Category Archives: Interviews

A day in the life of… Stuart Nickerson, Managing Director of the Glenglassaugh Distillery – Part 2 of 2

When we last left Joshua and Stuart, they were knee deep the history of Glenglassaugh, obstacles in progressing sales and awareness of the brand, the many awards won for their 21, 30 & 40 year old whiskies and who was on the Glenglassaugh team and why.  We now move onto other subjects such as “New Make Spirit”, “Full Cask Sales”, “Vegetarianism”, “Desert Island Drams”, “Stuarts creation of the current Highland Park 25yr expression” and “Sleeping Customs Officers, hard at work!”

If you’ve not yet read it and wish to get caught up on part 1 to this interview, click here.

Please join me in the conclusion to last weeks interview with Stuart Nickerson, Managing Director of the newly re-opened Glenglassaugh Distillery:

Joshua: Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz around new make spirit, white dog, moonshine… call it what you will.  Without going into the arguments for or against it, what are your reasons for making your “Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak It’s Name” new make spirit available for mass consumption?

Stuart: We decided to make our new-make spirit available for two reasons, firstly because our distillery manager, Graham Eunson, and myself, who between us have many years experience of managing malt distilleries, thought that the new-make was outstanding and fruitier than any others that we had come across.

The second reason was that we had a number of enquiries, particularly from European consumers who were interested in trying the spirit and in some cases comparing it with mature Glenglassaugh.

We followed that product up with “The Spirit Drink that blushes to speak its name”, the result of maturing for 6 months in Californian red wine casks and this product really is different. It is red/pink in colour with lots of pear in the nose but a strawberry flavor on the palate. It has been particularly well received by mixologists with several cocktails created using it as a base.

It is the success of these products that has led to extend the range with the forthcoming release of  “Peated”, new-make from peated barley and “Fledgling XB” which is normal new-make allowed to mature for 12 months in a first after bourbon cask.

We have taken on board consumer feedback and reduced bottle size to 200ml and we have also changed the names to make it easier to ask for.

Joshua: There are a few distilleries out there that offer (at least publicly), consumers the ability to buy full casks.  You offer two sizes of cask and two different spirit types (peated, at 30ppm, and non-peated, or, peated to 1ppm of peat).  Can you go into the details of this program?  As a slight aside, and in addition to the previous question, your pricing for this program is remarkable low.  Is there a reason for this?  Was it purposeful? (Dear reader, please note the Glenglassaugh Octave Cask to the right!  This cask belongs to members of my society, Jason of Guid Scotch Drink‘s whisky society… even Gal of Whisky Israel has a share in this baby!)

Stuart: We have two programmes which are different in a number of ways,

(a) The Octave programme is for individuals, whisky clubs, groups and small businesses that want to purchase a cask of whisky which is affordable, will be ready in a relatively short time period (probably around 5 years) and will produce a reasonable number of bottles but not several hundred.

For this programme we fill octave casks, which are around 50 litres with unpeated new-make spirit and the cost is £500.00 which covers all warehousing and insurance costs for up to 7 years maturation. The cost excludes bottling, shipping and duty and more details can be found on our website including an order form and fact sheet. We do have a specific fact sheet for USA customers and will happily email it to anyone who is interested in this programme.

We also fill octaves with peated new make spirit with everything being the same as above except that the cost is £600.00 per octave to reflect the higher malt price.

(b) The second programme is the 250 club membership and this is for people, groups, clubs and businesses that are wishing to buy a larger cask, similar to the ones that are now commonly used throughout the industry. This would be anything from an ex-bourbon barrel at 190 litres to an ex-sherry butt at 500 litres or ex-port pipe at around 600 litres.

Included this time is maturation and insurance for up to 10 years and also the eventual cost of bottling, consequently the cost is much higher starting at £2,500.

I don’t think that our price is any lower than others although the octave price is low at first sight but as I said theses casks are much smaller than other casks. This programme in particular is very successful and we sell much more than we originally anticipated.

Joshua: One thing I try to focus on with my blog is what dram to drink for a particular mood or season.  Will Glenglassaugh approach the release of new whisky expressions in a similar manner?  Do you approach personal consumption in this manner?

Stuart: Regarding Glenglassaugh we already have a range of products for consuming at different times, be that different season, time of the day or mood.

The “Clearac” spirit drink is remarkably fruity and easy drinking and can be consumed at any time while “Blushes” is great with lots of ice, cranberry juice and cream soda (tastes like strawberry ice-cream)

Our “younger” whiskies – those that are only 26 and 37 years old are very complex yet light and fruity with spices and hints of chocolate and are great before a meal or when sitting in company and chatting. I would probably describe them as spring or autumnal whiskies.

The over 40 year olds generally have a bit more sherry and are complex but with much more rich dried fruits, dark chocolate and marzipan and I would describe them as rich fruit cake. Great at the end of an evening or a winter dram.

Joshua: Stuart, you have a long history within the whisky industry.  Can you go into this?  From your start and up until today?

Stuart: The story really starts when I left University back in 1979 (BSc in Chemical Engineering from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh – seems like a lifetime ago (and is)) and started working with a company in Fife who, amongst other things manufactured by-products plants for the whisky industry. This led me to visit Convalmore distillery, Bunnahabhain Distillery, Aultmore Distillery and the Combination of Rothes Distillers (which is a large by-products plant owned by the Rothes distilleries.) So when I saw a job advertised in Dufftown with Arthur Bell & Sons then I jumped at it.

I joined Bells in 1981 as a project engineer and spent the next 3 years with them working at all of their distilleries (Dufftown, Pittyvaich, Blair Atholl, and Inchgower and Bladnoch).

In 1984 I joined Highland Distilleries as distillery manager at Highland Park Distillery and then in 1987 moved to take up the Glenrothes Distillery manager role, still with Highland, and at the same time managed Glenglassaugh which had recently closed but still had an on-site warehousing squad.

I moved to United Distillers ( a forerunner to Diageo) in 1989 and spent 15 months with them as a project manager with responsibility for malt distilleries capital investment. The time spent with them probably says something about how much I enjoyed the role there.

In 1990 the general managers role for Wm Grants at Dufftown became available which included managing Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie and that was my next move. I then spent the next 14 years with Grants, moving to Girvan in 1985 to become general manager of Girvan grain distillery and in 1986 I became Distilleries Director for the group with overall responsibility for all of their distilleries.

I left them at the end of 2004 to start my own consultancy as I had always wanted to run my own business and with my children having left home it seemed the perfect opportunity. In 2006 a new client asked me to carry out on a potential distillery purchase and this chance encounter eventually led to the purchase of Glenglassaugh and my moving into this role.

Joshua: How did you get into whiskies?  Did you have a gateway whisky?  Do you have a story that goes with it?

Stuart: My first experience of whisky was as a young teenager when one of my parents friends stuck a glass in my hand, just before “the bells” on hogmanay and explained that I need a whisky to “see-in the new year” correctly. To be honest it tasted awful and I thought that I would not want to repeat the exercise – ever.

I think that my real introduction was probably through my father who was a lover of Glenfiddich and so I got into malts pretty quickly and even though I appreciate a good blend, and there are plenty around, I have always been more of a single malt man.

Joshua: Stuart, you and I share something, which, I think, is somewhat unique to those involved (in any way) to the whisky industry.  You are a vegetarian.  So am I.  What are your reasons for this and how do you find people react to this news when they first here about it?

Stuart: My reasons were mixed, partly because I didn’t like red meat and found it easier at functions to ask for the vegetarian option, partly because I am against intensive farming of animals, and partly because of health benefits in that I feel much healthier that I did when I ate meat.

The reaction is mixed in that some people readily accept it, others are very surprised and want know why I became one and how I can possibly survive as a vegetarian.  A few treat it almost as a disease and go to extraordinary lengths to explain to a waiter that their friend is this strange creature called a vegetarian who will need careful treatment and should probably be examined in case he turns into a mad ax-man (OK slightly joking there). Finally there are those that want to know a lot more as they are genuinely interested and eat less meat anyway but have not taken the step to try being totally vegetarian.

Generally there has been much more acceptance of vegetarians over the last few years and I  normally don’t have too much of a problem finding something to eat when I am out.

Joshua: What passions, other than whisk(e)y, do you have?

Stuart: I enjoy trying to keep fit, although I don’t seem to have the time that I had before for exercise, but I do enjoy running and more recently walking.

I have always enjoyed sport, only as a spectator these days, and the one that I enjoy most is ice-hockey so I have a subscription to ESPN America just so that I can watch it. I also enjoy football and rugby.

Reading any sort of fiction, especially if it relates to Scotland and lots of different types of music completes the list

Finally the most enjoyable thing is just living and making the most of each day.

Joshua: Do you have a list of Top Drams or perhaps some Desert Island Drams you’d like to share?

Stuart: Having worked in a number of distilleries then I do have a soft spot for all of them, particularly Highland Park which was the first distillery that I managed and also Glenfiddich where I had a lot of input over the years in the changes that occurred and I believe which improved the bottled product.

I do like a whisky which is full of flavour and which is complex and I also like some peat so for me I would want to wait for around 10 years until some of the peated Glenglassaugh is available and from possibly a Sherry cask.

Of the offerings which around today, then I would chose a 10 year old Black Bottle Blend, the 25 year old Highland Park (probably because I made it), Laphroaig Quarter Cask (which I tasted for the first time about a fortnight ago), an old Banff which I also tasted recently and of course top of the list a Glenglassaugh.

We have just chosen the next 40 year old cask which will probably be released just before Christmas and it is absolutely stunning, a real rich fruit cake nose and taste.

Joshua: Without giving out names & places (basically, without getting yourself into any trouble), do you have any funny, interesting or bizarre stories from any of your events/travels that you wish to share?

Stuart: Well it was always interesting in the early 1980’s to watch the brewer and the excise officer going into the warehouses at Dufftown on a Sunday morning. No reason given but we all reckoned that there was some illicit sampling going on there.

Just before I started at Highland Park there was an incident when the two operators who were on night shift decided to visit the local farmers fields and help themselves to some cabbages. Unfortunately they were caught by the local police and ended up staying in jail overnight and the stills were still running. No damage to the spirit or plant and no arrests but plenty of red faces.

There was the time in 1980 when I hadn’t joined the industry but was helping to commission a by-products plant in Rothes and I was on the night shift. A new operator came on and offered me some  lemonade from his bottle. As I was working in a hot environment and so was extremely thirsty I gulped down as much as I could – it proved to be an interesting introduction to full strength new make spirit illicitly obtained from Glen Grant!

In Barbados when I was visiting a rum distillery I managed to take a photograph of a customs officer who had fallen asleep in the filling store.

There was an incident in Islay in the 1980’s when a distillery manager thought that something suspicious was taking place overnight and so locked his brewer into a cupboard in the operators rest room so that he could spy on the men.

Joshua: Lastly, if you had a message or lesson to give people who are just getting into whiskies, what would that be?

Stuart: Well I suppose there are a number of messages that I would suggest;

  • Try a number of whiskies before you decide what you prefer as there is so much diversity
  • listen to what whisky writers/tasters say but make up your own mind as each person’s taste is different
  • Drink whisky the way that you like it and not as others tell you that it should be drunk
  • Keep trying different whiskies, talking to different people, reading about the subject and visiting events – it is a great industry with lots of helpful people who are only too happy to pass on their thoughts
  • Finally, keep an open mind and try to enjoy every dram but don’t criticise the ones that you don’t like, because someone else probably does like them!



If you’ve not yet read it and wish to get caught up on part 1 to this interview, click here.

A day in the life of… Stuart Nickerson, Managing Director of the Glenglassaugh Distillery – Part 1 of 2

And now for the third installation to my interview series.  As you may or may not know, I’ve decided to start this series of interviews to help demystify some of the many aspects of the whisk(e)y industry.  Who makes it, how they do it, how they got into it, how to they sell, promote it, market it, etc…  While this series is called “A Day in the Life”, it will focus on more than a day in the life of a Cooper, Sales Person, Ambassador, Master Blender, Independent reviewer/critic, etc…  Also, I will try to get a little personal (without making said person blush).

My third interviewee is Stuart Nickerson, Managing Director of the newly re-opened (2008) Glenglassaugh distillery.

Stuart, thank you SO MUCH for agreeing to be interviewed, for your great answers and the depth with which you went into!

Stuart has provided me (and you) with so much information here, I thought it’d be best to break the interview into two part.  Stay tuned for part two to be posted a week from today.  Mark your calendars for Thursday, July 15th, 2010 – part deux to my interview with Stuart Nickerson.  Until then, let part one of this great interview begin:

Joshua: Stuart, Glenglassaugh is a newly re-opened distillery (thankfully!).  Can you explain the history and reasons for it’s initial mothballing and the impetus for the re-opening?  Additionally, how did you become involved in the process?

Stuart: The distillery dates back to 1875 and was founded by James Moir who was a local philanthropist, he was also involved in bringing the telegraph and the train to the town and donated sums of money to local causes as well as gifting the town hall. After his death and the death of one of his two nephews who had helped to start the distillery, it was sold by the remaining nephew in 1892 to Robertson & Baxter who immediately sold it to Highland Distilleries for £15,000 (an increase of £5,000 over the purchase price)

Highland owned it ever since until 2008. They closed it in 1907 and it remained silent until 1959 when a new distillery was built on the site, making use of only one of the original malting buildings (for malt storage) and one of the original warehouses as well as a couple of the cottages for workers.

Following the re-build in 1959 it was opened in 1960 primarily to make a blending malt for the growing blends which were owned or managed by Highland, these include Cutty Sark, Lang’s Supreme and The Famous Grouse. However Glenglassaugh is complex Highland Whisky made from hard water with distinctive fruity aroma and taste rather than a light floral Speyside which is what Highland were looking for and which was already being produced at Glenrothes and Tamdhu. Highland tried in a number of ways to change the spirit, they increased the size of the spirit still, tried using water taken from Glenrothes and finally installed a water softner. None of this worked and so they closed the distillery in 1986 and instead they expanded Glenrothes. From their position this the best position for their business plan.

At the same time I was employed as Distillery Manager of Highland Park Distillery which was also owned by Highland. All the distillery managers were aware of the high quality of Glenglassaugh and enjoyed a dram of it. In 1987 I was asked to become Glenrothes Distillery Manager and at the same time Manger of the Glenglassaugh site which has a fairly large warehouse.

Fast forward to 2004 when I was keen to set-up my own business and left Wm Grant & Sons after 14 years, the last 9 of these as Distilleries Director. In 2006 I was asked by a group of investors to carry out due diligence on 2 malt distilleries which were operating and up for sale. For various reasons neither of these sales were concluded and I was then asked to find a distillery which they could buy and I had 3 criteria (1) It had to have heritage and so could not be a new-build (2) It had to be produce high quality whisky, and (3) it should have stocks.

I looked at what was available and several distilleries were considered and rejected for a number of reasons before I approached Edrington (who now owned Highland) and enquired about the availability of Glenglassaugh. They agreed in principle to the sale and there then followed a period of due diligence and creating the business plan before everything was accepted and we eventually took ownership on 29th February 2008.

During this period of time the shareholders asked that I stay on and run the business for them. Well it meant given up running my own business but the opportunity to continue what I had only just started, and also moving back to the North-East of Scotland, was too good an opportunity to miss and so I accepted.

Joshua: With the recent addition of Ronnie Routledge, it’s apparent that you are creating quite the strong team to take the distillery to new heights.  Can you give a brief list of who’s on the Glenglassaugh team, what they do and why they were chosen to come aboard?

Stuart: I have always worked with the philosophy that you employ people that are better than you within their field of operation, people that you can work with and people with the attitude and behaviors that fit the business, and for Glenglassaugh that means people that like a challenge, prepared to work outside their comfort zones and understand what it is to make a quality product and deliver all products and services to the best of our ability and to the highest standards.

Distillery Manager is Graham Eunson who started his career at Scapa Distillery, worked for a while at Glendronach and then moved to Glenmorangie where he was manager for 12 years.  (Graham and Stuart shown to the right nosing first run spirit on Dec 4th, 2008)

Ronnie Routledge is Customer Account Manager and joins us from Single Malts Direct/Duncan Taylor where he was retail manager, before that he was retail manager with Gordon & Macphail.

Peter Innes is our Bottling and Logistics Leader and previously worked with Duncan Taylor and Gordon & Macphail in similar positions.

Graeme Morrison is in charge of our warehouses and is ex-Chivas were he ran their Keith filling and warehouses operations. (Graeme Morrison shown to the left filling the first cask on December 16th, 2008)

Alan Willetts is our stillman and is ex-Glenmorangie.

Our other team members Ronnie Laurence, Neil McGarvie and Michelle Slater live locally and are new to the industry. Ronne and Neil are skilled tradesmen who can turn their hand to many things while Michelle shares her time between administration and bottling. We really are a multi-task team who do anything and everything!

Joshua: Currently, with the exception of your younger-than-3-years-old spirit drinks, the only expressions Glenglassaugh offers is a 21yr, 30yr and 40yr bottling.  As I understand it, these whiskies are not only old but they are rare which makes them a bit on the expensive side.  For those not familiar with Glenglassaugh, what can people expect from your whiskies?  Do you have a trademark flavor or flavors to your whiskies?  In essence, what makes Glenglassaugh stand out from a nose/palate/finish standpoint?

Stuart: Our new make spirit is very fruity, likened to “Eau de vie Poir” and these fresh fruits aromas and tastes can come through in the final whiskies but also develop into a medley of boiled fruits and spices with hints of liquorice and dark chocolate. They age extremely well in refilled casks which allow the flavours the time required to develop and marry.

You can find an extensive tasting of Glenglassaugh whiskies including many independent bottling which was carried out in Norway, here:

Joshua: In 2009, Glenglassaugh won 3 medals — two “Quality Awards” (for your 40yr & Cask Strength expressions) and one Gold Medal/Best in Class award.  At just a year into the re-opening of Glenglassaugh, how did this make you feel?  Additionally, how did you go about creating these award winning expressions?

Stuart: As you say we won Gold Medal (best in class) and the trophy for Best Cask Strength Scotch at the International Wine and Spirits Competition for our 30 year old and we also won Gold Medal (best in class) and the trophy for Best 40 year old Scotch Whisky at the same competition. We were also awarded 96 points in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible 2010 for our 40 year old and 94 points for our 21 year old and then recently at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition we won a double gold medal for our 21 year old.

These awards have absolutely delighted myself and the rest of the team, it justifies the shareholders decision to buy the distillery and our faith in what we are doing here.

In many ways we are in an enviable position having a stock which consists of mainly excellent whiskies and a number of these are simply outstanding. However we would like even more of them!

We create the single cask whiskies by a rigorous nosing and tasting system which involves everyone in the company in the initial selection process with the final decision coming down to a core of 3 of us. However it doesn’t stop there because we need to know that after the cask has been emptied that the nose and taste are still the same and more importantly we need to check again after bottling and before releasing for sales.

We are fortunate in that I do not believe in chill-filtration or colouring and I believe that all single malts should be bottled at cask-strength so therefore there is less risk of the whisky changing between sampling in the cask and the final bottled sample.

Joshua: When you and I spoke on the phone, you had mentioned that you are currently working on establishing US distributions.  What are the trials and tribulations?  Also, is this for your current offering or for new whiskies as well? (Dear reader, just think, the kids in the picture to the left will be old enough to enjoy Glenglassaugh when they release their 18yr expression!)

Stuart: We have an importer appointed, Purple Valley Imports Inc., but have still to ship any spirit. The biggest frustration is getting our labels approved and then working through the three tier system that is used in the USA and the different ways that it is operated in different states.

Purple Valley will be distributing all of our products which now start with a 26 year old, then “Aged over 30 years” and “Aged over 40 years”. We also have a 200ml triple pack of the three older whiskies (26 year old, 37 year old and 43 year old)

The Spirit Drinks, which are not yet 3 years old, will also be available in 200ml bottles and at 50% abv, these are “Clearac” which is new spirit before it is filled, “Peated” which is also new spirit but it has been produced with peated malt, then there is “Blushes” which is the result of 6 months in Californian red wine barrels and finally “Fledgling XB” which is the result of 12 months maturation in ex-Bourbon barrels.

Joshua: On that same phone conversation you had told me that you basically have the freedom to create what you’d like for the future of the distillery.  This being said, what can we, as consumers, expect for the future of Glenglassaugh and what’s the time frame?

Stuart: Firstly we have been experimenting with different cask types as we are looking to find what casks work best with Glenglassaugh and how the spirit/whisky differs from each type and so over the next 18 months there will be further releases of our Spirit Drinks where the spirit had been maturing for longer and from different cask types.

We will release a 3 year old in 2012 although we have not yet decided from which type of cask(s) this will be. There will probably be further aged releases in future years until the whisky becomes at least 10 year old and eventually our main age will become either a 10 or 12 year old.

In general we are very pleased with all of the maturing new spirit and I am convinced that our policy of buying top quality casks from USA and Europe will be beneficial for the consumer and so ourselves as the whisky is bottled and sold.

Joshua: From the standpoint of the managing director of the Glenglassaugh distillery, what would you say your biggest obstacles are in progressing the sales and awareness of your current and future whiskies?

Stuart: There are really quite a few challenges and they will remain for quite some time although obviously we are working on them all. The first one is the fact that the distillery was shut for 22 years which gives us two headaches, firstly the distillery is relatively unknown because we were shut for so long and so there is an exercise just to raise awareness. Related to this is the fact that Highland never pushed Glenglassaugh and so never developed the brand name, there were a small number of individual releases and a number of independent bottling which meant that we did start with number of people in Europe who were aware of Glenglassaugh and realised the quality of it.

The second issue from the shutdown is the lack of inventory which is younger than 24 years and older than 18 months! This means that our aged whiskies are rare, but thankfully of the highest quality which means that once people have tasted them then we find it easier to sell.

Probably the biggest issues are the same ones which face many small companies, lack of human resources and lack of cash flow. We have plenty of ideas and some fantastic potential projects but with only a small team it means that we can’t do everything that we want to do within the time scale that we would want.

Joshua: Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz around new make spirit, white dog, moonshine… call it what you will.  Without going into the arguments for or against it, what are your reasons for making your “Spirit Drink That Dare Not Speak It’s Name” new make spirit available for mass consumption?

Part 2 to this interview can be found here.

Whisky Round Table – No chainmail or swords required

Recently, Jason of Guid Scotch Drink invited me to be part of a Whisky Blogger’s Round Table whereas, once a month, a whisky related question would be posed for those ’round the table and we would all need to answer (about a paragraphs worth each).

I am honored that Jason would ask me to join in and delighted to be among such a fine group of whisky bloggers from around the world.  There are twelve of us in all.  The Whisky Knights (who’ve all enjoyed many whisky nights) of the round table are as follows:

Chris – Nonjatta
Keith – WhiskyEmporium
Karen & Matt – Whisky For Everyone
Ruben – WhiskyNotes
Mark – Glasgow’s Whisky (And Ale)
Neil & Joel –
Lucas & Chris – Edinburgh Whisky Blog
Jason – Guid Scotch Drink
Gal – Whisky Israel
Mike – Whisky Party
Peter – The Casks

The question this month was:

What rules have you set for yourself in your whisky lives and how have you rationalized breaking them?

My answer was:

Rules, rules, rules…  I know I should, in theory, have rules when it comes to my whisk(e)y life but I can’t say as I have many or…any.  Obviously spending comes to mind but I don’t have a rule on that (or common sense)…yet.  I’m sure others may post on the topic of “spending” so let me touch on another: Communication.

I am OBSESSED with whisky and my involvement in it.  Do you hear me?  Obsessed.  I read about it (much of my info coming from the good folks on this round table), listen about it (Whisky Cast), watch it (, drink it, taste it, review it, write about it, dream about it, run a society devoted to it.  You name it, I do it.  This being said, I am now beginning to understand that most people I work with, talk to, etc… are not as passionate about the stuff as I am.  Or, maybe they are “into it” but they have other things going on; heck, I know I do.  (E.G. Wife, two kids, rock and roll band, band travel, work travel, work in my synagogue).

I am also an email/twitter/facebook freak.  I am *always* plugged in.  More so than most people I know.  This being said, a new rule I have set up for myself is: If I send a whisky related email out and don’t get a response the same day (or hour), I need to understand that “It’s OK”.  That person may not be online or they may be on vacation, traveling, in the hospital, having sex (OK, those last two were not meant to go together.  But hey, they do it on Grey’s Anatomy, right?).  Moving forward, I will be the patient man that I usually am and should be.  Because, you know what?  “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and, gosh darn it, people like me.”

For the entire group of answers, click here to see Jason’s post.

Next month, on Thursday, July 1st, 2010, I will be hosting question number 2.  Be sure to check back!

A day in the life of… A Balvenie Brand Ambassador

At long last, the second installation of my interview series is here.  As you may or may not know, I’ve decided to start this series of interviews to help demystify some of the many aspects of the whisk(e)y industry.  Who makes it, how they do it, how they got into it, how to they sell, promote it, market it, etc…

While this series is called “A Day in the Life”, it will focus on more than a day in the life of a Cooper, Sales Person, Ambassador, Master Blender, Independent reviewer/critic, etc…  Also, I will try to get a little personal (without making said person blush).

My second interviewee is Sam Simmons.  Who is Sam Simmons you ask (as if you don’t know)?  Sam is the Eastern States US Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie.  Sam is also known as Dr. Whisky and he has a truly fantastic whisky blog that, if you’re not already doing so, you need to start reading.  STAT.

Sam, thank you SO MUCH for agreeing to be interviewed and for your great answers!  Without further ado, my latest interview:

Yossi: Sam, you are The Balvenie’s Brand Ambassador for the Eastern section of the US.  Can you explain, for those of us who are not aware, what a Brand Ambassador’s responsibilities are?

Sam: I can try. “Brand Ambassador” is a title that covers a variety of different roles that will vary from company to company, situation to situation, person to person. There are BAs who are models hired for one night to pour whisky and look pretty, there are BAs who are good PR people who work on opportunities for brand exposure, there are those who are also the actually whisk(e)y makers themselves, and there is everything in between.

I was invited to represent The Balvenie because I love whisky and had already spent 6 years spreading that love. I accepted the opportunity with Balvenie because I would be proud to be associated with it. I think The Balvenie is the finest example of handcrafted, 19th century Scotch whisky-making in the 21st century, have always loved the liquid, and I have always admired the Scottish, family-owned company behind it.

As The Balvenie Ambassador, it can generally be said that my role is to bridge communication between the Balvenie, and whisky drinkers, bars, restaurants and retailers, distributors, press between William Grant local sales teams across the USA and our marketing team in NYC.  Every day is different and every day is a frickin’ joy.

Yossi: When hosting a tasting for a particular group (say, a private tasting, not a Whisky Live or Whisky Fest type of event), how do you go about running it?  Does it change from group to group?

Sam: Before I came to work with The Balvenie, I ran tastings in Scotland as President of the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society, privately for friends, family and charity events in Norway, Canada, Scotland and England, as an employee of The Whisky Exchange, and as an Ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the UK, so I have dealt with all kinds of crowds and yes, every tasting is different. There is no group that knows everything, in fact I am often the one learning new things from guests at my own tastings. There is always something new to learn so we keep the format flexible to meet everyone’s needs and continue my mission of whiskevangelism: bringing more people to appreciate Single Malt Scotch Whisky.

Yossi: What type of preparation do you need to make when helping to launch new Balvenie expressions?

Sam: My superiors should stop reading now lest I upset them.

Our company is… in our company…  at William Grant & Sons, a 5th generation family company, things work differently than any of the other top single malt companies: decisions are made from production out, rather than from marketing in. Does that make sense? David Stewart, the longest serving Malt Master in the Scotch whisky industry, creates new expressions, has new ideas for new Balvenies, and he makes them. Then we have to scramble to find a way to get them into whisky drinkers’ glasses. It can be rewarding, sometimes challenging, but always infinitely inspiring.

Yossi: Being the Ambassador for the Eastern portion of the states, can you explain how far that takes you (E.G. is it from Maine to the Mississippi, New Jersey to New York, etc…) and how much of your time is on the road?

Sam: I probably travel 25 weeks of the year with my travels including stops between Boston Harbour and Miami Beach on the east coast with Chicago also falling within my territory. I also get back Scotland about twice per year.

Yossi: Most people who are Whisky Blog Websurfers may not know you as Sam Simmons, one of The Balvenie’s US Brand Ambassadors.  But rather, they may know you better as the famed Dr. Whisky.  How did the Dr. Whisky blog/website start?

Sam: Famed? Hardly.

Dr. Whisky the title began as a joke because I was working on a PhD in Edinburgh when I fell in love with whisky. I ran a whisky society/club that was quite large and still runs to this day.  I presented to 56 people fortnightly (every two weeks) on all kinds of different whiskies, telling their stories and histories. As my studies progressed and had yet to produce a doctorate, my mates awarded me with the honorary degree and title Dr. Whisky for my admirable geekdom.

The site began after I moved from Edinburgh to London when friends I left in Edinburgh wanted to know what I was drinking. I shared a picture of our whisky shelf with my wife’s brother and he said “start a blog about those sweet, sweet nectars!” And so one by one I began tasting the 30 or so whiskies on my shelf and the mission continues 385 Malt Missions later.

Yossi: One thing I try to focus on is what dram to drink for a particular mood or season.  Do you approach whisky in a similar manner (when not hosting events, tasting for reviews, just drinking for the enjoyment)?

Sam: Absolutely. This is the gift that single malt whisky gives us and not to capitalize on it is a major oversight. All distilleries are essentially making the same thing, distilled barley beer matured in oak. But every distillery’ make tastes different and even within each distillery one can have huge variability at different ages, in different expressions. It is a simple liquid that is infinitely complex. Genius.

And although it completely puzzles spouses, friends, colleagues, parents, etc. who do not share our passion, this is why most of us whisky lovers have more than a few open bottle on the shelf at a time. Each whisky speaks to us in the same language but with different words. The right dram, the right conversation must be chosen for the right moment as every sip can comfort a variety of scenarios: love lost, love found; new life, hard life, the good life; a hard day, a cold day, a great day, etc. “Tonight I feel like Glenfiddich 12… no maybe Compass Box Asyla to warm up. Actually, I might just grab a Glenfarclas 105 to get me where I’m going. Nah, screw that. Brora 25, or…” etc. It never ends, and that is the wonder of whisky.

Yossi: How did you get into whiskies?  Do you have a story that goes with it?

Sam: I kind of touched on this above, but when I moved to Edinburgh, Scotland in 2002 to work on a doctoral dissertation at the University of Edinburgh, I knew nobody. So, like a good Canadian, I joined a hockey team and a drinking team. While the former endeavor was short-lived (I accidentally signed up for a women’s field hockey team), I joined the drinking team. It was a small group of 12-15 men who sat around nosing and tasting single malts. Within three drams I fell in love with the apparent variability in single malt, the history of the liquid and its varied distilleries, and with the wonderful feeling that washed over me with every wee sip.  I was determined to read every book I could get my hands on, visit every distillery that would have me, and enjoy every glass I could get my lips to. Eventually, I became Poet Laureate and

President of The Water of Life Society and, with the help of friends, grew the society 10-fold, about half men and women (which I am still proud of), and lead us through fortnightly tastings, inviting distillers to speak to us, and planning trips and tours to Speyside, Arran, Skye, Islay, Northern Highlands, etc.

I had officially caught the bug and went from being an enthusiast to running a successful whisky appreciation society to being invited to be a spirits judge in both the World Whisky Awards and the International Wine and Spirits Competition, writing a simple blog that grew to 1000 visitors a day, working with Sukhinder Singh at The Whisky Exchange in London, with Douglas Laing independent bottlers, as well as becoming a part of the team of the first UK Ambassadors for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Now here I am working for one of the last family-owned distilling companies in Scotland. Life is good and I give thanks at the shrine of whisky every day (well, nearly every day).

Yossi: Did you have a gateway whisky?

Sam: No one ever believes me when I say this now that I work for William Grant & Sons, but I will answer the same way I have been answering for years: After a lot of “field research”, The Balvenie 12 DoubleWood was the first bottle I bought. It was a whisky that showed me that great whisky can be accessible, rich, complex, drinkable, affordable, and traditionally-made in the modern era. It still does on a near-nightly basis.

Yossi: What passions, other than whisk(e)y do you have?

Sam: Uh-oh. Well, I have had the good fortune of turning what I do for fun into what I do for a living, so I must confess that whisky occupies nearly every moment of my day. I pour it, I nose it, I read about it, I drink it, I talk about it, I write about it, I think about it… I haven’t time left for any other passions!

I do play music and ice hockey, and while both have a place in my heart eternally, my new daughter is my latest passion and I currently cannot imagine a world where she is not the centre. I guess I am passionate about being her daddy.

Yossi: Do you have a list of Top Drams or perhaps some Desert Island Drams you’d like to share?

Sam: Desert Island Drams usually come in threes, right?

  1. The Balvenie 12 DoubleWood. It has been 8 years with this whisky on my shelf full, emptied, and replenished. I damn any island that doesn’t serve it.
  2. Clynelish 12, old orange/red label, makes me melt. I wish it could flow eternally.
  3. Glenfiddich 30. If I could justify the indulgence, this gem would be my daily dram. Island life would be a breeze with this whisky blowing free and easy.

Yossi: Without giving out names & places (basically, without getting yourself into any trouble), do you have any funny, interesting or bizarre stories from any of your events/travels that you wish to share?

Sam: The Duke of Sutherland made (at least) one significant contribution to whisky, but the guy was a prick and a key part of a very dark chapter of Scottish history for his role in the Highland Clearances. As a part of a whisky trip with a group of 30 that we took to the northern highlands, we spent part of an afternoon hiking up Ben Bhraggie, communing over a bottle of Stewarts Cream of the Barley, and seeing the statue of the Duke (that he had erected himself) up close. Locals still campaign to have the enormous statue taken down, but that is not likely to happen anytime soon. So the most one can do is to do as we did: climb the hill, raise and glass, and pay your respects… by spitting on the statue. After a bottle of Stewart’s, we took it to the next level.

Yossi: Lastly, if you had a message or lesson to give people who are just getting into whiskies, what would that be?

Sam: The message is in the bottle: Slow down. Be patient, be grateful. and share.

The first in a new series of interviews – A Day in the Life of…

Serge Valentin of whiskyfun.comWhiskyfun

I’ve decided to start a new series of interviews to help demystify some of the many aspects of the whisk(e)y industry.  Who makes it, how they do it, how they got into it, how to they sell, promote it, market it, etc…

While this series is called “A Day in the Life” (the title was inspired by the Beatles, in case you didn’t spot it), it will focus on more than a day in the life of a Cooper, Sales Person, Ambassador, Master Distiller, Independent reviewer/critic, etc…  I will try to get a little personal (without making said person blush).

Being that Serge just interviewed me on, I figured turnabout was fair play and asked that he be my first interviewee.  Praise be to the dude upstairs, Serge agreed.

Serge’s Whisky Fun site has helped me, and continues to help me along this strange and wonderful journey through the world of whisky.  His website, as it currently exists, has been up and running since 2002 and he posts whisky reviews nearly every single day.  Quite amazing really.

Serge, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.  I hope and trust that it will help readers better understand, who you are, what you do, how you do it and, perhaps more importantly, what drives you.  Cheers brother!

Readers, read on:

Yossi: Serge, you have new postings/whisky reviews almost every single day.  Could you describe your process?

Serge: Basically, I gather samples and bottles from friends and from festivals or shops, and get samples from the bottlers or sometimes retailers as well. I register them all in a ‘rolling’ database of +/-1,200 whiskies and then compose tasting flights of two to, say six or seven whiskies, usually from the same distilleries or sometimes even vintages as I feel comparisons are key to properly assessing whiskies. When I feel I’m in a good shape, I’ll usually do ‘large’ sessions with three to four flights, most of the time during the weekends, and publish all that in chunks. I know people often think I’m tasting whisky every single day but that isn’t true. Sometimes I have no time, or I’m not in the mood, or I feel I’m not in good shape (the use of reference malts or benchmarks comes very handy to check that).

Yossi: Do you have a preferred time of day in which you taste and why?

Serge: Yes, usually between 4pm and 8pm. Before 4pm the latest meal’s influence may be too high and I do not follow a specific diet just to optimize the tastings 😉 and after 8pm my senses are often too tired. Doing and writing up such tastings require a lot of attention, especially since English isn’t my mother tongue (and God knows my little writings are still foul more often than never.) Also, I’ll never taste whisky when I know I’ll have to drive or ride a motorcycle, for obvious reasons, unless I have a chauffeur (read my wife or my children).

Yossi: One thing I try to focus on is what dram to drink for a particular mood or season.  Do you approach whisky in a similar manner (when not doing reviews, just drinking for the enjoyment)?

Serge: The problem is that all these tastings do not leave me much time for casual drinking, especially since I’m also much into wine – no I have no wine blog. Sometimes I’ll have whisky with friends after dinner, that is to say late at night, and I’ll usually focus on the best whiskies I’ll have tried in the previous weeks, whichever the distilleries, regions or styles. So no, not really ‘season’ drams I’m afraid, although a superb citrusy Bladnoch or Rosebank may match a sunny July afternoon better than a heavily sherried Laphroaig.

Yossi: I noticed on your website there is an image there of a spittoon with the caption “We want Spittoons!”  Can you explain what that is all about?

Serge: Yeah, that wee campaign was organized a few years ago when one of my son’s friends got killed by a drunkdriver who had just attended a wine festival. Anybody should ‘drink responsibly’ and certainly not drive after having swallowed alcohol, but I believe people who organize tastings, festivals or even distillers should make that easier by providing spittoons, or any other kind of empty container, and tell the tasters that it’s okay to spit. What happens too often is that you’re provided with one single glass and several drinks to taste, while there’s no spittoon, which ‘pushes’ some people to empty their glasses by swallowing everything so that they can get the next dram, which, moreover, is usually better than the previous one! Spittoons should be obligatory.

Yossi: Another item I saw on is an image that says “WAR! Of the whisky fakers”  Can you describe this?  How big would you say the faker industry is?

Serge: It’s not quite an industry but believe me, all serious whisky collectors got caught at least once. There are various kinds of fake whiskies around, not mentioning the huge amounts of popular blends such as Johnnie Walker Red or Black that are forged in Asian, African or South-American countries. Basically, you have fake old bottles (for example, a rather mundane – but good – old Macallan 8yo bearing a 25yo label, or an old bottle of blend with a copied or even imagined label for a rare old single malt). On the other hand, you have also refills, that is to say a genuine bottle of 30yo that’s been refilled with a regular 10yo. That happens with brands that haven’t been careful enough, for example bottles that have cork stoppers and easily removable and replaceable foils. A very trendy Islay distillery starting with an A springs to mind.

Yossi: Have you been faked out in a whisky purchase?  How did you find out?

Serge: Oh yes. I have at least five obvious fakes in my stash and maybe others. The first time I found out about one of them it was a very old Suntory that I had bought on eBay. I googled it while looking for more data about the historical side of the bottle (it was a bottle for the US Army in Japan) and stumbled upon an older eBay page. It was the very same bottle, same scratches on the label and so on and it had been sold to ‘my’ seller a few weeks earlier. The problem is that it was empty at the time, whilst it was full and sealed when I bought it! That hit a nerve and I started some pages about fakes, with the help of some very knowledgeable experts such as Sukhinder Singh, Carsten Ehrlich or Dave Broom. Some bottlers have been very helpful as well, such as Springbank or Diageo while others have been, say not so helpful. Mind you, you wouldn’t want to see your super-premium brand name being associated with forgeries, would you! I also remember I had published a picture of a suspicious bottle that I had found on a specialized auction house’s website but the latter instantly threatened me with some lawsuit instead of trying to explain why they thought it was genuine. Very helpful! Anyway, I started to get dozens of daily emails asking for bottle authentication (sometimes regular bottles of J&B or Teacher’s that some guys had found in grandpa’s cupboard, or even just bought at the nearest supermarket) so I decided to stop all that, much to the relief of some distillers, I’ve been told. But the pages remain online as a wee guide, you can find them at

Yossi: How did you get into whiskies?  Do you have a story that goes with it?

Serge: It’s been a long process that started in the late 1970s when I visited Glenlivet Distillery with some friends and bought my first bottles of malt as soon as I was back in France. There weren’t many at the time, Cardhu ‘white label’, Glenfiddich, Glenlivet… Ten years later I attended my first serious tasting session at Mark Reynier’s La Réserve in Knightsbridge. A dozen old official Springbanks (pear-shaped or not) lined up… Moving! I still remained a casual whisky drinker before another trip to Scotland and the discovery of an amazing shop thanks to my friend Olivier: Robertson’s in Pitlochry. Imagine dozens of old Signatory bottlings lined up, with all these beautiful colours. Ardbeg 1967, Laphroaig 1966, Springbank 1969… I started to buy (a little) less wine, and much more whisky!

Yossi: Other than independent reviews, do you have a profession within the whisky industry?

Serge: Strange question Yossi. Had I a profession within the industry, would I really be independent? Seriously, the answer is ‘nope’. But I’m an owner of some advertising agencies, which is probably almost as bad.

Yossi: Did you have a gateway whisky?

Serge: Hard to tell. Maybe these old Springbanks that I tried in London twenty years ago, or the very first Brora ‘Rare Malt’ that I tried later. Why don’t all single malts taste like a 1972 Brora?

Yossi: Looking at all of your top whiskies, there seems to be a theme; peat, peat and more peat.  A bit of an exaggeration, I know, but the majority of whiskies seem to be the peatier ones.  Do you have a preferred Scotch whisky region?  Or time period for that region?

Serge: I beg to disagree! Now it’s true that there are many peated whiskies in my top lists. Old Ardbegs, Laphroaigs, Lagavulins, Bowmores, Caol Ilas, Broras, Port Ellens, Ledaigs, Longrows… I feel peat brings another dimension to old whiskies, it sets them apart from other aged golden spirits such as calvados, cognac or armagnac, or even rum, whilst unpeated or very lightly peated old whiskies tend to resemble brandies or rums as golden spirits tend to converge when they age well. Peat also transmutes in a beautiful way, it can be replaced with myriads of tiny ‘tertiary’ aromas and flavours in a well-aged peated whisky (either aged in wood or in its bottle but that’s another story). As for younger whiskies, let’s not forget that a heavy peatiness, just like a heavy sweetness (ah, new oak or first fill bourbon!) or ‘sherriness’ will mask many of the flaws that are inherent to a young immature spirit. That’s also why, I believe, many very young peat monsters are surprisingly good whereas a Speysider of similar age is usually too spirity, mashy and ‘simply fruity’ (apples, pineapples, pears). But as usual, there are many exceptions.

Yossi: You use the 0-100pt rating system. When rating whiskies, if you gave a bourbon 90 points and a Scotch whisky 90 and a Japanese 90 points (just pulling numbers out of the air), would you say that they are equal to each other?   Is the 90pt Scotch better because it’s “Scotch”?  Or, are these all in a league of their own not to be compared to each other?  Please explain.

Serge: In my system, all drinks are equally treated, which means that should a Japanese and a Scotch (or even, say a tequila) be given the same score, that would mean that I think that they’re of equal quality indeed. I know some people say that that means comparing apples and pears. Why not? Both are fruits. But that works only because I believe a score is only a way of summing up one guy’s opinions in a numerical form, and certainly not a judgment or any kind of gospel. A score (whichever the way it’s expressed, 100-scale, 20-scale, stars, thumbs up, pictograms) should always go with complete tasting notes and any reader should first try to know a bit about the taster’s preferences, background and experience before taking any score into account. Ultimately, it’s always better to try the whisky yourself. I also insist on comparing. I think trying a whisky alone or alongside wildly different other whiskies does not allow proper assessments, you have to compare a whisky with similar whiskies (say, three 20-25yo Cragganmores) and with reference whiskies that you know very well as well (say Ardbeg Ten, HP 12 and so on) to be able to find some kind of consistency. It’s not perfect but I believe it’s the only way not to score the same whisky 80 pt one day and 85 pt the next day. Now, I’m afraid total accuracy and consistency are impossible to achieve, no taster is a machine.

Yossi: A large focus on your website is music.  Where do your tastes lie?

Serge: Firstly, jazz, especially avant-garde or ‘free’ as we used to call it. Also opera, blues, good rock and roll, African music, Asian music, Brazilian… I try not to post too much ‘avant-garde’ music on Whiskyfun but I’m trying to let people discover rather rare or little-known artistes. Should I stop blogging about whisky one day, I’ll probably blog more about music. You can live without whisky, you cannot live without music! Apart from listening to music, I also love reading Nick Morgan’s gig reviews as soon as they drop into my mailbox, prior to publishing them on Whiskyfun. And Kate’s exclusive photographs are always fab as well! Both add so much flesh to this wee website!

Yossi: What was the first piece of music that stopped you in your tracks?  How old were you and what about it moved you?

Serge: Probably like everybody, my father’s records. I remember very well Art Blakey, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, Don Byas, Jimmy Smith… I don’t know how old I was, probably less than 10.  My favorite at the time was a Dixieland band called Firehouse Five Plus Two, also Kid Ory. And then, a little later, there was our neighbor who used to play Jimi Hendrix records very loud, all windows open. We started to paint our rooms with large purple and orange flowers.

The very first record I bought with my own pocket money was a band called Steampacket, that used to gather Brian Auger, Long John Baldry and Rod Stewart if memory serves me well. It was already an old record, I can’t remember why I bought it! Probably because of the picture on the sleeve.

Yossi: You asked me this in your interview with me for my band Kimono Draggin’: If you were on a desert island, what one album would you want with you?  What one whisky?

Serge: Haha, one of these ‘All of Mozart’ 30-CD sets that are issued from time to time. You say only one record? Maybe Ummagumma by Pink Floyd. It’s the second record I ever bought with my own money. Or Exile on Main Street, or Trout Mask Replica. Or maybe something quiet, such as a good Bill Evans. Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin. Coltrane at the Village Vanguard (which isn’t that quiet, agreed). No, wait, Miles’ Kind of Blues. That’s it, Kind of Blues! Or why not Kimono Draggin’s latest? I like it a lot and it may help the coconuts fall from the trees, should you play it loud! ;-). As for the whisky, a double-magnum of just anything.  Alternatively, a carefully composed vatting of old Springbank, Bowmore and Brora or Clynelish.

Yossi: I’ve seen pictures of you playing horn, do you play for fun or with a band?

Serge: Ah, that picture! It’s a pocket trumpet and it’s a funny story. It was during the Islay Festival, around 2003 or 2004. Glengoyne had commissioned a yacht and sailed to Port Ellen harbor, calling themselves ‘pirates’ as their whisky was totally unpeated whilst most of the island was celebrating its peat monsters. With some maniacal friends (Olivier Humbrecht, Davin de Kergommeaux, Charlie McLean, Dave Broom) we attended a fabulous wee party on the ship. We had already tasted (right, quaffed) a lot of great Glengoynes when the captain opened a chest full of small musical instruments such as ukuleles, tambourines, pocket trumpets, triangles and so on. We all took one each and started to jam, in a certain way. I don’t think it’s been recorded but I’m sure the end result would be up there with the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s very wackiest! Seriously, I do own old horns and reeds, which I used to blow quite some years ago but I’ve always been hopelessly bad. If you desperately need a Selmer Super Action 80, I have one for sale, it’s virtually new.

Yossi: What passions, other than whisk(e)y and music do you have?

Serge: First, my family and my friends. Then motorcycles (old Ducatis, old Harleys), vintage watches, wine, fine food, painting, travelling… Also my work and probably many other small things.

Yossi: Michael Jackson was a friend of yours (if I’m correct).  Do you have a fond memory of him that you may not have shared that you’d like to share?

Serge: No, I’m afraid I wasn’t one of the great MJ’s friends. Not that I wouldn’t have loved that to happen but I only met him a couple of times, as a simple whisky lover (which I am anyway and shall always be). Now, I do have a fond memory of the last time I very briefly chatted with him, it was at Whisky Magazine France’s launch party in Paris five or six years ago. No whisky chatting, jazz… MJ was a huge jazz connoisseur. The man had depth and was not full of himself at all, there will never be anyone to touch him.

Yossi: Lastly, if you had a message or lesson to give people who are just getting into whiskies, what would that be?

Serge: Message why not, lesson certainly not. Have fun. Don’t take all this too seriously, it’s only booze.  But remember, next time you try a whisky, there’s a better one out there. Try to unearth it!