Unfiltered joined SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell recently when he met up with the director of blending at Chivas Brothers, Sandy Hyslop. Here’s how their conversation went:
Hi Sandy, how did your whisky journey begin?
It was back in 1983, with a small whisky company in Dundee called Stewarts Cream of the Barley, where I started as a sample room assistant. I had a place to go and study chemistry at university but my dad was dead against it – he said it would be a waste of time and it would cost him a fortune! He spotted this job in the paper, working in the sample room, and one day a week you went to Aberdeen to study chemistry on day release, so he said, that’s the job for you – you’ll be earning money and getting an education. So it worked out perfectly.
Did you have an interest in whisky at that time?
Absolutely not, I was only 17 and just turned 18 in July, I’d had no real exposure at all.
So it was more for the chemistry and the qualification?
Yes, but then I experienced working in vatting, in bottling, in filtration, in inventory. In retrospect it was the best grounding you could get.
In at the deep end, experiencing everything?
Yes and then due to various mergers and takeovers we became part of Chivas Brothers and Pernod Ricard. I was asked to start travelling down to Dumbarton one day a week to work with Jack Goudie, the master blender, to hone my organoleptic skills.
What sort of training would you do to hone those skills?
We still do a lot of the same things that Jack used to do, like nosing individual casks of all our aged brands. He would always send me out in front, so you were on the spot all the time. When we were finished we’d discuss the ones I thought were slightly different, or where I thought there was a problem. So it was on the spot training but it worked really well. After 12 months, he offered me a job to come and work with him full time. It’s probably the longest interview ever, and also the longest I’ve had to keep my nose clean! But he was taking his time to make up his mind if I was the person he wanted or not.
And how long have you been with the company now?
How has your career changed since that initial job offer through to now?
I absolutely love my job, and it’s evolved just the way I like it. I was lucky enough in 2005 to get the job looking after all the brands that fell under Pernod Ricard, and that’s where the job started evolving beyond the blending role. I took over the vatting instruction department and then the cask purchasing department and then from that our labs and technical centres came into my remit and then the inventory side. So there’s inventory, there’s casks, there’s laboratory and there’s blending – but blending is where my heart is. My office is next door to the sample room, that’s where my roots are firmly placed.
So what does a typical week look like for you?
Myself and my team go to Speyside every week and we check all the new distillate from all our distilleries. There’s an organoleptic panel that sits in Keith and we test all our new distillates blind, against a sensory standard. We could easily bring all the samples here, but I like that face-to-face involvement with all the distillery managers. We nose and score all the spirit and those scores roll over into the inventory – then we have our record on that new distillate before it’s filled into casks.
And that carries with it all the way through, so when you make up a blend you can say, we need some of this…
Absolutely, you not only see the make or the cask type or the cask fill, you see the score rating of how close it was to the sensory standard when it was distilled. That’s important because when you become a blender you’re using the stock that someone else laid down for you. Then you have a golden period when you’re working with stock that you laid down. And now I’ve reached this point – which I’m not very happy about, to be perfectly honest – where I’m laying down stock to leave the house in good order for the next man.
It’s all about quality and continuity.
So what are the most important attributes for a master blender?
You have to have a good sense of smell and a good memory for smells, and you have to be passionate about Scotch whisky. I never get bored with nosing cask samples, I love it when a big crate of samples come in. When we’re making something like Aberlour A’Bunadh, you know, it’s 100 per cent first-fill sherry butts, every single cask is sampled and we make up the vatting in miniature in the sample room. It’s ace.
You must have nosed thousands of casks in your career. Is there any parcel or particular cask that you remember as being absolutely outstanding, a closed distillery or something like that?
When we blend something like Ballantine’s 30-year-old, we still do it as it would have been done in 1930. We sample all the casks, we bring them up to the sample room, we nose them, we put them together in different formulations, and it’s an absolute treat. You’ve got a bench full of whiskies between 30 and 40 years old, many of them from closed distilleries, from a very different time. Some of the casks can really surprise you, because 30 years ago Chivas Brothers was probably about seven different companies that all had different cask filling policies, so you’re pulling together a lot of different makes that you don’t see all the time so it’s always really interesting. There’s nothing more exciting than stumbling across a cask of Glentauchers that’s on the system as a second fill butt but you find it’s a first fill or a belter and everybody says: “Wow, get a load of this, it’s absolutely amazing!” There are some wee surprises in there that make you say: “Lay that aside, keep that for a special bottling.”
If you’re having a nightcap this evening, what’s in your glass?
I’ve got a bottle of the Glenburgie 15-year-old Ballantine’s single malt that I’m really enjoying. Scapa is a lovely whisky, nice and delicate, not too strong, not too powerful. Ballantine’s 12 and 17 are great whiskies. It’s a difficult question, and you’ll be the same yourself, it depends on your mood…
…and how your day has gone
Exactly. I love the Chivas XV that’s selectively finished in cognac casks, it’s really rich, almost like a celebratory Friday dram, and it’s got so much flavour that you’re not in a rush to drink it. It takes so long to dissipate on the palate.
A long finish leads to temperance! And a bit of consideration about what you’re drinking is important
Absolutely, I’m convinced you could do a study by giving people different whiskies, not saying anything about them and monitoring how long it takes them to drink the glass. Then do a breakdown of what made up those products, what casks were used, what fill of casks were used. I’m sure it would be directly related to the drinking experience.
We always talk about PPMs and things like that…it would be interesting to come up with a minutes per dram measurement!
I’d love to do that experiment!
SANDY’S TIPS TO DRINKING WHISKY
Drink it as you like it: Don’t let anyone browbeat you into saying you’ve got to drink it neat or you’ve got to drink it with so many drops of water from a pipette.
Get exothermic: If I’m drinking a cask strength I’ll always add as much water again to give it that exothermic reaction.
Never add chilled water: For the best chance to get the flavours and enjoy the whisky at its best, the water you add has to be room temperature, never chilled.
Try a block of ice: I like a big block of ice that melts slowly, and in a bizarre sort of way you almost get an increase in temperature because of the big face of that ice melting against the whisky.
Compare and contrast: Try the same whisky in different ways and compare them against each other. Try it neat, try another with a little water, and then get another glass and add more water to that one.
Lower the ABV: I love Ballantine’s 12-year-old as a highball, with ice and soda. There’s loads of first-fill American oak maturation in it, which really comes through when you mix it, and it doesn’t fall over when you add loads of soda to it. It’s really refreshing and only about 6% ABV, lovely on a warm evening.
Find your own language: Don’t be led by other people’s descriptors, everyone has a different life experience and can describe flavours using their own references.