In this CopperedWrench interview, I interrogate Gary Ross, Dewer's Aberfeldy's Brand Ambassador.
Before I had actually seen the distillery with my own eyes, I dropped them an email asking if I could turn up out of the blue, meet somebody, and have a tour. Cheeky.
Without any hesitation, Gary replied the same day and welcomed me with open arms. I was really knocked for six by this friendliness and openness.
So I was in the car with a mate within the blink of an eye. I knew very little about the Dewer's and Aberfeldy brands, so this was going in quite blind. What I came out with at the end of a very detailed, frank, fun, and immersive tour was that Gary is actually taller than me.
In all seriousness though, his knowledge is a bit scary. I couldn't catch him out with any questions. He was like a walking encyclopedia - not just about Aberfeldy and Dewer's, but the local area, the people, and the whisky industry in general. And he's good fun!
No wonder his colleagues have a nickname for him. Read on.....
In 30 words or less, who is Gary Ross?
A mega whisky nerd. I’m working towards my Diploma in Distilling with the IBD and am hugely passionate about all things Scotch, from history to geeky chemistry stuff in production. I’m such a geek that I was titled The Grainman by our brand teams!
How would you describe Aberfeldy, and what is the connection with Dewar’s?
So, Dewar’s is a blend that most people in the UK probably won’t have heard of. It’s not really been sold here in any volume in pushing 50 years now, but we have a very long legacy within Scotch whisky. I would definitely recommend having a look into Dewar’s, the stories that we have and the ingenious marketing of Tommy Dewar are incredible. Dewar’s was founded back in 1846 by our founder John Dewar, but it was two of his sons, John and Tommy, that really led the business forward when they took over the running of the company, creating international demand for our whiskies. In order to keep up with the increasing global demand the brothers looked to build a distillery, and they chose Aberfeldy to do that, because Aberfeldy is the centre of the universe and the best place in Scotland to build a distillery! It was almost a perfect location to build a distillery though, a fantastic water source, excellent access afforded by the railway line and the family also had a local connection. It was designed by Charles Cree Doig, as so many were back then, with the intent of creating a light and fruity style of whisky. Building commenced in 1897 and production started towards the end of 1898, and since then, Aberfeldy has always been used as the heart malt, or base, of the Dewar’s blends. And it’s only relatively recently that we see it being bottled as a single malt in its own right. That’s true of all of our malt distilleries as a company, and its fantastic seeing these malts that were almost exclusively reserved for blending historically being given the chance to really shout about what they have to offer.
For Aberfeldy, as I mentioned, it was designed to be light and fruity by design. We have a longer than average fermentation, a minimum of 72 hours, giving us a good amount of ester character being created – we don’t have the longest fermentation by any means, but it is well above average. But how we refine the flavour we have created in fermentation is really where Aberfeldy’s character comes from. We have tall, relatively narrow pot still, which we run very slowly while bringing in the run on the spirit stills. By using these tall, narrow stills and running them slowly we get a huge amount of reboiling and reflux happening. This is what gives us this lovely floral, sweet and fruity character of spirit. I am fortunate enough to have tried the New make from Aberfeldy, several dozen times, and it honestly has to be one of the most enjoyable and easygoing New Makes there is, and leaving it to rest in a cask for a couple of years just enhances that further.
How did you end up working as a Brand Ambassador in the whisky industry?
I went a very round about way to get into the whisky industry. I actually studied Product Design at Uni after I left school – a degree that I am regularly putting to use talking about whisky! – but decided fairly quickly that I didn’t want to draw pictures for the rest of my life. I got really into whisky while at uni though, joining clubs and going to tastings, and heard that the job of being an ambassador for whisky was a thing – dream job, right? So, I decided that that was the goal but had no idea how to get there. After I finished at uni I moved back home to Aberfeldy and got a part time job as a tour guide in the visitor centre and was kept on after the season ended and eventually joined the advocacy team here, welcoming guests from all over the world and educating them on our whiskies. 5 years on from doing my first tour, and 4 different jobs later, I was fortunate enough to be made the Brand Ambassador for our distilleries. Which, as a big production geek, really is a dream job.
What’s your favourite part of the distillery to get “lost” in?
I’m a big production nerd so anywhere in the working distillery really, though if I have to pick I love the brewing side of the process. I could happily sit in the mash house or tun room all day and just take in the amazing smells. This is possibly something to do with the fact that I am a very bang average home brewer in my spare time.
I think historically the brewing side of whisky making has been very functional, as it has to be in many regards, but its so exciting to see some of the newer distilleries that are popping up experimenting with different types of malt. I think we are in for some very exciting and interesting whiskies being released over the next few years.
What is your current favourite Aberfeldy whisky?
That’s a tough one. I think right now it’s our Aberfeldy 21yr, for very sentimental reasons. I have had a bottle of Aberfeldy 21 at home that I bought in my first week working at the distillery, and every special occasion, like a new contract or when my wee twin girls were born, I had a dram from it. My wife and I very recently finished the last dram from that bottle during the ceremony at our wedding. As a whisky it will always have such a special place in my heart – I’m too sentimental for my own good!
One of our newer releases though that I am loving right now is our Aberfeldy 18yr, finished in Cote Rotie red wine casks. It’s such a great balance of the influence of the rich winey-ness, the previous maturation, and also distillery character, its an absolute knock out! If anyone wants to try it, its actually exclusive to the distillery in the UK.
What sets you apart from other sherried whiskies?
I think as a whisky Aberfeldy is overtly sherried, its more subtle and the sherry casks used bring more of a candied fruitiness and sweet spice. Nothing against a big sherry monster (who doesn’t love a first fill PX full maturation!), but I think one of the great things about Aberfeldy is that it’s obviously Aberfeldy with every sip. It is very balanced, and the distillery character is hugely present in the glass and it’s not masked in any way by some big heavy sherry casks. I’m a big believer in letting the work the distillery teams do to create the flavour in the first place shine through, and I think Stephanie, our Malt Master, is really good at doing that, she really is an expert in balance.
What expression would you advise people to try if they’ve never had one from your company?
I’d say if you have never tried Aberfeldy before our 16yr is a bit of a highlight of the range. It’s finished for a few months in first fill Oloroso and it adds a lovely warming spice and nutty character to the usual honeyed and fruity style of the distillery. I like to think of Aberfeldy as an any occasion dram, and the 16 ticks a lot of boxes!
Do you think the core range will eventually increase in ABV’s from 40% at some point?
I think for the near future we won’t see the abv getting increased on the Aberfeldy range. It’s a question that we get asked quite a bit, why not make it 46%+, and I think it’s important for people to understand the whisky market and what’s out there. I remember having a conversation with someone at The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival last year about our Craigellachie range, and he was adamant that every bottling should be presented as single cask, at cask strength and all the bells and whistle. And yes, while that would be amazing for whisky geeks and people that want to really get under the skin of the distillery, it has a few draw backs. And I think the biggest is how would someone new to the whisky world be able to connect with your whisky? They wouldn’t be able to, because everything you release would be so niche and different. That is why distilleries have their core range releases, and within that there has to be something for everyone. If you aren’t a whisky drinker even 40% can seem insanely strong, there aren’t that many drinks that are that high in alcohol you drink neat. Most people if they are having vodka, gin or rum would mix it with something, and if you are wanting to get into whisky the alcohol can put a lot of people off. If you were to think of what your first whisky was that you tried, I would be very surprised if it was something like a cask strength Laphroaig! The chances are that it was something accessible and readily available, and most likely at 40%, a Glenfiddich or Glenlivet for example. The first whisky I properly connected with was a Cragganmore 12yr. Once you’ve had that first dram you then start down that slippery slope of exploring what’s out there. For me that is where Aberfeldy sits, it’s not that first whisky you try but its one of those whiskies that you have towards the start of your adventure. Its easy drinking and importantly is accessible. As you keep exploring the world of Scotch that’s where you move onto whiskies like our Craigellachie, Aultmore or Royal Brackla, the ones at 46% and then onto the weird and whacky single casks. – sadly, as well as the abv the price goes up too! Its an expensive drink to explore!
I do think in the whisky industry just now a lot of people are blindly ignoring whiskies if they are bottled below 46% and are missing out on some great experiences, and I mean from a lot of producers, not just us. Just because something is bottled at 46%, NCF and NC doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better whisky, I have had some rotten drams in my time that tick all those boxes. A distiller can choose to present their whiskies however they want to, but it all comes down to is what the actual whisky tastes like. In my view, at the end of the day, only one thing really matters. Do you like it.
You’re local to the area. Did you always want keep your career close to home?
It was never really my intention to keep my career local, it has just happened that way, and I feel very fortunate that it has. I think on a personal level I absolutely love being able to represent my hometown and everything it encompasses, including an amazing whisky distillery! Getting to talk to people from all over the world about a distillery is one thing but waxing lyrical about a distillery that you grew up next to is something else. I harp on all the time about whisky being about the place it comes from, and who better to tell you about that than someone from the area – I hope that’s not the only reason they gave me the job though! It really is a badge of honour to be able to represent my home distillery, and it’s so strange meeting people from all over the world that have heard of this wee town in the middle of Scotland because of the whisky!
The museum at the distillery is absolutely phenomenal. How long did it take to create?
It is such an amazing space, and we are so lucky to have it, I think it makes us as a visitor attraction more of a distillery experience, as opposed to just a distillery tour. When we decided to open the visitor centre at Aberfeldy in 2000 we knew we had to show off some of our archive, we have such a rich history and so many wonderful stories and items that we wanted to show off. So, they decided to convert half of the old maltings into our heritage exhibition. To tell the story of Dewar’s, explain the link with Aberfeldy and also tell some of the stories of our founders. The team in the archive are up fairly regularly, adding new items, taking others away, so I suppose it is constantly under development in one way or another, and there is always something new to see. We do have plans to update it in the not too distant future so you’ll have to come and visit again soon!
Can you share any news about some exciting releases or developments?
There are a few exciting things happening this year, though I don’t think I can say too much about them yet, coming from both Dewar’s and Aberfeldy. If anyone has been following recent series of whiskies from both of those, the Aberfeldy Red Wine finishes and also the Dewar’s 8yr Cask series, then there may or may not be additions to those. Though I can neither confirm or deny this…
For Aberfeldy Distillery we have a lot of plans to update our visitor experience, the museum space as I mentioned, but also our warehouse. The plans have been slightly waylaid with everything that has happened in recent times, though we are still hoping to get them done this year. So, I would recommend everyone comes and visits us now and then next year too, so they can have a before and after. Of course, if anyone is stopping by then do let me know you are coming, so we can share a dram!
You’ve recently become a first-time Dad… to twins!! How has it been?
Yes, twins! Two identically gorgeous wee girls, somehow, they are 5 months old already. It has both gone incredibly quick, but at the same time feels more like 5 years! It has been a real rollercoaster of a few months, but I have loved every minute of it, they are absolutely amazing, and their mum is just a super hero! Getting back into the swing of things at work has been interesting, but work have been so good and understanding about things. Life is a bit all over the place but I wouldn’t change it for the world, two amazing wee girls and a job that I cant really call work. I’m so unbelievably lucky!
Cheers Grainman, I mean Gary.
I would really encourage people to try the Aberfeldy brand. It really is a gem that has flown under the radar for a few folk. And having tried a plethora of beautiful whiskies during the tour (one of them 40 years old), I was instantly enlightened by this lovely distillery and its style