People

In conversation with Andrew Symington

Charles Maclean talks to Andrew Symington of Signatory Vintage Scotch Whisky
By Charles MacLean
CM How did you get into the whisky trade?
AS There was a family connection, my grandfather worked for VAT 69 for forty-odd years, but I discovered the pleasure of single malt and single cask single malt when I was Assistant Manager at Prestonfield House Hotel in Edinburgh during the 1980s. In those days malt whisky was uncommon and single cask, natural strength malt almost unheard of. Yet there were signs of growing interest and as soon as people tasted fine malt whisky they wanted more.
CM How do you choose your whiskies?
AS I go for what I like and I listen to what my customers want from country to country. I like big well matured whiskies, preferably from sherry-wood (Mortlach, Dufftown and Brora come to mind), but also soft malts with finesse like Glenlivet and Rosebank. I look for oddities and non-mainstream distilleries. The more varied my list is, the happier my customers are.
CM Do you find that sherry-wood masks the distillery character?
AS This doesn’t bother me. I am looking at the style and character of the mature product. In many cases the whiskies I select bear little resemblance to the proprietors’ bottling – I state so much on my price list to avoid disappointment. Certain markets favour certain styles. The Germans, for example, love very heavily sherried malts, even malts with that sulphurous note you sometimes get from sherry-wood. They also like heavy, oily Islays, as do people from the Nordic countries. French and Italians tend to go for lighter styles, bourbon-wood maturation and refill casks. The Spanish are split: half enjoy sherry, half bourbon and they are moving into Islay in a big way. When I started out, I did a lot of tutored tastings around the world – now malt whisky drinkers tell me what its about. They are much more knowledgeable.
CM What about quality control? How do you select casks?
AS As I say, my customers tend to have well-developed, critical palates. No whisky bottler or producer can get away with inferior products if they are going to stay in business for long. I buy parcels of between 10 and 40 casks direct from distilleries and from brokers. Then I 'cherry-pick' from these casks for my single bottlings – some go as single casks, some are vatted, some bottle at full strength, some are reduced to 43%, some go into my vatted malt, Hogshead. The ones I can’t use I trade for others. Selection is done by me and two colleagues.
CM You must have to have deep pockets to hold such stock?
AS Damn right. At any one time I am holding around 7,500 cases of bottled goods, and 1,100 casks. A heavy investment, but I am not interested in short-term gains. I am totally committed to my job. I work between 70 and 80 hours a week, and many weekends are spent presenting tastings or attending exhibitions. My wife is wonderfully supportive and married me knowing I was already wedded to whisky: we held our wedding reception in the world’s largest whisky bar, the Hotel Walhaus am See at St. Moritz. She is Swedish, you see, so Switzerland is, if you like, 'neutral territory'.
CM What other credentials do you have to have to be an independent bottler?
AS You have to have your own bonded warehouse and you have to bottle your own goods. You absolutely must be able to control every stage of bottling, packaging and delivery. If you use somebody else to bottle for you, you cannot rely on such things as the temperature at which it is chill-filtered, how much filtration is done and whether the pads in the filter have been changed. The pads and pipes hold a lot of whisky – maybe 50 litres on a big bottling line – this can alter the next bottling dramatically if not changed and cleaned. But filter pads are not cheap, so bottlers are reluctant to change them for a small run.
CM Do you colour your whiskies?
AS What’s the point? I want them to be as natural as possible. I can tell you by sniffing the bottle whether caramel has been added – if you have ever used spirit caramel in a blending vat, when it is very pungent, you never forget the smell. Also it clings to the sides of the bottle when you shake it.
CM Are your malts collectable and collected?
AS They are price-positioned for drinking, but I have done some very, very rare casks – Glen Flagler, Killyloch and Ben Wyvis, for example – and I try to do one range from silent stills or 'rare reserves' per year. Many of these bottles go into collections and I think I was the first to supply a miniature with these rare bottlings (in 1994), so collectors could taste what they had bought. Some of the rare bottlings being produced today are so expensive they will only sell with great difficulty. There is a finite number of collectors who will spend £2,000 or more on a novel bottling. Whisky is for drinking.
CM What are your favourite whiskies?
AS This depends upon what I have on my list at any one time. My current favourite is a 1976 Glenlivet from a sherry butt. This is so good that I have used up about twenty cases at tastings already, before selling any!