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Interview to Fergus Simpson (Duncan Taylor Ltd.)

After easily overcoming the August 15th revelry, we get back on track thanks to a long chat with the volcanic Fergus Simpson, Brand Ambassador of the historic Scottish bottler Duncan Taylor. After living in our country for a long time, Fergus exhibits an excellent Italian, full of Tuscan and Latium dialect expressions that you really wouldn’t expect to come out of the mouth of a whisky man of this rank and that make you hope to spend the rest of your days in his company, between a single cask of Duncan Taylor and an anecdote about his Italy of the 70s. But that’s a different story…

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

The first whisky that I can remember drinking was when I was about 7 years old. In Scotland, rugby is the national game, and I went with my father to watch a rugby match. It was February and freezing cold. My father gave me a nip from his hip flask to warm me up. I can’t remember if I liked it, but I remember that it certainly did warm me.
In the 1970’s there was not a lot of malt whisky available when I started to drink it. I remember Glenmorangie as the most widely available in bars. There was also a fair amount of Gordon and MacPhail bottlings around as they bottled for many distilleries back then, and were in Elgin, not too far from Aberdeen. Things like their Glenlivet and Talisker bottles…
Mostly however, people drank blends. Bell’s was what you got if you just asked for a whisky in a bar. My father used to drink Vat 69 as his regular.
I spent most of the 1970’s and 80’s abroad, so ended up drinking a lot of Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal as that was what I could find.

Which was your career in the whisky world?

A lot of people think that I have been in the industry a long time. Not so! I only started in 2007!
I had been living and working in England as a teacher, but I had a 100km commute each way, every day! I had tired of this, so me and my wife decided to return to Scotland and retire.
I found it boring being at home all day. Then I saw an advert for William Grant & Sons for guides at Glenfiddich Distillery. I thought that as I had always enjoyed whisky, that this would be great to do, so I applied.
Brian Robinson, who is now at Ballindalloch, ran the Visitor Centre Team then, and he gave me my first job. The training was really good and I learned a lot about process. Their site at Dufftown is huge with 3 distilleries, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. Balvenie has its own floor maltings, and there is a cooperage to service the casks. It is still family owned and run, so very different from many other large whisky companies.
Over the 5 years that I worked there I met so many interesting people. David Stewart, the legendary Balvenie malt master; Dennis McBain the coppersmith who started there in 1958, his brother was stillman at Mortlach distillery for years; Robbie Gormley who was over 40 years in the maltings, Rob MacPherson who had been Distillery Manager at Longmorn for many years and led Balvenie, as well as many others. After my first year, I became a senior guide, doing more exclusive tours at both Glenfiddich and Balvenie, as well as looking after trade visits and VIP’s.
I decided that I needed to learn more about the technical side so I studied for a Certificate in Distillation with the Institute of Brewing & Distilling. With that I was able to answer just about any question from a whisky “nerd”. I then went to Duncan Taylor to run their retail store “Whiskies of Scotland” in Huntly for the next 3 years. This gave me exposure to a whole lot of different whiskies. I became part of their selection panel, looking at which casks to bottle, so I got to taste many wonderful things.
I returned for another 2 years with Glenfiddich at Dufftown, and finally in the autumn of 2016 decided to finally retire. My retirement didn’t last long! In the spring of 2017 Euan contacted me and offered me a job as Duncan Taylor Brand Ambassador, which I have been doing ever since.

How did the whisky industry change since when you first started working in it, and how did the liquid change since when you started drinking whisky?

Many of the old “whisky men” were still around when I started at Dufftown. People who remembered the days of coal-fired stills and floor maltings. Production nowadays seems to be much less artisanal, more computerised and standardised. The general standard may be higher, but there is far less “distillery character” to a lot of output.
Since I started drinking whisky in the 1970’s, there has been huge changes. For a start, the average age of whisky is much older. At that time a normal bottling would be of a 5 or 6-year-old. An extra old “liqueur” whisky might be 8. It was rare to see a whisky bottled in its teens, and a 20 to 30 year old was extremely rare.
The change from direct fired stills to steam coils was in full swing, which had a huge effect on the spirit. Most distilleries had their own yeasts as well. Now there are about 4 strains that are fairly standard across the industry. Different strains of barley were grown and malted. There was less focus on the casks then as well, more on the actual spirit.
Now peated whiskies are very much sought after. If you had visited Islay in the 1980’s, you would have found a very sad place. You could hardly give away peated whisky then!

What does it mean to work in a company with such a strong heritage in the whisky industry?

Obviously, the heritage of Duncan Taylor is very important to us. But at the same time, we have to be forward looking. Until Euan Shand bought the company, the focus was on cask broking, not bottling. We are lucky that Abe Rosenberg laid down such wonderful old casks, but you cannot build a whisky company on that alone. We need to look to the future by sourcing spirit that we can bottle over the next 5 to 10 years. Our heritage, and Euan’s life in the industry, certainly help in finding casks. The personal touch is still important in the industry.
For me personally, it is amazing to see our portfolio of old casks. Where else would you be able to find all the amazing whiskies from the 1960’s and 70’s that are in our inventory. It has been such an education to have this window into the past.

What are you looking for in a cask, before you decide to bottle it?

We are not looking for each cask to be magic. We want each bottling to be interesting and individual. Quality is important, but we have found over the years, that just because a distillery has an aura or “name”, doesn’t necessarily mean that every cask from it is stunning. A well-made whisky from a lesser known distillery can also be great. To be good, you need well made spirit aged in a good cask. We bottle whiskies of all different types. Whether someone likes a particular type or not, doesn’t mean that it is bad.
We often release younger whiskies amongst some of our more historic ones. Obviously, you can’t compare a 3 year old with a 30 year old. But like wine in Italy, an aged vintage Barolo is perfect to drink with Agnolotti del Plin and gravy, but sometimes it is nice to have a fresh young Frascati with Caprese salad. It is the same with whisky. If it is well made and interesting, we would bottle it.

How would you describe the philosophy of Duncan Taylor as an independent bottler?

As a company, our mission statement is, “With an uncompromising focus on quality, we’re on a mission to create spirits of distinction.” It is a philosophy that I totally agree with. Being independent gives us great flexibility, and our heritage provides us with wide ranging opportunities in comparison to may others.

We know Duncan Taylor has such a great range of incredible casks in its warehouses… But what about you, do you have any particular cask that you have great expectations on?

Unfortunately, I can’t say too much about what we have in our inventory, but let me assure you that our stock of rare old casks is far from depleted! Sometimes we give out a little teaser on our Facebook page as these show: I am especially looking forward to the Kinclaith, as it is a stunning whisky from an almost unknown, closed distillery.

You pioneered the use of octaves in order to get new flavour profiles; how much can a cask impact on a whisky, and what do you think about the practice of re-racking?

We are proud of our Octave™ series. The idea came from our Chairman, Euan Shand’s time as a cooper/ There he learned that a smaller cask accelerates the aging process as there is more surface area of wood for the spirit to interact with.
We are not looking to change the original character of the whisky. Rather we are looking to bring added complexity and “polish” and add smoothness. 3 months in a 70 litre Octave is the equivalent to a year in a larger sherry butt. We don’t look at it as “finishing,” rather double maturation.
You asked about re-racking. This to me is different to finishing a whisky in a different cask type. There are many legitimate reasons for re-racking, or transferring a whisky from one cask to another.
For example, we might have an 11 year old whisky that we are planning to bottle as a 12 yo. We might find that although the quality is fine, the colour is very pale. So we might transfer it to another cask of the same type for the last year to enhance the colour. We don’t colour our whiskies, so doing so is fine to me. You might have a cask that is leaking. In which case, re-racking is the only sensible option.
Finishing is another story. All too often it can be used to disguise some inherent fault in a whisky. Put a whisky in an extremely active sherry cask and you can mask many bad things. Rum, Madeira, Port and some white wine casks can produce some interesting effects. Red wine, Cognac and heavy PX sherry are much less successful in my opinion.

Which are your favourite “hidden” distilleries?

I strongly believe that every distillery is capable of producing good spirit, even though most of their output may be less stellar. However, having said that as you are asking about “hidden” or perhaps lesser known distilleries, here are some that I have appreciated over the years.
Longmorn, is a Speyside distillery owned by Pernod Ricard. It is not too easy to find as the only official bottling is the rather underwhelming NAS “Distillers Choice” But the older 15yo bottlings and some licensed bottlings by Gordon and MacPhail in their “Distillery labels” series are very much to my liking.
Glenugie is a distillery that is closed and demolished, but I have never had a bad bottling from it. Again, it is not easy to find as while it was working it all went into blends. If you can find a whisky that was bottled in the 1980’s by Ernesto Mainardi from Parma in his Sestante “Bird Label” series, you will be in for a rare treat.
Lastly, Glen Moray. We have bottled many wonderful casks from this distillery over the years and still have more in our inventory. When it was under the same ownership as Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, it was treated as the poor relation and the quality spirit it produces, was filled in casks of questionable quality. Since the take over by the French company La Martiniquaise, it has had access to better wood. In 2016 it had a major expansion with 3 new wash stills from Frilli in Monteriggioni (Siena). I have been able to taste some of their new expressions, and some works in progress in their warehouses and they have been very impressive.

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

This is so difficult! Only three? Ok, here we go…

  • The Balvenie 50 year old 1962/2012. This was released to celebrate Malt Master David Stewart’s fifty years with William Grant. I was working with them in Dufftown at the time and was looking after a film crew shooting a promo about it. So, I was in Warehouse 24 standing behind the camera when David and Sam Simmons, the then Global ambassador opened the cask on its 50th birthday. I was lucky enough to taste it in the warehouse, straight from the cask! An experience that I will never forget.
  • The Macallan 1940, Red ribbon and red wax, bottled around 1980 for Rinaldi import of Italy. It was distilled during war time and is a peated Macallan. Looking at what is bottled by Macallan now, expensive, over the top crystal decanters, a lot with no age statement, it is difficult to see where its reputation came from. But make no mistake, old school McCallan’s are some of the world’s best whiskies.
  • The Lagavulin 21 year old, 1985/2007. The Laga 16 and the various cask strength 12’s have long been favourites of mine. But this bottling is stunning! From Spanish sherry European oak casks only – not American oak like often with sherry nowadays. If you can ever have the opportunity to taste it, forget about what the current price is, just take it.

We know you have a strong bond with Italy: how did you end up living here, and what you like most about of our drinking culture?

I arrived in Italy, Grosseto in the Maremma, in 1978 because of an Italian lady that I had met in London! I arrived without a word of Italian, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway as my first job was in Pizzeria Pappagone in the old city walls of Grosseto, and everyone there was from Rione Sanità in Naples! As Neapolitans, they used to watch the old films of Totò, Peppino and Aldo Fabrizi all the time, and could quote huge chunks of dialogue from them from memory! This was my first exposure to Italian culture.
After we had split up, I went to work as a bus driver on Isola dell Giglio for a season. This was towards the end of the years of terrorism and after Bologna station bombing and the conductor on my bus was a young guy from Milano who had been involved with Brigate Rosse and was forced to stay on the island. From him, I learned more of the history and politics of Italy.
At the end of the season, I went to stay with a friend in Rome for the next couple of years. He lived in the Balduina district, not far from Piazza Giovenale. It was far from the tourists in the Centro storico, but I used to go around exploring on a motorino and visit the local Trionfale market every day for shopping. My friend was dealing in antiques, and we went around all of Italy to search for things. Every Sunday, I used to help him at his stall at Porta Portese. It was very different then; a real Roman market, and I will always remember an old man with a red cap and a long white beard that used to play his trumpet very badly. Everyone called him “Garibaldi” and used to give him a few lire.
I moved from Italy at the end of 1983. Apart from Scotland, it is my favourite place in the world, and I am always happy to return. I have never studied Italian, never had a lesson in my life. I have only learned it by living and speaking it, perhaps that is why I speak that strange mixed up colloquial Italian that I do. At the Milano festival last year, it was great fun for me and Francesco Pirineo of CDC, who is from Rome, to explain to some Piedmontese guys all about “sacchi”, “scudo”, “Piotta” and “testone”. (all words meaning “money” in Rome dialect, ed).
At the time that I was living in Italy, I wasn’t drinking much whisky. The Maremma was only wine and Rome was pretty much a desert for good whisky in bars. Now I know that there were really interesting things being bottled then by giants like Armando Giovinetti, Silvano Samaroli and Nadi Fiori. But most of the whisky was at the luxury end of the market or aimed at collectors and bought by the older generation.
Now the scene has become totally different. It is much more driven by younger people and the thriving bar scene. If I compare events like Milano Whisky Festival to a similar event say, in Germany, the proportion of under 35’s and women is far higher in Italy than almost anywhere else in Europe. The same with beer. In the early 80’s it was Peroni, Wührer or Birra Moretti as a choice, but now there is an explosion of craft beers. Whisky doesn’t go with wine, but it does with beer, so having good craft beers means that whisky is more widely appreciated.

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