Meet the man behind the first Naked Whisky who brought a long-lost family blend back to life
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Map of the Vineyard
ALL ON THE NOSE
On the outside, there is nothing remarkable about Norman Mathison’s nose. It sits in the middle of his face, is equipped with a pair of nostrils and could happily support a pair of specs. Where it differs is on the inside. This remarkably well-tuned organ kept Norman gainfully employed as a whisky blender for over fifty years, and it still keeps him busy now. “I retired eight years ago,” he says. “But that lasted three weeks when someone phoned up and asked me to look at some samples.” He has been a whisky consultant ever since.
“A lot of people say ‘you must have a very good nose?’ I think it was just that I was trained from an early age,” he says. Having left school at fifteen, much to his parents’ alarm, an uncle had explained that he could get a job as an office boy “either in alcohol or shipping,” the uncle explained. “We’re an island so we’ll always have ships and people will always drink.” He joined MacLauchlan’s, a Glasgow brewer that owned the Auchentoshan distillery and had its own whisky for its pubs. In next to no time, he was nosing casks in the warehouse under the watchful eye of the firm’s boss and blender. “The first time, he said ‘get a glass and follow me’,” says Norman. “And that was it. I learned on the job.”
“I honestly don’t think my sense of smell is better than anyone else’s,” he continues. “I always tell people that once you get something in your head, as long as you remember it, you can build up your own library of smells. They’re very difficult to describe and no two people will pick up the same smell. I might get ‘apples’ and you’ll get ‘grapefruit’, but the trick is to try and pick up the same thing every time.” After a few years at Maclachan’s, Norman moved to Invergordon Distillers where he was mentored by the legendary blender - Charles ‘the nose’ Craig.
This obsession with smell rather than taste might seem strange, but they are virtually one and the same if you stop and think about it. You only have to have a blocked nose and a stinking cold to realise just how little you can actually taste with your tongue. Norman’s nose is not insured for a six figure sum and he laughs at the very idea, but perhaps it should be. Then again, maybe the real value lies in the years of experience and that vast memory bank.
Invergordon produced blended whiskies for supermarkets all over the world, and scooped many awards along the way. Each blend would start with a meeting with the buyers and a blank sheet of paper. “You would sit down and discuss what style they were looking for - did they want something heavy, light or smoky? And you would go from there,” he says, before explaining that a typical blend would contain around five grain whiskies and at least thirtyfive malts.
You could liken the job of blending to a complex jigsaw puzzle, but it becomes a whole lot more complicated when you consider all the different casks involved in ageing the whiskies. There is their age, their size, their previous contents such as sherry, Bourbon or port, how often they have been used, and the fact that they all come from an oak tree as individual as you or I. “If you fill a hundred casks, in five years you will have a hundred different flavours and a hundred different degrees of maturation,” says Norman. Suddenly, blending begins to sound more like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle.
Having sketched out the idea on paper, the process then moves to the sample room and blending whiskies by hand. “You have a rough idea that if you mix three, four, five, six or more malts together in a certain ratio, you should go in a certain direction. It’s hard to describe. It’s just pure experience really,” he says, adding that the prototype from the sample room “is a good guide, but we would always do a full blending operation before bottling anything.” Invergordon owned a number of malt distilleries including Bruichladdich and Jura, but nothing like the 30 or more needed in its blends. The same was true for the other whisky firms and this explains the enormous trade in casks that goes on every year behind the scenes. “On the production side of Scotch whisky everyone’s very friendly because we all need each other,” says Norman.
While adjusting to his new life as a consultant, others were engaged in a fascinating piece of whisky detective work that he was to become involved in. The brewer James Eadie had bottled a blend that he sold in his pubs in the Midlands. It was big, smoky, sherried whisky and immensely popular by all accounts. Unfortunately it disappeared off the scene in 1942, but his great great grandson, who works in the industry, was keen to resurrect it. He had unearthed the ledgers detailing everything in Eadie’s warehouse and had found a couple of bottles of the original blend. Now all he needed a blender skilful enough to bring it back to life.
Norman was immediately taken by the story and agreed to help. “We tasted the original, and we had the records of what whiskies Eadie owned,” he says. “But we didn’t know the recipe so I tried to work out the proportion of malts in the blend.” They had access to all the distilleries involved, but production methods have changed somewhat over time as have the casks used to mature the whisky. Nevertheless, when he starts saying that “it was more luck than judgement,” Norman is being much too modest. You would imagine that James Eadie and the regulars who drank in his pubs would have been mighty impressed by the new blend as much for its quality as the craft and skill that have gone into it
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