We’re back with our interviews to Scottish independent whisky bottlers: today we’re talking with Nick White, Managing Director at A.D. Rattray.
How did you fall in love with whisky, how did everything start? Which was your career in the whisky world?
In 2004 I left Shell Financial Services in Glasgow to join Tim Morrison Fine Wines in Ayrshire. I was recruited as Management Accountant of the company but was also asked to sort out the accounts of the whisky company A. Dewar Rattray Ltd that Mr Morrison also owned. My involvement in the whisky company soon grew well beyond the financial control and management of the accounts into product planning, development and cask stock purchasing. At the same time the whisky company was expanding as interest in single malts was increasing every year.
I already had an interest in wine and was trained in nosing and tasting techniques that were also used for whisky evaluation. I soon achieved the WSET Level 2 qualification for wine and spirits. But my own time spent in the sample room evaluating all our cask samples was the background to establishing my whisky aroma knowledge. In addition, I am profoundly deaf having lost most of my hearing by age 13. This handicap may contribute to a heightened sense of smell to compensate for my loss of the hearing sense…
In 2008 Mr Morrison sold his wine business to focus on the whisky company that continued to thrive. At that time I was made Managing Director of A. Dewar Rattray Ltd.
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??
I have seen huge changes in the industry in the past 16 years as demand for single malt Scotch Whisky has grown massively worldwide. Back in 2004 you could source many of the closed distilleries fairly easily, e.g. casks of Port Ellen, Banff and Brora. And the prices were not that high either. Similarly, you could purchase most Islay malts and Macallan, Clynelish, and Mortlach at the same price as standard malts. I was very fortunate to begin my whisky education regularly sampling all these cask and developing a nose for exceptional choice. It was a privilege to select and bottle these casks for the AD Rattray Cask Collection and we won many awards as Independent Bottler of the Year in the Whisky Magazine and particularly for the Islay region.
In 2009 it all changed and demand started to exceed supply for the old and rare malts. Prices increased exponentially as stock was reduced. This has continued through to today with the closed distilleries now almost impossible to get and many others selling for crazy prices at auction only. It is a shame that some whisky is now a collector’s item when it should be available for all enthusiasts to drink and savour appreciatively.
The other big change for us is the variety of single casks on offer now. Back in 2004 we never bottled anything under 10 years old and did not do any finishes. Now we have bottled Annandale 3yr old and many young casks with exceptional first fill wood choice. We have also responded to markets and the demand for whisky finished in different wood – particularly sherry casks. The Far East markets in particular like very dark, heavy sherry-influenced whisky as a taste preference. And often the cask choice is far more significant than the distillery spirit.
What does it mean to work in a company with such a strong heritage in the whisky industry?
Working for Stanley Walker Morrison, aka “Tim”, is an honour which bestows on me a requirement to uphold traditional values of business etiquette and propriety. Tim Morrison is one of the most respected and well-connected gentlemen in the whole industry. He also appreciates formality and as I am an accountant by trade it was a delight to be handed the actual Company Books in a historical ledger format for annual completion. The Board Minutes book dated back to 1939 when the business was actually incorporated and it was completed in ink every year up to the present day. This adds a real sense of gravitas to the Company and I am proud to be part of this historical record.
What are you looking for in a cask, before deciding you’re going to bottle it?
For our A. D. Rattray Cask Collection general releases for all markets we are looking for balance with some complexity and individual and/or unusual notes specific to that cask. For aged second fill wood it is good to retain a lot of distinctive distillery spirit character and then see what the cask has added. A variety of subtle notes is great – be it fruity, spicy, floral, smoky, sweet etc. Often we can get an objective consensus of opinion on these. We then look for more unusual and special notes that give the cask its unique profile. These can be more subjective and reflect your own sensory olfactory database. Then the finish.
How would you describe your philosophy as an independent bottler?
We believe that quality drives every decision re choosing spirit, aged whisky and the wood used for maturation. That’s why we only bottle approx. eight casks per quarter for general market release. We would never compromise our integrity for bottling the best whisky by releasing mediocre casks. Our reputation is everything and likewise maintaining our relationships with distilleries with mutual respect and appreciation.
Do you have any ‘special’ cask in your warehouses, that you have great expectations on? And what do you think of ‘finishing’ and re-rackings: how much can a cask impact on a whisky?
Yes, we have a Bowmore 1991 butt that was part of our original stock which is lying in Warehouse No.1 at Bowmore Distillery. We have kept this one back to release as a 30 year old in August 2021. We also have a number of casks that are being held for a special future 20 year old bottling including Arran, Pulteney, Dalmore, Annandale and Glenglassaugh.
Re-racking is a good way to respond to customer demands and preferences re flavour profiles – particularly for markets that favour a heavy sherry influence.
We also like to experiment with different woods, Across a parcel of say 5 bourbon hogsheads of Glen Moray we will re-rack one into a sherry or wine cask and see if it works for that malt.
We believe the quality of wood is just as important as the quality of spirit so cask choice is fundamental. The cask plays a very significant part of the maturation process and ultimately the flavour produced. However, we do not believe in re-racking for the purposes of masking a poor spirit. No cask can transform poor spirit into great whisky. Only well-made spirit with good wood makes the best whisky.
Which are your favourite “hidden” distilleries?
We have recently bottled a number of Tormore and Fettercairn casks and I love the unusual flavours found in these malts. You don’t hear much about these distilleries but revealing them in single cask form is what the world of the Independent Bottler is all about. It’s great to be able to find something new and interesting to try and offer to customers.
Which are your three best whiskies ever, that you’d bring with you on a desert island?
My favourite single casks over the years have been Port Ellen, Pulteney 1982 and the Arran casks we filled using our own wood source.