, that you’d bring with you on a desert island?

What a question!! I’m deliberately not going to select one of my own bottlings, as I am way too modest for that! My ‘go to’ whisky for many years has been GlenDronach 18YO (Allardice). A lot of people rave about the 15YO, but I always preferred the Allardice, and I always have a bottle of this open at home. So that is a definite. I was torn between this and a GlenDronach 1972 single cask that I have stashed at home (and it is open!), but the 18YO has been a mainstay for a long time, so that’s my GlenDronach pick. Then I would go for a BenRiach virgin oak finish – we did an exclusive for the Swedish monopoly, and there were a few single cask releases too, so any of those. I’m a big fan of virgin oak maturation. The last choice is a 14YO Ben Nevis sherry cask bottling that I have slowly been working my way through over the last wee while. It was distilled in 1992 and bottled in 2007, it was given to my father as a gift and he gave it to me, and it was sat on a shelf gathering dust for a while before I eventually cracked it open. Unfortunately there isn’t much left in the bottle now – I’m reluctant to finish it as I won’t be able to get a like-for-like replacement! I guess as two of my choices are sherry matured I have given away my fondness for that type of cask!

How did the social networks and blogs contribute to the evolution of whisky debate, and in general on the communication of single malt scotch whisky?

Massively. When I started working in whisky, there was no platform for this, so it just didn’t exist. There were a few of magazines focused on whisky, and a small number of whisky writers, and that was it. No festivals, very few tastings, and no internet so no online community. This side of things has grown exponentially over the last few years. Our audience is global, and the great thing about online is that it allows the members of this international whisky community to stay connected. There is great debate and discussion about new releases, ratings, pricing, etc. As a bottler, or a distiller, it is quite helpful to listen to the online discussion, and to engage with consumers at whisky festivals, as it gives you a very good idea as to what they are looking for from a whisky, and you can take all of that on board. The internet enables the sharing of information, knowledge and opinions on whisky, which all helps the category to grow and evolve. Of course, recently we have seen how the internet has enabled producers to stay engaged with their consumers during the pandemic, with virtual tastings and Q&A sessions substituting for physical tastings and whisky festivals (although let’s hope that these live events return sooner rather than later).

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