Blackadder goes forth

Blackadder goes forth

Tom Bruce-Gardyne talks to Robin Tcek, proprietor of the independent bottler blackadder, and finds out why he dislikes filtering, industry attitudes and armchairs

Production | 16 Apr 2001 | Issue 15 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

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Being asked to blind taste a whisky and identify it in front of an audience can be a little unnerving. To do so on TV as the last item on the six o’clock news sounds positively terrifying. When the evening’s presenter turned to his guest with the dreaded words “and finally”, handing him a miniature bottle of malt, John Lamond must have wished he was anywhere but live in the studio of Grampian TV in Aberdeen. “They were running late and I could see this guy out of the corner of my eye holding up ten fingers, then nine, then eight ...”, he recalls. It was not a moment for stage fright and just before the credits rolled Lamond managed to blurt out the correct answer – Royal Lochnagar.The reason for this attempted piece of air-time humiliation was that John Lamond had recently won the title of ‘Master of Malt’ in a national whisky tasting competition devised by Robin Tucek. It was the mid-1980s and the pair of them had just begun a ten-year collaboration starting with The Malt Whisky File – a book that has now sold over 100,000 copies. The latest edition has just been published by Canongate Books. In 1988 they set up a mail-order company with a small shop in Tunbridge Wells, also called Master of Malt, until Tucek resigned in the mid-1990s citing “differences of opinion”.While his old business evolved into the Malt Whisky Association, Robin was thinking of how he could continue to indulge his passion for Scotch and earn a living at the same time. The result was Blackadder International, an independent bottler set up in 1995, named after the 14th century bishop of Glasgow – John Blackadder – and not Rowan Atkinson’s famous British TV character. In choosing what to call his new venture, he wanted something different, something that would stand out from the crowd of ‘Macs’ and ‘Glens’. “I remember I was staying with a friend in Germany who has a deep interest in all things Scottish and was looking through some of his books. I had this name floating through the back of my head when the page popped open at Blackadder and I thought – this is it.” Now aged 52, Robin runs the business on his own from Stockholm.“Bottling is the most critical part of the whole operation”, he told me, so I could not help wondering if being based in Sweden he risked being described as an “armchair bottler”. This is the disparaging phrase coined by his rival Andrew Symington, of Signatory, for those who sit at home with phone, fax and bottle under contract. The question clearly rankles: “I don’t know what kind of chair Andrew uses, but I don’t sit in an armchair.” To be fair to Blackadder, the firm insists on a strict set of rules to be followed by the bottling company in Paisley – the same one used by other independent bottlers like Murray McDavid and Laing Brothers. Being based in Sweden has certainly helped the business grow in the lucrative Scandinavian market where there is a keen interest in rare malts.Talking to Tucek, the company motto could well be ‘the cloudier the better’, for if Blackadder has a unique selling point it lies in its
uncompromising stance on the issue of chill filtering. “We are bottling individual casks to be different, whereas chill filtering removes a lot of the fat, oils and glycerine suspended in the whisky. If you chill filter you obtain a much clearer spirit. You take out the cloudiness but also a large proportion of the esters as well – so you have something different than came out of the cask,” Robin states. In fact he does admit to using a filter, though it’s probably an old kitchen sieve, if only to keep out any stray bits of wood. Then again one wonders whether, secretly, Blackadder would be rather pleased if one of its customers did complain about swallowing the odd splinter. The latest expression of this “say no to filters” policy is the Raw Cask range of seven whiskies launched last October through duty free. These include a 33-year-old Springbank and a 27-year-old Bowmore each available from a solitary numbered cask. These individual bottlings are offered at cask strength as a unique one-off experience at the other end of the spectrum from say, Glenfiddich, where any product variation, let alone cloudiness, would be a disaster. Blackadder claims to achieve less than 1% loss from cask to bottle, compared to an industry average of 2% – 3% caused by over zealous filtering. “The whole idea for Raw Cask is to keep the sediment evenly distributed between every bottle,” he states. In other words they all have an equal share of any tasty gubbins that happens to be lurking around in the bottom of the barrel.Mindful of the complexities of pattern law and the recent spat between Allied Distillers and Murray McDavid over Laphroaig, not all the Blackadder bottlings carry the name of the actual distillery. Thus we have Blairfindy, described on the American website as “a classic Speyside malt whisky drawn from a rich, smooth Sherry Cask. Exclusive from Blackadder.” And the Old Man of Hoy described as “a fine Orcadian Single Cask Single malt”, which propelled Jim Murray to the heights of lyrical fantasy. “Fabulous heathery depth,” he wrote in Issue 5 of Whisky Magazine, “an almost flower-scented sweetness, this is the kind of malt that would send bees into a frenzy.” In this case Tucek is less coy about revealing its origins. “Most people know it’s unfiltered Highland Park – though we don’t put it on the label.” Also on offer is A Drop of the Irish, “the only non-chill filtered, unpeated Irish Single Malt whiskey”, and the Clydesdale Original – a 7 to 12-year-old single cask malt, that’s popular in Japan. It is there that Blackadder’s success is down to its agent, Takeshi Mogi, who translated The Malt Whisky File in his spare time. Takeshi is also fluent in Gaelic, favours the kilt and is no slouch when it comes to playing the bag-pipes. For customers in America there is the Statement range of four fairly young single malts at an affordable price selected to “encourage the exploration of the different characters of the regions”.Tucek finds the industry’s attitude to independent bottlers using the distillery name puzzling. “It's a bit like saying we’re going to sell you a Mercedes, but there’s absolutely no way you can sell it on as a Mercedes.” But the big issue and one with dire consequences for any independent bottler is that of distillery closures. “This is the crime if you like – the fact that places with upwards of a hundred years’ heritage have had their distilling taken away from them. It has made for less availability and less interest in the industry, and overall it’s bound to take a lot of the charm and a lot of the interest away from whisky.” And in the light of the recent Seagram’s sale to Diageo and Pernod-Ricard, Tucek is no optimist. “You can absolutely guarantee there’ll be more closures. And the reasons given at corporate level will be exactly the same, but these people don’t care about the spirit of the industry – and I mean that in both senses of the word.”
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