Interview: Sandy Hyslop – Chivas Bros. Director of Blending and Inventory
My first work task this year has been to interview Sandy Hyslop, Director of Blending and Inventory at Chivas Bros. (Pernod Ricard) and what a pleasurable hour it was. He’s a former colleague of mine but not someone I got to speak to in the daily run of business. Given his recent work on Ballantine’s 7 Bourbon Finish and my own acquisition of some Royal Salute Snow Polo, I thought it was time to find out more about him and his work.
I began by asking him where he was from and what it’s like there. Turns out he’s from Broughty Ferry beside Dundee. Finding out I am from Fife, across the Tay from Dundee, he laughingly described me as “the arch enemy over the water”! He lived there till 14 years of age when the family moved just a little along the coast to Carnoustie, an East of Scotland town famous for its championship golf course but Sandy was keen to point out he’s not a golfer. He reckons he must be almost the only Carnoustian who doesn’t golf as it needs too much time commitment. Carnoustie is a place he still loves to visit today from his home in the west of Scotland.
It was Sandy’s father who encouraged him to join the whisky industry. Mr. Hyslop senior ran an antiques business which gave a clue as to one of the hobbies Sandy pursues – more later on. He tells how his father saw an ad in the paper for a job at Stewart’s of Dundee (producers of Stewart’s Cream of the Barley) with day release to study chemistry at Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen. He said his father reckoned going to university was a waste of money and would have drained his (father’s) finances! He reckoned it was the perfect job for his son to earn money and look after himself. How right he was.
In 1983 the young Sandy got the job as a laboratory sample room assistant at Stewart’s where he also pursued the chemistry studies and got a good grounding in many of the processes required in a blending team – vatting, bottling, lab sample, inventory and cased goods testing amongst them. That stood him in good stead when he was asked to come to the parent company’s main site in Dumbarton to do a one day a week stint with Head Blender, Jack Goudie, a legend in the company for his blending talent but also his irascibility. Or maybe that was just with us marketing people… The site manager at Stewart’s was coming up for retirement and there was mentioned a distinct possibility of Sandy stepping into that job though his bosses felt he needed to spend some time in a bigger blending operation than at Stewart’s.
After 6 months Sandy was asked to step up to 2 days a week in Dumbarton so he thought “Either I’m rubbish at this and need to up my game or there’s a chance I’m going to get a job here”. It took another 6 months for Jack Goudie to make up his mind and offer that sample room job alongside him and his deputy, Robert Hicks. The whole Stewart’s site manager thing had been a ruse to get him to Dumbarton to see how he performed. So let’s look at what else he had to say:
Well that mention of Jack leads me to a question intended for later but let’s do it now. Who are your work inspirations inside and outside Scotch Whisky?
Definitely my father who ran his own antiques business all through my childhood and worked incredibly hard – very innovative in keeping his family going and I have great admiration for him. He gave me a real appreciation of quality. It was important to build up customer relationships over a long period too and make sure all things in the shop were authentic and of proper quality. Later in life I started to appreciate the parallels with what I do now involving quality, continuity and heritage.
You’ll have guessed already but it inside work it was definitely Jack. Sandy tells how Jack was incredibly kind to him and became something of a father figure wanting to make sure he settled in, had a place to live and so on. It became a continuing friendship until Jack’s death and he still applies some of Jack’s work ethos today “..looking after blending and when I’m dealing with marketing types!”.
How do you plan your time? Please tell us all your various task areas.
I have a wide remit and it’s been a gradual evolution. When Pernod Ricard took over Allied Distillers in 2005 I was lucky enough to get the job responsible for all the brands Chivas Brothers (PR’s spirits arm) has. Tasks are planning, cask purchase, overseeing the technical centres and labs. I took on running the inventory side in 2020. I’ll get it in early that I’m not a one man band. I have a really good team working with me.
How big is the team?
I have team of 8 in Blending and a wider team of 44 in total. It’s a diverse team but quality is absolutely at the core. It’s the watchword all the time. We have weekly team catch-ups but I have fixed things in the diary every week. We look at new distillate from our own distilleries on Tuesdays; Thursdays are new distillate from other companies, the distillate we’re trading with them; we do testing of new products; Thursday afternoon is my marketing day. Sandy says he “tends to put tasks in buckets so it doesn’t run feral”. Hilary looks after his diary and, Sometimes I think I work for Hilary! [Sign of a good PA.] Hilary’s brilliant at making things manageable so they don’t all butt together. It’s a matter of having the right people in the team. I have a REALLY competent Blending Manager and with myself, Kevin Bamforth and Willie Henderson we have over 100 years of experience. Our Cask Manager has been here 37 years. Our Inventory Manager, Fiona Duff is also very competent and innovative.
No two days are the same. We have certain milestones but in production you don’t know what might crop up. Things like Royal Salute, Chivas Regal 25 or Chivas 18 and things like that, every single cask we use is nosed. I can’t let go of that – my office is right next door to the Blending Room and this is where my heart is.
Do you have to get involved in a lot of meetings?
As far as marketing’s concerned, I have the absolute best set-up. It’s in my contract that I do only 4 weeks outside marketing activity a year and the marketing teams can divide that up as they like. I didn’t want to lose the blending credentials and be a blender in a 747. The Brand Ambassadors cover about 90% of activation activity but if there’s something like a new product launch in Japan where the market has a really good knowledge of the process and whisky and want more detail, I’ll go out and answer questions, meet journalists and so on. My Blending Manager does 6 weeks. The agreement with marketing has it well controlled. The last thing I wanted to be was an “absentee landlord”. I wanted to stay hands-on. I have to say it’s been an amazing experience representing fabulous brands like Royal Salute, with its worldwide association with polo – amazing – and going to some fabulous places. You feel a bit like a commando! I maybe arrive on a Friday and go home on the Sunday. In and out, job done. None of this turning it into a mini-break!
So that was travel for ambassadorial purposes but I wondered about internal meetings – the bane of many lives.
There isn’t a huge amount of internal meetings but there is a level of it. It’s all about having your diary managed correctly. You need to ask if it’s really necessary and if there’s someone else appropriate in the team to pick it up. I’d be a liar if I said there’s not a lot of demand on my time. I’m in from 7a.m. – I’ve done that for 30 years – and get a good chance to get your feet clear before the day starts. The blending team are early starts too and we can get a lot done before 9 o’clock when others are rolling in.
Apart from Ballantine’s, Royal Salute and Chivas what else do you work on? Malts? Is there any pressure resulting from responsibility for long-established brands? You look like a relaxed guy!
I’m ultimately responsible for the quality and continuity of every single whisky product at Chivas Brothers whether it be single malt, blend, blended grain as well as the inventory we hold. I’m chuffed to bits to have that responsibility. Back in 1983 I could have only dreamed about being responsible for a brand like Chivas Regal or Ballantine’s Finest or Glenlivet – and new things like The Glenlivet Caribbean Reserve. To be able to do these under your tenure is fabulous. It’s easier to have all brands under my remit, it would be difficult not having all under one person or then there’s competition for stock and attention. It needs one person to sit at the top with a pragmatic approach to how we manage the inventory, look at what are the long term effects of launching a 15 year old expression on, say, Chivas 25 or Royal Salute, an overview to see how it sits and how we’re going to supply it. It’s easy to launch something and then find there’s not enough stock for other things or use up stocks of one type of cask early. You’d end up with marketeers fighting in the car parks over stock!
How do you get to express your own creativity in your work? You’re given briefs (e.g. Ballantine’s 7 Bourbon Finish) but what scope is in those and do you get the chance to create something off your own bat as a possible project?
Good question. In the case of Ballantine’s 7 the marketing team came to me. Royal Salute Snow Polo was absolutely my idea from the outset. I’m actively encouraged by our CEO to innovate and to push and pull on new product development projects. We have a sizeable cask budget every year for buying in American oak barrels and sherry casks I have a strategic reserve budget where I can spend it on anything like rum casks or special sherry casks. There are about 40 – 45 live experiments at the moment with casks that do not have a specific product allocation at the moment. It workd well with the team too as the whisky innovators can go away with a plan of things to look at and it keeps their jobs interesting as well.
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Scotch world?
One is innovation. Some years ago we were lucky to do one innovation a year. I’m now sitting on 45 across all of Chivas Brothers at the moment which will come to fruition over the next 12 – 24 months. On the distillery side – and I love going up to Speyside to spend time with distillery managers so they get to know me – it’s automation and computerisation. The control the technology gives us now over flavour is such that batches are now far more consistent from a quality viewpoint. We can set the quality and cut points etc. It makes my job so much easier once that whisky’s mature.
And on another tack, there’s also the travel for blenders now to meet consumers. That’s been only in the last 10 -15 years.
Yes – I don’t thing Jack ever travelled. Never went abroad to represent the brand. During lockdown I started doing stuff on Instagram and couldn’t believe the appetite for information. People want to know more about cask selection and what you did to bring the flavour together. What wood was used? Did you have a solera? 20 -30 years ago people largely wouldn’t have known to ask and just thought it was a lovely bottle of whisky.
Are there any changes you particularly like or don’t like?
Circling back to distilleries, I love the control we now have over the production process. The manual intervention is much less so you can control the flavour much better.
I have to say this is a man so enthralled by his work that there genuinely isn’t any element he doesn’t like.
What are your favourite and least liked work tasks? You seem to like them all but is there a sliding scale here?
I love a bit of cask selection. As when we’re doing Aberlour A’Bunadh – that 100% first fill sherry, cask strength. We get the samples in round the bench and decide which ones we’re using and look at the last batch. With that one we want the family style but we want to give the consumer a little batch to batch variation. For an expression like Ballantine’s 30 Year Old we build it up in miniature in the blending room. It’s all like a hobby and not a chore. Great fun. Absolutely brilliant.
Now a bit more about you. You like to go adventuring in your Nissan Cube. Why that vehicle? Where do you go?
I travel to Japan quite a bit – as Ballantine’s is a huge brand there. I saw the Nissan Cubes and thought they were great fun. We used to go to Carnoustie every second weekend pre-coronavirus and still have a house there so the Cube lives there. It’s a bit of a fun car when we’re up that way. I sought it out for a bit of a laugh! I love the shape and it’s very useful as it’s small but with 7 seats, versatile and quirky. (Indeed it is – see the pic here of Sandy’s own car.) You can completely customize it. I had mine imported from Tokyo. There’s a Cube community out there! (I understand Mrs. Hyslop is far less of an enthusiast.) It’s a wee bit of Japan that I’ve brought back. We nip about in it. My little boy loves it too. We go down the beach as my little boy loves metal detecting. Also, it helps to have two cars up there rather than one so no one is waiting for the car to do other things. Mrs, Hyslop had no idea the second car was going to be a Nissan Cube! We both have a widowed parent up there and we take my mother-in-law shopping in it.
Where are your favourite places to visit for a) work and b) leisure?
a) Japan – it’s an amazing place and so well organised. I went there to launch Chivas Mizunara Wood 18 Year Old. My wife and son flew out to meet me at the end of my trip and we had a week’s holiday. I love the place – it’s so safe and well-organised.
b) If talking about the UK it would be Carnoustie, at the beach, the seaside. I love that whole east coast. There’s a different light from the west and it’s not so wet. [Definitely colder, though.]
So UK for you for leisure.
Yes. I have my father’s DNA. I like collecting and amassing stuff in my garage. I go down south for antique fairs too with two pals. Going about buying pieces of objets d’art has been my hobby for a long time.
Yes, you collect vintage watches – why that interest and what brought you to it? What fascinates you about them?
My father was heavily into clocks and watches with some jewellery, anything Scottish and a bit of militaria. I was brought up in the shop. I collected pocket watches early on before wrist watches. Most of my pocket money was always due to my Dad for something in his antique shop. I was collecting long before the current fashion for watch collections. I have more than 280 which is outrageous and certainly not all are valuable. I like everything from a Swatch to a Casio to a Seiko, an Omega or a Rolex. I’m not a watch snob.
What’s the appeal?
I love the intricacy of them. All these little bits brought together. It’s a bit like blending whisky where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I love all the different movements and ways of telling time.
Any particular pride and joy or brand you like?
Grand Seiko. It’s small division of Seiko making luxury watches way, way higher quality than anything made in Switzerland. They’re hand finished and engraved and every part is made in-house. They typify the Japanese way of working.
Anything that’s eluded you so far?
I’d quite like a Rolex Explorer. I could bore you to death with this all day. I like some of the digital stuff to as they came out in my era. Red LED’s and so forth. I’ve gone back and found some I didn’t get when I was younger.
Any unfulfilled ambition?
My biggest ambition is to leave the house in good order for the next Master Blender. For that person to say, “What an amazing job he did” – to leave amazing stocks in the right wood; a proper plan for forecasts; to manage the quality and delivery of the whisky. I’ve been incredibly lucky to be involved with many new expressions. An unbelievable number. I think I hit Scotch Whisky in a golden period.
What’s your desert island whisky? Only one and it doesn’t have to be one of your own!
Ballantine’s 12 Year Old – I love the flavour, character and versatility. You can drink it so many ways. It makes a fabulous highball. I think it takes me to a place as well – back to working with Jack and the old Dumbarton sample room. Sometimes whisky paints a picture for you, takes you to a place and time and evokes a feeling.
So there we have it. A man so full of enthusiasm for his work it doesn’t feel like work. We, meanwhile, can look forward to the fruits of those many projects Sandy, with his team, is developing so we, in turn, can paint pictures in our heads with the memories of our encounters with them.
Back later this month and I will do my Snow Polo tasting note then. Make sure to get your Burns Night (25th January) drams chosen!