Joe Bates (JB): Our theme this issue is science and whisky. How good were you at science at school and did you ever think you would follow a career in which science would play an important role?
Billy Walker (BW): I don’t think that really crystallised until I was in the Scottish education system in the third year. I’m not even saying by that point I was totally focused on science, but chemistry was an attractive subject by then. I had a good teacher who made the learning experience exciting. It was quite easy to become interested in science, partly driven by my own curiosity. I went to Glasgow University to get a degree in chemistry. Doing a degree in Glasgow was a positive experience; the campus was relatively uncluttered. There were 3,000 or 4,000 people on campus tops. Today, it’s in the order of 20,000. It’s a more intense experience for young people today.
JB: When was the first time you thought a career in Scotch whisky might be for you?
BW: I think there were coordinates everywhere. I was brought up in Dumbarton, which was, and still is, a big whisky town. It was the home of Hiram Walker, which produced Ballantine’s; there was a bottling plant there and a grain distillery. They also had Inverleven and Lomond as Lowland single malts. J&B had a bottling plant… there was a big whisky influence in the town. I suppose part of your DNA was influenced by the environment of the town. It was almost inevitable that I would at some point eventually end up in whisky. But when I first left university, I worked as a pharmaceutical research chemist for about four and a half years, which was a very intriguing and interesting experience too. It was certainly a different world from making and blending whisky. They both had their attractions.
JB: Do you think the role of science in whisky making is sometimes undervalued given the industry’s focus on history, heritage, craft and the art of blending?
BW: I don’t think it’s undervalued. It doesn’t get the exposure it deserves. The science of fermentation, distilling and subsequently maturation is from a chemistry perspective good knowledge to have. If you ask me is blending a science or an art, I would tend to err on the side of art, but to have knowledge of the science and to understand the expectation of what you know should be happening all through the process is very, very helpful when it comes to the more personality-driven blending side.
JB: What’s the most memorable dram that you’ve had on your travels?
BW: If you’re in Myanmar, you’re going to end up drinking the big brands that are available. In Singapore and Shanghai the choice is terrific. In Tokyo, the choice is remarkable. It’s memorable not so much for the brand, but it’s about getting back to the hotel having had an exhausting day, and having the opportunity to choose a dram, relax and have a chat with somebody who hopefully you’ve been talking to throughout the day.
JB: You say that you sometimes find travel stressful. Do you have any travel tips to pass along?
BW: I think it’s the reflection that travel today is somehow easier than it was. Actually, it’s not easier. Travelling 20, 30, or 40 years ago was a much more pleasurable experience, but it was also a more limited experience. Today, the experience of taking yourself through the airport is stressful.
JB: If you could share a dram with someone at the airport while waiting for a delayed flight, who would it be?
BW: It’s not easy to answer that question. Anybody who would have a listening ear. I have been held up at airports on numerous occasions. That period of delay is not a great experience and anybody who wanted to talk to me during that time would find me in not the most engaging of moods!
JB: If you had 24 hours to explore a city, where would it be?
BW: There are a lot of good examples, but Tokyo and Osaka are fantastic cities. You can feel secure walking around them. I remember telling a friend that the first time I went to Tokyo, it was such a secure and safe city that if you dropped your pocket book with money and cards in it with the hotel address in it, it would be delivered to the hotel.
JB: Can you tell us an anecdote about something strange, unusual or funny that happened to you during one of your travels?
BW: The one I recall with least pleasure is when I was in Manila many, many years ago. There was a kind of military activity. I am not going to say it was a coup, but there was some kind of unrest. I was detained in the hotel in Manila for three days. Did I feel unsafe? No, I didn’t, but it wasn’t something I had factored into my travel plans. I also arrived at Moscow with a visa that had been issued for the following day’s arrival. There was an interesting exchange with the border patrol people!
JB: When we can travel more freely, where would you most like to go?
BW: If I had the opportunity, I’d go to Cape Town. If I couldn’t get to Cape Town, I’d go to Vancouver. I have been to both places and would love to go again. They are both fantastic cities.
JB: If you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what bottle of whisky would you like to find washed up on the shore?
BW: Well, obviously, either the GlenAllachie 21 Years Old or 15 Years Old. If either of those rolled up, I would have a smile on my face.