Master of Time and Timeless Master

The Bowmore Timeless series is a hugely ambitious concept, one that involves an extraordinary presentation, compelling marketing and the allure of being a strictly limited edition. But the ultimate statement must come from the whisky itself. The man charged with ensuring that Bowmore Timeless lives up to its claims is Ron Welsh, Master Blender at parent company Beam Suntory since mid-2017. Welsh oversees an eclectic array of outstanding malt whiskies, including Bowmore and its Islay cousin Laphroaig, Ardmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch plus blends such as Teacher’s. Welsh told Martin Moodie about how he brought the concept of Timeless to life through a combination of experience, testing and sheer gut feel.

“When I was asked to come up with possibilities of which whiskies we would use in Timeless Series, I was given a fairly free rein,” says Beam Suntory Master Blender Ron Welsh. “So it was about the art of time, or a moment in time that creates this Timeless series… which was about picking up Bowmore at its peak, at the kind of age range that we were looking for.”

It demanded a whisky that was 25 years-plus but otherwise Welsh had license to roam and a tantalising array of Bowmore stock to choose from. But life as a master blender is not as easy as simply pointing at a series of casks, then blending and bottling from them. Volume demands have to be considered as well as the ultimate desired style.

“There were probably about six different parcels that offered enough volume for each of the series,” says Welsh. Once Bowmore gets past 18 years old it starts developing a range of tropical fruit flavours, he notes, and variations between casks increase.

The 31 Year-Old has more floral character than its 27 Year-Old sibling but in both cases it was a matter of picking the casks that were typical of Bowmore from those eras while being at the peak of their maturity.

Easier said than done. In terms of this series, Bowmore was looking at 3,000 bottles for the 31 Year-Old, which means blending from four to six four casks for each release. “So you might have 12 to pick from and you don’t pick the best six at that time – you pick the six that for that cask have reached their peak,” Welsh explains.

“Even though they’re the same whisky, there are variations. From my experience, if you can tell that there are ones that are still to get to their peak, you’re happy to let them carry on for maybe another couple of years, and then retaste. With others, you know that’s the best it’s going to be and you say, let’s use it now.”

It’s a combination of experience, science and gut feel I suggest. “Very much so,” Welsh responds. But even master blenders make mistakes, he relates with a chuckle, referring back to 2007 when the company was crafting the Laphroaig 27 Year-Old.

“We had gone through the casks and I’d picked out one which was slightly more superior than the other casks that we’d put together for the bottling. I said, ‘Right, leave that. Let it get to 30 years old and we’ll bottle it as a single cask.’ Three years later, I sampled from the cask and went, ‘Oh no!’ It still had a great nose, but the taste was just too tannic.

“So you need to be very careful that although you’ve got a whisky that’s beautiful at one time, you don’t leave it for too long and it goes past its peak. And that just comes from experience.”

I ask what a Master Blender does when presented with a concept such as Timeless – an evocative word for sure but how to translate it into spirit form? Where does he draw inspiration from? Is it simply about finding the right whisky, or does he adopt a broader perspective?

“Yes, I am thinking wider,” Welsh replies. “I’m looking at the processes that Bowmore goes through to get to a point in time. I am also looking at the legacy of the craftsmen that produced that whisky at that time. And remember, the two expressions [31 Year-Old and 27 Year-Old] would probably have had the same guys working in the distillery, so the difference between those casks is the maturation.”

Welsh wants consumers to have the same sense of discovery as he experiences when he gets the first cask samples. “I will be the first one dipping my nose into that whisky and revealing how it’s managed to get to that place in time through its journey. That is the best part of my job, absolutely!

“Don’t get me wrong, not every single one is great to nose. But on the whole, they are just a joy to reveal, those nuances of flavours and bouquets. It’s fabulous. And I have that in the back of my mind as well when looking at what should be put into the bottle.”

The Timeless Series involves selecting a selection of casks from a specific point in time when they’re at their peak. It sounds easy but is a lot more demanding than that, Welsh admits. “You would expect that whiskies that have been made at the same time and put into the same type of cask, after a number of years would be exactly the same. They are not – they don’t mature like that. And that’s all down to the trees themselves that were grown before they were made into staves.

“There’s a whole bunch of different things that happen to the cask before we start using it,” says Welsh. “From the outside, they look identical, but when you put whisky in them they just react differently. So with 20 cask samples from the same whisky with the same cask style, you will get six or seven variants and it’s all about picking the variants that will complement each other.”

During his time with Beam Suntory, Welsh has been involved with some compelling projects, including Laphroaig Lore, Auchentoshan Sauvignon Blanc and Glen Garioch Virgin Oak among many others. How does the Timeless Series rate in terms of the challenge and the ambition that underpins it?

“It was the ambition that drove me to cast my net wider and look at more of the stock,” Welsh replies. “This has helped with a number of other projects as well, where we’ve identified stock that we can use in other Bowmore expressions which will be released over the next ten years or so. So it’s been good in that way.

“It was just a joy to have the time to check those samples and go through them. I’ve been in charge of Bowmore inventory since 2014, so I’ve spent seven years with that stock. But I still haven’t nosed every single cask that we’ve got and I doubt I ever will have at any point!

“I’m still picking out casks that I haven’t had a chance to nose and I’m constantly surprised by the quality that’s there.

“There was a sample just this week of a cask which I had expected to be very woody in terms of mouth feel. When I got the sample, it was aging amazingly well in terms of the strength that it held and it was beautiful in terms of sherry maturation.”

Welsh takes pride and delight in seeing consumers around the world enjoying the fruits of his and his team’s craft and likes the fact that people criss-crossing the globe will be able to buy Timeless 31 Year-Old in airport duty free stores. “That’s a great part of the job, it’s very satisfying,” he says.

“Even during this global pandemic – and the Timeless Series is very apt in that sense – somebody can enjoy a dram of whisky by being with their friends virtually and be able to interact over that whisky.

“That for me is a learning point from the pandemic, that whisky can be enjoyed when you’re at opposite ends of the world and helping to ensure that you can connect with other people.”

Such encounters may be virtual for now, but the enjoyment of drinking such an outstanding whisky remains as real as ever. Timeless, in fact.

Spotlight Series - April 2021

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