Blair, your passion for making whisky accessible is clear, but what specifically made you fall in love with the tipple?
I fell in love with whisky when I co-founded a whisky society at the University of Aberdeen in my Freshers' Week. I think I really got the 'bug' for it when I learned that all single malt whiskies in Scotland are made from just three ingredients: water, malted barley and yeast.
It blew my mind that all of these whiskies made in Scotland, which all use the same three ingredients and same production process, can end up tasting so distinctly different. From delicate, sweet and fruity whiskies to fiery, smoky and oily whiskies and everything in between. I think this was what piqued my interest and I wanted to learn as much as I could about how they could end up tasting so different. That was in 2008 and I'm still on a learning journey!
You have gone to - what some may call - extreme lengths to ensure that you can always appreciate every aspect of whisky and not lose any of the great taste or smell by living under a self-imposed lockdown, how has this impacted your role as a whisky consultant? Surely one of the most attractive parts of your role, and the best parts of whisky, is being able to enjoy it with friends both old and new?
Yes, I have taken measures to ensure that I do not lose my sense of taste or smell, which is so crucial to my work in the whisky industry. I specialise in sourcing and assessing old and rare casks of whisky for private clients around the world as well as assessing cask samples for distilleries, among other whisky related projects.
While it is true that being able to enjoy whisky with friends both old and new, and traveling to interesting, far-flung locations are some highlights of my job, I believe that my health, as well as the safety of those around me, is paramount. Covid-19 is still very much a global pandemic, and the long-term risks associated with repeated infections, particularly the loss of sense of taste and smell are not yet clear.
As a result, I have chosen to operate on a virtual-only basis. While this may impact my ability to enjoy whisky with others in person, I have found other ways to continue my work as a whisky consultant, such as virtual tastings and consultations over Zoom with clients all over the world. Thankfully this has not impacted my business which has seen enormous growth since the start of the pandemic. Ultimately, my top priority is to keep myself and others safe, while still sharing my knowledge and passion for whisky with the world. It just means that, until then, I have plenty to look forward to in the future when I do return to doing things in-person.
World Whisky Day is taking place this year on the 20th May. Beyond your passion for whisky and making it a shared, enjoyable experience for everyone, what inspired you to establish the day?
As the founder of World Whisky Day, I was actually inspired by World Gin Day and immediately bought the domain name WorldWhiskyDay.com. Despite it being such a beloved and iconic spirit, I noticed that other drinks, such as gin, beer and vodka, had their own dedicated day, and I felt that it was only right that whisky should have one too. I wanted to create a day that celebrated the rich history and diversity of whisky, in an inclusive way which brought together whisky lovers from all over the world to share in their passion for this incredible spirit.
Beyond my personal passion for whisky, I believe that World Whisky Day has become a platform for promoting the industry and showcasing the incredible range of whiskies available from all over the world. It's a day to celebrate, to explore, and to share the joy of whisky with others.
How will you be marking WWD this year?
World Whisky Day is always a very busy day for me, and I look forward to celebrating with whisky lovers from all over the world. Whether through virtual tastings, online events, or other creative ways.
The whisky industry is built on heritage, with many of the distilling techniques handed down from generation to generation as a result many firms have sought to protect their ‘trade distilling secrets’. How important, in your opinion, is it that distillers protect their secrets?
In my experience, the whisky industry is actually quite open and collaborative, and many distilleries are willing to share their knowledge and techniques with others in the industry. While there may be some firms that seek to protect their trade secrets, I believe that there is a strong tradition of sharing information and expertise in the whisky industry.
In fact, many distilleries regularly welcome visitors from other distilleries to share insights and ideas, and there is a strong sense of community and camaraderie among whisky makers. I think this is one of the reasons why the whisky industry has been able to thrive and innovate over the years, and why we continue to see new and exciting whiskies being produced all the time.
Ultimately, I believe that sharing knowledge and expertise is crucial to the continued success of the whisky industry, and that the spirit of collaboration is what makes whisky such a special and unique drink.
You’ve recently spoken out about the Scottish Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), and it has been recently announced that it may be blocked by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act (UKIMA). What could the consequences of the DRS be for the Scottish whisky industry, as well as the wider drinks sector?
As someone who is deeply invested in the Scottish drinks industry, I am very concerned about the potential consequences of the proposed Scottish Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). While we all want Scotland to have a successful DRS, the scheme being forced on businesses is completely unworkable and has significant fundamental flaws, UKIMA being just one of several that have not been fully worked out.
If this reckless DRS is forced ahead, the impact could be significant for the whisky industry and the wider drinks sector. I suspect that several whisky brands will opt to stop selling in Scotland and become export-only businesses. The costs involved in becoming compliant are enormous for SMEs and it will put many fantastic smaller breweries and drinks companies out of business. On top of this, only 15% of drinks producers have currently signed up to the flawed DRS, so there is a strong chance that consumer choice will be ruined in Scotland as only registered drinks are allowed to be sold when it goes live.
Given the potential negative consequences of this scheme, I believe that it is important for the government to take a step back and work with businesses to develop a more practical and workable solution that will not harm the industry or consumer choice.
There has been a lot of pressure on many industries to ensure they are meeting sustainability targets. Do you believe the food and drink industry is doing enough to embrace the shift?
There is always more that can be done, and the whisky industry is no exception. The whisky industry is already taking steps to reach net zero by 2040, which is an ambitious goal. There are many initiatives underway, such as using renewable energy sources, reducing water usage, and implementing sustainable farming practices for the grains used in whisky production. It's important that we continue to focus on sustainability and make it a priority in the industry.
Do you think distillers are embracing innovation enough to help make processes greener?
Many distillers are embracing innovation and investing in new technologies to reduce their environmental impact. For example, some distilleries are using renewable energy sources, such as biomass boilers or solar panels. Others are exploring ways to reuse waste products, such as spent grains or water, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Additionally, some distillers are experimenting with new techniques throughout the production process in order to reduce their energy consumption. Overall, I believe the whisky industry is taking sustainability seriously and is actively working to make its processes greener, with many now achieving B-Corp status and various sustainability awards.
Now this is a question we like to ask everyone, but given your role, we think this might be a tricky one for you! If you can only choose one dram to enjoy this WWD, what are you having?
I would choose Johnnie Walker Black Label because it is consistently excellent. During my travels before the pandemic, I could always rely on finding a bottle of it in every hotel bar around the world. It gave me a sense of familiarity and comfort, when in a far-flung location and especially when I was unsure about the local beers or wines. I could enjoy it neat, on the rocks, or even in a refreshing highball in hot climates. So if the weather is nice on WWD I'll probably have myself a Johnnie Walker Black Label highball.
To find out more about Blair, please visit www.blairbowman.com