AS JOB TITLES go, Euan Campbell’s is pretty hard to beat.
He’s the Head of Whisky Creation at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a club that buys its own hand-picked casks and then bottles them for its members.
It does so at natural strength, and without colouring nor chill-filtration.
That may sound like a no brainer. Indeed, we’ve never cared more about where what we eat and drink comes from. We yearn for provenance, and to savour things in their rawest, purist form.
However, the Society’s approach is the absolute antithesis to everything the Scotch trade historically practised. For centuries, whisky has been about consistency. About blending away ‘over-pronounced’ character in the spirit and keeping punters in supply of their trusted brands.
No longer. Single malts – whiskies distilled at a single, named distillery – are taking on bland and ubiquitous blends. At the vanguard are those, like the Society, are going further. They hand-pick casks from distilleries the world over and bottle each one exactly as it is.
Each yields just a few hundred bottles. This way, the distillery’s spirit ‘character’ is laid bare and there’s no hiding behind a bad barrel. It’s Euan’s job to pick the right ones.
Do you remember your first whisky?
I do have quite a clear memory of taking a sip of whisky from my dad’s tumbler when I was about 16.
It was a ten-year-old Laphroaig and burst with ashy, fiery notes of a seastorm. It had quite the impact on me. I had probably tasted a few sips of whisky before, but nothing as visceral as this.
My dad actually worked at Tormore Distillery back in the 1980s, and lived on-site when I was born.
So, whisky has always been around in some form or another, and my parents still enjoy a dram today. I was in good hands from the start.
‘Head of Whisky Creation’ is quite the job title. Aside from (presumably) drinking a great deal of good Scotch, what’s involved?
We’re a small team so everyone mucks in wherever needed. I help to adapt and refine our stock model, so that we know what we need to buy each year from new-make [unaged whisky] cask fillings to maturing stocks. I regularly meet with distillers to find out what’s new and to discuss our requirements.
Visiting cooperages [barrel makers] is always a favourite, as each one has their own methods and intricacies that you can often see coming through in the spirit after maturation.
We’re seriously committed to sourcing quality wood to match our spirit, and always look to create unique releases. And, since we are not distillers ourselves, top-notch wood gives us the ability to take flavours in different directions.
You’re also correct in your assumption; there’s a lot of sensory work involved. That can be checking the maturation progress of some newly sourced wood types, overseeing our Tasting Panel to select casks for bottling – every release must receive Panel approval – or blending to create some one-off small-batch releases. Never a dull moment!
As for choosing casks to fill, is there anything in particular you always look for?
We tend to opt for first-fill casks i.e. those that have not previously held Scotch. These provide a dependable flavour contribution from the oak and in the case of new fillings, ensure that our spirit will be ready from about eight years old, or younger.
We can then decide whether to bottle or to leave for another few decades, safe in the knowledge that the quality is there. For additional maturation, we tend to aim for a minimum period of two years in the second cask, but even that can vary.
The classic bourbon cask features heavily, as do sherry-seasoned casks, mainly the oxidative styles of Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez.
Obviously, as we bottle more casks each year, we are factoring in re-use to get the most out of casks that still have a lot of flavour to contribute.
Every cask that we empty is looked at and either marked for our onward use, or for sale back to a cooperage where it will be rejuvenated and used by someone else in the industry.
Single cask, single malt whisky remains somewhat of a niche concern. Are people opening up to the category?
To me, whisky is all about discovery. There is so much to enjoy across the category, and it’s a bit of a rabbit hole. People are naturally inquisitive, and once you get the whisky bug, there’s no turning back.
When we were founded 40 years ago, single malt wasn’t really on the map, let alone single-cask, cask-strength whisky. Now, looking at our 40,000 strong membership, I’d certainly say that we’re changing minds.
Your bottlings are also at natural strength, often a whopping 55% ABV+. How does bottling at that strength affect the whisky?
Casks are typically filled at 63.5% ABV. Over the years, the strength comes down as the alcohol evaporates during maturation.
By bottling at natural strength, the whisky is presented in the same way as if you had drawn a glass directly from the cask in the warehouse. Our members then have the option to experiment with the addition of water, a little at a time, to find that sweet spot. It will be different for every dram, and for every palate. All part of the discovery.
Society bottlings are known for their, ahem, poetic names. Do you have a personal favourite?
I’m a big fan of evocative names, ones that really paint a picture. My business card carries the name of bottling number 29.248: “Creaking ships lost in the fog”. I often get a confused look when I present one to someone!
There are so many to choose from, and our panellists are very creative. Another cracker is “Bandages on a mermaid’s flipper”. And who could refuse a glass of “Margaritas in a carwash”?
Favourite all-time Society bottling?
If pushed, I’d probably say cask number 53.139 - “Captain Pugwash”. This was an absolutely stunning 27 year-old Isle of Islay whisky, distilled in 1982 and matured in a refill bourbon hogshead for the full term.
Distinctive Islay peat, but softened with age. So evocative of our childhood holidays to the island. Teleportation in a glass. It's a real foodie’s dram, too; the peat smoke is complemented by flavours and aromas of sea salt, lobsters, mussels and clams.
You recently bottled a 40-year old (cask 12.79) to celebrate the Society’s 40th anniversary. Deciding when (and how) to bottle something that old must be rather tricky?
Absolutely. You’re always very aware of the journey a whisky of that age has been on to get to where it is.
You have to try to judge what’s best, think about where you want the final whisky to be.
Then, it’s a case of deciding on the right time to bottle, or indeed to find the right cask to match the spirit if the intention is to add more layers of flavour though additional maturation.
And, of course, it’s rather humbling to drink a whisky that is older than you are!
For more information, see smws.com