We meet Alasdair Day, R&B Distillers, to chat Tweeddale blends, his whisky heritage and what the future holds for blended Scotch whiskies…
R&B Distillers is a company on a fascinating journey. Inspired by a mysterious old ledger, its Tweeddale blended Scotch whiskies challenge long-held conventions around the category. Its first distillery, Isle of Raasay, is bringing jobs and tourists to the eponymous little-known Hebridean island. And there’s a second distillery in the works in Scotland’s Borders region, too. Co-founder Alasdair Day is the driving force behind it all, and we caught up with him over the phone to talk specifically about all things Tweeddale…
MoM: Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning – there’s a lot of personal history behind the Tweeddale Blend. How did it all come about?
Alasdair Day: It actually started way before my great-grandfather, Richard Day. It started with a company called J & A Davidson, which was established in 1820 in Duke Street in Coldstream, right on the River Tweed on the Scottish Borders. And in fact, at that point the Tweed formed the border between Scotland and England. So they were licensed grocers, they were whisky blenders and they had the Coldstream Brewery as well. It was round about 1895 that my great-grandfather left school and he joined the business as an office boy. Now that was quite unusual. My great-great-grandfather was the head stud groom at The Lees and my great-grandfather really should have gone into service. But round about that time the estate was owned by the Marjoribanks – a big family in the area – and they were going through difficult times. When my great-grandfather left school, he was able to go and work as an office boy for J & A Davidson’s, which clearly I’m very grateful for! He started as an office boy and ended up owning the business; he took over in 1923 when the name changed from J & A Davidson’s to Richard Day. Unfortunately he retired after the War and my grandfather and his two sisters decided not to take the business on. I mean, it had been wound down during the War because all the grain had to go to the war effort for food.His retirement really turned into making a few phone calls, selling a few casks and heading off to the pub. That’s how he retired!
But that’s not the end of the story…
That was the end of Richard Day as a licensed grocers/whisky blending business. The brewery was sold to Vaux Breweries, and that was really it. And years on, as I was growing up and got to drinking age, my father used to appear with this book and we’d have a couple of drams and look at it. It’s the sales ledger for J & A Davidson from 1881-1882, with two years’ worth of sales. And at the back of the book, almost as if it was used as scrap paper, it’s got all the blends and all the recipes from 1898-1916, including the Tweeddale Blend. For years we’d pore over this and say that we’d do something with it. It all came to a head at Christmas 2008, down at my mum and dad’s. I’d probably had one or two whiskies and proclaimed that I was going to genuinely go and do something with this book. Later I went back and sat with my mum and dad and my dad said ‘so what did you do?’. I said ‘er…..!’. I was so embarrassed that I went away and incorporated a company and bought nine casks and recreated the Tweeddale Blend. And that’s how it started for me.
So you could just follow recipes?
If you look at the book, every time he makes Tweeddale it’s slightly different. Although there were nine whiskies – one grain and eight malts – in the blend, if you go through all the book, and this is where it gets very unglamorous, and put it all into a spreadsheet and look at all the distillery characteristics and flavours and you group them, there’s about 16 different whiskies. One that threw me completely was he would use something like Balblair and then he would score it out and the writing next to it was ‘Pollo’. I thought ‘what does that mean? It must be handwriting, I can’t read that’. Anyway, after a bit of digging-, I don’t know if you’ve ever come across the book called Scotch Missed – Lost Distilleries by Brian Townsend? In there it mentions this distillery, Pollo, and apparently it was owned by the same Ross Family that owned Balblair, and it was a very similar style. But then I started to realise that every time he crossed a distillery out and wrote another one in it always had a similar flavour profile. So that helped me. And then I went out to buy my nine casks based on his recipe, based on all the different changes over the years while he was doing it. I ended up with a grain whisky, a Lowland whisky, Highlands, Speyside and one Islay. And the Islay was only 2% of the whole blend but that allowed me to make Tweeddale for the first time in 70 years. And that was my first batch.
That’s amazing! How did you go about the cask buying process? It’s not all that straightforward…
It’s not, it’s mind bogglingly difficult, actually! So bearing in mind this was 2009; at that point you could still find brokers and distillers and private individuals who would sell you casks. So I spent quite a bit of time researching who these people were, contacting them and saying ‘here’s my wish list, I would like to buy some aged whiskies from these distilleries’. And the first question they all said was ‘have you got a WOWGR certificate?’, and I was like ‘a what?!’. So then I had to take a step back and look into all the regulations around it. I got my certificate from HMRC that allowed me to own casks in bond*. Once I had that, the next thing you realise is that actually you’ve got to get them out of bond and you’ve got to get them to somewhere that’s going to bottle them!
What was your ambition for it all when you started out with The Tweeddale?
The reality of it was I was just trying to see if I could do it. And that’s the honest answer. And then I sold some. And then in about 2012, still working evenings and weekends, I managed to secure an export order to go to Canada. And I thought ‘well, that’s fine because there’s a time difference and I’ll still be able to work evenings and weekends’. But it very nearly went horribly wrong and that’s the point where I thought, ‘OK, this is the time to make a call’. And the call was, it’s been an enjoyable hobby – pack it in, or I have to sit down and do the numbers and turn this into a business and pack my job in. So I packed my job in! The next very huge problem I ran into was that 2012 was exactly when everyone was starting to take their age statements off, and you just couldn’t get what I was looking for – ten to 16 year old whisky. It just became really, really difficult. I got to the point where I thought ‘this is only going to work if I can raise investment’. There are two things I can raise investment for. I can raise investment to go out and buy younger whisky, age it, mature it and then bottle it. Or you build a distillery. We’re at a stage now where we have a distillery [Isle of Raasay], we have investment and we’re constantly looking at our business plan. But what I am exceptionally pleased about is that we’ve managed to take it from a passion project and turned it into a business. And we’re now in a position where we can put some resource behind it and grow Tweeddale as a brand.
At the moment it’s still quite a batched product. How will you develop it? Will it still be made and released in batches?
I think it has to be really. I think that’s what makes it special. I think that’s what makes the liquid good. Our current product, the Tweeddale Evolution – it’s called ‘Evolution’ because it has evolved out of the passion project that we’ve just discussed – is a 28 year old blend that has got really good reviews and great feedback. It’s at that quality level where, certainly for me, that’s where we want to keep it. We constantly have the discussion about quality and consistency. And to me, those are two separate things. And I know the big blends will shoot me down in flames for saying that, because for them it’s about consistency, but for me consistency isn’t always quality. I think if you go for consistency there are trade offs that you have to do to get it. So therefore I think we’ll always be in batches.
Going back to the book – obviously there were multiple recipes. Have you got through them all yet?
No, nowhere near it. We’ve just concentrated on one of them so far. I think the honest reality is that there are recipes in the books that we just couldn’t do, because some of the distilleries are long gone and some of the stock from those distilleries is long gone. So there are some where we’ve worked out what the style is and we’ve created that style; that’s a possibility. But then there are other blends in the book that are really interesting. We would probably have to change the name of one of them-, two of them actually because they’re trademarked.
One of them is trademarked-, there’s a bottle of it in the Whisky Experience Collection. There is no recipe for it. I’ve approached the people who own the trademark; they’re not interested. Which is a shame as they don’t produce it anymore. But that’s just an example of what’s there. And then there’s another one that’s a blend which-, the name that my great-grandfather used is now someone’s single malt trademark, so clearly we wouldn’t go down that route! Anyway, I think we’ve got an idea for that one in particular, we could do it but maybe using Raasay in the future. So that’s something we’re working on long term.
Great! But obviously it’s not just blended Scotch because you’ve got A Silent Character single grain, too. Is that something that you think you’ll do more of?
Yeah, I think so. As you can imagine, for some people, a premium blended whisky is a difficult proposition. So to make it an easier discussion we went ‘oh here is a single malt and here is a single grain and these two of the component parts of the Tweeddale Blend’. Cambus was one of the grains in the book that my great-grandfather used and we were fortunate enough to be able to get a couple of 27 year old casks and blend them together. And it won World Whiskies Award Best Scotch Grain Whisky so it can’t be bad. It helps explain what the blend is. The other thing in the plan is to create a Tweeddale but use Raasay in the recipe with some other whiskies as well. And we’ve got to have Raasay Single Malt to do it, so it’ll be maybe 2021 for that one maybe!
How do you think the blended whisky category can shake that reputation off?
We need to talk about the liquid. We need to be talking about the things people want to hear. It’s Evolution, it’s 28 years old. It’s predominantly Speyside and Highland whiskies, that’s what people want to hear. And if that’s enough for them to try it and they try the liquid and then they enjoy it, then that’s really the way forward. So I think hopefully that’s the job and for us, success comes for us when people sit Tweeddale beside the likes of Blue Label or 30 year old Ballantine’s or Chivas. And when you do that and you try it against those then Tweeddale stands out, but it also promotes those brands as well because they’re extremely good liquid. I think the other thing that people are getting over is that whisky can be enjoyable. It can be approachable. Everyone can drink whisky. You don’t have to acquire a taste for it.
What can you tell us about future plans for Tweeddale?
So we’re looking at a launch around about September time. Obviously Tweeddale Evolution is premium and is at a very high price point. It’s retailing at around £170-175. What we want to do in September is bring out a Tweeddale that brings it back to the sort of £45 mark. And then the next thing we’ve got to do is work on finding somewhere in the middle ground as well. So that’s our long term; to have a range of Tweeddales. You’ve got to have some level where people come in and buy and really love it, and then they want to look at the…I don’t know what you call it, the ‘big brother’ or whatever, that you move up to. So that’s what we’re looking at at the minute. I go back to what we were talking about earlier about batch product. For me the quality has to be consistent, but consistency is not the driving goal. It’s the quality of the liquid. And I really hope when we do launch in September, at the price point, that the quality is still at the level where we’ve set the benchmark for two years.
*’in bond’ or ’under bond’ means that the duty hasn’t yet been paid on the alcohol in question, although the trading of these casks involves a lot of rules, regulations, licences and vast amounts of paperwork!