On the 25th of January every year, Scots and Scotland lovers toast poet extraordinaire Robert Burns “of Mice and Men” and “My Love is Like a Red Red Rose” fame.
I usually skip the haggis and neaps and tatties and go straight to that golden liquid that Robbie called O thou, my Muse! guid auld Scotch drink! and who better to celebrate with than the man formally known as Dr. Whisky.
Sam Simmons, now Head of Whisky for Atoms Brands, learned to love the dark spirit as a PHD student at University of Edinburgh. Quickly he succumbed to its charm, creating not only one of the first whisky-led blogs, Drwhisky.com, but also the Whisky Band (more on that later in the show).
This episode originally aired on January 21, 2020.
You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Sam Simmons. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
Transcription sponsored by:
Susan: Why don’t you do tell me a little bit about where you grew up and your background.
Sam: I grew up in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, the 641. We lived in a small apartment near to where my mom was going to school. She was going to University of Toronto, where I got exposed to many different things that I still remember to this day. Then I moved to Edinburgh in 2002, to do a PhD at the university.
Susan: Whoa. Slow down. That was way to fast!. You skipped so much, Did you stay in Toronto for college?
Sam: I didn’t really have a strong drive to go to university initially. I tried a few different things. I was doing some supply teaching actually, but then you needed to go to teacher’s college too. Otherwise you were sort of a scab.
Susan: You were teaching before you had a university degree?
Susan: What were you teaching?
Sam: Don’t tell anyone. I was teaching year grade three. It wasn’t every day and it was when they needed me and it was great. I’d done camp counseling and that kind of stuff when I was younger. I think I decided around then that the next time a kid spills milk on me I want it to be my own, you know, because I don’t want to tidy some other person’s kid’s milk and be cool about it and all relaxed. I couldn’t handle that anymore.
I was always reading, always writing and into music. I was also into art, so I explored if I could do a literature degree, tied in with music at York University and still stay in my parents’ place in Toronto. So that’s what I did!
Susan: What were you playing?
Sam: A cello. And then I also did some dancing. I’m not a dancer, but it was a prerequisite for the music program. It was a bit of a dream. A bunch of 19 year old women and me! It turned out pretty well.
Susan: Did you always play the cello?
Sam: Yeah, I was very lucky. My mum brought me to violin lessons from the age of three. I say lessons, but they weren’t really anything to do with playing the violin. It was just being exposed to music. I can still remember, even at that age, hearing opera singers down the hall or people playing piano or harp or strange instruments that I couldn’t quite visualize, but I would make up pictures in my mind. Bassoons or whatever it might’ve been.
Susan: Did you think you might have been a professional cellist?
Sam: No, no, no. Definitely not. If you want to be an applied artists or an applied scientist, you go to an applied college or you do a different sort of degree. This was just more like the philosophy of music – why we need it – and just to explore what I could do after that. It was relationship to music and timing and communication and, and those sort of things were interesting to me. But it wasn’t working. I was staying at my parents’ place. I wasn’t getting a university experience. I wasn’t really growing up.
I took another year out and went to Israel as part of a theater group and worked at a kibbutz. I did a bunch of different crazy jobs at this kibbutz. and this theater group, we got accommodation, room and board, and a modest stipend. We would save up those stipends and go to Haifa or go to some theater festival somewhere in Israel or Jordan or Egypt and perform.
I returned and then decided I’d go to Trent University in Peterborough. It’s a really small university, a teaching university, I guess what they call a research university. And it was wicked. Stephen Brown was a professor of mine. There’s a bunch of professors who really made lasting impressions on me who were really supportive of whatever the hell I was becoming.
Susan: Did you just fall into English Literature or was it something that you loved?
Sam: I was always reading as a kid and then as a teenager and always writing as well.
Susan: Was there a specific area of English Literature you were interested in?
Sam: Not really. I mean, certain types of fantasy, but I was more into historical fiction, war and war fiction. What happens to the young boys who used to get sent off to war.
Susan: You went on to do a PhD, so that’s undergrad. There’s still a master’s and then PhD. Did you continue with the war literature?
Sam: At Trent University, I was exposed to the war poets and this professor Stephen Brown really got me into it and I was clearly enamored with it and wanting to know more. He fostered it on a private level, which was really awesome. Still, it’s a university degree. What am I going to do? How am I gonna pay the bills? How am I gonna live?
I was doing odd jobs and I was teaching swimming and I was getting by and, but also, remember rent is paid for. I’m staying at my parents’ basement, I was very fortunate in that way, so there weren’t massive expenses or overheads and I was under no real pressure to become a real grown up, which in retrospect, how lucky am I? It was incredible. It allowed me to get a lot of great experiences under my belt. Anyway, I ended up going to Ottawa since I had friends who were there and there’s a music scene. I was playing cello through effects , like Arthur Russell in the 70s and flute and guitar.
Susan: You’re quite prolific.
Sam: Yeah. I also negotiated the deals, I was the negotiator who played the instruments as well. Ottawa is an extremely cold city, much cooler than Toronto, so I could skate to school. That was amazing.
Susan: You are truly the only person I’ve interviewed who said that they could skate to school. Were you still studying war poetry?
Sam: Yes. That was the focus at that time. Although there were other things, children’s literature, as well, and dystopian fiction. I think I did Beowulf too, which I really regretted. That was nuts. But no, my thesis was about poetry, modernist poets and their relationship to the wars.
Susan: Anyone who ends up in Scotland or Edinburgh, whom I interview, I always think they really just want to go there because they were whisky drinkers. And since you’ve ended up in whisky, were you drinking whisky before you got to Edinburgh?
Sam: Absolutely not. I mean, I know I played music, but I didn’t really drink, to be honest.
Susan: You were in a band and you didn’t drink?
Sam: Not really. I mean, after a gig, sometimes someone would be drinking a few shots. Jack Daniels, Johnny Walker. Jameson I didn’t care. I just knew it was disgusting. I had to get it down as quick as possible.
Susan: It couldn’t have been those because you said it was disgusted….
Sam: No, it wasn’t. I just wasn’t into spirits. I wasn’t a drinking. My family didn’t really drink. Shabbat wine was about it. If I tried to steal booze from my parents, there was probably an ancient bottle of Bailey’s which had turned into cheese or some oxidized Sherry.
Susan: So it wasn’t until you ended up in Edinburgh, studying more poets.
Sam: I built a relationship with the professor there and, unfortunately he left after 18 months of me being there, which was a pain in the ass. Not knowing anyone, and as a Canadian, I joined a hockey team and joined a drinking team. I went along to this Edinburgh University Water of Life Society.
Susan: Considering you didn’t really drink that much, that’s kind of funny. The pull was there…it was coming.
Sam: I mean, I didn’t drink spirits. I enjoyed beer and certainly only that before I went to Edinburgh and I really drank it socially.
Susan: So this water of life…
Sam: This water of life society. I thought, I’m in Edinburgh, I’ll meet some Scots at this. And there were no Scots in this whisky club, there are Swedish people, German people, Taiwanese people, Americans, Canadians. Why would someone from Aberdeen go to university in Edinburgh to go to a whisky club? I realized that doesn’t make sense. It was mostly men, but there were some women drinking. I think things have changed in the years since 2002. I got to know not just the way whisky felt…
Susan: Was it only whisky?
Sam: Yes, exactly. You’d sit around, there’d be four or five different drams. They’d buy a couple bottles each. You put £5 towards the kitty and you’d pay a £10 membership fee for the year. Then they would buy bottles and we’d divvy them around. Then someone would tell the history of, say Caol Ila. I do remember the first tasting of five whiskys, wow. I am not really spirit drinker, but I remember floating home. I even did some really obnoxious work that no one likes to do, like research or annotating notes. After five whiskys, I was like, yeah, I’ll do that. So it had medicinal benefits for me.
I was also intellectually enamored with the whole thing. I was also very stimulated with the history, the history of taxation and what was going up in the Highlands, the history of migration, people moving to Canada or the pink parts of the map or all around the world. Australia, New Zealand.It wasn’t just the physical, the Lush Life, that got me. That was certainly part of it. I can’t deny that, but it was also that I started to reward myself. I’d be at the library, at the National Library in Edinburgh, and the last few hours of the day, three o’clock before they closed requests, I would request, I don’t know, a book by Neil Gunn or some, some old whisky book, and treat myself, after good day research, to an hour of reading a bit of whisky history. Then I ended up buying some of those books. I still remember those moments today.
Susan: You’re still doing a PhD, which takes a long time. Did you think I’ll leave the PhD and whisky is going to potentially be my life’s work.
Sam: I don’t think I ever thought that.I still feel like it’s a hobby and I’m waiting for someone to say, okay, it’s over. Living in Edinburgh, I worked at Odd Bins, and some off licenses. I worked with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, just to keep my passion alive. I moved to London to get closer to a professor in Brighton, who I was trying to work with to finish my PhD, then go work with him if I could. I lost my whisky peeps. I lost my community. That’s when I started a blog. Everyone in Edinburgh called me jokingly Dr. Whisky because I wasn’t finishing the PhD and all I talked about was whisky. So I used the name, and that’s where it was born. It all started there.
Susan: Even before you had the blog?
Sam: They would call me Dr. Whisky, so I used that name as a way to stay in touch with them, kind of as an excuse to continue to meet people. I’d met John Glaser at Compass Box, or Richard Patterson at Whyte and Mackay, as an excuse because I wasn’t the head of this club anymore.
By the way, I ended up being the President of that Whisky Club. So I sort of lost all that. Also more practically, it got me to my laptop every morning. So Dr. Whisky, the blog, was all about getting me to the desk at 8:00am. From eight to nine. I would do this post, I would nose some whisky and write tasting notes. Once I’m at the desk, I’d power through for the rest of the day to finish my PhD, which worked. I did get it done.
Susan: I love it. Hear it now: a dram of whisky in the morning will make you, can make you finish your PhD.
Sam:I don’t know if we can endorse that, but yeah, it’s certainly worked in my case.
Susan: I was going to ask you was about why did you start your blog? I see it was to keep in touch with that life that you missed.
Sam: And to finish the PhD, which is sort of the way to answer your question.
Susan: When did those worlds merge and you thought this could be a professional opportunity?
Sam: I was working with the Whisky Exchange to pay bills in North London where I was living in an apartment with my girlfriend at the time.
Susan: Wait, hold on. Back to Dr. Whisky blog. Did you conceive of it as a certain type of blog? Do tell me a little bit about it. What were you thinking that this blog could become, or were you not even thinking that way?
Sam: It’s worth going back to the Edinburgh University Water of Life Society. It was an appreciation society. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is an appreciation society. So I learned about whisky in a community of people who appreciate what they’re into. Now I play music and I’m on guitar forums, I’m on whisky forums. Enthusiasts tend to, after a certain amount of time, turn into connoisseurs and they can become quite jaded and negative. I see it with people moaning about guitars or new models. It happens with whisky as well. I never saw that in those years. So when I started a blog, it was just sort of wide-eyed, naivete, how do I share this information with more people?
The way I got into it, I learned about it. People were so generous with their time and with their knowledge and with their distilleries, taking us around, giving us tastings, The corporate monster that you hear about for Scotch marketing is so negative, but that didn’t occur to me at all.
It was a little bit naive perhaps, but he blog was about neutrally presenting whiskys, the stories of these distilleries, the stories of their whiskys, that I could uncover through research, through books that I had or through the internet, which wasn’t that robust at the time. When Dr. Whisky, started, there were four English language blogs about whisky that had any substance.
I think two of them are gone. One of them still around, and I don’t include mine in that, so there weren’t a lot of peers even to copy. I just wanted to present the whisky as what it was. I wanted to present some tasting notes that were never judgmental. They were more like Scotch Malt Whisky Society notes where they describe the flavors like a good film review where, even if you don’t like the new Star Wars film, it describes how the film works, how the narrative works, how the acting was. Then I can decide as a reader, is it something that I want to see. Even though you gave it only two stars, maybe some of them float my boat. It was always with that sort of mentality. Show as accurately as you can, as objectively as you can. the beauty of this whisky, because someone loves it, someone’s made it. It’s someone’s baby. Then present that in a fun way.
I wasn’t trying to do anything more than that. I’ve been credited with doing more than that, but I was just trying to tell as much as possible about a particular dram five days a week, five whiskys a week, the Malt Mission.
Susan: Had you finished your PhD? Did you still continue with the blog?
Sam: Yeah, I did. I don’t remember the exact timeline.The blog started really in 2007 fully with the Malt Mission and really only went for two full years, with that daily routine thing, and I’d finished the PhD probably after the first year. I was looking around for work in Academia. Then someone said there’s an opportunity with The Balvenie in the United States. You can talk about a whisky for a living. I didn’t even know that existed.
Susan: Did you know them? Had you met them before?
Sam: No. I don’t think I met anyone from The Balvenie at that point, or from William Grant. Really? Perhaps in a whisky show in Edinburgh or something. But no, I didn’t. It wasn’t through contacts. I met with a guy here in London and it was amazing. It was a great chat. He was a lovely guy. There was nothing corporate or obnoxious about it, because I definitely was a bit worried about that. I had been for interviews with two other large spirits companies that are publicly traded, then I met with the guys from William Grant and it was a totally different experience. There were no tests, there was no paperwork to fill out. It was, let’s sit down and talk. We ended up at the pub and continued just having a great, riveting conversation and then he flew me to New York. I interviewed there and then sometime later was offered the job. After I was offered the job, I wanted to continue Dr. Whisky and I tried my best and then it just fizzled.
Susan: So you were headed to New York then?
Sam: Yes, I moved to New York in 2008. In the summer of 2008, it was supposed to be April, supposed to be spring 2008, so I packed winter weight suits and everything. When I got to New York, there was some visa problems. As a Canadian, I needed to get a special visa. I had to build an application and the government took their time. I left London with a suitcase ready for the winter and then got to New York in the end of May.
It was roasting. No one would rent to me, so I had the sublet place in Hell’s Kitchen. Lying in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, sleeping next to a frozen bottle of water so I can sleep, taking cold showers through the night. It was hell…
Susan: But I’m sure the job itself must’ve been heaven…
Sam: It was, but it was more than I could have imagined. I had no idea what to imagine. I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. Brand ambassadors at that point, there were very few. It was early days for brand ambassador.
Susan: What are the kinds of things that you were doing?
Sam: You know, jokingly, we can criticize our bosses throughout our lives. I came to the office. She asked…Do you have your mobile phone? Did you get your laptop? I said yes, then she pats me on the back and says great and says great, all the best. At the time, that was so daunting and terrifying and I was a bit angry, but what that forced me to do was carve it myself because, no one can tell a brand ambassador what their job is. A brand ambassadors role is very multifaceted and it totally depends on the opportunity, depends on the brand, depends on the market, all these other things. She was basically saying, go figure it out, go find people who you want to talk to, who want to talk to you about the thing you create. Cool, memorable experiences for them. Wow. That is scary. It was scary, but what job isn’t, right? One thing I can tell you, it’s easy to make friends with a suitcase full of whisky.
Susan: That’s going to be the quote of the year! Oh and start your day with a dram!
Sam: At that point, I was the first ambassador that they had outside of their global ambassador. It was the first in the States and based in New York, and it was the whole US and, within six months, proved to be way too much.
There was such a thirst for whisky knowledge, whisky events, and for The Balvenie in particular that we soon hired a guy to cover the West Coast. He was living in New York at the time and I just focused on the East Coast.
Susan: What do you think it was about whisky at that time that people were so eager for?
Sam: Well, I can say something about the Northeast of the United States. I don’t want to generalize, but there’s a mix of immigrant groups that have come over the last hundreds of years into the States. It’s amazing that as a Canadian, maybe it’s a Canadian perspective, I’m not sure, but, Americans are always. Irish American, Jewish American, you know, that word comes first. I admired that. I liked that sort of identity where you have these roots. I think Americans already have a thirst for asking themselves where am I from?
There’s something exotic about Scotland, Ireland to every American, not just Irish American, Scottish Americans.And I think that’s part of it. This exoticism of this far away land, the old country, which is ironic, because bourbon and American whisky, rye whisky was all happening at the same time. These didn’t happen in succession chronologically. They were making whisky at the same time. Still, this is perception. So I think part of it is that it was coinciding with a move away from sessionable beer. Suddenly there are these craft brewers popping up and that had already been happening really for a decade in beer. Also the connoisseurship or knowing more about what you’re putting into your body and food and everything, but in drink in particular. There was a certain passion for knowledge, I think, for people of a certain income level, of course, because whisky is expensive.
They were coming to whisky, because there was such a story there and it was happening with wine, too. Certainly in the Northeast and in Florida, spirits, rum included, but whisky in particular, scotch whisky, there was such an interest in the stories and the traditions that were going on.
Susan: Did you ever think, wait a sec, what about that war poetry stuff that I was doing, I worked so hard on. Did you ever miss that?
Sam: My PhD was focused on Ezra Pound, one particular period of Ezra Pound’s time when he lived in London, before he moved to Paris and then to Italy. Every two years there is an Ezra Pound International Conference. I think for the first two cycles of that, while I had the whisky work, I still submitted papers and went to these. I had papers accepted and went to these conferences in different places, fortunately, one of them was in Boston, so it was in the States the first time. The next one was in London just in time when I moved back to London. So, I did that.
Did I miss that that world? I was never a professor, but I was teaching at university, I was in the halls. The world I saw around whisky, and drink in general, is so mutually supportive. It was the total opposite. You’d have colleagues and even friends in the same hallway, in the same department in the Humanities fighting for the same money, wishing ill to the other person, because they’re fighting for a small pool of money.
Whereas if the Pegu Club would take on The Balvenie and put it in one cocktail, we all benefit because we’re going to send people to their bar. Their bar is going to feature our cocktail. That rising tide attitude is something that happens that I witnessed anyway in the spirits’ world, and certainly with whisky, that wasn’t there in academia.
Susan: How about your music? Did you continue to play?
Sam: Yes. I think when I first started the role, I moved to New York. I wasn’t playing. I had a band that went dormant when I left to Edinburgh, that we sort of kept alive. In about 2011, there was a Global Travel retail fair. Someone told me there was leaders of a few of the watch brands, a few of the luxury brands, who played in a band. They’d see each other once a year, because they’re all from different parts of the world and play. I thought that was a wicked idea. I would love to do that, so I did.
I got the guitar back out of the loft or whatever it was at that time. I started playing again, creating covers, taking songs that everyone knows and, everyone wants to hear when they’re drinking, and mashing them up. When you’re in a bar and you hear, Oh, I love this song, you have to wait four minutes until you hear the next opportunity to even say, I love the song. The more songs I could mash into one, the more effective I thought it would be.
There was also the blending theme, you know, so I threw that in and my friend, Cat Spencer, whom I met when I moved back to London, was a fantastic singer, and also into this idea. We would just riff off each other, and we started playing just the two of us, and then got some other whisky industry people together.
We played whisky events that we are all attending – the editor of Whisky Magazine, Rob Allanson, Simply Whisky’s Simon Roser, and Cat was working at Albannach, and Dr. Nick Morgan from Diageo. Neil Ridley played with us for awhile as well.
Susan: Well, if you ever need a tambourine player, you know where I am! Let’s fast forward a little to the call from Atom Brands. You had been at The Balvenie for awhile and now you’re Head of Whisky for Atom Brands.
Sam: I was an ambassador in the US, then the family invited me to be global ambassador. I moved back to the UK in 2000. I was living up at the distillery with my wife and my newborn baby, my little American, because she was born in New York. There was snow across Scotland. The distillery was totally silent.
I remember when I left the US, a Scottish colleague said, you can only really be an ambassador for 10 years and that stuck in my mind. As time went on, I’ve always thought, okay, I’ve been doing this five years now and, each year, each new whisky, each new year brought a new opportunity. We came up with some really cool stuff that I was very proud of and I was allowed to be me. I never had to compromise that sort of identity. I never had to stop Dr. Whisky, never was told not to talk about other brands. It was a great company to work for and kept it interesting for longer than I think it might’ve been otherwise. So, there was some trip and it wasn’t that far away, but maybe I’m eight years into the role at this point, it was a short distance trip, maybe just to Scotland. I said to the kids, when I left, I will be home Sunday night and weather or whatever the heck happens when you’re flying or traveling. I didn’t get home. I already felt crappy about it, and then I got home and there’s a bit of a mess, because it’s hard when my wife’s home alone. There was some paper on the dining room table and I’m just tidying up and I look at a drawing of my wife, my eldest daughter and my middle daughter that my youngest daughter had drawn and there was no daddy in the picture.
And it sounds like such a cliché, And I just thought, what’s the point? What am I doing? It’s not my brand. These aren’t my things. I’m an employee. It’s my family. I’m traveling, There must be other ways to do this kind of work. It is travel heavy to be a brand ambassador. You’re on the road all the time. My successor, Gemma, who we lined up for the role when I started saying, okay, I have to leave.She’s on the road all the time. And I think with a young family, it wasn’t working anymore.
I started asking around. I’d go for a glass of wine and say, Hey, yeah, anything going or here’s what I’m thinking. Or I would propose ideas to people and just see what we could do next. Master of Malt’s Ben, Justin and Tom, I had known them about 10 years at that point. Since they were a couple of guys in the shed. They started in this business as people who had a license to sell alcohol, but created an online way to buy that proved to be quite effective. I saw them grow. I saw Boutiquey be launched and thought it was totally groundbreaking.
There’s now a million imitators, but also the illustrated labels that tell a codified history of the distillery. Super cool. No one else was doing that. Traditional in that they honored the distillery and the category, while also being fun and silly and not being afraid to be. I love that about them.
The whiskys were great and the people were great, and the company was growing and they were looking for someone to take over what he had been doing. Ben was the blender and oversaw the spirits and the innovation side of all the spirits that they came up with as they were becoming Atom Brands.
There’s the Master of Malt, the retailer, Maverick drinks, the importer, and then Atom Brands was becoming its own arm, coming up with gins and coming up with whiskys and rums of their own that, not only were selling through Master of Malt, but through other companies and being distributed globally and the scale was only getting bigger.
I think Ben was looking for someone else to focus on whisky and thought of me. Thank you, thank God. And so lucky me. We went in and did a little interview which was very fun. He set it up with all sorts of tricky questions just to prove that I couldn’t do gin as well. He asked me a bunch of things about gin that I totally bombed, but then put a bunch of whiskys to nose and I nailed. I got all those because I think he remembers years ago we went to the Port Ellen. John Beach does a Port Ellen tasting near the Port Ellen warehouses where you bring a bottle of Port Ellen. We brought a couple of bottles of my own, drank them, and we’d been drinking all afternoon and then went to this town hall where there’s a blind tasting of all the Islay distilleries.
You don’t know what they are and you have to taste them and guess where they are. I got second place. The guy who wins first place wins every year and is much more serious than I am. I don’t think he had 17 Port Ellen’s before going to the town hall. He sits at the table, he gets on his knees, focuses very much, it’s really, really intense. I just banged around and got second place. It’s my party trick. Ben said, prove that you still got it. And yeah, I did. And that was that. Then I explained to the guys at Balvenie, who were totally understanding, and it turned out I’d been there nine years, nine months. It ended up being true 10 years the most you can do as Ambassador. We had hired Gemma and she embodies the brand. She was absolutely perfect. I didn’t have to have do gardening leave. I was allowed to stay on and make sure the handover went the way I wanted it to for legacy reasons as well. I went and did one last whisky show in Canada, one of the best ones.
Atom Brands was growing massively. Two months after I got there, we got the investment and then things changed a lot.
Susan: And so now you can be creative with a lot more money to play with.
Sam: I think they were always creative, but they were always tied. They were restrained by money. Working with Ben now for almost two years. The guy can think of ideas so rapidly. It’s whether we can realize that pace and I think we can. We’ve got a lot of stuff in the pipeline and a lot of stuff that’s already hit the ground and surpassed even our expectations.
Susan: Tell me a bit about how Aerolite Lyndsay came about and the Character of Islay.
Sam: Remember we’re not distillers, so we don’t have the luxury of just making more liquid and planning. We’re not inheriting casks from generations ago. We have to find them and work with brokers and relationships or go direct to distilleries and see what we can source. As an independent bottler, it’s an old tradition in the scotch whisky industry, but as an independent bottler, you’re often a victim to what’s available.
Unless you’re buying in something like Gordon & MacPhail, you can say to a distillery, we will pay for the filling and fill it on our behalf, we’ll pay you to store it, and it’ll be ours in 10 years, 12 years, 30 years. We don’t have that luxury. We have to either go direct to a distillery that’s willing to part with some of their stock or find stuff on a brokerage market. So how do you create something consistent? Because that’s the biggest complaint, our partners, our distributors around the world as we’re trying to become global brands. Our partners might say that one year went really well, but we need more. It doesn’t work like that. We only got two casks, and that’s all. So Boutiquey is by nature boutique. It is always going to be limited. It’s on the label and we can’t scale it up.
Susan: How can we do something that’s listable and that could be offered year after year?
Sam: That was my first job, I guess. We thought the simplest way to do this is think of what do people like to drink. What do I like to drink? What do whisky people have on their shelves. Most whisky shelves at home will have a smokey whisky and heavily sherried higher strength whisky. Let’s do that first. We wanted to make an Islay whisky and a heavily shared whisky. They already had a heavily sherried whisky called Darkness, but it was always done in very small batches, quarter casks, about 80 bottles, 100 bottles per release. That was just frustrating, really tiny.
A buyer would think, “Hey, by the time I bought it, it’s already gone. I don’t need to spend any time on it. And I want more, but I can’t have any” How can we scale Darkness up while we secure a meaty style Speyside whisky that could withstand sherry maturation?
Aerolite Lyndsay was born of this desire to make something for that everyday Islay drinker. When you’re in the mood to reach for that Islay whisky on your shelf, what are you looking for? For sweetness and smoke. Nothing too complex. Nothing too deep, nothing too Sherry. Nothing too strong, and you want it to tick all the boxes. You can hopefully throw the cork away and have another, so that was the ambition. What distillery can we work with? We asked around, we tried to work with different distilleries, we tried different spirits to see which one ticked those flavor boxes.
Susan: Can you describe those exact flavor boxes where you’re looking for?
Sam: The first thing is to be an everyday Islay. So super approachable. Smoky.
Susan: Peaty. When you say Islay to me you mean peaty.
Sam: You’re right, I think most people think that. You have to have peat, even though the characteristics of the Islay aren’t necessarily all peaty. It certainly is the calling card of Islay. Islay means peat, and it’s one of the first thing that people learn. But this is not an in your face type of peaty.
Susan: Like you’re smoking a cigarette.
Sam: No, exactly. There is a time and place for that type of flavor.
Susan: So you were thinking a hint of Islay.
Sam: A balanced Islay. You get the peat like you’re looking for, but also the drinkability and sweetness, because most people like a sweet drink. I do certainly. The sweetness will make you reach for the glass again, that was really it. The other typical thing we wanted to make sure we have some sort of fruitiness, so either citrus or tropical fruits, which are typical of a few distilleries on Islay.
Minerality, which is also typical of some distillers now, creates a sort of umami thing to your palate that most of us don’t even recognize. Most things we like trigger a memory, whether it’s an actually umami or glutamates in the food doing it to us or the memory that makes us have a physical reaction. I wanted to make something that gives you that umami reaction. How to do that? We could score some 10 years old, Islay whisky. Great. How do we make it taste good? We’ll put some of it into these small sherry casks that we have, to give the sweetness and the dried fruits that most people like. We’ll just put that a little bit. Maybe a quarter of each bottle will have that sort of flavor and the rest will just be the tastes of the distillery and then a little bit of strange casks.
We put about 5% of the single malt from Islay into barrels that you used to hold something else, but usually strange distilleries that aren’t from Islay. Maybe Ardbeg from Islay. But we try to use Springbank or MacDuff or Clynelish Distillery casks, different casks from around Scotland to pull the flavor a little bit away from other, unnamed Islays.
This is named Aerolite Lyndsay, but it’s an unnamed distillery. The first thing people say is, Oh, what distillery is that? So we needed to come up with a brand that ticks the boxes flavor-wise, but sparks that sort of innocent satisfaction with just an Islay 10-year-old whisky.
In the whisky boom of the 70s, really the only people drinking scotch before then, or single malt before then were Italians. They were the collectors of Scotch Whisky and respecting it for its single cask. Everyone else was drinking blends. 99% of the Scotch market was blended at that time, if even slightly more. In this boom of the 70s, it was enough to say Old Highland Whisky on a label or to say, Islay 10-year-old or say, Isle of Skye 8-year-old. That was enough. The consumer didn’t need more.
It’s become increasingly competitive, you need to have a snow phoenix and a tidal pool, and then, some Gaelic word that no one can pronounce on the label.You have to differentiate yourself in the market because it’s so competitive.
This whisky doesn’t want to deal with that. We didn’t want to. We don’t own the distillery, so we’re not going to tell the distillery story, but we recognize that telling stories is such a central part of whisk appreciation and the people’s passion, my own.
Susan: As you said before, that’s why you were drawn into it.
Sam: Absolutely. If I see a name like Aerolite Lyndsay on a label. I immediately want to it pick up nad get to the bottom of it. Why is it called that? I think everyone would say that. I hope so. Then the next step is, if you pick it up, you’re one step closer to buying it. Which is a good thing,
You pick it up and you’re thrown for a loop because it doesn’t speak to you with an earnest voice. The voice is telling you, oh it’s a magical island of Islay. Because we learned, we did some research looking at all the different distillers in Islay and they all use the phrase “Splendid Isolation” in their brand message. In our first paragraph, we wanted to say, this is the part, dear reader, we’re meant to entice you with tales of the magical Island of Islay in all its splendid isolation, but we’re not going to!
It doesn’t say that. It talks about the pilgrimage to Islay, because, people who get into Islay whiskys, they can’t wait to get to the Island. When they get there, I think they see the distilleries and they realize the most important bit is in the glass. At the end of the day, once you’ve seen the places, seen the people who make it, the story of the water source. That yellow submarine that appeared one day in the bay becomes increasingly irrelevant. To make sure that point gets across, we tell you twice on the label that this is an Islay 10-year-old, but Aerolite Lyndsay is also an anagram of “Islay ten-year-old.” The story is yours to tell. I mean, open it, throw the cork away, share it with friends, and make your own stories. That’s what people do. Go to Islay. I’ve seen it many times. I’ve taken groups to Islay. I’ve visited, I’ve seen friends bring their fathers to Islay, who wanted their whole life to go to Islay, especially the dads. The son got into whisky probably to the great satisfaction of the father. They finally planned this trip 10 years out. They finally get to Islay and they ended up sitting in their cabin just drinking whisky with each other.
You know what I mean? When they go they spot seals. It’s not even about the distilleries anymore. Of course, the whisky is still in the glass. The whisky is the thing that binds them and brought them to the Island. But the pilgrimage becomes much more than some big story, it becomes about the connections with people and things like that.
We wanted to create characters for that reason too, because the characters, the stories of people, whisky drinkers and, or podcast listeners. I know for myself, listening to podcasts, you can listen to historical podcasts, comedy podcast, but usually the ones like this one, where it’s an interview or getting to know people, are the most listened to as well.
Susan: This is the first of the Character of Islay whisky, right?
Sam: I’m not sure to be honest. At the beginning,I don’t think we knew we were going to be a Character of Islay whisky company. I don’t think we knew they were going to be more. We just wanted to make a 10-year-old Islay and the old 70 stock. In the process, we had to build this sort of world around it because even the first batch, I think the first batch sold out immediately to all of our distributors. We’ve got to make more, which is a great problem to have, but it means that there is an interest. In Islay, we know that people want to drink Islay whiskys and we get offered Islay whiskys. The umbrella of a Character of Islay allows us to create more characters, but also to have a double play on the term character – the different characteristics of flavor around the Island and to create new new personalities, whether they’re real or fictional, just it doesn’t really matter.Aerolite Lyndsay – was she real? I don’t know. You tell me the story of Aerolite Lyndsay.
We are working on other characters, both a greater age, 25, 30-year-old, and also blended scotch. You know, Islay Mist, Islay Black Bottle was a blended scotch. It used to have Islay at its core, I think it was the tagline and so I wanted to make an Islay Blended Scotch as well. We’ve done that called Green Islay, that is actually just being bottled now. Character of Islay was born through Aerolite Lyndsay, but it wasn’t thought of initially as a full range. It’s just become that organically.
Susan: I’d like to meet Ms. Aerolite Lyndsay in person. So should we open a bottle and try some?
Sam: We should, but as Dave Broom said, “When you open it, you’ve got to throw the cork away!” I hope you’re ready for that.
Susan: Let’s go!!