As master blender and strategic inventory manager for Beam Suntory, Ron Welsh is responsible for more than 800,000 individual casks of all ages from Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and Ardmore as well as those destined for blends such as Teacher’s. He was kind enough to spare some time to chat with Inside the Cask.
Inside the Cask: Hi Ron, you are the Master Blender and Strategic Inventory Manager at Beam Suntory and have worked in the industry for almost 30 years. However how did it all start for you? Where did the interest in drinks initially come from?
I studied Chemical Engineering at Strathclyde University after leaving school, and moved to British Steel after graduating. I was working at Ravenscraig Steelworks on shifts in the Steelmaking and Casting plants as a line manager in production. When it was announced that Ravenscraig was to half production in 1991, I took the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy and return to University to take a master’s degree in information technology.
My search for a job in IT at the ripe age of 29 didn’t work out. Given my production experience, I applied for a couple of production jobs and was offered the shift managers role at Strathclyde Distillery. As it was in a production role on shifts, much in the same way as I was doing before, I accepted the offer. When I started at Strathclyde I didn’t consider myself as being in the Whisky Industry, it was more just a production job, this time making Grain Spirit rather than Steel. I certainly didn’t take the role on thinking I would still be in the industry nearly 30 years later.
Inside the Cask: What was it like working with legendary master blender Robert Hicks and also Sandy Hyslop (now Director of Blending and Inventory at Chivas Brothers) at Strathclyde grain distillery?
Robert and Sandy were great mentors, always looking for the best that a distillery can produce, ensuring any fall in quality could be pinpointed back to a change in raw material or process change.
Robert would ensure that the production team were aware of what to check when nosing new make grain and what changes to make to ensure quality was maintained at a high standard. I guess this was the start of my interest in whisky as a product, and for that, I am eternally gratefully to Robert’s guidance in my early career.
My next role after Strathclyde Distillery was heading up the Inventory Planning department, working even closer with Robert and Sandy, ensuring recipes for Ballantine’s, Teacher’s and Long John were maintained. The blenders room was on the next floor up from Inventory Planning, great to be able to pop up the stairs to chat to Robert or Sandy on possible cask substitutions in a blend while assessing new make, maturing cask and blend samples coming into the lab. A great learning experience for me.
Inside the Cask: Most people will have no idea of the work involved in blending whiskies, so what does the job entail on a day to day basis? Which scotch whisky brands are you involved with?
The blending part of my role, which will take up around 50% of my daily routine, is all about quality. When consumers buy a bottle of whisky, they want it to taste the same as their previous experience. The blenders role is to make every effort to ensure that is possible.
All batches of new make spirit are sampled and tested every week, both analytically and by nosing. Any changes to the expected quality are discussed with the Distillery manager to identify the root cause of the change and how to ensure there isn’t a re-occurrence or what process changes are needed to bring quality back in line.
Each one of our brands has a filling policy, by which I mean, what type of casks are filled every year, a certain proportion of 1st fill ex-Bourbon Barrels, a certain proportion of 1st Fill ex-Oloroso Butts, 2nd fill barrels, 2nd fill hogsheads, etc. Each brand has a slightly different filling policy to maintain the same style of maturation from one year to the next, of course, fresh casks coming into the filling store are checked by nosing to ensure no off notes are present and the quality is as expected. The blender’s role is to ensure the filling policies are adhered to by the operation teams.
With the correct quality of new make spirit and the correct quality of casks and after the right maturation period the final result should be the same every time. Just to make sure, we will check cask samples of maturing stock to ensure everything is progressing correctly. Each of our expressions has its own recipe, spirit type/s, filling strength, maturation time, cask type, warehouse style and warehouse location.
The blenders art is to make any changes needed if any of the variables aren’t available or needs to be changed due to historical changes or a warehouse is not accessible. The blender will select the individual casks to meet the recipe and instruct operations when the casks have to be emptied to meet the bottling programme.
Of course, for Beam Suntory, every single cask used for single malt is nosed before it is emptied to ensure there hasn’t been any off notes developed during maturation, and any defective casks are removed from the operation. Once a batch of casks has been ‘vatted’ together samples are taken at each process stage and assessed for suitability by the blending team. When a batch is ready for bottling, the blender and his team will assess the bottled product as well, making sure no cross contamination has occurred.
I am currently Master Blender for Laphroaig, Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch, Ardmore, McClelland’s, Teacher’s and Prime Blue. It may seem strange to have a Master Blender for Single Malt Brands, however, other than single cask bottlings, all single malts are made up of a number of different casks from the same distillery and are therefore blended together.
Inside the cask: What attributes would you suggest someone would need to have to become a whisky Master Blender? Are you involved in any way with blended scotch whiskies also?
In my experience the skill set needed to become a master blender include a good sense of smell, an even better memory for different aromas, high numeracy skills to be able to work through an inventory with multiple distilleries, ages that stretch back more than 50 years that will feed bottlings for the next 50 years, multiple cask types, various wood types with numerous previous contents such as Bourbon, Sherry and Port.
Knowing how your inventory will mature over the coming years, will allow a Master Blender to identify opportunities for new expressions when sales forecasts don’t come through as expected. On top of this, a Master Blender needs to know how a distillery process’s raw materials through to new make spirit and what part of the process produces the flavours for that distillery.
Having these skills and building your experience and knowledge of new make and maturing stocks would allow someone to develop into a Master Blender.
In short, a right skillset might get you the opportunity to start within the whisky industry, hard work and dedication will open doors to allow you to move within the industry and may mean you put yourself in the right place at the right time to move into Blending.
In terms of Blends, much of my day to day work is involved with Teacher’s and to a smaller extent Prime Blue. I’ve also put together a couple of other blends to help smaller companies who didn’t have a Master Blender to develop a blended expression.
Inside the Cask: In general, a lot of people in the industry state that around 60% of the whisky character comes from the wood during maturation – what are your thoughts on it? Also, how much innovation do you still think is possible within the existing Scotch Whisky regulations, including as part of the distillation part of the process?
The wood and how the previous contents have seasoned the wood play a huge role in developing the character of the whisky, and of course, the whisky does need to have its own character to start. For me, a really good whisky is balanced between the distillery character and the flavours developed through maturation.
The character derived from maturation is partially drawn from the wood and how its previous contents have seasoned the wood, and also through the reduction and oxidation reaction occurring in the whisky during its maturation life. As whisky matures ester formation carries on, developing fruity characters which are not necessarily due to the cask.
Putting a single figure on how much the cask influences the whisky character would be to generalise all whiskies, the character from the cask will vary greatly from one whisky to another, from one cask type to another and as it ages through it maturation cycle.
Given that our whiskies range from Auchentoshan, a light Triple Distilled Lowland to Laphroaig, a heavily peated Islay, in 140 different cask types over an age range dating back to the 1950’s, the character derived from the wood will range from 10% to 60%.
In terms of innovation, there are still many areas to explore in all aspects of whisky making. The number of variables a distiller has available to change are numerous. Of course a lot of changes have already been tried and discounted over the years, however there is still much to look at as we endeavour to be more environmentally friendly. What new flavours can be developed as new barely varieties come through and different yeast strains become available. With the change in regulation on previous cask contents, there are maturation trials to work through, couple this to changes to raw materials and changes to processing, there are many possibilities still to come to the consumer.
Inside the Cask: What is your favourite dram and why?
Always a tricky question and one which changes with my mood, where I am and who’s company I am in, a Laphroaig Lore on the shores of Islay beside No. 1 Warehouse at Laphroaig Distillery is stunning, enjoying a Bowmore 12yo Highball after work with colleagues in Japan, unforgettable. Talking with friends over a bottle of Ardmore Legacy is priceless, trying an Auchentoshan Old Fashioned with new friends and sipping a Glen Garioch Virgin Oak in a snug bar can’t be beaten.
There are endless candidates for my favourite dram, Black Bowmore is absolutely fantastic, though if I had to pick one dram, at the moment it would be Glen Garioch Virgin Oak, with all our new products that are due out over the next few years, I’ll be spoilt for choice.
Inside the Cask: Can you tell us more about your personal background? What else are you passionate about?
Outside of work I’m passionate about foreign travel, international rugby union and family life. My love of foreign travel started when my parents moved to Venezuela when I was only 6 months old along with my 2 elder brothers who were 2 and 3 years old. After moves to Argentina and Portugal the family returned to Scotland when I was 7. I love the journey to new places, meeting new friends and discovering new cultures.
I’ve always been keen on sports, playing for my school team at Rugby, Volleyball and Basketball. Although I started playing for the school’s football team, I found rugby was more of a team game and dropped the football. I continued playing rugby after school for Whitecraigs rugby club for a few years until working shifts at Ravenscraig meant I wasn’t available most weekends. I now have the pleasure of watching international rugby, travelling to Rome most years to meet new friends and enjoy the Craic.
My home life with my wife and 2 children is very rewarding, I couldn’t be prouder of both my children as they continue to live their lives to their full potential, with my oldest, Eva, now starting 2nd year at University studying maths, the house is getting quieter though. No rest for me, my son Liam, is always up at the crack of dawn looking to spend time with his dad, many a great day spent at train stations or plane spotting.
Inside the Cask: What would be your advice for anyone else wanting to work in the drinks industry?
Working in the Scotch Whisky industry has been great for me, it has its good days as well as its bad days, just like any other job. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the drinks industry to apply for roles that suit their skillset, just be prepared to stay for a long time.
Inside the Cask: What surprised you most about working in the drinks industry?
For me, the most surprising thing about working in Scotch, is the collaboration between companies on the production side is fantastic, we share best practice and knowledge, we are happy to let our competitors see how we distil, or warehouse or process whisky or run a bottling hall so that the whole industry benefits.
Inside the Cask: What is the favourite part of your job? Anything that you would like to share that not many people would know about you?
My favourite part of my job would be creating new expressions, developing new flavour profiles from new casks types or from blending different styles and ages is just wonderful, when you get a sample from a cask that you haven’t tried before and it turns out to be something special, it can make your year!
Developing new expressions can take some time, Laphroaig 18yo and Laphroaig Lore are probably the two expressions that took the longest to develop, around 7 years for both, yet other such as Auchentoshan Sauvignon Blanc only took a couple of years, each one as rewarding as the other.