Annabel Meikle is a sensory whisky creator for Glenmorangie. As well as travelling the world to educate consumers about whisky, she is also a member of Glenmorangie's whisky creation team that develops new products.
Interview by Stuart Peskett
What does a ‘sensory whisky creator’ actually do?
The whisky creation part is all about quality control, innovation, and new products. But my job also involves getting people to taste whisky and nose it and get them to think about whisky in a different way. But it’s the whisky creation side I’m really fascinated by.
What is the general perception of whisky?
Once people scratch the surface, they realise what a magnificent spirit whisky is. There is such a wide spectrum of flavours, but we do have to demystify whisky, and it’s our role to make it approachable. We’ve analysed the whole Glenmorangie range, and found 144 separate aromas. With wine, you drink it at the strength you’re presented it with, but with whisky, you unlock more aromas if you dilute it, so you’ve got more scope to discover more.
How should you taste whisky?
My order of tasting is to nose and taste a whisky neat, then add water, and nose and taste again. I’ll also taste at two different times of the day: mid-morning, and then in the evening. I think your palate gets blander in the evening, and it’s something you have to concentrate on. But your first reaction to an aroma is always the most accurate.
Adding water isn’t a sin, then?
I think you have to put water in whisky, not just for appreciation of it, but also for drinking it as well, because most of our enjoyment of whisky comes from the aromas. I’m not bothered how people drink it, because it’s all about making whisky more accessible to people, but I’d be reluctant to add water to very old whiskies – they are very fragile.
And what about ice?
I quite like the way that ice sometimes cuts out some of those subtle aromas, and it gives you a sharper drink. But you should never use a glassful of ice; just one cube, and a very ‘clean’ cube at that. That way, the ratio of whisky to ice is ideal, and it melts slowly.
What effect do the shape of the stills have?
We have the highest stills in Scotland – 5.14m – which is ideal for capturing those lighter aromas. With shorter, fatter stills, you get a heavier spirit. The manager at Lagavulin once said to me he wants to have ‘a short conversation’ with his copper to get a heavy spirit. Copper is a purifying element, but we want to keep some impurities in there, because we want some of those congeners that add character.
And is the water source that important?
Whisky distilleries did get a bit carried away with all those lochs and springs in their marketing in the 1980s. But good water definitely makes a difference. At the moment of fermentation, those minerals in the water are still in it, so you’ve got to get the benefit. But with peaty whiskies, it really is all about the smoke and the barley; it’s nothing to do with the water.
Where do you get your barley from?
We buy from five maltsters, all Scottish, and use 300 tonnes of barley a week. In Scotland, we have quite nutrient-poor soil, and barley will grow in poor soil, and it can withstand wind and rain.
So any country capable of growing barley can make whisky?
Well, some companies – naming no names – import barley from eastern Europe. But I’m all in favour of other countries making whisky, because they could never do it as well as us!
The rules governing what you can and can’t call whisky have changed in recent years. What do you make of them?
If I’m confused, then your average Joe will be, too. I had no problem with the term ‘vatted malt’ (now banned, along with ‘pure malt’, in favour of ‘blended malt’, which is different from most people’s idea of a blended whisky). There’s one question that I spend all my time answering: ‘What’s the difference between a blend and a malt?’ Whisky should be about making it easier for consumers to understand, not more difficult.
Some say that blends are innately inferior to single malts. Do you agree?
Yes. I think that single malts are designed to be drunk with a wee bit of water, whereas a blend is drunk like a vodka and Coke, and be more refreshing. A blender would argue that it takes incredible skill to create a blend, but single malts are generally aged longer, and are not ‘diluted’ with grain spirit which is, whichever way you look at it, a cheaper spirit.
How did you get into the whisky industry?
I had a very successful ceramics business, but after eight years, I looked for something new. I got a job as cheese buyer at Valvona & Crolla [one of the UK’s top delicatessens, based in Edinburgh], which brought me into contact with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, as two of their chefs used to come in to buy their cheese. I got a job at the Society, working at the bar, then ended up running their tastings and events. And then in 2004, the Society was bought by Glenmorangie, and they invited me to work on its relaunch.
Any desert island whiskies?
I am very fond of Lowland whiskies, so ones like St Magdalene, Rosebank, and Glenkinchie. But I also love my smoky, peaty monsters like Talisker and Lagavulin.