Dr. Craig Wilson is the Master Blender for Diageo and is responsible for the selection and curation of the annual Special Releases. He joined the team at Diageo after studying for a PhD in Brewing and Distilling at the Heriot-Watt University and working as an environmental chemist, biologist and chef. This lay the foundation for his time in the Whisky Specialist Team and over the past decade has tasted tens of thousands of whisky samples at Diageo. He also won the prestigious ‘Master Blender of the Year’ category at the Icons of Whisky in 2017.
As we welcome a near-complete archive of the Special Releases from Pat's Whisk(e)y Collection, we were delighted to (virtually) sit down for a chat with Craig and find out a little bit more about one of the most highly-anticipated annual whisky collections.
So Craig, what drew you to working with Diageo?
The opportunity to work with such iconic whiskies as Lagavulin, Talisker and of course famous blends like Johnnie Walker was a major draw, but also as a scientist by trade it was great to see the effort which goes into research and development within the labs in Menstrie.
Can you tell us a little more about what a day in the life of Diageo’s Master of Malt looks like?
My time as a Master Blender has led me to develop an expert ‘criteria’ for the whisky I assess, through nosing and tasting the exceptional liquids Diageo has to offer. I assess whisky all time, often by first nosing, and then tasting the liquid to assess mouthfeel, sweetness and finish. Another part of my role is to catalogue the thousands of whiskies I oversees day-to-day, a meticulous process which ensures development of the highest possible quality whiskies for the future. This management of the very best whisky has led me to become an expert in quality control; ensuring spirit character is kept alive over vast stocks across Scotland.
What areas of your single malts portfolio are attracting particular interest at the moment?
We’re seeing a move towards whiskies of greater complexity and more interesting flavours, so it’s up to myself and the other blenders in the team to be constantly experimenting with different cask types and methods of maturation, and some of the expressions in the Special Releases are now a reflection of that.
What has been the biggest learning from working at Diageo and the people you have worked with there? Has there been anyone that particular inspires the work you do today?
I’ve been very fortunate to work with two legends of the whisky industry in Dr Jim Beveridge OBE and Maureen Robinson, who between them must have around 75 years’ experience. They’ve always been on hand to offer advice, but possibly more critically, they’ve given me a good degree of autonomy and allowed me to develop my own style of blending, which I see revolving around vibrancy, elegance and balance of flavours.
Where do you see innovation and the future of whisky going at Diageo?
I think we’re in a golden age of whisky at the moment, where our understanding of the processes has progressed at a tremendous rate. Also, we’re working with more esoteric cask types all the time, giving us a much larger palette of flavours to work with, which ultimately is what it’s all about as a blender!
Diageo’s Special Releases are an incredible range of whiskies. Can you tell us more behind the introduction of the series in 2001 and how it came about?
During the late 1980s, the benchmark expressions of single malt whiskies from six single malt distilleries became well known under the Classic Malts name. Interest in older and rarer malt whiskies in general also grew during this period. One product of this was the Rare Malts, a series of rarer releases begun in 1995, and which ended in 2005. There remained a demand for unusual, distinctive, often older, unrepeatable cask strength bottlings, usually of the Classic Malts. Such bottlings allowed collectors, connoisseurs and enthusiasts to enjoy and experience remaining older stocks, and/or unusual expressions of a distillery’s character - a treasure trove of priceless malts. To satisfy this demand, the Special Releases series was born in 2001, and the annual collection - with familiar names and some surprises - has been eagerly awaited by enthusiasts ever since.
How would you differentiate the Special Releases and the Rare Malts Collection and how they represent Diageo’s portfolio of storied distilleries?
Both collections served to allow even hard-fast fans of key distilleries to enjoy their favourite distillery’s character whilst also experiencing something completely new. The bottlings that feature in the 2020 Special Releases collection are also rare and unique single malts and the collection includes unusual expressions of well-known single malt brands that present an opportunity to experience and own something different from a famous distillery as part of this limited release.
So what exactly sets a ‘Special Release’ apart from a regular distillery offering? How are certain distilleries and casks chosen to be included within the yearly batch release?
The whiskies featured in the Special Releases collections all have an interesting and unique history and the most recent two collections have exemplified our ‘Rare by Nature’ theme. They are all important parts of the history of Diageo’s Scotch portfolio and Special Releases gives us an opportunity to bring these liquids of the past to connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike. We choose the distilleries and casks based on the theme and on what has captured our imagination for the year. This year’s theme features eight, natural cask strength whiskies from some of Scotland’s most renowned distilleries.
2017 saw the last appearance of both the Port Ellen and Brora single malts within the collection. Can you tell us more about the decision behind removing them from the series? Can you share if both distilleries are still on track to reopen in 2021?
As always, we make decisions based on which whiskies we believe have the flavour profiles that were looking for to feature in the collection. The opening date for Port Ellen and Brora has not been set, with Brora likely to be in 2021 and production will begin shortly afterwards.
Are there any bottlings from the Special Releases that are particularly significant or standout for any reason?
Each of the whiskies that feature in the collection are rare and highly sought after. They are all magnificent and unusual whiskies to drink and enjoy. This year we came across another unique bottling from Pittyvaich, an uncommon malt from a long-closed distillery. It’s a fantastic representation of Speyside and its unique production aspects such as our first-ever finish in bourbon casks provides a completely new experience for whisky connoisseurs and those new to Scotch.
Since its initial launch in 2001 we have seen many developments in the Special Releases selections. Would you say that these developments reflect the changing market and consumers?
The developments in the selections reflects our position at the forefront of making great whisky and pioneering new and exciting expressions. This year we took the opportunity to explore a new technique that has created an excellent Talisker. The rum casks have enlivened the marine scents and peppery punch of the Skye distillery’s colourful character, with the rich, dark and exotic sweetness of warmer climes.
Can you tell us more about the selection process behind the 2020 Special Releases?
Following last year’s success, this year called for an encore collection of the globally celebrated theme. The Rare by Nature theme continues to highlight the extraordinary elements that surround each distillery. The distilleries and theme remain the same, but this year’s collection features a fresh take on these expressions, exploring unusual age points, innovative maturation techniques our first-ever release finished in pot-still Caribbean rum casks.
What is your favourite from the 2020 Special Releases? And if you could only drink one bottle from the entire Special Releases archive for the rest of your life what would it be?
From this year’s collection it would have to be the Talisker 8yo. The rum finish adds just a little sweetness but allows the wonderful vibrancy of the distillery character to shine through. Of all the collections, the Lagavulin 37yo was a bit special, as were many of the Port Ellen’s and Brora’s of course, but I’d have to choose the Cardhu 14yo from last year. That had come from a cask trial I’d been working on for a few years, and it was very pleasing to see just how well it had worked out.