Chivas Regal is one of the biggest and most recognisable blended Scotch whiskies in the world. We talk to custodian master blender Colin Scott as he turns in his tasting glass after an incredible 47 years in the whisky industry.
Colin Scott has something pretty special in common with both Roger Federer and Tiger Woods… but that’s a tale for later on in his career. Now, we start at the beginning when Scott joined Chivas Brothers in 1973 and in 1989 became Chivas’ fifth Master Blender. As well as being the custodian of Chivas 12, he has seen the brand through an era of innovation – including Chivas Mizunara, Chivas Extra and Chivas 18. Both Scott’s father and grandfather worked in the Scotch whisky industry and aside from a brief flirtation with accountancy, Scott has spent his working life in whisky.
Master of Malt: How has the world of the master blender changed since the late 80s?
Colin Scott: When I started blending, it was very secretive. There was no marketing support to be done. From the 90s onwards, that part of the business took off – it was a requirement for us to go into the market to launch products. It has grown and grown. I basically started when there was only The Glenlivet 12, Royal Salute 21 and Chivas Regal 12 – that is what our business was. In the 90s, when Johnnie Walker was adding all the different colours we had to react and that’s when Chivas 18 came along and then others followed that. Today, with social media, the media and communications… the excitement, everybody wants more.
MoM: Do you have to have a natural talent for tasting or can you train your palate?
CS: You have to have a level of nosing ability and sensory acumen. At Chivas, we have an annual test that people go through. For blenders, it’s a different level. The company has a couple of hundred nosers around the country to check products every time a vat is moved or emptied. Some are working on barrels, they have a different test, some are working on vats and they have a different test. But at the end of the day, all of the people in quality have to take that test and pass it. When they empty the casks for a blend, for example, you might have 500–800 casks to check for off notes. This would take a couple of hours.
MoM: How do you go about putting blends together?
CS: When we sit down as blenders and talk about it – that’s when you start to learn about all of the different characters and flavours, the interactions. The whole thing is all about flavours. Blending is like having a football team – you’ve got your star but then you’ve got the workhorses behind them. You’ve got whiskies that keep everything right and then ones that you then have to control. It’s about managing flavours. Every single new spirit from a distillery has its own unique character and flavour that is unique to that distillery. If The Glenlivet blew up tomorrow, we couldn’t go to another distillery and make The Glenlivet. Blenders have to safeguard the integrity of the brand. We have to ensure that Chivas Regal today is what it was 10–20 years ago. We maintain that consistency and that status – that’s very important. Scotch has amazing respect around the world and it’s important to uphold that.
MoM: Could technology ever replace the human nose?
CS: A computer is only as good as the information you put in. You’ve got to train it. There are already sensors on a bottling line that will identify which whisky is being filled. It’ll say ‘Chivas 12’, for example, and if something comes along that’s not, it’ll say ‘no’. It doesn’t know what it is or why it is saying no, but it can recognise that it’s something different. There’s a lot that can be done from a quality control point of view but at the end of the day, the human nose is a phenomenal piece of kit.
MoM: How have drinkers changed over the years and what exciting serves have you tried on your travels?
CS: A lot of people still think you have to drink whisky neat, which is quite strange. We’ve been trying to educate and get people to drink whisky however they like it. A lot of people don’t like the heat of the alcohol, whereas others do. I went to Brazil and had a serve with coconut milk – it was actually delicious. It’s all about balancing flavours – Chivas 12 and ginger ale is a great drink but ginger ale and some other whiskies don’t work because the balance goes haywire. Bartenders are making some incredible cocktails. I got involved when we started the cocktail competition [Chivas Masters] around the world. Some of the innovation was fantastic – cocktails are not reducing the status of the whisky, they are taking it to a different level and giving the consumer a different taste experience. There are no rules.
MoM: How do you drink yours?
CS: Personally, I would recommend you add a little water – 50/50 – that brings out another raft of flavours you don’t get when it’s neat. If you want it cool, add a couple of cubes of ice to cool but not chill. Chilling flattens the flavour. But at the end of the day it’s all personal stuff.
MoM: 47 years is a long time. Can you share a few career highlights?
CS: Chivas 18 has been a phenomenal experience. The expression launched in 1997 and was repackaged in 2004 with my gold signature on the bottle. I’m very proud of it, it’s fantastic to have that on the packaging. One of the best things was watching drinkers taste the whisky and then smile before taking another sip. And the comments; people said it was amazing. The Chivas style is rich and about a balance of flavours and you have this smoothness. But I think Chivas 18 has a real velvety smoothness. And then, of course, it has got rich fruit flavours, toffee, dark chocolate and then a little hint of smoke coming in at the end. It’s basically taking a line up from Chivas 12 to 18 and then selecting the whiskies to keep it in that style and tradition but selecting the whiskies to give it a completely different taste experience to Chivas 12. A new blend will take six months to a year, but generally speaking, the packaging takes longer.
MoM: How many bottles of Chivas 18 have you got at home?
CS: Enough for a wee while. I’m not going to run out, don’t you worry.
MoM: What about Royal Salute 50-year-old in 2003, was that a highlight?
CS: That was amazing – there were only 255 bottles and it was very unusual to have a 50-year-old blend. I launched that in Japan (they had 7 bottles) and meanwhile it was launched in Kathmandu: the first bottle was given to Sir Edmund Hillary because the news of his ascent of Everest came on the same day as the Queen’s Coronation, in 1953. So it was an anniversary for both. The Duke of Argyll [who has a long-standing relationship with the brand] went out to Kathmandu to give Hillary bottle number one. Hillary’s bottle is now back in the archives in Strathisla. We gave a big cheque to his charity just before we gave him the bottle and then just before he sadly passed away, he offered it back. So the Duke went back out and gave him another cheque for the charity – for the Sherpas.
MoM: You have travelled a lot over the years, any memorable stories?
CS: In the early 90s, we went to China with Chivas 12. We took pipers and we went in kilts and we did a daily programme of education, supermarket visits, KTV visits, meeting people, giving gifts. We played the pipes in the supermarkets, in the KTVs – people loved it. We made a big, big noise. This we did for a number of years and I think it really sowed the seeds, although we probably didn’t realise it at the time, because then China became our biggest market in the early 2000s. I met the most amazing people – that’s the greatest thing I’m going to miss. Not only the people in Pernod Ricard.
Another one – having launched Chivas 25 in New York, we then flew to Dubai and there we actually flew across Dubai in a helicopter and around the Burj Al Arab twice and we landed on the helipad where there were all these people waiting for the launch party. Not many people have been on the helipad at the Burj Al Arab. At that time, it had only been Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, of any importance. In Dubai every year after that we arranged a Legends dinner and we had a celebrity as a guest of honour. That included people like Sir Colin Firth, Sir David Frost, Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ben Kingsley. It was just a wonderful experience. During the day, we would have lunch and chat with them. David Frost was a wonderful, amazing person. They are all incredible in their own different ways and I’ll never forget that.
MoM: Master blender aside, what did you want to do for a job?
CS: I always wanted to be a fighter pilot. But I think it would’ve scared the living daylights out of me!
MoM: What will you do now you’re retired?
CS: I’m going to enjoy myself, spending time with friends, family, fishing and golf. I will travel, not at the moment of course, but I’ve got some air miles to use up. Maybe a wee trip. The thing is that when you travel for business, you’re in a hotel, you’re in a restaurant, then you do tastings and things, back to the hotel ad then you come home. I’d like to explore Japan more, it’s a beautiful country, as is Taiwan.