People

A spirited career (Tom Aitken)

Ian Buxton looks back at the career of one of the whisky world's titans - Tom Aitken.
By Ian Buxton
After nearly 40 years experience in the drinks industry, and with a career that has embraced gin, cachaça and coffee liqueurs as well as Scotch whisky, it might be expected that Tom Aitken has some interesting views.It proved so when I met with him at Whisky Live Glasgow to reflect on his career and look at the industry he loves.But, first, who is Tom Aitken?He’s one of the industry’s great unsung heroes – a blender.Recently retired after 17 years with Bacardi, Tom has fulfilled the role of master blender at John Dewar & Sons in Glasgow since Bacardi acquired that company in 1998.In fact, quite remarkably, he can claim to be only the sixth Master Blender for Dewars, but he was a remarkably prolific and successful one, as a string of awards and medals testify.But that’s jumping forward. What was the journey that took Tom to this elevated and distinguished position?He entered the industry in January 1970 as a shift chemist with Inver House Distillers.As Tom recalls: “During my time in the laboratory I was involved in the analysis of all raw materials, bi-products, new make spirit and mature whisky. I analysed neutral spirit produced on site used in production of vodka and gin and tested botanicals, formulations and the final product. When Inver House produced Heather Cream Liqueur, I was involved from the start.” So a varied role, then, and great training for his next move to Teachers, where he set up new laboratory facilities and then moved to quality control, product development and management of the gin production – even running trials to produce cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil. This led to the creation of a unique glass column still and the launch of Tachino.Eventually, Tom returned to his first love and was responsible for creating Teachers 60, a blended whisky with 60 per cent malt whiskies, at that time the highest malt content of any major blend.Various other blends were created by Tom for regional markets and, as a curious sideline at Allied Distillers, he also determined the coffee content for Tia Maria and Kahlua liqueurs. Proof, if any were needed, that the skill of the blender lies in his ‘nose’ and an almost supernatural ability to distinguish the different qualities and potential of raw materials, be they single malt whiskies, tea or perfumes.In 1988 Allied Lyons and Hiram Walker merged to form Allied Distillers, and shortly afterwards Tom joined Bacardi’s William Lawson Distillers Ltd. at Coatbridge as blender and quality control manager. He was the logical candidate for the post of master blender at John Dewar & Sons when it acquired that company.Under the ownership of the DCL and latterly United Distillers, Dewar’s had always seemed to play second fiddle to Johnnie Walker. Other than in the United States, where Dewar’s maintained the dominant presence established by the ebullient Tommy Dewar, Walker seemed to take priority.All that changed from 1998, under Bacardi’s ownership. Now controlling five single malt distilleries and one of the largest global brands, an aggressive new marketing strategy was soon put in place and Tom played a critical role in developing new products to expand the Dewar portfolio.The position of master blender became uniquely important. In quick succession, Dewar’s unveiled first its Special Reserve 12 Years Old blend, now known as Dewar’s 12, and today said to be the world’s fastest growing 12 Years Old blend.In 2002 Tom created Dewar’s 18 Years Old blended whisky, Founder’s Reserve, and in 2003 came his piece de resistance. This is Dewar’s Signature a super premium blend designed specifically to compete with the previously dominant Johnnie Walker Blue Label.Don’t take my word for it that these whiskies are good. Each and every one of them has been awarded an enviable clutch of gold medals at various independent whisky competitions throughout the world, including the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the International Wine & Spirits Competition.With this achievement, Tom returned to a long-standing Dewar’s tradition. From its earliest days the firm had entered and dominated many international competitions and, by the 1950s could justly claim to be “the medal Scotch of the world.” Latterly, though, the brand was not active in competition and its crown appeared somewhat tarnished. With the recent string of awards for the new blends Tom can justly claim to be walking in the footsteps of the early Dewar’s master blenders, particularly the legendary A. J. Cameron.Cameron’s great innovation was in marrying and, again, Tom picked up this baton and adopted Cameron’s work to modern conditions. At his insistence, all the Dewar’s premium blends are married for up to six months before bottling, a process he maintains is critical to product quality.“The results aren’t immediately apparent, and are virtually impossible to measure in the laboratory, but after a few months the benefits of marrying are clearly detected by a taste panel,” says Tom. “The whisky is smoother and rounder. Careful wood selection is the key: the aim is to minimise the wood influence but give the blend extra time to settle down and for the flavours to be fully integrated.” Since retiring from Dewar’s in July 2006, Tom remains active. He gives whisky talks and tastings for corporate groups and undertakes consultancy work.Discussing changes in the industry he says: “Perhaps the most significant change is the consolidation into fewer large firms, which sadly means restricted opportunities to enter the industry, and on the other, the greater range of choice offered to a more discerning and informed consumer. Looking back, I can see that distillery closures made the blenders’ job much harder so the expansion of production is good news, if it’s managed in a sustainable way.” Asked about his legacy, Tom didn’t hesitate to nominate Signature, the superpremium luxury blend that he created in 2003: “It was around a year’s work to get this exactly right – plainly distinctive and premium, capable of commanding the high price, yet clearly in the Dewar’s house style.” No wonder he’s justifiably proud that every bottle carries not just John Dewar’s signature but his own.It’s quite a legacy.