As he approaches his 50th year in the industry, Colin Scott tells Holly Motion about the allure of well-aged whisky and plundering The Last Drop’s remarkable spirits inventory
Colin Scott should be one year into his retirement. After 47 years at Chivas Brothers, 31 of which were spent as the Master Blender, he should be enjoying a well-earned rest. Instead, the ebullient Scott is lighting up the screens of the FINE+RARE team as he talks about a certain 50-year-old blended whisky he has created for remarkable spirits curators The Last Drop Distillers.
“It’s just fantastic to come to The Last Drop and find these nuggets of gold and all these wonderful casks of very precious liquid that have phenomenal complexity and flavour,” Scott says with unabashed glee.
Despite his near-50 years in the whisky industry, this is only the second 50-year-old blend Scott has had a hand in producing. Well-aged whisky was, until relatively recently, only a small part of Chivas’ business.
“By the time we’d filled a cask and it had matured to 12 years, most of that went into Chivas 12. Once it reached 21 years old, we put it all into Royal Salute. So, there was very little maturing. But of course, as time goes on, the stocks have been held back and the super-premium part of the inventory has grown.”
Scott joined Chivas Brothers in 1973 and became their fifth Master Blender in 1989. But he would have to wait a further 13 years before a 50-year-old whisky project presented itself. The result was The Royal Salute 50 Year Old, released in 2002 – a dual commemorative bottling for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and Royal Salute’s 50th anniversary.
Today he’s talking about his latest 50-year-old creation, The Last Drop’s 22nd release and first in-house whisky: a 50-year-old blended Scotch. After a whole three months as a man of leisure, the “retiree” joined the Sazerac-owned company as their first Master Blender in autumn 2020.
“When I joined in September last year, it was really the beginning of finding out what all these nuggets were within the inventory. Sorting through the very special and remarkable casks and finding out a little bit about what they were and what they did and how we could bring them together.”
Scott explains that everything in the blend started out as either a single malt or a single grain whisky, distilled at different distilleries around Scotland over 50 years ago. “At various stages along the way, blends have been made but then of course the balance has been put into cask and stored away for further maturation. So, what we have is a mixture of some of these malts and grains, all with their own unique characters and flavours, that we bring together at the last moment.”
Tasting the blended whisky alongside Scott is like being escorted on a journey back through time – to an age when a lot of distilleries were doing their own maltings and adding peat to the kiln to get a little smoky flavour.
“To me, blending is all about taking the flavours and then balancing them,” he says. “What you have here on the nose is a tsunami of flavour. But, when you taste it, nothing actually lingers and stays on top.”
Scott encourages tasters to add water to remove the aggression of the alcohol and maximise the release of the aromas and characters. When he is tasting more than 50 samples around a nosing table, this trick is vital to reduce all the whiskies to 20% alcohol and allow the flavours to present themselves.
In the case of The Last Drop 50 Year Old, its mellowness, richness and depth means you don’t necessarily need to cut the 48% dram.
“When we blend, we don’t add something, sniff it and then add a bit more of that. What we do is actually write down the whole formula in its entirety. We then pilot blend it. When we add the last addition, it will change the balance of everything you have already. So, you don’t know the final answer until you add that last part of the formula. And then once you’ve got them all together you can evaluate what you have actually created.”
For Scott, the act of blending and evaluating is an entirely personal thing. “All whisky – grains, blends – are fantastic. They are all different and they all bring their own song to the party. The only reason one is better than other is your own personal experience.”
Scott, for instance, isn’t “a fan” of the smoky Islays. “I don’t think they’re bad,” he adds. “It’s all about personal taste. There’s not a bad whisky in the world.”
The Master Blender talks at length about whiskies having different personality traits that require nurturing and, ultimately, respect.
“If you take a single malt as distillate at birth – that has a flavour package. It’s like you when you’re born – you have a character. If you put that new distillate into a cask, over the years this distillate will react with the oak in the cask and take influences and nuances which will then promote other flavours in the new spirit.
“So as time goes on, the volume actually goes down, the strength goes down, but that flavour package actually intensifies and intensifies and multiplies and multiplies.”
When it comes to age, there is some debate about how old you can go. For Scott, the 50-year-old is undoubtedly a rare beast, but he doesn’t see any reason why you can’t go older and rarer if the whisky has been sufficiently nurtured.
“If the angels didn’t interfere, in a quality cask, you could take it to 60-, 70-, 80 years,” he says. “If you’ve got quality casks, you don’t get that wood influence. You get a little touch of the oak but what you have at the end of the day is this small amount of highly intense, complex flavoured whisky that started as the new distillate and just grew with all the different influences from the oak and the cask whether it is Sherry or Bourbon.”
While there have been scientific advancements during Scott’s career, he says there are still a great many unknowns about the maturation and flavour process, and you get the impression this only adds to the allure for him.
“Because it’s nature, we don’t actually know what’s going on,” he adds. “It’s massively complex and the technical people still don’t know the number of components in Scotch whisky. I think they’re up to about 800 now. When I started there were about 200.”
Regardless, you sense Scott will continue to do what he does best: respect, nurture and blend remarkable liquids – retirement be damned.
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