Decanted into porcelain rather than glass, emblazoned with emphatically regal motifs and with a claim to fame that involves Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Day, Royal Salute seems like the type of whisky that takes itself rather too seriously.
But many forget that it has to — Royal Salute blends start where most end: at 21 years of age. While other distilleries have a lot more leeway to create their much younger entry level offerings, the Royal Salute blending team has to balance the complexities of much older spirits to ensure consistency in their flagship — the 21-year-old Signature Blend — as well as smoothness and harmony in special, often much older, editions.
In fact, one of its newest releases is about half a century old. The Time Series 52 Year Old Single Cask Finish is an ultra-rare, limited edition blend with only 106 bottles made. The blend’s last 14 years were spent maturing in a single cask, and the resulting liquid entices the nose with notes of plum, apples, dark chocolate and hazelnuts while the flavours of sweet orange marmalade, ginger, syrupy pears and liquorice wash over the palate. The texture is soft and creamy, and the finish is sweet. If you want one you’ll have to move quickly, because there are only three bottles left in Singapore, and each is going for $48,888.
What else you can do with $48,888 is perhaps less pertinent a question than what it takes to make such a precious liquid. In Royal Salute’s case, the magic ingredient is Master Blender Sandy Hyslop. With almost 40 years of experience in the whisky industry, Hyslop is well-equipped to handle the responsibilities that come with being the Director of Blending and Inventory at Chivas Brothers.
While nosing and tasting hundreds of spirits a day and inventing recipes for new blends sounds like a lot more fun than, say, balancing company accounts, Hyslop believes his job is “probably more varied than people think”. He explains how he has to work closely with the distillery managers, approving the new distillate produced every week from their malt distilleries and testing the new grain distillate samples every morning. Cask selection, allocation of the new distillate, and leading the inventory and brand technical teams are also part of a day’s work. “There’s never a time when I have nothing to do, but to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
That’s because the best part of the job is being able to call the shots on new product developments, such as the brand’s first-ever blended grain whisky, the 21 Year Old Snow Polo Edition. Hyslop admits it was one of his most challenging releases, since it was the first of its kind in Royal Salute’s portfolio, and a lot was riding on it. “Grain whiskies are not as well-known as malts and this bold choice, though the right one, was more unfamiliar to our audience,” he explains. It was also Hyslop that came up with the new Royal Salute The Malts Blend, a careful blend of 21 single malts from Scotland’s five whisky regions that Hyslop excitedly declared was “nothing short of magic” when it was unveiled last year.
This enthusiasm is central to Hyslop’s work. Besides dedication and patience, which he says are two natural qualities that help with his duties as Master Blender (“dedication to select every single cask that’s being filled, and patience to watch the blend mature for a minimum of 21 years”), it is passion that lets him “wake up every day and be excited about whisky every day.”
There are of course more technical skills required for a job in whisky making. “You also need to have a good nose — a strong sense of smell, and be able to log and store all these different smells in your memory, ready to draw on when you need it.”
I think one of the key things this year has taught us is a greater appreciation for life, slowing down to take in every moment and unwind, and the same can be said for how we appreciate luxury spirits.”Sandy Hyslop
While all these traits are necessary for the blending arts, reaching Hyslop’s level of mastery requires a little extra something. “If I had to pinpoint just one skill [that makes a good blender], it would be the ability to forge your own opinions and ideas.”
It makes sense that yes men aren’t needed in an industry that needs to keep innovating to hold the interest of an ever-changing demographic. He continues: “I often say to the younger members of my blending team: ‘listen to my words, and use them as a guide but you must learn to describe and articulate samples using your own words using your own life experiences.’”
As far as his own experiences go, 2020 hasn’t dampened Hyslop’s spirit. “I think one of the key things this year has taught us is a greater appreciation for life, slowing down to take in every moment and unwind, and the same can be said for how we appreciate luxury spirits,” he says. “We have spent a great deal of this year at home, and perhaps with a little more time on our hands to explore and experiment, indulging with new flavour combinations that perhaps we would not have thought of trying before — it helps enhance the experience and provide a means of escapism.”
For Hyslop, the future doesn’t just hold the promise of more stability and safety. It’s also the gateway to more exciting products. “I think that whisky today is much easier to work with than 20 years ago. Everything is far more consistent now, and this streamlined attitude has allowed room for innovation and experimentation,” he enthuses. “Consumers more than ever want to be surprised and excited, and the luxury spirit industry has a real opportunity to tap into this to spark emotion and delight through new and unexpected ways.The next few years are set to surprise you, I can assure it!”