In 1982, She Blinded Me With Science by one-hit-wonder Thomas Dolby, spent a few weeks at number five on the American Billboard charts. It's a hook-laden tune, complete with giddy electronic 80s sound effects and a baseline provided by a Moog synthesizer. In the video, a mad scientist type appears and, with gesticulations that evoke a feral animal, shouts 'Science!' This deranged professor is Magnus Pyke, a TV personality and British government scientist known for making science comprehensible to average folks. And he's just a few degrees removed from the Scotch industry, as he worked in yeast research at the Distillers Company from 1949 to 1955, a facility where Dr. Bill Lumsden, Director of Distilling for the Glenmorangie Company and Andy Cant, Distillery Manager for Cardhu, (which is billed 'The heart of Johnny Walker') later held jobs. Okay, it's a stretch, but go with me on this for now.
That realisation was made three years ago at the historic Mount Vernon, the estate to which George Washington retired after his presidency and started a distillery. It happened during a late-night discussion among several Scotch industry luminaries. Come to think of it, 'discussion' might be a bit misleading, as it implies a formality. And there was none of that at the confab that happened at the tail end of a day of pomp and ceremony. There had been a press conference to announce that Scottish and American whisky-makers were collaborating to produce a Scotch style single malt on precise replicas of 18th Century equipment - stills that are heated with direct flame, a water-powered gristmill, a brick chamber for the fire fueled with wood that's hand-fed into the flames. Until it burned down in 1814, Washington's distillery stood on the very spot where it was rebuilt with painstaking attention to historical accuracy, thanks largely to a grant from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
The collaboration between representatives of two distinct but deeply interconnected traditions involved three of the most highly regarded single malt Scotch makers: Lumsden, Cant and John Campbell, Laphroaig's Distillery Manager. The American contingent was Dave Pickerell, former Maker's Mark distiller and consultant to many countless small distilleries. A man in high demand to people starting up small distilleries, and Steve Bashore, a career history buff with an obsession with old mills who found his perfect job as Mount Vernon's Master Distiller. They used one ton of 100 per cent Scottish malted barley and produced 10 gallons, deemed so refined that it didn't require a second pass through the stills, the happy outcome of what Lumsden recalls as, "an exercise in organised chaos."
That whisky was barreled in ex-Bourbon casks as 'Distillers' Reserve' and an additional twice-distilled spirit was put to rest as 'Limited Edition.' Both were finished for a few months in Madeira wine barrels.
Then, this past October, the group gathered to check out how the whisky fared during its three year slumber. Once again, there was pomp and ceremony celebrating this first collaboration of its type. David Frost, CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, and Peter Cressey, the outgoing president and CEO of DISCUS, gave their blessings, commending the project's historic value. Then there was a dramatic, glammy gala overlooking the Potomac River, where the bottles were auctioned off for charity.
But only after they changed from their stately kilts into jeans and well-worn sweatshirts and anoraks could you get a sense of the personalities of the men who are typically spotted behind a table in an event hall plugging the virtues of their respective brands. Over late-night discussions - rather, confabs - can you get a sense of the deep-rooted, effortless fraternity among the lads who safeguard and maintain the whisky making tradition. The fact that their careers had overlapped along the way only fortified the bonds; Cant, for instance, worked with Lumsden during his stint at Maltings, near Elgin. While on Islay, he met Campbell whose son was in the same class as Cant's twins.
They each followed a distinct path to their current distinguished position. Lumsden came from an intensely academic background; he completed a PhD in biochemistry, but defected from university life after being smitten by the malt industry. Campbell, an Islay native, got his first job at Laphroaig on 14 November 1994 stenciling the numbers on casks and hasn't turned back since.
Cant's story, arguably the most storybook-esque, starts with him at 17 in 1977 getting a lab assistant job at Distilleries Company, near Stirling, before university. 14 years later he was in charge of raw materials. After a series of jobs in malting facilities, he worked several positions overseeing Diageo facilities, ultimately ending up as manager of Cardhu group, a fated gig, of sorts, given how he fondly recalls that the first bottle of malt he ever bought was Cardhu and the distillery image on the label stirred dreams of working at a tradition-rich, charming place like that. Pickerell has a military background with degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering. The varied tracks that led them all to the same historic site on a stunning fall day in 2012, then back three years later, proves that the heritage, craftsmanship, science that defines the industry can enchant people of varied personalities, temperaments and purposes. Whisky's appeal is universal and enduring.
Late at night, over Coronas longnecks, pretzels, leftover bacon and a few drams of whiskies like Johnny Walker Blue, Glenmorangie Signet and Laphroaig 23 (these are the industry's royalty, after all), they updated one another about which executives / ex-bosses were working where, they traded stories about the travel hassles that go with the job these days and they got caught up in a few sessions of what's best described as latter-day, YouTube-driven karaoke (Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones proved favourites, along with Thomas Dolby). Nobody talked about whisky.
"It's probably quite unusual to spend that amount of time together," said Cant of his colleagues. "I don't do as much travelling as Bill and John, so I think I've only seen them once in the three years since we met up to make the whisky. You wouldn't be in distilling if you didn't have a passion for it, but it's good to find out more about each other outside of whisky. I think Bill, Steve Bashore and myself talked more about Led Zeppelin than we did about distilling."
"Thinking about it," said Campbell, "We really just socialised. There was no whisky chat at all. Funny that."
And now they know how malt appreciators around the world feel on a regular basis, grateful that they can bring their science to us common folk. Just like Pyke.