What to call John Ramsay? His title is master blender. But given that that is a pretty common spirits-industry term defining a person who oversees blending, perhaps for Ramsay we need something more. It may seem redundant, but how about master master blender?
You see, John, who is now retiring from Scotland's Edrington Group after 43 years in the industry, is the genius behind the Glenrothes Vintage program as well as being the master blender of such prestige blends as Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark and one of the malt masters of The Macallan and Highland Park. And that's some pretty tall—well not cotton, but lets say—barley.
A couple of weeks ago, I tipped glasses with John who was doing sort of a farewell tour of New York. The obvious first question was what was his proudest of the many Scotch variants he has created. He mentioned The Macallan Fine Oak Collection and, of course, Glenrothes , but interestingly his final answer was not a single malt, but a blend. That would be his 30-year-old Famous Grouse, which topped an international spirits competition in 2007.
Asked about the number of whiskies he's designed, he rolled his eyes and said, "A lot, some successful, some come and gone." One of the main changes he notes in the industry over his more than four decades is the number of variants the market demands. "Every marketer and his dog seems to have it in his mind that he can make a whisky that will overtake the world." Few do, but Ramsay has had a hand in his share.
Another huge change occurring during Ramsay's career was the widening of the Scotch market, particularly in Asia, but also in the countries of the former Soviet Bloc. He said that he just come from a tour in the Czech Republic, where they have long been Highland Park fans and have recently been introduced to Glenrothes.
Scotch's spreading popularity has also lead to problems, he noted, as the Scotch Whisky Association has dealt with the unscrupulous who try to pass off counterfeit Scotch whiskies. He recalled one anecdote in which theEdrington Group was supplying product to an outfit in South American, which would then admix its own locally made spirits and bottle the finished product, which could not be classified as Scotch whisky. First, theSWA came to Edrington complaining that the bottlers "were kidding on that it was Scottish by putting a tartan on the label. The SWA said we better do something about it and we did." The South American company agreed to replace the tartan with a ship's wheel, but still the SWA came back to Edrington. It turned out they had changed the bottle, but were giving out free tartan dolls with each purchase.
Now, Ramsay says, the industry has a contraption called an authenticator, which was largely developed by Diageo to determine if a whisky is counterfeit. It's a portable box into which you inject a genuine sample of a whisky brand. The device makes a molecular snapshot of the product to match up against other products that subsequently are injected to see if they are identical. (I could use one of those for use in my neighborhood pub.)
John has witnessed much in the way of such technological advancement over his years in whisky-making, but will not discount the human side of the process. "We still haven't got to the point where chemical analysis can go alongside sensory analysis," he says pointing to his nose.
One place where technology has changed the business is in the use of computers for controlling warehouse inventories.
Even with computer inventories, Ramsay said, there is still a certain serendipity to what happens to whisky over the years. He pointed to the Highland Park 40-year-old, which now will become a permanent expression in the distillery's retinue. It wasn't planned that way, however. "That whisky was laid down for blending," Ramsay said. When it turned out to be exceptional malt on it own, it was bottled that way. "Sometimes you get lucky."
The master blender also points to the rise in single malts, which were almost nonexistent when he started out, as one of the main changes in his career. While he enjoys them, Ramsay holds huge respect for great blends. Of course, as he oversaw Famous Grouse, one of the best, he is in a position to do that.
Ironically, none of the above-mentioned whisky developments are the one that he calls out as the biggest change to occur during his career. That change came in 1979, he says, with the removal of the need for Her Majesty's custom and excise personnel in every distillery. Prior to that, warehouses were fitted with what was called the "crown lock," a duplicate barrier in each warehouse, which for customs purposes could only be opened by a government representative. "If one wasn't there when you wanted to get in, things would come to a complete stop."