By Christopher Coates

The importance of family

Bonds that make some distillers stand out from the crowd
Like many people, my partner and I have had almost zero ‘in person’ contact with our siblings, parents and grandparents (or anyone else, for that matter) for most of the past year. There has been a fair bit of waving through windows, a few socially distanced front-garden conversations, a great many video calls (though probably not as many as there should have been) and a lot of grumbling about a Christmas spent apart. Perhaps this enforced separation from my own nearest and dearest is the reason why my mind has turned of late to the importance of family ties in the world of whisky.

Ask any group of whisky drinkers about their first experience of the spirit and one is most likely to hear a story or two about how a love affair with the grain was sparked by a family member. Maybe it was the smell of grandpa’s Friday-night dram and the design on his special water jug, a childhood trip to a distillery and a meeting with the resident mouser, a special bottle given for an 18th or 21st birthday that was cherished (or more likely enjoyed too quickly), or a dram shared after a wedding, funeral, or reunion; wherever it started, perhaps more than any other drink, whisky has a unique place in our hearts, homes and personal histories.

It seems no coincidence that a great many of the world’s most important drinks companies are family owned or controlled and, of course, the current boom in distillery builds means that now more than at any time in living memory there are family names gracing both bottles and distillery gates. Some of what we are seeing is the continuation of great spirits dynasties, with all the power, wealth and responsibility of generations bequeathed to the next in line to the throne. Elsewhere, new whisky families are just beginning to make their names known and each step along the path could mean elevation to greatness or relegation to the midden heap of failed bottlers and distilleries.

Of course, more than a few of whisky’s most accomplished master blenders, distillers, still makers and coopers learned their trade from their fathers (one hopes to see more young people learning these skills from their mothers in the coming decades), and some even intend to pass on their knowledge and experience to their own daughters and sons when and if they choose to join the trade.

Some of what we are seeing is the continuation of great spirits dynasties

While this idea of direct legacy certainly seems very romantic, one must consider whether it really matters objectively if a fifth-generation blender doesn’t have a child who wishes to take up the mantle. Surely the important thing is that the skills and experience are passed on to someone – anyone – with the passion, intelligence and dedication to absorb that distilled experience gained through decades of toil, learn from the mistakes of those that came before and carry the torch forward into the future. Yet somehow, though on paper the outcome of this knowledge transfer may well be identical, to me this alternative doesn’t quite feel the same. Perhaps it’s just my sentimentality speaking, but when I hear that a multi-generational combo is about to be broken I feel a little deflated.

Without quite being able to put my finger on why, I have the impression that when the fibres of one’s being have been spun and dyed by an industry and woven into a rich family tapestry, of which you are just one incomplete patch, a new element is introduced that goes far beyond just passion for one’s work. Whether it’s a sense of duty, the simple emotional resonance of doing work that is associated with childhood memories of a parent, or the incentive to achieve the same greatness as previous generations, I suspect that in family whisky businesses there exists some vital spark that sets them apart.

It is this ‘secret sauce’ (as Mark Jennings calls it in our cover story) that I have set our contributors in search of. From octaves to blended malts, Islay’s newest distillery to the world of rye, in all of these places and more they’ve found family businesses, each with their own distinct ‘flavour’. As for how much these bonds of blood influence what ends up in the glass, I’ll leave that for you to decide.