It’s with some pride that we present our first exclusive interview in the world of whisky, and we start with Hannah Tucek, Head of Sales at family-run British bottler Blackadder.
Blackadder was founded in 1995 and is run by the Tucek family, whose philosophy is to use almost exclusively single cask, with no added colouring and no chillfiltration, bottled in the ‘old school’ way as they believe “’the cask is king’. Sixty to seventy per cent of the aromas in the whisky are taken slowly from the casks in which the spirit matures, with temperature changes taking the whisky in and out of the wood. Each cask is unique, with its own imprint, which is why we bottle most of our whiskies from individual casks. We don’t believe in filtration, be it cold or other invasive methods, and we never, ever add colour or flavour to our spirits. We have always believed that the personality of our whiskies is already rich enough.”
Having had the opportunity to try one of their bottles (a review of which will be available tomorrow), we thought we would contact them to introduce this unique and little-known winery.
We would like to thank Hannah Tucek for her extraordinary willingness to help.
Tell us a bit about your history. The passion for whisky apparently runs in the family, when did it all start?
Yes, I was born into this industry and have grown up surrounded by whisky! Prior to forming Blackadder in 1995, my father was involved in the drinks and spirits industry as a journalist which is where his love of whisky began. After working in journalism and PR, he was actually the founder of the mail order company Master of Malt, which, at that time also ran a specialist whisky shop, before he went on to launch Blackadder in order to bottle casks of his own choosing in the way that he believed that they should be bottled. So, growing up, the house was full of whisky… it literally seeped into the walls of our house! When I was younger, I would help to pack up whisky orders, soak off old labels from sample bottles, sort through labels… that sort of thing. In my teens, I began helping out around the office doing general admin. But as Blackadder grew, so has my role within the company as it is far too much now for just my father to handle. He jokes now that I am the boss! I guess that’s the role of every good daughter! My brother was a chef before he joined the business. He has an excellent nose and is really good at deciphering whisky so he writes all of our tasting notes.
My father has singlehandedly built the business into the success it is today, and I am very proud of what he has achieved. And it’s wonderful now that we can all work together, to grow and develop the company even further. It’s a family business; we’ll keep it in the family. That’s very important to us.
You have what could be defined as a quite radical view on whisky bottling, especially considering your “Raw” line: why this choice?
My father told me once that, when he was a journalist, he visited a distillery and the warehouse manager poured him a dram direct from a cask and he was amazed at how it tasted, that truly unadulterated spirit. That was the inspiration behind our Raw Cask range. As far as Blackadder is concerned, our philosophy is very simple: it’s all about the cask. The Cask is King. What we are interested in doing is bottling whisky – and other spirits, rums and gins as well now – as simply and purely as possible. As far as whisky is concerned, it’s all about not tampering with the spirit. That’s why we’ve never done anything to it. We don’t chill or heavily filter, we certainly don’t colour, never have and never will! We like to keep the spirit as pure and natural as possible. We let the personalities of the whiskies shine through. We say, ‘Whisky from the old school’, because long ago that is how they used to serve it. Straight from the cask. With the Raw Cask range, we intentionally leave some of the sediment in each bottle. It represents what the brand is all about. Aesthetically, perhaps you don’t find it appealing but we are saying, “Yes, that’s right. Absolutely no chill- or otherwise heavy-filtering here. And to prove it, we’ve left some of the cask sediment in the bottle.” Of course, you don’t have to drink it. Just let it settle to the bottom of the bottle before you pour it. But we can guarantee you that your whisky contains a lot more flavour because of its raw and natural state!
What are the main difficulties in being an independent bottler and what the greatest satisfactions?
The main difficulties of being an independent bottler is cash flow and being able to buy the casks you want when they come available. Over the years that Blackadder has been around, cask availability has gone up and down, it peaks and troughs. Generally, we’re quite lucky in that we’ve built up some really good relationships with several companies. Business is all about building good relationships, both when you are buying and when you are selling.
With the growing popularity of Blackadder whiskies it is not always possible to supply each customer with as much of a cask bottling as they would like with some of the casks we bottle. We, therefore, sometimes have to make cask allocations
The greatest satisfactions? Getting an email from someone in, say, America or China saying they have just tried their first Blackadder whisky and how much they loved it! It’s also all about relationships. The relationships that we have with our customers (we get to work with some incredibly lovely people!) as well as our relationships with other independent bottlers like ourselves, there’s a camaraderie and a respect for what we’re all trying to do. There’s a lot of support that goes on within the whisky industry.
Also, there is always that element of surprise with whisky; there’s always that moment of coming across a truly fantastic cask, better still, having created one through carefully planned recasking and extra cask aging.
How do you choose distilleries and casks for your bottlings? You try to be original in order not to follow already beaten paths or you just follow your taste and instincts?
Basically, we don’t bottle anything that we don’t personally believe is good enough. We have certain brands for which we are constantly looking out for whiskies with the right cask profile. For example, Smoking Islay has to, of course, be an Islay whisky with a good poke of smoke. Our Legendary range is for special whiskies where we choose not to reveal the name of the distillery. But ultimately, we are looking for excellent whiskies. Some we bottle in the same year as purchase, some we decide to keep longer and some we recask. We must be more than happy with a cask ourselves before we bottle it. Otherwise, why should we expect the customer to enjoy the dram?
Does the independent bottlers market follow the same rules and difficulties of the mainstream one or you work on a totally different ground?
I think we probably experience different challenges and follow different paths but I’m sure some of the same rules apply to us all. And ultimately, we all need to make a profit in order to survive, we just might have different ways and beliefs on how we achieve that.
Many use artificial colouring for consistency of their bottlings, especially when they come in great numbers, and they swear it has no influence whatsoever on taste and aroma, but some consider this “cheating”: what’s your opinion?
Our opinion is that it just isn’t for us. Anything you add to the whisky will of course affect its profile. Because you are adding something that wasn’t there before. And chill or otherwise heavily filtering the whisky will inevitably strip away some of the fats and the oils that naturally occur in the spirit. That’s unavoidable. It’s not rocket science. Today many are going back to basics, which is why, I think, there is a growing trend across food and drink in general to be more natural, less processed, less pumped full or artificial products. However, we believe in each to their own. We would never wish to criticise those that bottle whiskies in a different way to ourselves. Horses for courses, as it were… different brands and expressions fit into differing markets.
Whisky sales seem to be improving with a simultaneous increase in prices, new distilleries are opening all over Scotland and England, and there’s the great unknown of Brexit: where do you think the whisky market is going?
It’s going to keep on growing. People love whisky and the community that surrounds it. It brings people together, to share their enjoyment, to talk about the taste profile… it’s not about knocking it back and getting drunk. I think as most of us get older, we are more interested in spending a bit more money on something exceptional to enjoy. There is nothing more pleasing than sitting down after a long week at work and enjoying your favourite tipple. And more and more people are discovering the wonderful world of whisky. We have a great relationship with the good people at Amrut Distillery in Bangalore, India, and are proud to bottle their whisky. And we are incredibly proud to be developing some of our brands (like our popular Red Snake and Black Snake) with some fantastic Scottish distilleries. And now there are more and more distilleries, all over the world. And there will be more to come. Which is exciting! We work closely with Shizuoka distillery in Japan, my father being one of the founders of the company. We are looking forward to helping with the launch of Shizuoka Japanese single malt whisky in Japan later this year and on the international market next year. And, yes, there will also be a special Blackadder bottling from Shizuoka Distillery in due course.