Fireside drams: stories from the whisky world

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Illustration by Bryan Angus

As the year draws towards its end, few things are more inviting than a crackling fire and a warming dram. Hannah Crosbie sits down with our Spirits Buyer Rob Whitehead and two of his friends from the whisky world, to delve into the stories they’ve shared over a 15-year fellowship.  

Rob Whitehead, our Spirits Buyer, has the unique pleasure of hunting down the casks, blenders and distillers with a story to tell – and he’s particularly good at recounting those tales.  

Along his whisky journey, he’s forged a 15-year friendship with two spirits industry heavyweights. Oliver Chilton is Head Blender at Elixir Distillers, which produces Port Askaig whisky and Black Tot Rum, among other much-loved spirits; and Joe Clark, Whisky Director at Spirit of Yorkshire, is the man behind the brilliant Filey Bay bottlings. Their story began, unassumingly, on a southbound train from Newcastle over a bottle of Glen Grant 1974. 

It’s a cool autumn evening when I meet Rob, Oliver and Joe in The Parlour at No.3 St James’s Street; fittingly, it’s here that the Cutty Sark whisky was originally conceived in 1923. Almost a century on, we gather around the same fireplace to explore the memories – and drams – the friends have shared together over the years. As the whisky flows, I settle in and let their stories lead the way.  

On origin stories… 

Joe: I’d love to have the kind of story that goes back generations. I started out in a whisky shop in York. For many people, that’s how it all starts: meeting and working with people who are ridiculously passionate about this fantastic liquid. It’s just infectious. The more you taste, the more you want to read about it – for me, it was a snowball effect. The first whisky that really stopped me in my tracks was a Sam Smith blend. I’d never experienced anything like it in terms of flavour – I remember being on the bus home and still feeling its presence.  

Oliver: I started out in the coffee shop directly opposite the whisky shop Joe was working at. I remember thinking, “I wonder if he’ll swap me some coffee for some whisky”. Thankfully he said “yes”. I then spent so much time in that shop, I ended up getting a job there. We started going to whisky events and festivals together, meeting the broad church that is the whisky community. One time, I got on a train back down from Newcastle with two men I’d met that day – one of whom turned out to be Rob Whitehead. 

Rob: I pulled out a bottle of Glen Grant 1974 for us to drink on that train. It felt so liberating to uncork such a special bottle on that journey back down south. Right now, we’re drinking a bottle of its sister cask. Back then, whisky like that used to be so hard to find. Nowadays, the internet tells you exactly where you can find anything at the click of a button. There were far more underground secrets in the whisky industry back then. 

On spontaneous collections… 

Oliver: I don’t think any of us are intentional collectors. Whisky is different – it’s not like collecting stamps. You buy a bottle because you’re interested in it, and then suddenly many more bottles become interesting to you. And then you end up building a collection because you just don’t have time to drink them all! 

Joe: It’s tricky to collect when you’re on the production side of things, too. For instance, I would love a bottle of everything we make, but, ironically, it becomes so much harder to obtain when you’re the one making it. I think in some ways it’s easier to be a customer and seek bottles out. For me, I want to make the customer happy by making the best whisky I can, and then suddenly it’s finished, and I realise I should have negotiated a case or two. 

On special occasions… 

Rob: The memory that immediately springs to mind is when my daughter was born. When we got home, my wife and I didn’t drink anything. Two weeks later, we cooked a wonderful dinner together, after which we enjoyed a couple of drams – one from my birth year and one from hers. Mine was a Dailuaine from 1985 and hers a 1987 Bunnahabhain – two bottles drawn from my collection on the remarkable evening my daughter stopped wailing.  

Oliver: I remember the birth of my child very differently; I think a whisky was the first thing I had when I got home. 

Joe: It’s also an unbelievable feeling being able to share whisky with people who have been through that amount of time with you. We’ve all known each other for over 15 years, so our friendship should be drinkable soon. 

Rob: Whisky can be a much-fêted substance that’s often put into locked vaults, but we shouldn’t hold out for these momentous occasions. 

Oliver: And you don’t necessarily need a lavish occasion to open a lavish bottle. There was an infamous incident on Islay where I came down for breakfast to find my wife pouring a multi-thousand-pound bottle of Karuizawa over her porridge. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about being in the moment with the people who matter the most. 

Rob: Whisky has this brilliant ability to bring people together. From the people who make it to the people who drink it, there’s such a great culture of sharing: sharing experiences, sharing knowledge, sharing company. With such a generous and welcoming community, it’s also a godsend that you can open a bottle with a friend one day, and then you can share it with someone completely different the next evening. That is, unless you’ve emptied it. 

This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter 2022 edition of No.3 magazine.