Wainwright on whisky (Rob Wainwright)

Wainwright on whisky (Rob Wainwright)

Damian Riley-Smith talks to Scottish rugby star Rob Wainwright about winning matches, losing salmon and the contents of his hip flask, Photographs by Will Boxall.

People | 12 Jan 1999 | Issue 1 | By Damian Riley-Smith

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Rob Wainwright sounds much more Scottish than he used to. The soft Scottish lilt he had during his time in England (six years studying medicine at Cambridge University) became staunchly Scottish overnight when he moved back north. ‘If you ask the Scots I’ve got an English accent, and if you ask the English I sound Scottish. I can’t win.’Win or not, he’s nevertheless been capped 37 times for Scotland, including 16 times as captain; he captained the Scottish rugby team between 1995 and 1998. He plays for Glasgow Caley, was brought up in Perth where his parents still live and spends much of his free time heading north to see them. They come and watch the odd game, ‘but they don’t come training’. Dougie, Wainwright’s son, clearly thinks every moment should be spent practising to be a scrum half. Their other two children are much less active, so if Wainwright wants a rugby player to follow him, Dougie is his best chance. ‘I’ll steer him into other things, but looking at his qualities at the moment rugby might be the best. He’s full of energy, and he’s moderately aggressive.’ Trained into him by his father? ‘We’re actually attempting to train it out of him.’Becoming a doctor, traditionally an enthusiastic group of whisky consumers, came about more by chance than conviction. ‘I wanted to go to Cambridge, but I also wanted to do marine biology which they don’t do at Cambridge. But they did do natural sciences and my sisters, all older than me, said “Natural sciences, don’t do natural sciences”, whilst my father said “do something with a career at the end of it”. And for some reason medicine was pulled out of the hat.’ And yet, somehow, medicine was a shock for the provincial teacher’s son. ‘The most incredible thing was that on the first day of my course the Regius Professor of medicine, Lord Butterworth, at 9 o’clock in the morning, said “right, we’re going through to start dissection”. And that was that. We were led into another room, paired up with a complete stranger, and then presented with two sides of a naked body.’After school in Scotland, six years at university, a busy home life with no brothers but four sisters, Wainwright was hurled into the limelight by his selection to play rugby for Scotland and then lead his country’s team into the Five Nations. And for an international sportsman drinking must be a rare luxury or the occasional binge. ‘I’m more of a binge, rather than regular, drinker, and I only binge once a month or so. There’s a number of reasons for that; first as a professional rugby player you must look after yourself; and second when you have children one of you is always driving.’ However peer pressures from a team environment are immense, and drinking with the team is part of his game. ‘Alcohol is a very good team builder. It gives people a common history outside their workplace, outside the rugby field. You find in rugby people never get on really well until they’ve played together, but you can go one step further if you play together and then drink together.’In a world that defines itself increasingly by what you cannot do, a public figure, in whatever sphere, has a private and a public face. Most players at public or presentation events drink soft drinks, partly to control the quantity of whisky they could drink but also because they all respond differently to its effects. ‘I find it hard to dabble at drinking’ says Wainwright, ‘either I am or I’m not drinking, and that’s just the way I am. I’m either on wine or I’m on whisky and beer, and I don’t try and mix the two.’ This strict personal regime is well founded – ‘generally if I have a few beers and then move on to wine I become really obnoxious’. Wainwright’s greatest rugby moment was during the Lions Tour of 1997, when he scored three tries in 11 minutes. They were all scored in the first half, within the first 15 minutes of the game. Other great moments were catching his first salmon and winning a blue at Cambridge. ‘I lost my first salmon when I was probably about 10. My father handed me the rod and within a couple of casts I caught one. As I’d been used to catching trout I started winching it in. My father yelled “give it line, give it line”, and I have to blame him partly because he hadn’t set the drag right and I just winched it in, and snap. I had lost it.’Cambridge was a family tradition, and so was sport at Cambridge. ‘So when I went there winning a blue was what I was really there for.’ In fact Wainwright was awarded a blue in both rugby and boxing, and the boxing one came first. ‘I was injured for my first year, and I wasn’t selected in my second year as the captain Gavin Hastings thought someone else was better. Fine by me.’ Was it a good decision to exclude him? ‘Well, they lost that year. Oh, and they lost the next year as well.’The memory of his first enjoyable glass of whisky was at a party in Edinburgh. A friend who had a cottage near Bruichladdich on Islay brought a miniature of that infamous peaty malt. ‘Before this time I hadn’t enjoyed whisky – I’d only enjoyed the idea of whisky. But at this tender, and illegal, age of 16 I drank it and thought “this is bloody good”.’ Then when he left school, he used to spend New Years on the west coast of Scotland. ‘We used to have fairly big New Years and they were very whisky-orientated. We started getting into a kind of whisky culture. Always whisky and water, and usually 50:50, with a chaser.’ However there has also been the rugby culture, where other less delightful mixtures were created. ‘I think the worst one I ever had was whisky, Guinness and tomato juice, in equal measures. Absolutely disgusting. For me the best is still half and half, whisky and water. I also love whisky macs, whisky sours, and particularly daytime drinking from a hipflask when out shooting or on the hillside.’ And other whiskies of the world? ‘I still find Irish and American whiskies just a little too sweet for me’.For a Scot, the understanding of the difference between blends and malts took a long time. His first recollection was being told that a blend had grain whisky in it. ‘And the fact that a malt all came from one distillery didn’t really register for a wee while. I suppose once you start getting
into whisky it’s natural that you start
experimenting with malts. It’s beginning to sound like a drug, isn’t it? – “and then we started experimenting with malts, and it all went downhill from there, and then we got fixed on one of the West Coast malts”. Yes, you move into malts. I find malts fascinating because there is so much bigotry and snobbishness and rhetoric about them. “This malt’s good, that malt’s bad”. I got myself into a wee bit of trouble when someone brought in a malt which shall remain nameless and I said “ugh, Glenfiddich”. I really offended him and got into a huge argument and was quite wrong. Because ultimately the whisky that people enjoy is the one that’s good for them. Everyone is subjective about malt whisky and that’s the appeal of it, but you should only be subjective in your own taste and not impose that on other people.’As Wainwright knows only too well, it isn't just about the taste. ‘Most people who drink malt can tell a Laphroaig from a Speyside, but when you get down to the finer detail it’s more difficult. It’s all about the atmosphere, where it comes from, and the memories associated with it.’ Although, as a Scot, there is enthusiasm for the view “I’m from Scotland, I must drink whisky”, the history, legend and location is even more important. ‘If you’ve been to Islay or if you’ve been to Skye and you say “Oh Talisker is my favourite malt”, it’s because it’s all tied up with the place, the location, the bottle. Yes, I even find the bottle very important; for me it’s all about shape of the bottle, the label, the whole atmosphere surrounding the whisky – all these elements are just as important as the final taste.’ The time of day at which one drinks whisky is also part of the whole experience. ‘I tend to drink it as a mellow drink in the evening. It’s tied in with the open fire, warm lighting and everything like that. It’s just a mellow, atmospheric drink.’ But does he enjoy a dram during the day? ‘The only time I’ll drink it during the day is when I’m out shooting or skiing. I’ll have it in a hipflask, and nip into it every now and then.’
Rugby became a passion before whisky. He started playing when he was eight or nine, and he missed his first serious game because he punched someone in the changing rooms in the week preceding selection for the under-11s. Who won? ‘I’m not sure there was any result to speak of but I think the point was proven. My captain said “don’t do it, you’ll injure your hand and miss the game”. I went, “no, I won’t” and punched him with my thumb in my fist, and I missed the rugby game. So my first lesson was to punch like this, not like that [hands waving] – oh, and to listen to your captain.’Like many great sportsmen Wainwright has his own heroes. ‘I looked up to many, but for me Gareth Edwards was a god.
Oh, and a man called Hugh Falkus, a fisherman who wrote a wonderful book on the subject.’Life hasn’t all been plain sailing. Losing the Grand Slam decider in 1996 was clearly a huge disappointment. ‘I was concussed only 20 minutes into the game. It was potentially the greatest day, certainly in my rugby playing career, if not my life, and it didn’t go my way. It is something I really regret. To have the biggest challenge in your life and then not be in a position to take part was very, very disappointing.‘I’m not captain of Scotland now and in fact I’m not sure I ever really was – in the sense that no-one ever said “that’s your role for the next year”.’ Injury has plagued Wainwright for many months, but getting back on the pitch and not injuring himself is the big next challenge. He says he feels better now in terms of fitness and speed than he has for quite a while, a good prospect for what will likely be his last season as a player. He is in the squad of 26 who have made the initial stage, ‘but I’ve still got lots to prove’. Looking to the future Wainwright has clearly made some difficult decisions. ‘Rugby’s going to end after the World Cup if not before, and that’s in the lap of the gods, the selectors and above
all myself, whether I can produce the form I want.’What are the options for the future? ‘Being a doctor is always there to fall back on’. What about working in the whisky industry? ‘Not directly, but I hope to do my best to keep them in business’. Surprisingly, he dreams about owning land and a house on the west coast of Scotland. ‘That’s the next ambition to fulfil. I want to create a place that is not so much a hotel, rather a club.’ Behind me is a picture called Glenraden, the name of his dream. It’s a sporting club based on an estate, devoted to wild sport and wild places; stalking, shooting, fishing and falconry. ‘If we believe enough in country sports then we must do what we can to protect them and nurture them in the best way’. For a man who earns his living in a scrum or dealing with medical ailments this is a huge contrast. ‘One of the rules would be that whenever anyone came to stay they must bring a bottle of malt with them and it would go into the bar. Not so that they had to drink it all each time, but so we would have a very interesting top shelf. Sport should be part of the experience, not just the experience.’The Famous Grouse is Wainwright’s favourite blend. ‘I always loved it because there was a grouse on the bottle. I really enjoyed knowing Matthew Gloag [the descendant of the creator of Grouse]; Gloags have been called Matthew for five generations, and that personal side matters to me’. Fond recollections of whisky experiences are all part of Wainwright’s enjoyment. ‘I remember one night when we were on Islay and went down to the hotel at Port Askaig, down by the harbour. It isn’t that far from Bunnahabhain. The tide was right in, there was barely any harbour visible, the slipway under water and the sea almost under the fence outside the hotel. We went in and thought we’d have one quick drink and they said, “try our Islay malts”; all Islay malts £1.50 per nip, except Caol Ila, £1.65. It was the best bit of marketing I’ve ever seen for a whisky: I had to find out why Caol Ila was worth an extra 15p. To my mind it’s so much smoother than the recognized Islay characters of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It’s also quite a clear whisky, which is obviously all to do with the wood it’s matured in.’ Which brings us neatly back to Wainwright’s own environment, and his maturation into a Scot. ‘I have to admit when I came back up again from England I was acutely Scottish. It happens when you’ve been away for a bit, but in my case I became fiercely nationalistic. I also tried to change my accent which I now don’t do any more. In fact I don’t think it’s so much accent as language; it’s the language up here that’s so different.’ Fortunately the word ‘malt’ is international.
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