into whisky it’s natural that you start
experimenting with malts. It’s beginning to sound like a drug, isn’t it? – “and then we started experimenting with malts, and it all went downhill from there, and then we got fixed on one of the West Coast malts”. Yes, you move into malts. I find malts fascinating because there is so much bigotry and snobbishness and rhetoric about them. “This malt’s good, that malt’s bad”. I got myself into a wee bit of trouble when someone brought in a malt which shall remain nameless and I said “ugh, Glenfiddich”. I really offended him and got into a huge argument and was quite wrong. Because ultimately the whisky that people enjoy is the one that’s good for them. Everyone is subjective about malt whisky and that’s the appeal of it, but you should only be subjective in your own taste and not impose that on other people.’As Wainwright knows only too well, it isn't just about the taste. ‘Most people who drink malt can tell a Laphroaig from a Speyside, but when you get down to the finer detail it’s more difficult. It’s all about the atmosphere, where it comes from, and the memories associated with it.’ Although, as a Scot, there is enthusiasm for the view “I’m from Scotland, I must drink whisky”, the history, legend and location is even more important. ‘If you’ve been to Islay or if you’ve been to Skye and you say “Oh Talisker is my favourite malt”, it’s because it’s all tied up with the place, the location, the bottle. Yes, I even find the bottle very important; for me it’s all about shape of the bottle, the label, the whole atmosphere surrounding the whisky – all these elements are just as important as the final taste.’ The time of day at which one drinks whisky is also part of the whole experience. ‘I tend to drink it as a mellow drink in the evening. It’s tied in with the open fire, warm lighting and everything like that. It’s just a mellow, atmospheric drink.’ But does he enjoy a dram during the day? ‘The only time I’ll drink it during the day is when I’m out shooting or skiing. I’ll have it in a hipflask, and nip into it every now and then.’
Rugby became a passion before whisky. He started playing when he was eight or nine, and he missed his first serious game because he punched someone in the changing rooms in the week preceding selection for the under-11s. Who won? ‘I’m not sure there was any result to speak of but I think the point was proven. My captain said “don’t do it, you’ll injure your hand and miss the game”. I went, “no, I won’t” and punched him with my thumb in my fist, and I missed the rugby game. So my first lesson was to punch like this, not like that [hands waving] – oh, and to listen to your captain.’Like many great sportsmen Wainwright has his own heroes. ‘I looked up to many, but for me Gareth Edwards was a god.
Oh, and a man called Hugh Falkus, a fisherman who wrote a wonderful book on the subject.’Life hasn’t all been plain sailing. Losing the Grand Slam decider in 1996 was clearly a huge disappointment. ‘I was concussed only 20 minutes into the game. It was potentially the greatest day, certainly in my rugby playing career, if not my life, and it didn’t go my way. It is something I really regret. To have the biggest challenge in your life and then not be in a position to take part was very, very disappointing.‘I’m not captain of Scotland now and in fact I’m not sure I ever really was – in the sense that no-one ever said “that’s your role for the next year”.’ Injury has plagued Wainwright for many months, but getting back on the pitch and not injuring himself is the big next challenge. He says he feels better now in terms of fitness and speed than he has for quite a while, a good prospect for what will likely be his last season as a player. He is in the squad of 26 who have made the initial stage, ‘but I’ve still got lots to prove’. Looking to the future Wainwright has clearly made some difficult decisions. ‘Rugby’s going to end after the World Cup if not before, and that’s in the lap of the gods, the selectors and above
all myself, whether I can produce the form I want.’What are the options for the future? ‘Being a doctor is always there to fall back on’. What about working in the whisky industry? ‘Not directly, but I hope to do my best to keep them in business’. Surprisingly, he dreams about owning land and a house on the west coast of Scotland. ‘That’s the next ambition to fulfil. I want to create a place that is not so much a hotel, rather a club.’ Behind me is a picture called Glenraden, the name of his dream. It’s a sporting club based on an estate, devoted to wild sport and wild places; stalking, shooting, fishing and falconry. ‘If we believe enough in country sports then we must do what we can to protect them and nurture them in the best way’. For a man who earns his living in a scrum or dealing with medical ailments this is a huge contrast. ‘One of the rules would be that whenever anyone came to stay they must bring a bottle of malt with them and it would go into the bar. Not so that they had to drink it all each time, but so we would have a very interesting top shelf. Sport should be part of the experience, not just the experience.’The Famous Grouse is Wainwright’s favourite blend. ‘I always loved it because there was a grouse on the bottle. I really enjoyed knowing Matthew Gloag [the descendant of the creator of Grouse]; Gloags have been called Matthew for five generations, and that personal side matters to me’. Fond recollections of whisky experiences are all part of Wainwright’s enjoyment. ‘I remember one night when we were on Islay and went down to the hotel at Port Askaig, down by the harbour. It isn’t that far from Bunnahabhain. The tide was right in, there was barely any harbour visible, the slipway under water and the sea almost under the fence outside the hotel. We went in and thought we’d have one quick drink and they said, “try our Islay malts”; all Islay malts £1.50 per nip, except Caol Ila, £1.65. It was the best bit of marketing I’ve ever seen for a whisky: I had to find out why Caol Ila was worth an extra 15p. To my mind it’s so much smoother than the recognized Islay characters of Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg. It’s also quite a clear whisky, which is obviously all to do with the wood it’s matured in.’ Which brings us neatly back to Wainwright’s own environment, and his maturation into a Scot. ‘I have to admit when I came back up again from England I was acutely Scottish. It happens when you’ve been away for a bit, but in my case I became fiercely nationalistic. I also tried to change my accent which I now don’t do any more. In fact I don’t think it’s so much accent as language; it’s the language up here that’s so different.’ Fortunately the word ‘malt’ is international.