Spirit of the Vikings

02 May, 2013
Colin Scott

Hamish Smith unearths the past of Chivas and Royal Salute with master blender Colin Scott and finds a history steeped in Scotch



"HERE'S TO THE SMOOTHEST, RICHEST, MOST BEAUTIFUL WHISKY IN THE WORLD,” toasts Colin Scott, standing before a banquet table of Chinese guests at one of his many Chivas Regal-hosted dinners. Eyes fixed to his rangy figure, Scott drinks his dram.  He coughs uncomfortably as it catches on his throat. Splutters, coughs again, regains breath and several seconds later… his composure. “Isn’t it the smoothest thing,” he recovers, with more than a crack of a smile. 

The Chivas Regal and Royal Salute master blender laughs spiritedly as he recalls the moment. “That’s the difference between a gulp of neat whisky and one diluted to 20% abv,” he says. “I always add water, I don’t enjoy it neat.” The habit of cutting scotch 50/50 with water to release flavours and aromas was drilled from his decades of tasting Chivas Brothers’ whiskies. In his 40 years of Scotch service it is perhaps the one routine Scott has managed to maintain. In every other way he has had to adapt.

Ambassadorial work wasn’t always expected of Scott. Master blenders weren’t always master orators. Back in ’89, when he took the job as custodian of the Chivas Regal blend, his remit was much simpler. 

Going back further to ’73 when Scott “wrote a letter, had a chat and got a job” at The Glenlivet office in Edinburgh, a job in whisky definitely didn’t require marketing expertise. Indeed, as Scott remembers, marketing departments didn’t exist in those days. Then, communication meant telex, phone calls and later faxes. But going back even earlier, to Scott’s own beginning, life was simpler yet.  

“When I was born we didn’t have electricity in our house,” says Scott. “It was all tilley [kerosene] lamps – electricity didn’t come to Orkney until 1953. We had peat fires, we pumped water from our well, the rest was rain water out of tanks. The winters were severe, you’d get snowed in nearly every year. I can remember walking to the local shop with a toboggan to get food. We had a hurricane in ’53. The lifeboats brought food around to the bay so the local community could get provisions.”

Fishing and hunting

For those not native to the British Isles, or indeed those who are, the Orkney Islands are marooned off one of the most remote corners of Britain. Latitudinally you can draw a line to Stockholm; geographically there are only the Shetlands and Faroe Islands for company. Despite being sent to boarding school in Edinburgh and then London from the age of nine, Scott spent his early years and all of his latter-day holidays on Orkney, fishing, hunting and playing golf.  His identity is important to him. “I’m Orkadian, then Scottish, then British.” 

Given the chance he will happily talk about the islands’ history.  “Archaeologists are very excited because they’ve found a massive Neolithic village stuck between two islands dating to about 6,000-8,000 BC,” reports Scott. “They reckon the site is 1,000-2,000 years older than Skara Brae, which they discovered in the 1930s. They’re ecstatic.” They’re not the only ones. Scott says he will be back up to Orkney soon to check on the dig’s progress. 

Probably it’s the islands’ more recent history that has had the greatest bearing on Scott. “Up until about 600 years ago we were Danish,” he says. “There’s a lot of Viking influence in Orkney.” 

Highland Park, the most northerly of the two Orkney distilleries, the other being Pernod Ricard’s Scappa, draws on this Viking heritage and that’s where Scott’s Scotch story really begins. “My father went up to Orkney with Highland Distillers to be the managing director of Highland Park,” he says. His father fell in love with Orkney life, settled and, when he finally retired from the distillery, he “moved upstairs” to keep a watchful eye.

Wilderness years

After boarding school, Scott didn’t immediately emulate his father. Had he not grown up in the wilderness of Orkney, you might say Scott’s post-school period was his wilderness years. “We don’t talk about that,” he says guardedly. 

Alas, far from wild, Scott lets on that he tried his hand at chartered accountancy. “It wasn’t for me. I wanted to get into Scotch whisky, subconsciously because of my dad.”

So to 1973 and The Glenlivet. “At that time it was three jobs for one person. You went for an interview and that was it. They knew my background – that I had grown up in a distillery – but I didn’t have any whisky experience. I didn’t want to work on the distilling side, I wanted to be in the head office in Edinburgh.”

From trainee manager Scott soon found himself in bottling halls. “I got into package quality, which is fascinating. You learn about the making of bottles, boxes and the printing of labels.” Then came spirit quality and blending.

“When I was brought into the blending department I was blending whisky, rums and gin – we had White Satin Gin and Riddles Gin at that time.” That was in the Seagram days, after it had bought The Glenlivet in 1978 and before, along with its Chivas Brothers division, it was taken over by Pernod Ricard in 2001.

Working at Chivas Brothers didn’t just mean Chivas Regal. “At that time we had The Glenlivet, our big single malt; Something Special, our big deluxe blend – huge in South America; Queen Anne, which was big in the North of England and internationally – now you only find it in Quebec; and Glen Grant, which was big in Italy, the number one Scotch as a five-year-old.”

Scott had trained under master blender Jimmy Lang and finally took over in 1989. His remit, as with all global brands, was to preserve the taste profile and constancy of the Chivas Regal blend. But that’s not to say curator never turned creator. In 1997, Scott had an opportunity to extend the Chivas family with Chivas Regal 18 Year Old and, 10 years on, the Chivas Regal 25 Year Old.

Milestone

Not in many jobs can a task take 25 years to complete. “I’ll just see new spirit I saw going into cask as master blender in 1989, going into Chivas 25 next year,” he says, thoughtfully. But another milestone will be reached first, when Scott celebrates 40 years with Chivas Brothers’ brands, on April 16. Perhaps we will see a 40 Year Old Chivas dedicated to Scott. “Who knows? That’s up to the powers that be.” 

At 63, the next major landmark might well be retirement. “In theory 65 is a finishing post. But now you don’t have to retire at 65 if you don’t want to,” says Scott, ambivalently. “Health is very important – that’s the dictator of life. You might snuff it. Life is a story, I don’t know how long my book is. God is turning the pages.” 

As the conversation shifts back to whisky, Scott offers another of his analogies. Whisky ages like we do, he says. “You are different from 0 to 3 to 12, from 12 to 18 to 25 – a lot happens in those early years and not so much changes as you get older.” So do whiskies tire with age too? “With great spirit, in a quality cask you can mature it all the way until there is none left. I won’t give an end point,” he says defiantly. So, good spirit, the right surroundings, equals no end point. This 63-year-old will be with us for a while yet. 





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