2 September 2019

Whisky Insiders Interview No. 98 - Ben Ellefsen

Atom Brands

Managing Director at Atom Labs


How long have you been working in the whisky industry?
Full time for 11 years, but I'd been dabbling for a couple of years before that. If I'm honest with myself it started as an excuse to visit trade shows, but well - look where it led. Good old whisky live!

What has been your biggest career highlight to date?
Ugh, that's unfair. It's like asking someone what their favourite food is.

If I have to pick just one, then I guess the only answer can be winning the Queen's Award for Export in 2019. The level of pride that inspired in everyone throughout the whole business was truly moving. There're others too though - taking home the Spirits Masters Grand Champion Trophy 2 years in a row, not to mention the (literally thousands of) individual product awards we've racked up. World's best blended whisky for the Lost Distilleries Blend back in 2014 when we were really only just starting out in the blending game in any big way was memorable.

Can you remember your first dram, and indeed what it was?
Yup. I can vividly recall trying a tiny sip of my Grandad's Laphroaig 10 Year Old when it was probably older than I was. I can't say that necessarily kicked off a love affair with whisky, but the olfactory memory that's evoked by East Coast Islay still takes me back there.

If you're after something a little more drinkaware-friendly, a group of us resolved to 'get into whisky' aged 18 or so courtesy of a collection of Master of Malt miniatures. There're two drams that really stand out from that epoch - a 21 Year Old Scapa which was truly terrible (with the benefit of hindsight I think it was probably a combination of a bad cask and TCA), and a 10 Year Old Braes of Glenlivet which had an absolutely beguiling but very simple toasted barley breakfast-cereal sort of thing going on. That's the one that did it, I think.

What does whisky mean to you?
I'm meant to say something here about it bringing people together, being a social glue, etc, but to be honest for me personally I'm so much more fascinated by the olfactory chemistry of the stuff. There's no other drink in the entire world which has the same breadth, complexity and variation in flavour profile. It's arguable that there's objectively more to discover in the world of wine, and that it's easier (and cheaper!) to discover with beer, but when it comes down to simple complexity (if you'll pardon the phrase) whisky is the most extraordinary liquid in the world - especially when we get to play and blend and 'make' all day.

Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
I'd like us to be distilling. We've launched some very successful brands, have literally dozens more in the pipeline, and are now in the position to launch brands which have continuous liquid availability (this is a departure from the stuff we've done previously which has tended to be very small batch / limited edition). Working with extant liquid stock - even when you have control over wood - has its limitations. You can liken it to cooking with only the ingredients that are available in the supermarket, as opposed to being given license to grow and rear literally whatever you want. 

What was your last dram?
I had a Caol Ila 25 Year Old as a treat last night, after slightly too many ribs and buffalo wings. 

Do you have a favourite whisky and food pairing combination?
Honestly, I'm not a big fan. I think it's answering a question that should really be pushed back on for 99% of dishes. Wine works *so* much better with food than whisky, and the additional enjoyment that's imparted to both food and wine when pairing. A good steak with a great Barolo isn't something I've discovered with whisky.

There're exceptions of course - Blue cheese (Fourme d'Ambert with Lagavulin DE), Chocolate (Michel Cluizel Plantation Los Ancones with Glenfarclas 15 Year Old) and Oysters (Colchester Natives with Kilchoman Sauternes Cask) are all absolutely epic, but really these are just exceptions which prove the rule - those foods all absolutely destroy any wine you pair with them (red wine and cheese can fuck right off. The '70s has a lot to answer for there).

General salted bar-snacks have a part to play, definitely Marcona Almonds, but I think this is probably much more about the fact of the salt being an incredible flavour enhancer than the 'food' element per se.

What’s your favourite time and place to enjoy a dram?
I really, really enjoy drinking whisky outside in adverse conditions. There's absolutely nothing better than tucking into a dram of something peaty and punchy in the driving rain and cold.

That said though, I do detest adversity, so seek to limit my exposure to rain and cold as much as I can. Can I have 'sitting at my desk looking out of the window at a rain-storm'? No? Okay, fine. Sitting on my comfortable sofa, under a blanket, watching Friends with the curtains closed. Happy?

What do you think is going to be the next big thing on the whisky horizon?
Highball. How is that such a phenomenon in Japan, and so comparatively tame elsewhere?

I think there's a perfect storm coming in terms of consumers looking for long drinks with more complexity and provenance at the same time as lower alcohol and reduced sweetness. Just look at the explosion in 'hard seltzers' recently - that feels to me a lot like a question that was answered a few hundred years ago...

Are we working on a brand, you say?

What’s the one dram you couldn’t live without?
Easy. Blantons Gold with plenty of ice and water. That stuff is just epic. To be honest I'd take any high-rye well-aged, un-fucked-about-with Bourbon, but Blantons is excellent and their branding is on point. Little mini horsies with letters on them. Sick!

Many thanks to Ben Ellefsen. Who will be our next Whisky Insider? Click back soon to find out!