Dive into dramming with Matt McKay
We all start our immersion into the world of whisky somewhere, and for Matt McKay it was on a plane at 30,000 feet with an experimental Scotch and ginger ale. That was enough to spark a wider interest in the spirit, develop his own whisky blog and ultimately to take on an integral role with the new Bimber distillery in London. Unfiltered caught up with Matt to find out more about the game-changing moments in his personal whisky journey
Bimber’s distillery’s still set up as at June 2020
Bimber’s direct-fired operation
HOW IT STARTED
Going back more than 20 years I was doing a lot of PR and marketing and working on global events. So I was traveling around the world and in those days, drinks were flowing a lot more freely than they are now. I liked to have a drink to calm the nerves, usually a gin and tonic, but I was getting a bit bored of it. A chap next to me ordered a Scotch and ginger. I’m young and impressionable so I asked for the same – it was a Dewar’s White Label – and yeah, I liked it.
The move from drinking a diluted, fairly flexible blend with ginger to trying a single malt, straight or on-the-rocks, it is a jump in itself. But through time and experimentation, I absolutely found a taste for it. I think part of what helped was that at one point I attended cookery school and I had a well-developed palate. It’s only in later years that my ability to combine that with language to describe it has come together. There’s this perception when you’re outside the whisky world that whisky is whisky and it might be a bit sweet and it might be a bit smoky, but it’s all whisky. And no, actually, the diversity, even just in a pub or in a hotel bar with a very small selection, I found simply amazing. I then spent the next 20 years just increasingly diving into it.
Matt played host to SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo in January 2020
Picture credit: John Wilkinson
HOW IT DEVELOPED
I opened my own whisky club, and that in turn led to me starting the website, thedramble.com. When it launched it was really just to document and archive the whiskies I was finding and write up tasting notes. I think it takes everyone a while to find their own natural style. Once I’d found that, I realised I had much more to say, and the website took a completely different direction and became much more about discussion and in-depthness rather than just writing: “Here’s a whisky, and I liked it.” It’s not always about the taste: it’s about people, economics, barley, farming, culture, humour. It’s such a broad thing.
HANDS-ON WITH BIMBER
Bimber is my local distillery, and I met the team and had a great time and was really impressed with what they were doing. They were launching their first release in about six months’ time and had no marketing and communications, so I ended up pitching for that role, and I now do that in addition to my day job as a communications director in biomedical science publishing. I absolutely adore it, particularly coming at it with my communications hat on, but at the same time as a whisky lover.
Matt gets hands-on in the Bimber filling room
CHANGING THE GAME
Bimber’s processes could all be changed to make an immeasurably larger quantity of whisky, but that’s not what we’re all about. Effectively, if you’re going to ferment for seven days, distil for 10 hours, why would you then stick it in some knackered old wood and rush it out? Everything seems slow, and capacity is way smaller than it could be, but that’s because we are going against the grain to focus purely on the spirit style and its profile, rather than capacity.
Bimber at three years old, in my opinion, feels way more developed and way more mature than a lot of whiskies at that age, and a lot of whiskies at an older age. And that’s purely down to those processes and the style of whisky, and taking our time to create that. For me, that’s a game changer.
Plus, whisky enthusiasts are increasingly willing to explore outside of the box and to be excited by new processes, new ideas and to not be fearful that despite something being young, that it can’t have an immense amount of flavour packed into it.
Let’s be honest, it is a change of mindset of the whisky community. Ten years ago, we could have been making this, communicating it exactly as we’re doing it now. Do I think that the whisky market would have been ready for it then? I don’t think so. I think it’s a zeitgeist, it’s about being at the right place at the right time.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BEAUTY
From the outside, the distillery doesn’t look like much. It’s not the greatest of walks from North Acton tube station, through an industrial estate to get to a unit that’s just like any other unit. But once you open the doors it’s a whisky Mecca. You can see the process end to end in one room. If you’re really into process, being able to see each stage puts it all in context and you can understand what actually is quite complicated stuff. There’s also an immense amount of tradition that comes from [founder] Darius Plazewski’s history of moonshining, which is why our processes are how they are – direct fire, long fermentation. There are some traditional things, but we’re taking tradition and facing it to the future.
EMBRACING THE ONLINE
Brand engagement is a fundamental role for distilleries, and Covid has somewhat shifted that. There are no shows, there’s no going out, tours are very limited. And so everyone has moved online. I do personally feel that, if all things are equal, you’ve got whisky A and whisky B, and you like what whisky A is and what whisky B is flavour-wise, they’re parallel, the price is the same, the packaging is the same. But having that brand engagement, having someone who engages with you, it makes you feel part of that community, of that distillery, of what they’re doing. I do think that can tip people over the edge to say: “You know what? I really like this brand. I like how they’re doing it, because they talk to me.”
Last year pushed the emphasis onto increasingly engaging digitally, and that’s been amazing. I think that is a shift in brand engagement that’s here to stay, although I can’t wait to be back there on the stand, attending physical events while also continuing with our digital offerings and supporting other people’s digital festivals and tastings.