RSS Feeds

Advanced search

You are in:


The Managers' Choice explained

Diageo's whisky specialist talks about the launch of The Managers' Choice project

Craig Wallace Diageo

Diageo's whisky specialist talks to Felicity Murray about the launch of The Managers' Choice project

What role did you play, Craig, in selecting whiskies for The Manager's Choice single cask bottlings?
My role was to look at the current releases from all our distilleries and seek out something a bit different. So I began by interrogating the stocks to see what was available from the distilleries, then ordering samples of the appropriate age and wood type. These casks were also reserved so that they could not be used for any other product until analysis was complete.

We went on to narrow the samples down through different stages of sensory and final tastings as well as necessary technical quality checks to arrive at a small number of samples which were put in front of the distillery managers and other experts for their final choice at the meeting at Blair Athol distillery on 17 February. Once the choice had been made, I needed to arrange bottling and carry out final sensory checks on the bottled product.

When you called for samples, what were you looking for in order to create these single cask bottlings?
I was looking for flavours that were in some way unique, and a flavour profile that was different from the normal single bottling release from that distillery. I was looking for the distillery character and an additional “wow factor” but also the influence of the wood to give us something distinctive - ensuring a correct and pleasing balance between distillery character and the wood influence that made this particular cask stand out from the crowd.

Were you looking for whiskies of a particular age? which held the promise of an unusual profile?
It was more about the wood, the flavour and the difference. But if the first samples didn't come up to the profile we hoped to find, I was able to call up more samples from different casks. For a heavily peated whisky, you sometimes need to go for something a bit older that has allowed time for the role of the wood to come into balance with the peat influence.
How did you get all the samples together?

When I’d found something that seemed to be worth sampling, we have a system that allows me to reserve that cask until it's been sampled and this prevents it being used for any other purpose - blending for instance - and till I have either chosen it or released it back into the warehouse.
The samples were drawn from warehouses from all over Scotland and delivered to my sensory area where I could carry out my rigorous checks.

Is there a particular challenge in choosing whisky for a single cask bottling?
When you’re selecting casks for a bigger bottling, you can work with a wider variation of maturity, distillery character and wood influence because you can even it out and aim for consistency. But when you are bottling a single cask, you can't do that: you have to get the balance totally right when selecting the cask. And it's highly unlikely, whatever single cask you choose this time, that you'd ever be able to replicate that precise flavour profile the next time you look for one. So finding a single cask with just the right balance is actually very challenging.

How many expressions did you get through before arriving at the short-list?
Starting from the conventional bottling for each distillery, we would probably be looking for at least two different wood types if available and maybe ten samples of each. If we found nothing suitable from that batch, we would go back and order some more, and maybe something from older stock too. Sometimes we found the right casks quickly, but for others it took many attempts to get the liquid we wanted.

On average I guess we tried at least 20 samples from each distillery before we could narrow the choice down to three comparable casks to put in front of our panel of distillery managers and experts on 17 February.

Were other people involved in short-listing?
Oh, it was a team decision, naturally.

We generally started the screening process with up to ten casks and narrowed it down to five, which a small team of colleagues and I nosed and tasted. We then sent these three for independent nosing and testing by our leading sensory and maturation experts, and together we chose what we thought was the best candidate of the three. We then sent the three choices from each distillery to be judged by the wider panel of managers and other reviewers assembled at Blair Athol distillery.

More generally, how do you know what whiskies are available, given that the company has massive stocks in its warehouses?
We have about 7 million casks of maturing single malt whisky in our warehouses at any one time, and obviously these are all registered on our database, so we can search by distillery, year of distillation, and wood type.

Roughly how many different whiskies do you taste each week?
Most of us get through a couple of hundred whiskies examined purely by nose each week, but only 5 to 10 by taste as taste is only used to make final decisions on cask selection. To stay on our nosing panel, you have to take a test each year.

When you are looking at and comparing whiskies, what routine do you follow?
We normally don't nose or taste at full strength - we dilute cask strength down (one part whisky in two parts water). You can pick up a lot by nose, but only by actually tasting it can you judge the whisky's mouthfeel and flavour elements such as pepperiness, the different variations of smokiness, bitterness and sweetness, smoothness and so on.

Do you get involved with other limited edition single malt whisky bottlings, such as the Special Releases?
Yes, for the last three years I have been heavily involved in choosing the Malts that are released each year as Special Releases. I've also been closely involved in picking out the liquids destined as special bottlings for the Friends of the Classic Malts releases, as well as the Islay Festival single cask bottlings.

Tell us about different casks at your disposal, and the influence wood can have on the flavour profile of the whisky.
The bottlings released in The Managers’ Choice have been drawn from a wide variety of woods. As I said, we’ve aimed to select casks to show an interesting contrast with the more usual and conventional bottlings of these malts. In at least one case, for instance, we have drawn the bottling from a brand new American oak cask, whereas American oak normally comes in the form of a used Bourbon cask. Using new wood brings into play some quite different malty, fruity and liquorice flavours with a warm finish.

Size matters too! Bourbon casks tend to be smaller than sherry casks. There are two sizes of Bourbon casks: the American Standard Barrel which holds around 200 litres, then there are American Oak Hogsheads, which generally hold 250 litres. By contrast, Sherry Butts usually hold around 500 litres. It’s logical that, the smaller the cask, the more contact there is between liquid and wood, so in theory you get more extraction in the smaller casks, assuming that the wood is reasonably active. So as a general rule, smaller casks make for better maturation.

Some of the Malts released in The Managers’ Choice have come from rejuvenated European and American oak casks, a process of scraping and refiring which gives a slightly different type of woodiness and maturity to the flavour.

1 September 2009