After working as Master Blender for some of the biggest names in the industry, Andrew Rankin knows a thing or two about good whisky – and good casks. He tells Holly Motion why strong relationships and traditional values are far more important to him than being a whisky personality
The name Andrew Rankin might not mean much to the average whisky drinker. But mention him to the whisky world – the one that exists behind the public glare, and is largely reliant on lasting relationships and mutual respect – and there’ll be little doubt who you’re referring to.
Throughout his career, Rankin has worked for two of the biggest names in the industry: Chivas Brothers and Morrison Bowmore. When we speak, on an overcast Monday in early November, he tells me it’s 47 years to the day that he joined the ranks as a trainee blender at Chivas. It’s hard to imagine a wet-behind-the-ears Rankin embarking on his “old-fashioned proper blending training”. He remembers those days fondly, tasting hundreds of different distillates – including malts and grains from Scotland and the US – from the vast library, and getting stuck in with every aspect of the production process from distillation to the vatting and cask dumping. It wasn’t long before the young Rankin found his passion: casks.
“There was a lot of not-very-good wood filled in the industry way back in the 1970s and ’80s,” he tells me. “Even in those early days, I pushed to get some better quality wood in the system.”
Rankin learned from the old guard at Chivas who’d spent their life in the industry. In the early 1990s, he moved to Morrison Bowmore in a General Manager role, concentrating on blending, inventory management and, most importantly, cask trading. He spent 22 “lovely years” at the company until his position became untenable when Suntory (“in their infinite wisdom”, Rankin says wryly) decided to buy Morrison Bowmore’s owners Beam in 2014.
Rankin says the whole dynamic changed overnight and the decision to move global management of all spirits – including whisky – under American management in Chicago was the final straw for him, Chief Executive Mike Keiller and Finance Director Douglas Crawford, who all walked that same year. Rankin says he “doesn’t want to get into it all” but does say part of his motivation to leave was the fact he didn’t want to work for an American-managed company that late in his career – having already experienced a similar takeover with Chivas and Seagram many years earlier.
Andrew Rankin's greatest achievement to date: the £30m Ardross Distillery in the Scottish Highlands
Rankin is a loquacious Scotsman. When you land on the right subject, he can talk endlessly with such knowledge and humour that it’s easy to lose track of time. In fact, when a small team from FINE+RARE visited his new distillery project, Ardross, in August, we did just that. One thing he doesn’t talk about, without great coaxing, is his immense success. This includes but is in no way limited to his work on Bowmore Black, the Trilogy releases, and the 50-year-old. He is a humble man, and has quite intentionally stepped back from the limelight, while some of his counterparts have been drawn to it.
Since setting up his own company in 2014, Rankin has not stopped working. Undoubtedly his biggest project has been Ardross, a new distillery in the Scottish Highlands. Rankin was given the mandate (and a healthy budget of £30m) to find a home for the new distillery by Ardross Single Cask Society founder Barth Brosseau. He found the dilapidated 50-acre site, which was formerly a farm, with its own seven-acre loch and moved heaven and earth to turn it into the stunning distillery we see today.
Rankin says the project has, and continues to be, “much much bigger” than he originally anticipated, and what started out as a little tree constantly grows branches all over the place. But, he says, it has been his biggest achievement to date.
The latest unwieldy branch is a second, small-batch distillery that is being built on the Ardross site, destined to become the Creative Suite – exclusively for Single Cask Society Members’ use. Once completed, it will be capable of producing 250 casks a year of almost any style of whisky that a Society Member could desire. When it is up and running, likely by the end of next year, Society members will be able to call Rankin or visit him at the distillery to discuss their requirements. He will advise them on certain elements and Sandy Jamieson – Ardross’s Distillery Manager with near-50 years’ experience, and hands-down one of the most hospitable people you will meet – will get involved in the “nittier grittier side of the distillation”.
“Society members have the flexibility of different malt styles, of different grain stills, of different blend styles, and the multi-cask options that we’ll have available,” Rankin says. “But always without getting to the gimmicky stage,” he adds gravely.
This is a word that comes up a lot in our conversations – “gimmicky”. Rankin is, by his own admission, a traditionalist and has baulked at the changes in the whisky industry over the past 47 years.
“In my mind, a gimmicky type thing that lets you say we were the first in the world to do x only lasts a day and then it’s old news,” he says. “So everything we do falls within traditional methods – but pushing the boundaries a wee bit in terms of the styles of whisky.”
After spending a number of hours with Rankin, you can tell he’s not the type to mince his words – his standards are exacting, and he’s been around the block enough times to know when he’s being sold a pony. For these reasons, and many more, he’s unafraid to tell Brosseau – who he on occasion butts heads with – and Society members what he thinks.
It’s this straight-talking, mixed with an unwavering sense of tradition, that has stood him in such good stead throughout his career. Relationships formed over the past four decades have been vital to getting Ardross off the ground and saved his bacon – and the whisky producers he’s worked for – countless times.
“I always made it my policy to not sit on the end of the phone negotiating prices or volumes never having met the person that’s at the other end,” he tells me. “I’ve made it a policy that we’d go and visit all the major suppliers. We’d have dinner with them. We’d get to know them.”
Ardross new-make spirit, filled in 2019, slumbering in the highest-quality casks
When Rankin first started visiting Kentucky – a place he has a real fondness for and has undoubtedly influenced elements of the Ardross build – the state was just coming back from a real depression. He got to know a lot of people in the cooperages and distilleries, and many of these relationships last to this day. You sense it is this longevity and being around throughout hardship that has fortified these ties. The same is likely true of Japan. Enviably, Rankin has a relationship with one of the oldest independent cooperages in Japan, from whom he sources a steady amount of the mystical Mizunara cask – something many producers would give their right arm for. As quite a coup, Ardross filled some of its first runs of new-make spirit into Mizunara in 2020.
Rankin is too humble to go into detail but he does say these relationships have proven useful over the years. “If barley is in short supply, which it was not that many years ago,” he says, “because of our relationship, we would always get priority. If casks were in short supply, we’d always get the priority.”
Sadly, this way of working is something Rankin sees diminishing in most industries. “Everything is done via Zoom and telephone and internet now,” he bemoans. “Having listened to some of COP26, the environmentalists will say that’s a good thing, you’re not using air travel, but there has got to be a balance.”
Another change Rankin “isn’t keen on” is “the quest to get something different all the time”. “All the limited releases,” he says downcast. “The best limited release now is the standard edition because [producers] push everything else and don’t push the standard edition,” he only half jokes.
“Make no mistake, Barth and I have had a lot of serious heated discussions on various things like all the different wines and tequila [finishes]. It’s not traditional,” he says impassioned. “Why would we want to put a perfectly good product into a cask that’s had tequila maturing for six months?”
With nearly 100 years' experience between them: Rankin (L) and Distillery Manager Sandy Jamieson (R)
He pauses for what seems like an eternity, and I’m unsure if he wants an answer, before he, mercifully, continues: “I ask the question and I’ll get the response that it’s what the modern market wants. To which I respond: ‘says who?’”
Throughout his career, Rankin says he’s always stuck to the more traditional casks, like Sherry and Port. But he’s quick to say that the market is a minefield, and you need to proceed with caution as producers are often offloading casks for a reason.
“Even Port is one that would be low down of my list of things to use,” he says. “Because historically, Port producers don’t generate a lot of casks. They only generate them when they are clearing a warehouse out. The casks will be sold to people in the whisky industry when there is absolutely no maturation left in them at all, so you’re achieving nothing by finishing in those types of casks.”
Rankin says the only chance you have of producing a decent whisky, or at the very least not ruining the good one you’ve got, is to deal with certain individuals who will give you a cask that’s not spent.
He tells me some horror stories from the Glasgow facility where he warehouses and oversees cask operations. “We see some of the casks come in, and we’ve gotta send it back. They’ll say the Sherry casks are new. They’re not. They are probably the oldest casks that have been lying in that bodega. I have to say to the client, ‘Trust me, you’ll lose half your whisky because it’s not good wood, it’s very porous-looking, the smell inside them is slightly sour and you can’t get rid of that. But, it’s your gamble’.” Unsurprisingly, they heed his advice and make another call pretty sharpish.
He adds: “You’ve just got to know what you’re looking for and be careful. Because you can ruin a perfectly good whisky.”
It’s rare to meet somebody with such candour in or out of the whisky industry. Hand on heart, I can’t think of a person I’d rather entrust to guide me when deciding what to do with my whisky.
Find out more about the Ardross Single Cask Society