Can the big boys of the whisky industry ever be genuinely innovative when it comes to Scotch?
WORDS: TOM BRUCE-GARDYNE
For too long, consumers have been lied to by faceless, monolithic, generic, industrial, mega-corporations”
Barely two minutes into an interview with Brewdog, and the firm’s co-founder James Watt is off on his favourite rant. “For too long, consumers have been lied to by faceless, monolithic, generic, industrial, mega-corporations,” he tells me. “For too long people have been sold a fizzy, insipid lie.” While Brewdog is no couthy wee craft brewer these days, the sense of ‘them and us’ runs deep in the beer world, with innovative artisans pitched against the boring big brewers. But does the same sentiment hold true for Scotch whisky? And if so, are the big distillers guilty of complacency when it comes to innovation?
GO AWAY AND EXPERIMENT
“At the risk of being controversial, I think it’s exactly the opposite, because as big players we’re able to experiment,” says Sandy Hyslop. “As master blender for Chivas, I’m given a sizeable budget every year to just go away and experiment, mix things and let things run. It’s not such a big commitment as it might be for a small company to do that and potentially not be able to bottle the product.” Johnnie Walker’s master blender Dr Jim Beveridge OBE couldn’t agree more. “As a whisky maker I feel just as free to innovate as I’m sure many others are,” he says. “In the environment I work in, I’m encouraged to innovate and look at things differently.”
‘Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’ a new generation boutique distiller might retort, but there is no denying Sandy’s point about the commitment involved. You might aspire to be a creative whisky maker and do endless trials, but you need deep resources in money, time, skills and the right tools to pull it off. The tool kit available to Jim Beveridge, for example, includes the so-called Process Liquid Development Area (PLDA) at the back of the Leven bottling hall in Fife.
Despite its unsexy name, prosaic even for Diageo, the PLDA is like a magical playground for Dr Jim and his team to play in. He describes it as “quite a large craft distillery” which has everything from mills and washbacks to a shapeshifting mash tun and a pair of pot stills with interchangeable necks to mimic the firm’s 28 other malt distilleries. In 2013, Leven officially became the 29th. With innovations “you definitely start with bench trials,” he explains. “Leven gives us the advantage of stepping up a notch in terms of scale without having to go to absolute full scale.”
“Leven gives us the advantage of stepping up a notch in terms of scale without having to go to absolute full scale”
DR JIM BEVERIDGE
“As master blender for Chivas, I’m given a sizeable budget every year to just go away and experiment, mix things and let things run”
“I tend to go big on experiments – if they’re good there’s the opportunity to do a limited-edition batch”
CONSISTENCY VS CONSUMER CHOICE
Sandy Hyslop, who has an experimental still at Glen Keith distillery on Speyside, says: “I tend to go big on experiments – if they’re good there’s the opportunity to do a limited-edition batch. If I was doing a new cask experiment, I would probably do it with between 30 and 50 casks. If you only did it with five, you’d be at risk of not understanding the variability.”
He reckons he has around 75 such trials live at present and claims some of them pre-date Pernod Ricard’s acquisition of Allied Domecq in 2005. The big blends were built on consistency. In the 1970s, Americans were told that ‘Dewar’s never varies’ in an age when consumers were remarkably loyal to their brand of car, cigarettes and Scotch.
Things may have changed, but Jim Beveridge believes “consumers are still demanding consistency and certainty” even if “they’re becoming more discerning and have a much wider experience to draw on”. When it comes to the process, he says: “There will always be the need to innovate to maintain consistency because there’ll be pressure on resources like any industry.”
Yet ironically the word consistency somehow undermines the idea of innovation, as it implies the same old whisky pumped out ad infinitum. That said, Dr Jim is well aware of the need for new products to feed the insatiable desire for consumer choice.
LEARNING FROM FAILURE
Whether the rules around Scotch stifle innovation is an old debate, and the big distillers have been accused of not pushing for change because they don’t have to – they can innovate with the American, Irish or Japanese whiskies in their portfolio that are less tightly regulated. “I don’t really buy that, if I’m honest,” says Brian Kinsman, master blender at William Grant & Sons. “We have a very strong agenda of pushing the envelope and trying stuff and that definitely comes from the family ownership – it’s in their lifeblood.”
Like Sandy Hyslop, he feels under no pressure to release something that hasn’t quite worked. “We’ve got a big enough portfolio, so if we invest in an innovation and decide it’s actually not that great, we’ll blend it away.”
He goes on to explain how the firm’s third Dufftown distillery of Kininvie has become “a bit of a hothouse for trying things”. Built in 1990 to provide malt whisky for blends, Kininvie only got around to releasing its first single malt in 2013. One recent innovation has involved using rye in the mash bill to produce a single grain whisky from pot stills. Whether it will ever make it to market remains to be seen. As Brian says: “You need a lot of failures to get a success, but you always learn from them.”
“We have a very strong agenda of pushing the envelope and trying stuff and that definitely comes from the family ownership”
The firm’s third Dufftown distillery of Kininvie has become “a bit of a hothouse for trying things”
BIG BRANDS, ARTISANAL APPROACH
One whisky maker who has experienced both sides of the industry is Gregg Glass, who worked for the boutique and innovative Compass Box before joining Whyte & Mackay in 2016, where he set up its innovation hub, Whisky Works, a year later.
He calls it “a collaboration of highly-skilled and highly-creative people” and says the name ‘works’ is a nod to motorsports – “I think of the Lotus team during the Jim Clark era.”
If Whisky Works has a home, it is probably Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth, which has its own cooperage, extensive warehousing and a laboratory. For all its scale and industrial appearance, Invergordon was always more than just a grain distillery. Over the years it has produced a vast range of blends and was ahead of its time pioneering a 10-year-old single grain whisky in 1990.
“I’m working day in, day out with the guys at Invergordon, particularly in warehousing,” says Gregg.
“There’s the cooperage for all the weird and wonderful experimental work, and the highly scientific analytical work in the lab.” Early last year Whisky Works unveiled its first two releases – The Glaswegian, a 29-year-old single grain from an unnamed silent distillery in Glasgow, and The King of Trees, a 10-year-old Highland blended malt aged partially in Scottish oak cut from two ancient trees toppled in a storm. Both whiskies were warmly received and the venture into native oak has grown into a much broader project for the company. It demonstrates how a distiller with relatively big brands like Dalmore and the Whyte & Mackay blend can take an innovative, artisan approach. Of course, you have to be careful with such words whose meaning has been dulled through repetition by the PR industry. Many a press release has shouted of a brand’s ‘complete, new radical makeover’ when the only change has been a slight tweak to the design of the bottle and label. As Sandy Hyslop says: “If you take innovation in its purest form, there is not a lot of it actually happening.”