Interview: Billy Walker, Scotch whisky's master of reinvention

Interview: Billy Walker, Scotch whisky's master of reinvention

As Billy Walker celebrates a half-century in whisky, he reflects on the importance of creative freedom, fresh perspectives, and how, despite his achievements, he still considers himself a ‘simple whisky-maker’

Interview | 14 Nov 2022 | Issue 187 | By Kristiane Sherry

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Billy Walker is in a contemplative spirit. One of the whisky industry’s most notable names, his influence across the Scotch landscape can’t be understated. Known for his shrewd, prophetic ability to identify opportunities, alongside his sensory instinctiveness, he is widely regarded as an industry elder. Inducted into Whisky Magazine’s prestigious Hall of Fame in February 2021, Walker has the air of someone who just quietly gets on with the task at hand, the less ceremony the better. But today, as we speak on the phone to reflect on his 50 years in Scotch, he seems softer somehow.

“I just wake up in the morning and think how blessed I am to be able to actually play with whisky,” he says, chuckling when I ask him how he thinks his peers view him. “Quality is everything for me and for the team.” It’s a philosophy that has served him well, from his first whisky role as an analyst at Chivas Brothers-owned Hiram Walker in 1972, right up to acquiring and running his own distilleries from 2004 onwards. This includes GlenAllachie, his most prominent venture today. His approach has opened doors, brought people together, and defined the character of some of our best-known distilleries. “I think perhaps that particular approach may resonate with some of my peers in the industry,” he muses modestly.

Born and raised in the “whisky town” of Dumbarton, Walker reckons his chances of gravitating towards a career in the sector were always high. He initially embarked on a role in chemistry before joining Hiram Walker to work on Ballantine’s, among other brands. “It gave me wonderful opportunities,” he recalls. “I worked in the warehousing, worked the bottling plant, worked the blending. It gave me a fantastic grounding in what the industry was all about.”

A closer look at GlenAllachie"s whisky. Credit: The GlenAllachie Distillery

Perhaps most strikingly, it gave him an early impression of the pressures of consistency – a theme that comes up again and again, underpinning his entire whisky-making philosophy. He talks of the weight of reputation that big brands can carry, the desires of and the need to protect the “legacy fan”. Instead, he’s sought out newness and rebirth. “I can only speak with my own hat on here,” he states, considering the distilleries he’s “inherited” throughout his career and the “blank canvas” that under-the-radar operations provide. “It does give you a lot of freedom that perhaps is not enjoyed or can’t be enjoyed by bigger companies.”

The first time he served as master blender was from 1976, with Inver House. “It was an absolutely magical time,” he says. “They were an incredibly creative company. They almost had no barriers to what they wanted to do or achieve, and it gave me an enormous amount of freedom to do things and create.” This sense of freedom carried through to his next role at Burn Stewart, and the resurrection of Deanston.

Walker speaks with considerable animation; it seems Deanston was where his passion for reinvigorating overlooked producers was born. Messy, time-consuming, complex – from recommissioning fermenters to implementing good hygiene measures, it was challenging work. But it also came at a fortuitous moment. “In truth, it was great fun,” he smiles through his words. It was a time when single malt was tiny as a category, with consumer tastes favouring the big blends. “It was giving the site back its personality, and reinventing what we wanted the Deanston style of spirit to be.” That meant going back to basics: yeast strain, fermentation length, and spirit cut were all decisions he made. “You’ve been blessed to establish a distillery and start its journey towards being its own single malt. Historically it would all have been used in blended whisky.”

The next stage of his career was to acquire Benriach with his two business partners. A second theme emerges, one perhaps unique to whisky: the discordance between commercial acquisitions and divestments, and the romance attached to distilleries.

“Ah listen, for sure it’s a point in time but you know,” he pauses. “It can also be a good point in time. It’s no bad thing for a fresh pair of hands, a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh mind to come in.” And the soul of a distillery, its people, often remain, he notes.

Credit: The GlenAllachie Distillery

The fire lit under him at Deanston really came to the fore at Benriach. “We had all kinds of ideas, some of which we were able to introduce, and some took a little bit longer,” he says. “But essentially, we had no handcuffs. We could have ideas. I have to say, some of them worked, some didn’t work. But nevertheless, we had the freedom to pursue different angles.” It’s that key theme again: “It allows us to have a strap line that we don’t we don’t pursue absolute consistency. We pursue absolute excellence and perfection. And I’m not saying that they’re not both the same thing. But we are not constrained by history.”

What was it that appealed most about Benriach as an acquisition target? “I think you have to reflect on where the industry was at that time,” he says. “There were a number of malt whiskey distilleries that were closed and/or mothballed, and Benriach was one of these.” Single malt production was modest by today’s standards. “I’m not saying it was easy to acquire a distillery at that time, but it was easier than it might have been today, that’s for sure.”

This is where that nous for opportunity came into its own. “We wanted to create something. We felt we had the energy, we knew we had the knowledge, and… we had a feeling this opportunity was about to open up.” Part of that was the broader consensus, or lack of, around single malt. “It was a real opportunity to engage with, or try to engage with, informed consumers rather than multiple retail outlets.”

It sounded like a relatively simple transaction. “It was helpful that Chivas were really, really good people to deal with,” he says of Benriach’s prior owner. “They were sympathetic to the fact that the distillery was going to get the opportunity to reinvent itself and to start working again.”

GlenDronach followed in 2008, with Glenglassaugh joining the fold, now known as the Benriach Distillery Company, in 2013. He and the team worked across them all until 2016, developing the cask inventory and wood management approaches, when all three were acquired by Jack Daniel’s parent company, Brown-Forman.

“It wasn’t an easy decision,” he concedes, “and it wasn’t a decision that was taken lightly by me because I was probably, of the three investors, the most reluctant to sell. But my co-investors had other issues that were going on at the time, and it would have been very unsympathetic on my part not to recognise that and to find a way to help them. But it was a big change.”

All three, he continues, created very different excitement. Benriach, as the “first child”, arrived at a time of “bubbling” single malt activity. GlenDronach was a “wonderful” acquisition. But it’s at the coastal Glenglassaugh where you get a sense of unfinished business. “In many ways, I still have some disappointment about that one,” he says. “The building blocks we put in place during the period 2013 to 2016 were just fantastic. I know there will be some wonderful releases from that distillery over the next four to five years.”

Yet it feels like all three are in good hands. “Different hands, and probably a different psychology. But I’m pretty sure it will be a safe psychology.” All three will develop with freedom, a direction he would have been “reluctant” to go in. “Our philosophy has always been to engage with private, independent importers and distributors, and into private independent retailers. We want to engage with the informed consumer,” he explains. “We would be very uncomfortable about tiptoeing out of our footprint into the footprint of the likes of Brown-Forman or Diageo or Chivas. That’s not our territory and we absolutely recognise that.”

Lindsay Cormie (L), Billy Walker and Kieron Ingram (R). Credit: The GlenAllachie Distillery

What the sale did unlock was the opportunity to acquire GlenAllachie in 2017. “We were astonished, frankly, that we were able to do it,” he remarks. “The timing… I mean, it was a very casual and impromptu discussion with Chivas that actually started the process. And we were so, so delighted that the opportunity did come up.” The momentum in the industry simply meant there were very few options, something he expects will be the case at least for the medium term.

GlenAllachie feels like a crowning point, not just because it’s what Walker is working on now, but because it ticks so many boxes for him. As a quality producer flying under the radar, it gave him the opportunity to define the brand through flavour and positioning. There was huge scope for innovative wood management, too. Then there’s the blend of creative and commercial.

“The size of the facility was a challenge,” Walker says. “4.2 million litres [a year] is a big facility. It wasn’t something that we wanted to engage with at that level.” The very first thing to do was cut capacity to just 25 per cent to allow for fermentation times to increase to 140–160 hours, up from 60. “Our ambition is to encourage the maximum flavour profiling into the fermented wash.” Then it was about “poring over” the existing inventory. “See where we are, what are the challenges, what do we need to do to take this opportunity forward?”

What does the Billy Walker approach to wood management look like? “I can start off by saying that, in my opinion, as long as you make good spirit, identify the central cuts that you want that’s right for the personality of the whisky you want to create, and you put it into good wood, you’ll make good whisky.” Then the creativity really comes in. “Since we acquired Benriach, we have looked at a whole variety of wood styles.”

These include Spanish, American and French oak with various levels of toasting, and for non-sherried releases, Hungarian oak, too. “We’ve looked at Missouri chinquapin oak, we’re looking at Ozark chinquapin. We’d love to get our hands on some garryana, [and] we’re currently importing some Mongolian oak,” he continues, adding that the virgin Scottish oak and Japanese mizunara he sourced two to three years ago have also been fascinating.

“A lot of this stuff is relatively new, the use of different genuses,” he continues. “The more intense use of virgin oak, the various levels of toasting and charring… I’m not saying it’s new to the industry, but more people are looking to better understand what these casks are going to bring to the flavour profile of the whisky and at what level.”

Inside the GlenAllachie Distillery. Credit: The GlenAllachie Distillery

Once you’ve got the aged spirit, you need to blend. For Walker, success here involves constantly bringing the chemistry back in. “While blending unquestionably is instinctive, it’s touch and feel stuff, and experience, but to actually have the best knowledge of the science behind what is happening is really important,” he says. “Having been involved in blending for a long time, I’m lucky enough to also have the benefit of substantial science knowledge that assists in creating what we’re doing.”

Five years into the GlenAllachie venture, and he reckons the team has achieved 90 per cent of the quality definition he set out. “The last 10 per cent may be an aspiration and something that can’t be achieved, but it won’t be through lack of trying.” Other brands in the stable include MacNair’s Blended Malt, White Heather Blended Scotch Whisky, and Exploration Rum. There’s a lot going on. Does he see himself as an entrepreneur?

“No, I consider myself a whisky-maker,” he responds firmly. He is undeniably a chemist with a remarkable instinct for flavour and opportunity, and although he has a half-century under his belt, one gets the sense there’s still a wealth of ideas, and even distilleries, to be explored.
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