Interview - John McCheyne from SMWS

Next up in my series of interviews of peoplein the whisky industry is John McCheyne, Whisky Ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and general good guy.

John is a top bloke and one of the nicest guys in the industry.

John McCheyne 1. How long have you been involved in the Whisky Industry?

Not that long. I’ve been a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society for a long time. In 2007 we were looking to expand the Members Tastings programme. I and a few others were selected to lead Members Tastings around the country. Initially I did Tastings around South East/ West England, and still do, but now also do work further afield as well. I was still doing the ‘day job’, in Fareham, then London City, up till March of this year when I finally escaped to Whisky World!

2. What’s your earliest Whisky Memory?

I was brought up a few miles from Auchentoshan. But when I was a teenager my uncle Jim always used to arrive at the family gathering at Hogmanay with a bottle of Black Bottle. He was a real character, and I miss him even though it’s been a long time. He had some convoluted tale about how BB was better than the other popular blends at the time BECAUSE it wasn’t so popular. First lesson – whisky is about opinions.

First strong emotional memory, though, is my first trip to Islay in 1983. We went as 3 couples in the last week in May. (Before Feis Isle was ever initiated). It poured for a month before the trip and as the ferry pulled out of Kennacraig the rain stopped and never restarted. Glorious week. We turned up at Laphroaig and were treated to an impromptu tour by John Calder (sadly now passed) and I began my real whisky education right then. I learned so much on that tour about Laphroaig and whisky in general. John joined us for a drink at Machrie Hotel afterwards. The Scotch Whisky Industry was toiling in the recession, with a whisky loch from production in the 70s to meet demand that never materialised. John told off my mate because he suggested whisky should only be drunk neat. John said however someone likes their whisky is up to them. As long as there is a demand, it’ll be there for those who only drink it neat. Second lesson.

3. What’s your proudest moment in your career within the Whisky Industry thus far?

Unlike many others in the Whisky business at my age, my involvement is relatively brief. I was really chuffed just to be appointed as a SMWS Ambassador in the first place. (And I owe a debt to Catherine Nicoll, formerly of the Society, for that.). But in 2009 I did a Tasting at the G20 summit in Whitehall, at the Scottish Office. I had to stand up on the stage after Jim Murphy, then Secretary of State for Scotland, who gave a speech on world politics and nations working together. I then joked that I hadn’t had The SoS for Scotland as my warm up act before and went into the talk and the Tasting. They came from far and wide, of course, but our SMWS whisky went down well. Some very interesting new members that evening, as well!

4. What was the last dram you had?

SMWS 30.71, from the June bottling. Refill Sherry Gorda. 14 years old. 57.5%. Distilled 17/4/1997. I usually prefer Bourbon Casks but this is a glorious explosion of rich fruit, spicy, burnt toffee. ‘Burnt crumpet and highland toffee’. Going fast .Might be gone already, although there were 756 bottles out of this Gorda.

5. What other whiskies and/or distilleries inspire you and why?

Auchentoshan has always been my ‘local’ distillery. They’ve gone from strength to strength. I recently visited again and picked up their x3 distillation diagram. Fascinating information for those who haven’t come across it before. Also most of the Islay distilleries. Laphroaig has been a favourite ever since the time I mention above. It feels like going home when I’m there. (Not since 2010 but have more time now-see you soon!) . The craftsmanship and the process by which they maintain their unique style through all expressions is special. Bowmore, the oldest on Islay, with typical Islay friendliness and welcome. Bruichladdich, for all they’ve achieved in a relative blink of an eye in comparison, since restarting, (and those great songs by Robin Laing). You also have to nod to Glenfiddich. Great whisky, a trailblazer for single malts, and the first single malt to pass 1m bottles sales in a year. Is that enough ? I could go on and on.

6. What is your dram of choice?

Being a SMWS member, that’s difficult to answer. There is a choice as long as the Spey, with a tributary of new bottlings feeding in every month. And Single Cask means it’s here today, gone forever tomorrow. I agonised over my last drop of 95.7 a while back, cried into my last drop of 3.159, only for Joe at SMWS London to find me another bottle from last stock which postponed the tearful goodbye for a while. There’s anticipation and pleasure every month. And I really do appreciate such a wide range of whisky in general that my ‘go to’ dram will change constantly. It’s the monthly expectation at SMWS I couldn’t do without.

7. The whisky industry seems very strong at the moment, where do you see it going over the next few years?

Whisky is booming. We know that. The demographic appreciating it has changed significantly in 10-15 years to include young people and more women. There’s a ‘culture of connoisseurship’ developing in young people which is benefiting whisky as well as other spirits. We’ll see growing interest in knowledge and information gathering. We’ll see discerning appreciation grow in those who want to know more. Emerging markets will possibly put a strain on supply. The industry will be working flat out. More and more producers will emerge from across the world. They won’t necessarily be limited by rules and protocols. What people think ‘whisky’ is might be stretched. But Scotch Whisky will ride the crest of the wave, I believe.

8. Where would you like to be in 5 years time?

I’ve come to the business relatively late. It’s a second ‘career’ for me. I want to be able to continue to work with SMWS, and develop my involvement with the Society. I want to continue to extend my own knowledge and keep abreast of changes. I worked with a Swiss company in England for a long time. Working for SMWS and Scotland will help me renew my soul!

9. What is the strangest whisky superstition you’ve came across?

I’m not superstitious myself and don’t pay much attention to superstitions. I love good quotes and sayings though. Especially those which encourage enjoyment of the moment. Angela D’Orazio’s quote is my current favourite. ‘ One day you and I will die – all of the other days we won’t’

10. What dram would you absolutely not be able to live without?

SMWS monthly bottlings anticipation , the magical environment and beauty that is the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland , Partick Thistle FC , even though these days it’s mostly from afar, and Robin Laing’s music , especially those whisky albums !

Many thanks to John for taking the time to answer these questions and I hope you enjoyed viewing them, more in this series in the coming weeks.

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