With the arrival (and swift departure) of the much-anticipated first single malt from Nc’nean, we thought it a good idea to look at the legacy of the man who consulted for the distillery before his death in 2017, Jim Swan. Ian Buxton looks back at one of the most influential people in modern whisky and ask whether there is such a thing as a Jim Swan style.
As many readers will know Dr Jim Swan, hailed as ‘the Einstein of whisky’ and arguably one of the most important figures in distilling engineering and design since J.A. Nettleton (author of The Manufacture of Whisky and Plain Spirit, published in 1913 and probably the single most influential technical book on whisky ever published, in case you didn’t know), died in February 2017. He’s far from forgotten, though, and with a number of the whiskies he was involved in creating now coming to the market, I thought it timely to look at his legacy and ask if there is such a thing as a Jim Swan style. First, though, a brief reminder of his exceptional career.
Starting in 1974 with the forerunners of today’s Scotch Whisky Research Institute he collaborated closely with more than twenty Scotch whisky distilleries. It was a unique ‘apprenticeship’ and introduction to the industry which is probably unrivalled and, during this period, working with Sheila Burtles, Paul Rickards and George Shortreed (the latter two both highly-regarded blenders), he developed the original flavour wheel. If he had done nothing else, he would be remembered for this alone.
In 1993, he became an owner-partner in R.R. Tatlock and Thomson, the well-known technical consultancy and, in 2002, branched out on his own to offer his services to spirit producers worldwide. And he was in high demand. From Scotland to Taiwan, Israel to Latin America, he criss-crossed the globe trouble-shooting, advising new distilleries and cooperages (he was, above all, an expert on every aspect of wood) and serving on leading competition judging panels. His clients – those that can be mentioned, because the work was often commercially sensitive – are a roll-call of the most distinguished companies across the spirits industry.
But where Jim Swan will be particularly remembered is in his work over the past twenty years for new world and craft distilleries, notably Kavalan. Shortly before he moved on from that company I asked their then master distiller Ian Chang to assess Jim’s influence. “We will all be forever grateful and in awe of him” he said, adding that: “He drove the creation of a second wave, a New World in the world of whisky. He pushed the frontiers of whisky production right across the world. He opened up an industry that many people thought was untouchable and he innovated and adapted and created new philosophies. He used his decades of research and his sharp mind and flexible thinking in each project and in this way, he has deepened and enriched the entire world’s knowledge, understanding and appreciation of whisky.”
Others happily agreed. According to Cotswolds‘ head of production Nick Franchino “Jim will be viewed as someone who helped change the public perception of whisky and how to make it. His pioneering production methodology enables distilleries to greatly reduce the number of years it takes to create a wonderful whisky, allowing new and exciting distilleries to enter the industry and create a wider choice of high quality whiskies.” As to a style, Franchino had this to say: “His methodology was to create a fruit forward, clean spirit and so there will be that similarity between distilleries that he worked with. However, we all have different stills and local conditions for production and maturation, so there will be welcome variations between us all too.”
From Canada’s Victoria Caledonian Distillery, founder and whisky maker Graeme Macaloney paid generous tribute to Swan, crediting him with “creating a cadre of non-Scotch single malt producers who are making single malts in the traditional Scotch style which are as good as or even better than most single malt Scotches. In the long term, I hope this will lead those Scotch distilleries who make an acceptable but not stellar single malt to realise they will need to ‘up their game’ if they wish to contribute to Scotch’s domination of the global single malt market.”
While Anthony Wills at Kilchoman agrees that a Swan style can be discerned, he made a further important point: “Jim liked up-front fruit character with the new make and as far as I’m aware all the new distilleries he worked with had this character. This allowed for the whisky to mature relatively quickly if put into good quality wood.”
Now, Jim Swan was an acknowledged authority on cask selection. We were both involved in the early evaluation of the mature stock at Glenglassaugh when this changed hands and I vividly recall him assessing this as “undoubtedly gold medal winning”. Entered for the 2009 IWSC awards the whiskies we tasted that day collected the top trophies for both 30 and 40 Year Old single malt and the special IWSC 40th anniversary trophy – remarkable achievements for a then largely-forgotten distillery and a small testimony to Jim’s unerring nose for quality.
His early work on wood chemistry helped unravel how different parts of the oak tree contribute to flavour. In particular, he was a pioneer and advocate of STR (shaved, toasted and recharred) red wine casks seen at many of his consulting clients, such as Kilchoman, Annandale, Kingsbarns, Nc’nean, Cotswolds, Penderyn, Kavalan and Israel’s Milk & Honey.
Graeme Macaloney describes it as having “a style of its own whereby the heat-treated red-wine-saturated cask sweetens the wine through a natural caramelisation process yielding variously caramel, toffee, butter-scotch or other similarly related notes”. The innovative use of a previously under-exploited cask type was a trademark Swan innovation and undoubtedly something that he will be associated with long into the future.
Jim Swan’s final project was with Lindores where, fittingly, the records of Scotch whisky distilling begin. Co-founder Andrew McKenzie Smith remembers him thus: “his in-depth knowledge of maturation, his massive success with Kavalan (and others) will be long remembered as will his modesty in an industry not overly populated by modest, shy and retiring people.” He went one to say: “He was a genuinely nice man, a gentleman indeed,” and Graeme Macaloney remembers “an inspiration and amazing coach when it comes to making great whiskies, and a true gentleman and scholar, yet very humble.” What finer legacy might anyone wish for?