THERE’S A SAYING that goes ‘to get into whisky you have to step into a dead man’s shoes’. Indeed, Scotland’s national spirit is crafted by a tight-knit and surprisingly small group of folks, many of whose families have worked in the trade for centuries.
How Stephen Woodcock became one of them is a curious tale. Born to a pub owner father and a mother who spent decades in the Scotch trade with Hiram Walker & Sons, which owned vast swatches of the industry through the 1970s and 1980s, it was presumed that Stephen would follow them into the trade.
Alas, he broke rank and went into chemicals and spent the next two decades doing whatever clever thing industrial chemists do.
Recently, he was appointed as Glen Moray Distillery’s Head of Whisky Creation & Stocks (as far as job titles go, that’s pretty good, right?).
Before then, he was Master Distiller for the troika of distilleries owned by Stellenbosch based winemaker Distell: Bunnahabhain, Deanston and Tobermory.
So, how does one pull off a pretty dramatic u-turn and ditch lab work for drinking professionally? We sat down with him and a dram (three, actually) to find out.
Chemicals to Scotch - how does that happen?
More easily than you’d think, actually. It’s easy to forget that making whisky is as much of a science as it is an art. Sure, it has its romantic allure and idiosyncrasies where we still don’t understand why certain whiskies develop in certain ways. But, ultimately, distillation is ultimately a chemical process like any other, right? There was a tonne to learn but a lot of the basics were already there.
We heard that for your first job in whisky, you were landed right in the deep end?
Something like that! I joined Diageo who own dozens of distilleries and brands (Johnnie Walker, Talisker, Lagavulin and countless others). I was posted to Port Dundas, a now closed grain distillery in Glasgow which produced much of the grain component for their blends. I was joined to look after pre-distillation; best explained as making an unhopped beer which is later distilled into whisky.
About a week before I started, my new boss called and asked if I would join the cooperage instead - where oak barrels are crafted for aging whisky. I was ‘asked’ but, in practice, had little choice in the matter so off I went.
Coopers are a bit of a quirk of the trade in that they’re probably the last bastion of truly traditional whisky making. Much can be automated and sped up but casks are still handmade; wooden staves and metal hoops are hammered together the same way today as they were hundreds of years ago.
They’re also probably the driest humoured folk you’ll find. So, you can probably imagine their reaction to being managed by someone who could have fit everything he knew about making a barrel on the back of a stamp.
Over time, though, we clicked. What started with an unfortunate phone call ended up being one of the most important experiences of my time in whisky.
Then you were at Distell, running their trio of cult single malt brands - any highlights?
I remember being on Islay for Feis Ile, the annual whisky festival which, in normal times, draws thousands to an island off the west coast of Scotland which has about three thousand inhabitants but no fewer than nine whisky distilleries.
I was looking after new whisky creation at Bunnahabhain in the north-east of the island, a distillery known for its charming and traditional, if albeit rough and ready, appearance. I had to step in for Andrew [Brown], the distillery manager of Bunna’ to host ‘The Twilight Tour’ which we often put on at festival time.
It was quite possibly the most intense tour of a whisky distillery one could ever find. We started at the malt intake (where barley arrives on site) with a dram, then moved onto the mill room with a dram, then onto the mash tuns for another, then onto the fermentation stage for yet another dram, likewise in the still house and yet again at the filling room. And that was before we headed into the old bonded warehouse by the sea to crack open four casks.
I think it was fair to say there was a fair bit of singing that evening, for those you could hack it, anyway.
Now you’re at Glen Moray, which we’ve always thought of as a bit of an understated style of malt. Would you agree?
In a sense, yes. In many ways it is the classic Speyside dram; long-ish fermentation times to draw out fruity notes (from the malted barley) and plenty of copper contact in the still house to yield a fairly clean and soft distillate.
But as you’ll know, we have built up one of the most eclectic stocks of matured whisky in the trade. Refill Bourbon and Sherry casks are the mainstay but we were well ahead of most when we started laying down spirit in casks which have previously held the likes of Tokaji ( a gloriously sweet Hungarian wine), Madeira and Port. We’ve even played around with cider casks - something which raised a few eyebrows at the time. We’re traditional but we’re not afraid to take a few risks.
Best way to enjoy a whisky?
Few things beat a whisky drawn straight from the cask. Standing in an old, stone walled and earthen floored warehouse with a glass of malt in its unfiltered state, with fragments of charred oak and all, is something else. Even better if the weather outside is horrific.
But, in all honesty, it depends. Mood, company, time of day and weather should all dictate your dram of choice. Likewise as to how you drink it. A lot is made of what you should and shouldn't put in a glass of Scotch but it's all nonsense, really - it's your drink so do whatever works.
You’ve been around for a while now. What has changed most?
Volumes. I was in the trade when the ‘super distilleries’ arrived; almost factory-like sites able to lay down incompresible amounts of spirit each year. But scaling up isn’t necessarily problematic as long as the spirit is made well. If anything, the demand for those sorts of quantities shows that Scotch whisky is in the best place it has been for years.
But a few things haven't changed much, including the cast of characters in the trade. Thankfully, so many of the old guard are still around; there are a number of ‘weel kent faces’ (well known names) keep the old ways of doing things alive.
Three choice Glen Moray’s to look out for:
21 Year Old Portwood Finish
Port finished Scotches are notoriously hit and miss. Some port casks impart such a minimal influence on the whisky that it feels like a needless gimmick whilst others (no doubt because of a poor choice of cask) can add an undesired metallic note to the liquid.
This one makes neither mistake. The portwood influence is definitely there; a sweet tannic note pervades from nose to finish. But, it doesn’t dominate and Glen Moray’s fruit-forward house style takes the lead. A superbly well put together whisky.
2006 14 Year Old Sauternes Cask
Okay, we’ll fess up - we’ve shouted about this one before. Perhaps our favourite new whisky of ‘21, this was fully matured in casks seasoned with Bordeaux sweet wine, a bold filling choice which has paid dividends. The honeyed sweetness you’d expect is there and then some, as is an unexpected (but welcome) earthiness. Bone dry and with a rich chocolateness coming through in the finish, we’re glad we tried this one (again).
2005 Tokaji Cask Warehouse 1 Release
We try plenty of new malts each week (self preservation is key, right?) but we’ve never had one finished in wood seasoned with Tokaji. Not heard of it? We’re not surprised; it’s a Hungarian sweet wine made from grapes affected by ‘noble rot’, a natural fungus which concentrates the sweetness in the grape.
As with many Glen Morays, this has been matured in ex-bourbon casks, imparting the whisky with archetypal American oak notes of vanilla and caramel, before being transferred into those ex-Tokaji barrels.
What have they added? A lot of sweet floral notes on the nose for starters, and then a nuttyness on the palate (sugared almonds, perhaps?) which follows through to the finish. A tad Christmassy for this time of year, perhaps, but an absolutely flawless malt all round.