Whisky Legend Frank McHardy Takes Us on a Spirited Journey of Whisky-making
October 20, 2022
The connoisseur shares more about the special project with The Whisky Store where he picked an exclusive selection of single cask malts to be bottled under the Signature Reserve Frank McHardy series.
By Joseph Low
Hello Frank, you have been in the whisky industry for over 50 years. Could you tell us a little more about your first steps in this industry?
I started as a member of the yard team at Invergordon Distillery where I worked from 1963-1966. Subsequently, I moved to Tamnavulin Distillery in Glenlivet from 1966 -1973 as a general process worker whereby I was involved in all processes of distilling and warehouse operations. In 1973, I was appointed as the Assistant Manager at Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay and stayed on till 1977. I then moved to Campbeltown in late 1977 to join Springbank as a Distillery Manager until 1986. From 1986-1996, I was the Head Distiller at Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland where I honed my skills and knowledge in whisky making for 10 years. Eventually, I moved back to Springbank Distillery in 1996 as the Distillery Manager and was later promoted to Director of Production. In 2013, I decided to retire from full-time employment and I have become an independent whisky consultant to date.
With such an illustrious career spanning from Springbank, Longrow, Hazelburn and Kilkerran, which of these places would you say helped to shape and define your career?
Initially at Invergordon, it was probably about getting a job just to get by life like any other young lads. I think my initial interest in distilling was formed during my time at Tamnavulin, where process workers were involved in all aspects of distilling and warehouse operations. But as for shaping and defining my career, each of these distilleries that I have worked in, added experience and knowledge to me. Especially at Bushmills, I’ve learned about the importance of using wood and the laying down of stocks for future usage and sales. I eventually applied these skills and expertise during my time at Springbank.
There is this misconception that older whiskies are better than the younger ones, does this hold water and what’s one other misconception that you wish to debunk?
I wouldn’t say older whiskies are better than the younger ones. However, older whiskies usually provide more flavour and balance due to the lengthy maturation. Don’t get me wrong. Some of the younger whiskies can also be very good, except that a lot of the flavours and characteristics of these young whiskies tend to come from the cask that they are matured in. I always believed that around 60 per cent of the flavour of any whisky comes from the cask it was matured in. Hence, age shall not be used as a benchmark for good whisky, but rather the type and quality of casks used to mature these whiskies.
The other misconception that people always get is that Single Malt is always better than blends or grains. I will not agree with the above statement and again, I would stress that it really depends on how long, and how good the cask was used to mature the whiskies. There are very good blends and grains whiskies out there as well.
In your opinion, what makes a good bottle of whisky?
In my opinion, what makes a good whisky (especially malt whisky) is really the type of casks being used to mature the whisky, and at the same time, I will always look for whiskies that have been bottled at a minimum strength of 46 per cent alcohol by volume (ABV).
Personally, I would also prefer my whisky to be at least around 12 years old. Reason is that the product has not been chill filtered nor had any artificial colouring added. I believe that the process of chill filtering detracts from the natural flavour of the product. Single malts that were bottled at 40 per cent alcohol will probably have been chill-filtered and had colouring added. Having said that, I do believe that some of the older whiskies’ alcohol strength in the cask will have dropped below 46 per cent ABV. In this instance, I will not be so wary about the whisky being chill filtered as it will still be considered as “cask strength “. Tell us a little more about this special Whisky Bottling project that you have embarked on.
Currently, I am working with The Whisky Store in Singapore on several interesting projects and one of them is about hand-selecting and sourcing single cask malts and grain whiskies to be bottled under the Signature Reserve Frank McHardy series.
Together with The Whisky Store, you have launched a Signature Reserve’s Frank McHardy series where there are 12 exclusive bottles that you have picked, tell us a little more about the process behind this selection.
At present, there are 14 exclusive bottlings of these single casks. All these casks have been hand-picked by myself from various sources of my contacts. If I find a cask which suits the range of bottling under my name, I will proceed to request a sample from the cask. Nosing and tasting the whisky is the only way of making sure that this whisky is of my standard. If I am satisfied with the whisky, only then will we decide to purchase the cask. Therefore, I would say these 14 bottles go through my very strict selection before the golden liquid is bottled. (Laughs)
Why have you decided to work with The Whisky Store on this special project and tell us how is this significant in your career?
It all started when Khoon Hui and Joyce came to the Springbank Whisky school when I was the Director of Production at Springbank then. After sharing multiple conversations and a fruitful time with them, I felt like I could resonate with their passion for whisky. Therefore, this very special connection with them made me decide to work with the couple to put together this exclusive series. Moreover, I think this has also given me the opportunity to put all the knowledge I have gained during my career in whisky to good use.
Whisky collection has been on the rise in recent years, what are your thoughts on collecting whisky as a form of alternative investment?
The collection of exclusive whisky bottles has been around for over 50 years. Back then, there were only a handful of collectors who really enjoyed a good dram or two of the liquid gold and shared these drams with their close friends. However, fast forward to today, there are growing numbers of collectors or “collectors”, which I think are more like resellers. The main aim of these resellers collecting the bottles is to buy and flip them to resell at a higher price in the open market.
Alternatively, they would send the bottles to various auction sites as well. By and large, there are people that buy whiskies and keep them for long term enjoyment, while others look to make a quick profit on their original purchase. Whichever the case is, I have no real view either way but would not count on bottles to increase in value to such an extent as to be an alternative investment.
What is one personal tip that you wish to share with our readers on how to enjoy whisky?
Enjoying whisky is very much a personal thing and everyone has their own preferences. For me, if I am drinking a single malt, I would prefer to add a little dash of good quality still water to reduce the alcohol content to around 46 per cent. My preference is not to add any ice as the flavour gets diluted and whisky will eventually become more singular in taste rather than the complex single malt that you had wished for. Even when I am drinking blended whisky, the same rule applies. However, I would enjoy some of the younger blends with ice and some mixers such as dry ginger ale. Therefore, it all boils down to each individual preference as well as the type of whisky you would like to indulge in.
You have met so many people along your whisky journey, could you share an interesting anecdote that you have encountered?
I certainly have met a lot of people connected with the whisky trade, and attended numerous whisky shows throughout the world. I think one of my lasting memories was when I visited Japan. This was not long after the 2011 tsunami, and our importer took us on a tour where we visited some of the tsunami-affected areas in Japan. The way that the Japanese people were clearing up the devastation will always have a deep-rooted impression on me.
Another interesting memory happened some time back during Whisky Live Japan. My other two colleagues and I were watching Richard Patterson (Master Distiller of Dalmore) doing his usual presentation on stage. The three of us then decided that for a bit of fun, we would stand behind him where he could not see us and mimicked every action he did. He wondered why the audience were laughing and when he turned around and saw us, he had some choice words to say but saw the funny side, and decided to turn a blind eye to it.
If you could name one person who has an impact in your life, who would that be?
If there is only one choice and not someone from the whisky industry, of course my wife would be the one that made a huge impact in my life (laughs). But if we are speaking about people that I have met during my career in the industry, I think that Brendan Monks from Bushmill (Irish Distillers when I joined) taught me a lot about the sourcing of casks and cask management. I am very thankful for him.
What do you wish to see more in the whisky industry in the upcoming years?
I would like to see more of the small distilleries coming on stream and producing a product made from natural processes with no real emphasis on the highest yield possible. I think that tradition is something that should never be forgotten even at the expense of higher yields.
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