professional historian with a job in a university to move from the groves of academe into the hurly-burly of business. But the offer United distillers made me could not be refused: the job was both
challenging and open-ended. Being asked to create so large and important an archive was like being given the keys to a sweetie shop! CM Can you learn lessons from the past which are useful today?NM In terms of looking after products and brands like ours, most of which are over 100 years old, yes. Really, we are transient custodians of these great names: it ill-behoves us not to have due cognisance of the heritage of our products. After all, the people who founded the distilleries and created the brands must have done something right for them to have survived for so long. In my view, an understanding of the history of the category and of individual distilleries is essential if you are to give consumers what they want: let’s face it, most people are looking for more than just liquid when they buy a bottle of single malt.CM How did you become involved with malts? NM The mighty Distillers Company had an ambivalent attitude to malts. Its fortunes had been won by blended whisky and such malts as were sold didn’t appear on the radar screen of core business. When DCL became United Distillers in the late 1980s we looked afresh at all areas of operation, a market for malt whisky was already showing signs of
development. We were able to see where we could enter and able to play to our strength, which in a nutshell is diversity. We could, and did, offer consumers a choice based on taste, supported by a rational proposition of regionality – a sound tactic given the growing demand for variety, often linked to terroir, in consumables like wine, cheese, coffee and so on. Again, the sweetie shop analogy is appropriate. We have vast stocks of whisky to choose from and 27 operating malt distilleries spread across Scotland, each making different styles and flavours of malt whisky to support the quality criteria set for our blends. At the start, in 1988, we confined the choice to the six Classic Malts but by 1993 we were bottling single malts from all our distilleries. In 1995 we introduced our Rare Malts bottlings of old whiskies, often from closed distilleries and we occasionally do limited ‘vintage’ bottlings of the Classic Six for the Friends of the
CM In your own opinion, what do you perceive to be the future for single malts?NM Without being complacent, I believe continued growth in the premium malt (£20+) business is assured. On the one hand, because of the number of well-established blended Scotch markets around the world which have only had casual acquaintance with malts. And on the other hand, many malt ‘converts’ have not formerly drunk Scotch: their taste is informed by wines and other premium spirits. There is an opportunity here for all producers.CM What do you most enjoy about your job and which aspect of your job frustrates you more than any other?NM The passion and dedication of the people who make the whisky and bringing these people and the people on the marketing side closer together. Not long ago, each side viewed the other with mutual suspicion. I am frustrated by the popular misunderstanding about large companies being ‘a bad thing’, based on the ill-informed misconception that small is beautiful. We apply the most rigorous quality
standards in the way we make our whisky in order to ensure that each is different from the next to retain the distillery character of each and to provide our blenders with a broad range of flavours. The only way we can keep so many
distilleries open is the size of the company.CM Finally, what is your favourite drink?NM The boy in the sweetie shop samples from many jars, but in the end comes back to a few favourites. I come back to Talisker.