Andrew Symington has made huge success of Signatory, the world's second largest independent bottler. But this is just the beginning, as Tom Bruce-Gardyne found out.
Tucked away in the back streets of Edinburgh’s Newhaven district, Andrew Symington sits at the helm of the world’s second biggest independent whisky bottler. No mean feat for Signatory, the company he set up from scratch only 12 years ago. There is no sense of self congratulation however, not the faintest trace in fact. Instead of a flash suit and big cigar, Symington favours overalls and the occasional cigarette. His internal neon-lit office is within a warehouse packed with cases of Scotch and around 100 barrels awaiting bottling. Next door a slow progression of bottles can be heard clanking down the filling line, each one labelled by hand. For a man who lives and breathes the rarest malts day in day out, has whisky always been in the blood? “I guess my great grandfather worked for VAT 69 for 40 odd years ... I’m quite certain he consumed an enormous amount of it in his time,” reflects Andrew. “Not that it did him any harm - he lived until he was 96.” Andrew’s true initiation began at Prestonfield House Hotel on the outskirts of Edinburgh where he was assistant manager during the 1980s. Prestonfield was one of the grandest venues of its day, and was popular among the big whisky companies for entertaining their foreign agents and distributors. These were the days before the Guinness takeover when the individual firms within the Distillers company like James McEwan and J & D Stewart were largely run as separate entities. “Very often they’d bring along cask samples to show how the blend was put together. Some of them were 20, 25-year-old sherry cask malts which I’d get to taste and think crikey! This stuff’s great to drink as it is, and that’s where the interest started,” recalled Andrew.After a first taste of single cask bottling an own-label malt for the hotel, he was hooked and swiftly moved to set up Signatory in 1988. The name was to have been a temporary stop-gap while Andrew scoured around for someone famous to sign the labels. Each cask was to have its very own celeb’. In the event, the first cask, a 1968 Glenlivet, sold out long before a suitable VIP could be found and so the idea was dropped, “though I did get quite close to Sean Connery once,” he recalls.With hindsight it was not the best time to borrow £100,000 and start a business what with the mid-1980s’ boom sliding into the late ‘80s’ bust. “The first five years were very tough – on two or three occasions we came perilously close to not surviving,” said Andrew. With interest rates peaking at 19 per cent, he remembers one year paying the bank an enormous sum of money. On hearing they had redecorated his branch he was quite offended not to have been asked to choose the colours as“I felt I’d paid for them ten times over.”For Signatory, the economic tide began to turn in 1993. By then the company had established a reputation for its bright, bold packaging and for pioneering the word “Vintage” on whisky labels. Apart from wanting to stand out from the standard 21 and 25 year olds, it was also a stock issue. “If I had a certain whisky from a certain year, say a ‘68, I knew the next cask might be a ‘69 or a ‘71, so it was to show that like fine wine, when one vintage is exhausted you have to move on,” explained Andrew. At the time a lot of people laughed at the notion of malt whisky aspiring to be like vintage port or claret, though now of course everyone is doing it. Even The Famous Grouse, Andrew was amused to see, is currently available as a vintage vatted malt.With the demise of the whisky brokers, “there are really only three left” he reckons, bottlers like Signatory increasingly have to deal direct with the distillers. Not all the big distillers are entirely happy with independent bottlers, and more to the point very few will offer cask samples preferring to sell in parcels of up to 50 barrels. The trick is then to cherry-pick the best casks leaving the rest to be swapped with other whisky companies or blenders. Signatory often sees a rejected cask re-emerge in another parcel a couple of years down the line. There is a third way. In the late 1960s a number of popular investment schemes in the US allowed private punters to buy their very own cask of malt whisky. Thirty years on and the cask might have passed on to a new generation with no great interest in malt. At which point the distillery receives a long-distance phone call suggesting whoever it is should contact Andrew. It can lead to spectacular finds as with the cask of Ben Wyvis that turned up a few months back. “Now that’s VERY rare stuff!” declares Andrew with a grin. “It wasonly distilled from 1965 to 1977 and to our knowledge it’s never been bottled as a single malt before.” For you or I, that means around £700 a bottle.Other great finds include an original cask of Glen Flagler and one called Killyloch, which should have been Lillyloch only someone couldn’t spell, both from the old Moffat distillery near Airdrie. There was also a ‘65 sherry cask Glen Grant “absolutely black in colour - superb stuff!” A special bottling was taken over to Switzerland last year for Andrew’s wedding in St Moritz, though sadly not for toasting the bride. His wife being Swedish, they used some of her father’s home-made aquavit smuggled in for the occasion. The Ben Wyvis scoop illustrates the crucial importance of contacts. Above all you have to keep in with whoever’s controlling the stock. “If you’re there and they’re in the right mood they might say –‘Well, there’s a couple of odd casks of this or that,’ otherwise it’s best not to ask. In a word, you have to be in and be liked.” Andrew Symington is lucky. By all accounts he is a popular guy within the trade, and he is clearly respected. Having his own warehouse and bottling line allows him to control the whole process from cask to bottle, unlike what he calls the “armchair bottlers” who sit at home with phone and fax, and bottle under contract. At Signatory all whisky is bottled at cask strength after a light chill filtering. Why bother with chill filtering at all, I wonder. It seems that while many connoisseurs understand and probably appreciate an un-filtered malt turning cloudy when water is added, there are still plenty who don’t. “If I’m honest, independent bottling won’t go on forever, a lot of what we specialise in comes from distilleries that fell under the axe in the 1980s,” Andrew admits. With real gems like the ‘65 Glen Grant growing increasingly rare, he has clearly no interest in abandoning single casks to bottle a standard 12 year old for example. His real desire it transpires, is to have his very own distillery “and I’m getting quite close,” he says with a glint in his eye. He won’t say which one, and it’s clearly a drawn-out affair. “You have to have all the owners in the right place at the right time. It’s not like buying a house, it’s like buying a whole street.”
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