Saying that Dr Jim Swan is quite a busy man is a little like saying that Usain Bolt is quite a fast runner. If you haven't heard of him (Swan that is, not Bolt), then that's not altogether surprising. He operates in the whisky industry's shadows, a behind the scenes guy who pops up where he's needed, does what he needs to do without fuss or favour, then moves on. He doesn't advertise or seek the limelight but the industry knows who and where he is, and they use him when they need to.
If you've met him you're lucky - I've managed it just once in nine years. But visit enough distilleries and it won't be long before you come to one where he's just been or is about to arrive.
He is the whisky industry’s answer to Thunderbirds, a one man international rescue service who travels across the world to help distilleries in distress or to advise would-be whisky makers on the best and most realistic way of achieving their goals.
And he’s busy. Very busy. So busy in fact that it takes us months to organise an interview. At one point there’s a possibility of meeting in St Pancras International Station but the window turns out to be too small. Heathrow perhaps, before Swan flies out to India? Nope. Heathrow on his way back?Not happening. Eventually we manage a telephone conversation.
“You have been particularly unlucky,” he laughs when we finally speak. “The volcanic ash affected me severely and none of the meetings which were put off at that time were cancelled, just postponed. I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.”
I’ve wanted to speak to Dr Swan for a while because on the three or four occasions in the last year when I’ve been impressed by new developments in the industry, he’s been involved.
There was the trip to Penderyn in Wales, where a distinctively non Scottish single malt is produced on a unique still which is part pot still and part column, and the resulting spirit is matured partly in Madeira casks, partly in bourbon casks and partly in casks which have previously contained non-peated Scottish single malt. The result is a unique malt bottled at no more than four years old.
Then there was the major surprise – no, let’s not shy from this – the recent shock of tasting two samples of what was labelled Chinese whisky and which turned out to be from Kavalan in Taiwan. One sample was bright butter yellow and from a bourbon cask, the other deep red brown and from sherry. Both were excellent, and one made it through to the final rounds. Both samples were just two years old.
And finally there is Kilchoman, a sweet and richly peaty single malt released at just three years old but surprisingly rounded and integrated for one so young. Its sherried successor shouldn’t work but does.
Jim Swan is integral to all three success stories, not least because he combines four decades in the distilling business and all the attention to tradition and good distilling practice which that entails with an eye for opportunity and a keen hunger for innovation and originality. It makes for a heady combination: an individual who can spot an original course through the strictly controlled world of whisky making and has the skill and talent to follow it.
Age is the classic example. While Swan clearly respects the great aged malts of his homeland, he doesn’t buy into the concept that in the 21st century you have to wait a decade for a good whisky, as all three examples prove. On the contrary, in fact.
“I don’t get particularly excited when I’m first approached by someone wanting to make whisky,” he says. “Many people want to do it but haven’t thought it through properly and have no idea what is involved. The first thing I do is talk them through the whole process and at that point a lot change their minds.
“Some come with complete plans for how they’re going to bottle their first whisky at 10 or 12 Years Old and they think they have it all sorted out. But the reality is that you cannot afford to wait 12 years and if you insist on trying to do so you will go bust. The pressure will be on to put a whisky out when it is young.
“If they’re not prepared to listen to what I have to say about investment and what they really need then I’d pull out because it just isn’t going to work. But the technology is there now to produce a good young whisky. There’s no need to wait 10, 12 or even eight years. Kilchoman is a great example of what you can do with whisky at a young age, even in the climate of Scotland.”
Dr Swan’s experience stems from a career spent working on the technical side of the industry. He graduated in chemistry and his first job was working with an American management consultancy. A couple of his jobs involved working with the Scotch whisky industry and he soon found himself moving towards research and development within whisky and trouble-shooting work for distilleries. Eventually his work led him into contact with other drinks producers, and working with wine companies such as South Africa’s KWV, Hardys in New Zealand and Rosemount in Australia would prove invaluable when it came to the understanding of production processes and cask maturation.
More through luck than design Swan has ended up with a unique business. Other people doing similar work have retired or faded away, and the growth in the interest in single malt whisky has meant that more and more of his time has been focused in this area, though he still works in the rum sector, where there is a parallel surge of interest in boutique and high quality products.
He says that Penderyn, Kilchoman and Kavalan are the best examples of how he likes to work. He gets involved with the process from the very beginning, works with the distilleries from the outset to create whisky, and then stays in touch on a regular basis to check the progress of the spirit, offer advice and act as a consultant. In the case of Penderyn he has tried to travel back every month to work alongside the team there.
In addition to creating new and exciting whisky, he says, he loves the challenge of working in new and different places. No two jobs are ever the same, and the challenge is to overcome the barriers imposed by circumstances in each case.
“Before I started work with Kavalan I had never been to Taiwan,” he says. “It was fascinating and I’m always amazed by the similarities in whisky wherever you go but how each place is different too.
“The trick is to use the local conditions to your advantage not fight them. In Taiwan there’s the issue of climate. Taiwan has plenty of mineral water and a similar humidity to Speyside, it’s just that it’s 15.5 degrees warmer. We had to find a way of keeping the water at the right temperature for fermenting so we came up with a double walled stainless steel fermenting vessel with cooling coils inside it.“
Once up and running the distillery can call on him to sort out problems, and with that can come major pressure. On one occasion, for instance, he was asked to investigate, isolate and recommend a solution to an infection issue which was causing an unpleasant mustiness for Australian wine and spirit producers.
“ I had to report back to the manufacturers with a solution which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds,” he says. “Thankfully I was right on that one.”
Swan spends about a quarter of his time travelling and he decided long ago not to skimp on flights, correctly identifying it as a false economy. Volcanic ash notwithstanding it’s a policy that has served him well.
“And in one case it repaid itself by saving me days of business,” he says. “I was once in Bangkok when the airport was closed in political unrest by the yellow shirts who were protesting against the government. I was able to get one of the first planes out. I could have been there for days.”
With the way the spirits industry is now, Dr Swan isn’t expecting to slow down any time soon. These are good times, he says.
“It’s very exciting for all sorts of spirits,” he says. “There’s a boom in whisky but also in rum and an increase in demand for unique and boutique gin.
“The industry’s alive and kicking.”