Master whisky blender Dr Jim Beveridge on science, art and resurrecting long-gone Scotch
Dr Jim Beveridge knows his Scotch. The Master Distiller has worked tirelessly for the world-famous whisky producer for almost 40 years, honing his craft to create Johnnie Walker’s very best expressions. The brand uses only one in every 10,000 casks to blend its premium Blue Label expression, taking influence from the four corners of Scotch production to create the delectable dram. Its latest creation is Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare, a series of special releases crafted using whiskies from ‘ghost’ distilleries - ones that have closed and ceased production – along with other rare malt and grain whiskies. I talked to Dr Beveridge about the secrets behind Johnnie Walker, and the romance of sharing under-appreciated ghost whiskies with the world.
How did you become a Master Blender? Have you always been part of the whisky world?
I joined Johnnie Walker straight out of university in 1979. Having studied chemistry, I saw how you could apply science to Scotch whisky. I began as a flavour chemist, working with malt and grain whisky and understanding how they mature in the wood, before I took off the lab coat and started moving towards the blending table, later becoming Johnnie Walker Master Blender.
Do you bring a more scientific approach to blending?
Blending is both a science and an art. Because of my background, I had a good understanding of the chemistry behind the creation of Scotch whisky – but I’m glad to say there is so much more to whisky than chemistry.
How do you approach blending on a large scale? How often do the distilleries you use change, for instance?
Regardless of how much of a final blend is going to be produced, the approach is always the same – it’s about the pursuit of flavour. In the fantastic range of blends that Johnnie Walker creates there are some that are crafted from 30 or more different whiskies and we must deliver a consistent taste from those blends year after year, so we may make slight changes to the blend using a different distillery depending on available stocks - but the outcome will always be the same in terms of flavour.
You’re making decisions that will only come to fruition a number of years later - how difficult is the task of creating new expressions?
Yes, whisky is a long-term business. In some instances, our distilleries will be distilling a whisky that might not be at its best for at least a decade, sometimes much longer. We have the world’s largest stocks of maturing Scotch – with about 10 million casks from the distilleries available to our blending team. New expressions tend to come from the endless experiments that we conduct in an effort to push the boundaries of what is possible in Scotch.
Do you think there are flavour profiles in the world of whisky that would lend themselves to a blend based on Scotch? Have you ever been tempted to try this as an experiment?
If by that you mean blending Scotch with other whiskies around the world, then no, I don’t think that will happen. For a start, it would no longer be Scotch – and secondly, I don’t believe it is necessary. There is always more to do with Scotch, which is why we constantly explore and experiment to create new flavours and extend the possibilities that Scotch presents.
Johnnie Waler Blue Label Ghost and Rare is a romantic concept - has the idea always appealed to you?
I agree there is something quite romantic about being able to savour the great whiskies from classic distilleries that closed long ago. Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare is the first in a series of special releases we’re crafting using irreplaceable whiskies from these "ghost" distilleries in Johnnie Walker Blue Label, together with other rare malt and grain whiskies. It fascinates me how whiskies from a small number of iconic, closed distilleries have a unique, inimitable character that lend something very special to the taste experience of Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
What can we expect from the new expression and how will it differ from regular Blue Label?
I’ve chosen uniquely full-bodied expressions of ghost whiskies, from our library of irreplaceable whiskies, to let people explore in a new way the unique richness found in our pinnacle blend. The ghost whiskies have been blended with five other exceptionally rare expressions of malt and grains from Clynelish, Royal Lochnagar, Glenkinchie, Glenlossie and Cameronbridge.
Which ghost distilleries have you used, and why did you choose them? Which is your favourite?
I chose three – two single malts, from Brora and Pittvaich, and a wonderful grain whisky from the Cambus distillery. Together these three presented the best flavour profile to blend with the other rare whiskies from existing distilleries to create a blend of great richness and elegance. In terms of a favourite, I deliberately chose the highland malt Brora for the heart of this special release because it brings a deliciously light peatiness.
Is there a risk of more ghost distilleries appearing, or is the whisky industry as strong as it’s ever been?
The whisky industry is going from strength to strength, so I am hopeful that as long as that continues to be the case all the distilleries that are producing such wonderful whiskies across Scotland today will continue to do so. This is one of the most exciting times that I can remember to be working in whisky, more and more people around the world are increasingly fascinated by its flavours and what you can do with them, which, in turn, is opening up a whole new world of exploration and innovation.
What’s the next step for Scotch – have you seen any trends pop up?
Sales of Johnnie Walker continue to grow as more and more people around the world come to appreciate both the flavour and indeed the versatility of our blended Scotch. Perhaps the single most noticeable trend in recent times has been the resurgence of the cocktail culture, where Scotch is playing an increasingly interesting part because of how well its flavour profiles work with a whole range of mixers and ingredients.
Are you currently working on any innovations in whisky making?
Innovation has been at the core of the progress that Johnnie Walker has made since the brand was founded nearly 200 years ago. It was a desire to improve the flavour of Scotch that got John Walker started in blending whiskies, and that remains our goal today. Our blenders are constantly experimenting and we spend a lot of time talking to consumers and bartenders to understand how people’s taste preferences are changing. Although I have to be careful not to disclose any specific future plans, I can say we are always looking forward and always ready to bring new experiences in Scotch to people if we feel there is the right opportunity.