Colin Scott has retired from his role as the custodian master blender of Chivas Regal after enjoying an illustrious 47-year career in the Scotch whisky industry. Drinks International caught up with the esteemed blender on his final day at the office.
How does it feel to be retiring after 47 years in the trade?
My last day was amazing. The messages I received were just unbelievable. I was happy and sad. You suddenly realise what you are leaving. I am lucky I have got my health, which has got me to 70. The important thing is to stay busy. I will be fishing, gardening, playing golf, and seeing family.
How did you get into the Scotch whisky industry?
I grew up around a distillery in Orkney. My family has been in the industry for over 100 years. My grandfather and father worked for Robertson & Baxton in Glasgow [now part of the Edrington Group] and then my father went to Orkney to work as managing director of Highland Distilleries Co. in 1936. I am actually and Orkadian, which I am very proud of. I grew up around distilling. I learned a lot about malt whisky subconsciously. I actually first went into accountancy in Edinburgh for a little while. Some of our audits were whisky companies, and that probably relit the candle. I moved to the Glenlivet Distillers in 1973.
How did you end up working as a blender for Chivas Regal?
I have been very lucky. I had a great journey. I joined the Glenlivet Distillers when they had a bottling hall in Leith in 1973. Seagram bought Glenlivet in 1978. I moved to the bottling hall as package quality manager. That got me involved with the blenders, and I they asked me to come through to join the blenders at Paisley, their headquarters at the time, and there I learned all about the traditions of Chivas Regal, the traditions, the style, everything, from my mentor Jimmy Laing. At that stage, we just had Chivas 12 as our flagship, the Glenlivet 12 as the number two single malt in the world and number one in America, and Royal Salute 21 as our super-premium whisky. Jimmy retired in 1988 and I became the master blender.
How did the role develop in the ensuing years?
As blenders, we were very much in the blending lab when I started. It was all very secretive. There was no real education support or advocacy at that time. By 1988, marketing and communications were in full flight. The world was changing. Technology was flying. Line extensions were being added, Johnnie Walker was getting a lot of different colours, so it was important that Chivas Regal had to join the fray. In 1996 the marketers decided to create Chivas 18. That was launched in Tokyo in February 1997. Japan is a big market for us. I started to travel more and do more marketing support by then. That laid the foundation for the success in China. Chivas Regal is still a global icon, much respected for its quality and status.
How did you end up spending more time on marketing, education and advocacy?
Marketing gathered pace, and there was more demand abroad for education and advocacy. I started to move a little more to marketing and less on blending. Meanwhile, the blending team increased in numbers, because the portfolio was increasing. In 2005, Allied joined the fray, and with that came Sandy Hyslop, the master blender of Ballantine’s, so I transitioned into marketing, advocacy and education around the world. What’s fantastic is that Sandy Hyslop, our director of blending, has a very big team of seven, and they are fantastic. It’s a great team. Kevin Balmforth, who I first interviewed in 1999, is the Chivas Regal blender. As far as I am concerned, all our Scotches are in the safest hands, which is great for the future. I’m going to enjoy my Chivas for the rest of my life, no problem at all.
What would you say to a young blender starting out today?
It’s a very big responsibility. You are the guardian of the quality of the consistency, from the past to the present to the future. Your nose gets tested every year and that has to reach a standard. It’s a gift you’re given with birth. You need dedication. It takes years to understand all the different whiskies and the influences of the casks and how those flavour complement each other. It’s a bit like a football team – you have your star strikers, your goalie and the people in the middle just pushing it around. Blending is a bit like that. You have some wonderful whiskies that are just real friends for blending. It’s a fascinating thing. You develop an amazing passion for these whiskies and your brands. When you talk to blenders you the passion they have for what they have done and what they’re doing. You need a huge passion.
How has the role of the blender changed?
I was really only at the beginning of all the line extensions, but now with social media, lots of little craft distilleries, there’s now a huge thirst for innovation. The SWA are opening up a little bit. When a new distillery opens it brings another flavour dimension. When a new cask becomes available it gives the blenders a new tool to create expressions. Blending is all about flavours. The innovation is a massive part of the work in the blending team with Sandy today. It’s fantastic when you see casks giving an influence that you’ve never seen before. It has always been exciting, and the exciting times will continue on and on into the future. Scotch is destined for a great future, once things open up again and travel retail opens. Scotch whisky is a 100% natural product – a cereal, a yeast and oak casks. The ingredients haven’t changed in hundreds of years, yet we have a business that embraces the modern world, embraces modern technology and is growing. What other business is still going after all those years without changing any processes or natural ingredients? It’s getting bigger and better. To leave the business at this stage, having seen huge changes in my time, it is very exciting for all those taking the business on.
What would you say to people that only drink single malt?
I just think they are missing out on a huge chunk of the whisky world. Today we have 128 distilleries, malt and grain. The single malts are the DNA of Scotch. We take that to build our blends. They have their characters, they have their flavours, they are all unique, and when we take them and make our blends, they are all different. We take the best whiskies in the world and create the best blend. They are missing so much [by shunning blends]. Shut your eyes, put it in a glass, pretend it’s a malt, have a sip and see what you think. I think they’ll be pleasantly surprised and say they wish they had done this earlier. It’s like adding water. That’s another difficult nut to crack. You just have this lovely gentle whisky that brings out flavours that I don’t think you see when it’s neat. But then again, there are no rules for drinking whisky as far as I’m concerned. Add water, add ice, mix it in cocktails. It’s your personal enjoyment that’s important.
As an Orkadian, were you excited when Scapa joined the company?
It’s fantastic and I’m really proud of that. In 2005 with Ballantine’s not only did we get Sandy Hyslop, but we also got Scapa Distillery. When I was growing up, Scapa Distillery was a bit dark and neglected and forlorn down on the beach. Now when you go past it, it’s all been painted white, it’s got Scapa on the walls, it’s got a visitors’ centre, and it’s got six or seven guys running it 24/7, so it’s a cracking new distillery, and of course it’s a cracking single malt. It’s closer to a Speyside, it has a saltiness rather than a smokiness.
What major changes have you seen during your career in the industry?
A lot of distilleries went from coal fire to direct firing to steam and gas. More and more American oak barrels started to come in, which had an influence. There has been a huge change in technology. Communication when I started was a Telex. It took weeks to organise anything. Now touch of a button, you send an email across the world in seconds. Massive changes in communication. People now travel at the drop of a hat. There’s a whole travelling community going through GTR, and they’re looking for all the innovations. Quite often we put an innovation into GTR and then put it out into the domestic market. That’s a big change. Technology in the distilleries has changed. Although the ingredients and the process haven’t changed, there have been huge changes in the distilleries and in the bottling lines. In my days you had to hand pack the bottles into a wooden case, strap them and nail the lid down. Now bottles just go straight into the wraparound and onto a palette. Nobody touches it. That palette goes straight into a warehouse or the back of a container. You are bottling at 300 bottles a minute. It’s just great. The energy saving. The distilleries and bottling plants are becoming very eco-friendly. It’s a great business.
You must feel pride when people are drinking Chivas in high-end bars and buying it in travel retail stores all over the world?
When you first present a new expression and watch the audience take a first sip and the smile opens up on their face and you think, the product has nailed it, that’s great. Put that on my gravestone. I made a lot of people happy, as they took those little sips of Chivas 18. It’s a great thought to treasure.
What are the key highlights of your career?
Chivas 18 stands out, because it’s a household name across the world and people just love it. The Chivas name is all about smooth and rich and that balance of flavours, but Chivas 18 really personifies that velvet smoothness, and then you get that great cacophony of flavour, and it’s very gentle. It’s appealing to men and women, and young adults looking for a bit of luxury. Royal Salute is another great favourite of mine. It was created in 1953 to celebrate the coronation, and the amazing thing is that Queen Elizabeth II is still our reigning monarch. In 2003, to celebrate the 50-year anniversary, we created a 50 Year Old Royal Salute. This was a great excitement in the blending lab, because we blended it as a 40 Year Old, and put it into a second fill sherry hogshead for another 10 years to produce a 50 Year Old whisky, which is something we hadn’t done. Normally we mature the whiskies in the cask. If we want to make an 18 Year Old we go and find all the casks that are at least 18 years old and bring them together. Everything is generally aged by the time we blend it. This time we went through the aging process for another 10 years. Although we were pretty confident that the journey would have a successful ending, we had to watch the strengths and there was a lot of interesting sampling over the years, watching it develop. After 2003 we produced 255 bottles, and that was allocated right across the world. I had the great honour of going to Japan to present the 50 Year Old Royal Salute. Meanwhile, the Duke of Argyll was actually presenting a bottle to Sir Edmund Hillary on the date he ascended Mount Everest. He got bottle number one. They had a big party in Kathmandu with all the Sherpas. We did a tour of Asia presenting it. The aromas just came roaring out. It was beautiful. I can still remember it. I can still taste it now.
How do you see the Scotch whisky industry developing in future?
There’s a huge thirst for innovations. Innovations and new expressions are fuelling a new demand. You are never going to lose the hardcore family – the Chivas 12, Chivas 18, Glenlivet 12 and 18, Ballantine’s Finest and 17. Those core brands go back to the routes of our heritage and traditions. It’s amazing how it is growing, and it will continue to grow. The whole industry is in a very healthy position.
What will you drink to toast your retirement?
I would go for Chivas 18. Then Royal Salute 21 is great. On the malt side I would come back in age to Glenlivet 12. I just think that’s a wonderful, classic Speyside malt. Then I’d sneak in Scapa 16.