MEMBER PROFILE: BILLY ABBOTT
The Philosophy of Billy
Billy Abbott, SMWS member and self-confessed whisky nerd, started working in the industry 10 years ago, giving up a career in IT to follow his passion. His main function is as a veritable lynchpin in The Whisky Exchange’s activity. He’s regularly found participating and contributing to wider conversations on various social media threads, blogs and magazines, and has a well-deserved reputation as a respectful, authoritative and trusted commentator on all things whisky – so much so that he is now officially an author. His first book The Philosophy of Whisky, published by the British Library, hit the shelves late last year and has received a warm welcome into the loving embrace of the whisky community. Society ambassador Lee ‘Connas’ Connor caught up with Billy to find out what makes him tick.
PHOTOS: SIM CANETTY-CLARKE
LC: Hello Billy. And welcome to SMWS Unfiltered! BA: Yes, thank you for having me! I don’t think I’ve contributed to Unfiltered beyond the occasional quote back in the ancient times. It’s nice to be here.
LC: So, you’ve been working in whisky for 10 years now. Can you remember what set you on the road that led here? BA: I really found whisky back in the late 1990s at university where I was a barman, obsessive beer person and chairman of the (short-lived) Real Ale Society.
One night, the duty manager decided to teach us about whisky and as it was free, I didn’t say no. We sampled our way through the Diageo Classic Malts, and I found that I quite liked them. I fell down the rabbit hole then, and I’ve not really re-emerged. Beer is more of a hobby now, which is nice.
LC: And what part has the SMWS played in your journey down whisky’s ‘rabbit hole’? BA: My first exposure was when a friend invited a group of us to [the SMWS Members’ Room at] Greville Street one evening. For everyone to get in we needed one more member, so I thought ‘I’ll just join, it’s pretty much inevitable anyway.’
The SMWS became my main exposure to whisky, and I went from someone who understood a little to hearing about distilleries I’d not heard of before, the idea of cask strength whisky, and independent bottling in general.
I also learned from other members. If you’ve been to Greville Street on a Saturday afternoon, you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about – Phil and Barry and Chris and Jeff and a whole bunch of people I’ve missed – who are happy to have a chat and just share their knowledge.
As it happens, in a box on my desk here, I have the original invoice from my SMWS membership. It’s dated 10th January 2008 and came with a bottle of 125.9.
LC: Did you drink said bottle? BA: Too bloody right! I had no concept of saving whisky back in 2008.
LC: Good lad! What was the idea behind your book, The Philosophy of Whisky? BA: It’s part of a series of The Philosophy of books from the British Library and focuses on what whisky is and how it fits in with human society, globally. As I say right at the beginning, whisky can be seen as reflection of the changes in technology, social and cultural attitudes, and how information is transferred around the world.
There’s also a bit about how to drink it, some nice cocktail recipes, and a look to the future.
The most important thing to me is the bibliography at the end. I reference not only the books and authors that informed me originally, people like Dave Broom and Dom Roskrow, but sources from all over the world that helped me understand specific places and people via the medium of whisky.
As much as I’ve written a nice, bright orange, reasonably priced (and guaranteed to break the ice at parties!) book, I’d like to have created a stepping off point for people to explore the wider whisky world from the people who informed me.
LC: How do you feel it has been received? BA: A lot more positively than I’d imagined. It’s not a very long book and there is very little in the way of distillery information or tasting notes – it just talks about whisky as a whole, which is something that seems to be in decline at the moment.
There are a few exceptions in magazines such as Unfiltered, but more and more of the general discourse seems to be tasting notes or information about specific whiskies. There’s nothing wrong with that, I’d just like there to be more literature about whisky itself and the ideas around it.
LC: And what’s next for Billy Abbott? BA: More of the same, I reckon – learning about, talking about and drinking whisky!