12 January 2023

119th Whisky Insiders Interview - Matt McKay

Dunphail Distillery / Bimber Distillery
Director of Whisky Creation
Director of Communications
@TheDunphail @BimberLondon

How long have you been working in the whisky industry?
A mere four years. My route into the industry has not followed any type of ‘normal’ or expected path. Barring an early and brief dalliance with cookery school (I’m still a handy home cook), I spent two decades working within technical public relations, mainly focussing on biomedical science and engineering. Whilst that experience was far from whisky-related – it also wasn’t a million miles away in terms of the some of the biological and industrial processes which underpin spirit production. I’ve always possessed something of a technical slate - however, this wasn’t ever an industry that I felt that I wanted to spend the entirety of my remaining career in.
Over the same period of time, my whisky love-in manifested itself with the creation of thedramble.com. Over the years the website (not nearly as readily updated nowadays as I’d like it to be) drew the attention of several distilleries – including my nearest – Bimber. Following a conversation with the Founder and Master Distiller I found myself signed up as a freelance to lead the launch of Bimber The 1st Release.
That seemed to go ok as shortly after, the freelance gig morphed into a part-time role managing Bimber’s communications and marketing - and then over time - leading on cask assessment and product development. Whilst I’d spent several years skirting around the fringes of whisky via my soap box-esque website, now I was starting to play an active role within the industry. And it was at this point that biomedical PR started to feel like it was increasingly in the rear-view mirror – and that whisky was firmly on my horizon.
In early 2022 my journey to the dark side was completed. I was offered the role of Director of Whisky Creation for the company’s second distillery – Dunphail - based in Speyside. The site will be opening its doors and commencing distillation in just a few months’ time. There I will be defining and developing the distillery’s wood policy, creating and managing the site’s cask inventory and shaping the profile and quality of all whiskies bottled under the Dunphail brand – including those of The Dava Way the distillery’s recently launched independent bottling operation.
What has been your biggest career highlight to date?
Without a doubt my appointment as Director of Whisky Creation for Dunphail. Whilst the construction of the new distillery is the culmination of Founder and Master Distiller Dariusz Plazewski’s vision, it is also a hugely significant personal milestone for me. As well as a refocussing of my career it is also a reflection of the trust and confidence that the team has in my knowledge and expertise to lead from the start on the maturation and whisky development of a brand new distillery. Certainly a career highlight – but also real honour.
Can you remember your first dram, and indeed what it was?
Possibly a hastily stolen Bells from my dad’s drinks cabinet – but the first whisky that I actively remember was Dewars White Label. In the late 90s part of my job at the time was running international conferences and exhibitions (within the mechanical engineering field). This involved a reasonable amount of work travel – and sometimes an unreasonable amount of free drinks whilst on planes
At the time my plane beverage of choice was typically a gin & tonic. However one day the chap sitting next to me asked for a whisky & ginger – and being both young and highly impressionable, when it came to my selection I asked for “what he’s having.”
I found the combination surprisingly enjoyable, and so when I got back from that trip I immediately sought out the Scotch component – Dewar’s White Label – to try neat. I hated it. But it got me thinking, what was it about the Scotch and ginger that I found enjoyable over and above the Scotch alone. It turned out it was just familiarity. By the time I’d got to the heel of the bottle my palate had adjusted and I was sold enough to start an exploration of whisky – a journey which would continue for the next 25 years.
What does whisky mean to you?
People make whisky, people promote whisky and people drink and love whisky. For all the pontificating about fermentation times, still shapes, the ills of whisky-marketeers and bottle flippers – whisky is at its very heart a human endeavour - from conception to consumption.
Whisky has community at its core. And for me it has become a second family. Even in times less uncertain, there’s a visible wealth of passion and camaraderie in equal measure. And when compassion, support and empathy are all added into the mix – the combination is invariably potent. Whisky is people.
Where would you like to see yourself in five years’ time?
There’s rather a lot that is going to happen over the next five years for both of the distilleries that I work for. Dunphail will have likely released its first single malt whiskies – and so at that point I’d hope to have plenty of different crayons within my box of casks with which to shape some truly thought-provoking, tasty whiskies produced from the distillery’s 100% floor malting facility. At the same time, Bimber rather mind-bogglingly will have 12 year old stock to play with. Both are exciting prospects, so you’ll have to forgive me for suggesting that I’d like to see myself exactly where I am now.
What was your last dram?
Mortlach 13 year old Special Releases 2021. Whilst my ‘go to’ whiskies often tend toward either refill ex-bourbon or peated (ideally both), I’m a firm believer that the weight (mouthfeel) of a spirit is an often undersold characteristic. Outside of favouring peated whiskies, I often find myself enjoying ‘heavier’ spirits be it those created using direct-fire, partial distillations or particularly those crafted utilising worm tubs.
Do you have a favourite whisky and food pairing combination?
I’m not the world’s biggest proponent of whisky and food pairings. Whilst wine with food can sometimes prove to be a near transcendent experience (transforming the texture, flavour and balance of both the liquid and solid), I’ve never found whisky to have quite the same metamorphic ability. As such, when I combine whisky with food I’m usually looking for its ability to complement rather than its capability to transfigure. That said, whisky with almonds can certainly be a ‘thing’ – and it’s a more thought-provoking and less tired experience than simply rolling out the cheese board or deploying the chocolate selection. 
What’s your favourite time and place to enjoy a dram?
Much of my whisky consumption can nowadays be described as ‘work’. That’s far from a horrible thing -however there’s a very different mindset (and sometimes glassware) at play when simply kicking back and enjoying a dram. And so time = outside of work. Place = always with good company. People are whisky.
What do you think is going to be the next big thing on the whisky horizon?
I’d love to say yeast, as vis-à-vis the craft beer industry, yeast exploration still remains something of an undiscovered country for whisky. However, whilst I do believe that we’ll increasingly see reconnaissance’s into fermentation, this will likely still only a thing and not a big thing. Yield is still king for many.
Perhaps bigger and certainly more timely is the explosion of micro-distilleries – north of the border, south of the border and indeed worldwide. Whilst we have seen plenty of new distilleries coming on-stream over the last few years, the number who will have mature stock over the next five years is exponentially larger again. Case in point – Ireland. From 4 active distilleries in 2010 to 25 in 2019, over 30 in 2021 and now over 40 with yet more being planned.
Whilst this multiplication worldwide currently is showing no signs of abatement, one does wonder what its immediate and longer impacts will be on the wider whisky industry. In capacity terms these new sites rarely scratch the surface of many of the established, larger players – however their market visibility is an entirely different matter. With the traditional producers seemingly laser-focussed on premiumisation and on pricing based on the aspirations of tomorrow, not the budgets of today, we could well find that drinkers will be even keener to explore these newer, smaller segments of the market.
What’s the one dram you couldn’t live without?
Ledaig. I view Ledaig as something of a rite of passage for whisky enthusiasts – its highly idiosyncratic character rarely being something that you’d earmark as a ‘starter’ whisky. Of all the distillates I’ve tasted, I often find the appeal of Ledaig amongst the hardest to communicate - the idea that a beverage can smell and taste of burnt rubber, cheese or fruity meats and yet still be deemed as tasty can seem fairly alien to many. And yet its appeal to me (particularly in its modern incarnation) – feels perennial. Perhaps the inherent difficulty for me to fully understand it is part and parcel of my continued love affair for it!
Many thanks to Matt McKay. Who will be our next Whisky Insider? Click back soon to find out!