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Why Diageo’s master of malt Dr Craig Wilson is impressed by Singapore’s whisky aficionados

The man tasked with identifying the pinnacle Casks of Distinction from Diageo's expansive stock says we're getting more savvy.

Talk about a dream job. Dr Craig Wilson holds down the title of Master of Malt at Diageo, meaning he has access to the largest portfolio of whisky distilleries (both operating and shuttered) ever assembled under a single company.  What, then, is the distillate of Wilson’s 20 years in the industry, crossed with the enviable task of sampling thousands of the world’s premium drams? 

The answer: Diageo’s ultra-exclusive Casks of Distinction programme, accessible in Singapore through the invite-only Johnnie Walker house. About as rare as a blue moon, casks that are identified to be the more than just perfect embodiments of a distillery’s trademark expression (see below) are earmarked for greatness.

WHEN STARS ALIGN The Cask of Distinction sigil is not handed out lightly.

Private clients are then free to buy out an entire cask (while it continues to mature in Diageo facilities), bottle it when the time is right, or even have it blended to their liking in consultation with master blender Jim Beveridge. Aficionados, bear in mind these offerings include irreplaceable Scotch from legendary ghost distilleries like Brora and Port Ellen.

The Peak caught Wilson when he was last in town to talk about the programme, along with Adam Brewer, head of Singapore’s Johnnie Walker House.

So what exactly sets a Cask of Distinction apart from the regular product out of a single distillery?

Wilson: Normally when we make a single malt whisky, it’s about picking out the casks which reflect the characteristic flavours you would expect from that particular distillery. Whereas with Casks of Distinction, it gives us the opportunity to do, to find something unique – so that may be a different route taken to what you would conventionally associate with a particular distillery, or do something much bolder that people would not normally expect. That’s the key point, it’s a very unique expression of the whisky.

Which Cask stood out for you?

Wilson: The Port Ellen and Brora are always special. They’re very limited in stock, but there are some amazing whiskies in there. Incredible diversity in the stocks we have remaining, in terms of flavour.

IN LOVE WITH THE CRAFT Wilson is most animated when discussing the blends. He practiced as an organic chemist before transitioning to beverages – so he’s got the technical part down pat.

Have you noticed any changes or trends in consumer preferences in Singapore when it comes to whisky?

Wilson: I think people are more adventurous, in general! In my experience in this part of the world, people traditionally looked towards sherry-matured whisky, but more and more they are looking at brighter flavours, smoky flavours, and are even looking at some grain options. I’ve definitely seen a trend in the last two or three years, and they’ve become a lot more knowledgeable…

They are also exploring whiskies by flavour, rather than by specific blends/brands, which is rather new.

Brewer: We spend almost every night of the week with customers in this private suite, and I’m always surprised at – when we’re doing tastings – the range of different whiskies that people enjoy. When we first launched the first single grain, we weren’t sure if it was going to be received well. Often that’s actually one of the whiskies that people choose as their favourite now. Likewise with one of the young Lagavulin 8-year-olds. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the year.

Have you noticed if there’s a split between buying for passion or for investment?

Brewer: It’s hard to say. We’re not a financial institution and so we never give investment advice, but it’s hard to ignore the data available freely on the internet as to the kind of returns and results that people are getting from auctions.

HAMMER TIME Bottles are signed off by Wilson, and clients are free to auction, consume or store the whisky, as long as they withdraw it within 5 years.

We actually had a customer who last week auctioned one of his Cask of Distinction bottles which was a 36 year old Port Ellen, at a Bonham’s auction that took place at Innsbruck. The auction house set an estimate of 4,500 pounds for that particular bottle. Within 30 seconds, it was sold for 9375 pounds. So as a buyer, when you see those kind of figures, I can understand why some may see it as an investment. But the majority of our buyers buy it to gift or drink themselves, and to be able to have those really rare or precious gems in their cellar.

Do any of the clients come in with preconceptions based on whisky awards (from publications or platforms)?

Brewer: Ultimately we’re not producing whisky to win awards, we’re producing whisky because of the flavours and the demand that’s there from the consumers. I think it’s fantastic that our blenders like Craig are being recognised as being the best in the industry by these awards. It definitely is a topic of conversation though. We always get asked our opinion… I think It’s subjective. You’re relying on one individual person to say “this is the best in the world” whereas the flavours I like might not flavours that (he likes).

Wilson: I think it does influence people’s viewpoints, but once they start seeing what you can do with flavour, they start to realise there’s so much more out there!

Enquiries about the invite-only Johnnie Walker House, and the Casks of Distinction, can be sent to privateclientsg@diageo.com.

Additional photos: Inside the uber-exclusive JW House

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