Throughout out the centuries of its storied past, one thing that’s always been synonymous with The Glenlivet is quality. Master distiller Alan Winchester is the ultimate guarantor of this mantle; Toast sits down to chat with the man behind the whisky
Alan Winchester has been in the whisky business for more than 40 years but it “seems like yesterday”, he says of his illustrious career. And to think it all happened by accident.
“I wanted to be a sailor,” says Alan. But a suspension of world trade due to the recession of 1975 and a failed medical put paid to that idea; instead the 16-year-old ended up as a whisky distillery guide. He basically never left the industry, moving up the ranks as the years went on. In 2009 he was offered the master distiller’s role at The Glenlivet in the whisky treasure chest of Speyside, Scotland – “a great honour”, he says. Alan is the man responsible for such greats as The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve and Captain’s Reserve whiskies, among many other quality drams. For his troubles, he earned the International Spirits Challenge (ISC) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018; now his role is about sharing and educating others on the wonders of whisky.
What do you particularly appreciate about The Glenlivet?
The whisky! I was always aware in the industry that The Glenlivet was, within Speyside, often revered as one of the top names because of its early heritage. Glenlivet rose from the mess of illicit distilling in Scotland, which forced quality whisky underground. Robert Burns wrote that whisky and freedom went together – so Scots saw that making illicit whisky was a sort of freedom. It was a big industry and Glenlivet emerged out of that, as it was seen as top quality. The King, when he came in 1822, asked to be given the real Glenlivet – he was asking for something illegal so it showed you the sort of mess the country was in. It was reformed after that. From that, George Smith [the founder of Glenlivet] took out a licence to distil, and that was the start of the Speyside region. But this quality of whisky has always been known, and even 200 years later we’re still trying to make our whisky quality just as good, but still innovating at the same time; still looking to the modern market as well – but also being true to the roots.
Charles Dickens was a fan too wasn’t he?
Oh aye, he penned that famous letter in 1855 recommending it to a friend. It’s fascinating, those touches in it. We’ve found references in Canada from the 1820s – the distillery had only just been made legal but The Glenlivet was already seen as quality.
How much do whiskies vary from region to region?
Even within Speyside, distilleries can be within two or three miles of our distillery, but they all have different characters. They’re like family – they have resemblances but they’ve got their own character. A true whisky made anywhere will have that.
How would you define The Glenlivet’s character?
Glenlivet – that forbearer of the Speyside role. Fruity floral is what I always say, with a hint of toffee, and maybe that toffee goes to banoffee. But that fruity floral is always seen as the signature style of The Glenlivet.
What defines an excellent Master Distiller?
I often say to folk it’s passion – because if you don’t believe in what you’re doing… I remember once asking one of the owners I worked for what is the best whisky. He replied, “The one you make”. I thought - what a very important lesson that was; don’t ask that stupid question again! But there's always a bit of passion about it – we’re Scots, remember, we’re immersed in it.
I live in a village, where within 20 miles of my house there’s over 40 single malt plants making different whiskies. But when you come to the area you hardly see them because they’re all quite remote locations. As a Master Distiller I’m more or less away from the day to day production nowadays. The team that are making the whisky are always looking at the quality and consistency of style. Experience is often a result of all the things that went wrong in the past that you know to avoid. I’ve taken to travelling a bit more, going around the world for The Glenlivet but still retain the Master Distiller’s role.
What’s exciting you in the world of whisky at the moment?
I think the innovation in the different cask types has been important. We’ve done things with that. One thing that was quite exciting last year was working with a cognac reserve, where we took the cognac cask, and finished in there [to make The Captain’s Reserve]. It adds some of the nuances from the cognac, that winey, raisiny sort of notes. I still expect to see The Glenlivet fruity, floral style but you add sort of extra to it.
You’ve had many accolades over the years. Which one stands out to you?
When the first 50-year-old Glenlivet came out the company called it The Winchester Collection, unbeknownst to me, and I took that as a great honour that my name was connected to The Glenlivet.