Interview with Sandy Hyslop – Royal Salute Master Blender

Last Saturday I went to pick up my daughter at a children’s party. When she got into the car, I noticed that she was radiant. More than usual. And when inquired of the reason of such enthusiasm, she replied “The party theme was Star Wars, and I met Leia. When I grow up, I want to be just like her“.

I didn’t quite understand if she wanted to be a princess, control the Force, fall in love with a scoundrel or be kidnapped by a giant slime with a sickly lust for females of other species. But deep down I understood the reason for her happiness. Leia was an absolute idol of my little one.

It would be as if one day a car enthusiast bumped (ops!) into Sir Stirling Moss. Or a movie buff could talk to Jean-Luc “Cinemá” Godard. Or a fine art fan to Jackson Pollock. Or, finally, a whisky enthusiast like me had the opportunity to interview a great master blender. As, say, Sandy Hyslop – Chivas’ director of blending and responsible for creating the Royal Salute new range.

And that’s exactly what happened, thanks to an incredible invitation from Royal Salute. During my recent trip to South Korea, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Sandy, who was extremely friendly. The master blender told us about the restructuring of the brand’s permanent portfolio, his career as a master blender and some of his interests outside the whisky world. The conversation is reproduced below.

1.Your job is probably the most coveted by every whisky enthusiast. What does it take to become a master blender? And how is it?

Its absolutely fabulous being a master blender for royal salute. It’s a huge honour for me being responsible for such a prestigious whisky with such fabulous history and lineage.

To become a master blender, you need to have a good sense of smell, you need to be passionate about scotch whisky. You need to understand a blender works at the whole spectrum of the whisky making process. A lot of people think a blender is making new whiskies, working with matured 21-year old whiskies. But I’m working from the day the whisky is distilled. When the whisky is made new, we have distillery managers in our distilleries, but it is me that is responsible for the quality of what they make.

Sandy working

And I split my week, I work two days from Speyside and three days from Glasgow, so, I move about managing the whisky making process at both ends. I’m responsible for the quality, but also for the casks we purchase as well. So there is an overlying quality to be met over the whole process.

Tell me a little about the recent releases, and what the consumers should expect from each blend. Would you reveal the core malts for each of these outstanding creations?

Absolutely, I can give you information. This is personally really exciting for me to be able to introduce two new expressions from Royal Salute under my tenure as a master blender. Because it is not often that there are new permanent releases added to the Royal Salute Family of Whiskies.

Obviously, we are intending to continue with the classic signature Royal Salute, wich has that rich, velvety, fruity flavours. WHich is just amazing, it’s super creamy and smooth.

We are going to add to that the Malts Blend, which is really exciting for me, because I think for people that drink malt whisky, this is going to be something special, because it is very complex. We are using a range of different malt whiskies. We are using more than 21 individual single malts whiskies in the malts blends. It’s complex. Every single cask is being nosed, and in the end you have somthing that is elevated in fruitiness. It’s like peaches and syrup. It’s really sweet. Just like those old fashioned boiled sweets, on a jar. And it has a little spiciness as well. It’s really luxurious. Lots of flavour, really concentrated.

Lost Blend

The lost blend is interesting as well. Because I wanted all three expressions to be very different. With the classic royal salute, then I wanted something concentrated in rich and fruitiness, and then the lost blend, I wanted to have some nuttiness and spiciness but I wanted it also smoky. We are using some distilleries that are no longer in existence mixed with other distilleries. So, it has some very rare whiskies in the mix of the blend. There are things such as Imperial distillery, Caperdonich Distillery, Dumbarton Green amongst many others in the Lost Blend.

That’s why it is called the lost blend?

That’s why. Because it has some distilleries that are silent, no longer in existence, malts that are really hard to find.

So, but I also wanted it to have some traditional feel to it. I wanted it to have some smokiness, but also I used some more traditional wood, some hogsheads and butts rather than the American oak barrels, that’s why it has that wonderful sort of hazelnut flavour in there as well.

Whereas the Malts Blend uses more of that American oak. It has Strathisla distillery in the blend, also Longmorn, some real classics, but obviously, being a malt, it has dialled up that fruitiness. Absolutely fantastic if you want to mix it. We are going to have it in a cocktail tonight. It is amazing, it will be without a doubt, the most luxurious cocktail you will ever have.

Just a whisky geek curiosity. Does Chivas have any peated whisky of their own?

We do. Alt-a-Bhainne. We peat Alt-a-Bhainne. But we also exchange with our competitors every year. In Scotland we don’t like to buy, we don’t like to spend money. So we swap to get extra flavours. For me, it’s like buying extra ingredients into the portfolio. And we bring them as new whiskies, we never buy them matured. We buy them new, and put them in our own casks, and manage the flavour from day one. So we have complete control from the start. It makes the end result much easier.

Luxury blends tend to get some fire from whisky geeks, especially those who appreciate single malts more than blends. What is your opinion about such prejudice?

I think single malts – if you like a particular type of flavour, you will love single malts, and you will be drawn to that flavour all the time. But I think something as a Royal Salute Malts Blend is far more complex than a single malt. It’s going to be much more multidimensional, have so much more layers of flavour when you drink that whisky. It won’t be only one blast of a particular flavour. You’ll get sweetness, a little bit of citrus, and the level of finish you will get – when the whisky starts to disappear on the palate – is much longer. A little bit of smoky there as well.

It’s about balance, complexity, and smoothness as well, you can reach a great level of smoothness bringing all these different malts together.

NAS is a trend in whisky industry. However, Royal Salute remained faithful to the 21-minimum age. Do you foresee this in the future?

Absolutely. It’s the benchmark of Royal Salute. If we were to make something wasn’t 21 years old – which we haven’t today – it would have to be something pretty special. It would be something of a really exotic cask

I think our consumers understand the quality. 21 years ago we laid down the stock, and committed to making it. It’s the only whisky in the world that has been continuously available at 21 years old since 1953. No other whisky can give you that benchmark.

And there are some whiskies out there that are very well thought of, but any of them is guaranteed that every single drop of whisky there is 21 years old. And that’s minimum. This year I’m using whiskies from 21 up to 25 in the blend.

So, there is a mixture of ages in that blend, but every single drop is over 21 years of age.

Last, a more personal question. I’ve seen your Instagram. So, Nissan Cubes and watches. Any other passions/hobbies?

Oh, I really love the shape (of the Nissan Cubes), i think they are really funky. In Japan I saw a lot of them, and I just had to have one. So that one came from Tokyo. It has blue wheels. My wife is not so keen on the blue wheels. She says to me “the car is ok, but does it have to have blue wheels?”

My father had his own antiques business, so, collecting antiques and old things are really in the blood. I have lots of collections of things. I have fountain pens, I’m a hoarder. And I drive my wife crazy bringing things in that I have purchased in my travels. Sometimes I sneak into the garage first, and after a few days I work it into the house.

That is a good strategy!

It is, it works!

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