Conversation with a master

Meet Ian MacMillan, a Scotsman’s Scotsman and a whisky legend who’s been crafting epic drams for most of his life. I caught up with him when he was in Cape Town recently.

First published in Prestige Magazine (March 2013 issue).

More or less as it appeared.  A few typesetting issues in this version.

More or less as it appeared. A few typesetting issues in this version.

I met with Ian at Harbour House in the Waterfront. I can’t share with you the details of the delicious lunch that we enjoyed, or the delectable wine, or even the crisp sunshine of that magical Cape day. These diversions though, pleasant as they might have been, were unimportant In the context of the occasion.What I can share with you are a few privileged insights from one of the world’s foremost whisky experts.

You’re the Group Master Blender and Head of Distilleries for Burn Stewart. Tell us about your path to this auspicious position.

I’ve spent 40 years in the industry, learning the trade from the ground up, and covering all aspects of distillation. Also, I consider myself lucky to have been blessed with good organoleptic ability, which is crucial, and to have been helped and guided along the way by some great mentors.

How do you spend your time outside of whisky?

I’m a passionate rugby fan. I support Scotland of course, and the Cheetahs when I’m in South Africa. I also have a serious interest in wine, to the point that I have a diploma to show for it.

You’ve visited the country often. What’s your impression of South Africa?

I’ve been coming here for 10 years, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each trip. I love the people, I’ve cultivated great friendships, and I can look back on some memorable, unforgettable experiences.

Is there any particularly special moment that you can share with us?

I once drank whisky out of the Currie Cup, shortly after it had been presented to the Cheetahs when they won the tournament. Our brand Scottish Leader is the official whisky of the Free State Rugby Union, so we had special access to the victory celebration. Special enough? (Hell yes)

South Africa regularly ranks within the top 10 markets for Scotch whisky exports. Why do you think whisky has become so popular in the country?

I’ve noticed that South Africans have cultivated palates, that they’re very inquisitive and keen to explore the differences evident in whisky, and that they’re highly motivated to become knowledgable about whisky. Correspondingly, for many years now, there have been lots of good people on the local scene who’ve been working to feed this fire and educate consumers about whisky.

Islay seems to have established itself as a whisky Mecca. Its peated whiskies have developed a cult following. Why do you think this is the case?

It’s a unique place – a small island accommodating seven distilleries and a micro distillery – and it has become iconic because it embodies the true tradition and style of Scotch whisky. Originally all Scotch was made by malting barley using peat fires. I can’t drink smoky whiskies all the time, but when I do I particularly enjoy Lagavulin.

I would imagine that the influx of tourists has risen steadily. Are you worried that this might change the character of the island?

No, not really. Islay thrives on tourism, which is great for the local economy. The inaccessibility of the place and the generally inclement weather puts a cap on numbers and keeps things under control.

Bunnahabhain is well-known as the least peated of the Islay whiskies – the ‘gentle taste of Islay’. In the past there have been significant peated expressions. Are there any plans in place to release new peated variants in the future?

Yes. We started distilling peated whiskies again in 2003, which we’ve infrequently put on the market as limited editions. A Bunnahabhain Mòine (gaelic for peat) 10YO is slated for release in 2014.

You recently launched an unchillfiltered range of Bunnahabhain, replacing the previously chillfiltered versions. Have you been happy with the reception that the new range has received in the market?

Absolutely. It has been a transformative initiative, and the response has been phenomenal. We were the first distillery to take an entire range unchillfiltered. It’s been personally very satisfying – I fought for this move for many years.

The conventional wisdom is that chillfiltration removes flavour, however I recently came across a blind tasting experiment in which a group of four experienced tasters unanimously preferred chillfiltered versions of the same whisky. Obviously it’s difficult to draw conclusions from such a limited sample, but it raises interesting questions. Perhaps chillfiltration in certain cases might remove offensive congeners and actually improve a whisky. How would you respond to such a claim?

It would depend on the whiskies involved, and on those individuals and their palates. Chillfilitration might well disguise or ‘correct’ an error in distillation and/or maturation. In terms of our whiskies at Burn Stewart, there is no doubt that they’ve been enhanced by the removal of the chillfiltration process. You might want to note that Dave Broom (a leading whisky writer) concurs.

Whisky has been made in much the same way for hundreds of years. What, in your opinion, is the most significant change that has taken place in the modern era?

I’m a traditionalist. I don’t believe that whisky making should be computerised and automated. I find it sad that some distilleries are now run with virtually no people. Taking away the human element destroys the myth and heritage of whisky, and eventually it will lead to a blandness in flavour.

What can we expect from Bunnahabhain – that you’re able to disclose – in the medium term?

Burn Stewart has only owned Bunnahabhain for 10 years. The only variant at the time of purchase was the 12YO. We’ve introduced 25 variants since that time. The Bunnahabhain spirit ages particularly well, and it’s an exciting whisky with which to work, so we’ll continue to experiment. I’m specifically very excited about Mòine.

What’s your favourite whisky, Bunnahabhain or otherwise, and how do you drink it?

Whatever’s in my hand when the question is asked! Seriously, whisky is a mood drink so my preferences vary accordingly. I appreciate many outside of our stable (I mentioned Lagavulin earlier). I have a great respect for others in the industry doing the same job.

And I usually drink my whisky with a dash of water.

A message from Ian to all Prestige Magazine readers: may the dram be with you!

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