It has taken near on 30 years but US whisky legend Don Sutcliffe, and Willie Phillips, former managing director of The Macallan, have finally come true on a promise they made in 1987 to make a whisky together. The result is The Exceptional range of crafted Scotch whiskies which are now available through Marcin Miller’s Number One Drinks Company.
Friendships can last lifetimes and in the case of whisky legends, Don Sutcliffe and Willie Phillips, they can result in literally an Exceptional new range of craft Scotch whiskies.
It is no surprise to find out in the midst of our conversation that Don Sutcliffe childhood ambition was to be a chat show host. He likes to talk does our Dan. But not in a “look at me” type of way that is often the curse that afflicts many a drinks producer, who, after all, are asked to talk about what they do for a living.
Sutcliffe was born to do that. But he does so in such a warm, rich, engaging way that an hour’s interview can quickly turn in to whole afternoon of anecdotes, and tales of derring about him launching and creating spirits categories across the pond. But more of that later.
We meet up with the objective of talking about Sutcliffe’s link up with Willie Phillips, the former managing director of The Macallan, through his specialist spirits business, Sutcliffe & Son, which has culminated in the creation of a range of small batch Scottish whiskies, under the name of The Exceptional. Steered neatly to the market in the UK and Europe by Marcin Miller and his Number One Drinks Company. When written out like that it all sounds pretty standard fare.
But that would be without the charm and story telling skills of a certain Don Sutcliffe, not to mention his vast industry and distilling experience that he shares with whisky legends, Phillips and Miller.
Sutcliffe is the James Stewart and Tom Hanks of the whisky world. If he could be bottled then I am sure he could act as a world ambassador talking about anyone’s latest 10,15 or 18 year old whisky, never mind his own.
And what a story he has to tell. Here’s the elevator pitch. Being such a spirits stalwart, Stewart has over the years met most of the great spirits personalities both in the US and here in the UK. One of whom was Willie Phillips, who back in 1987 met Sutcliffe on his first trip to Scotland never mind The Macallan.
Life changing moment
“It changed my life,” claims Stewart. He was, he admits, swept up in all the romance and excitement of being in the Highlands, particularly as his grandmother was Scottish and he felt, like so many Americans that he was returning home.
But it was there at The Macallan, after a night when Sutcliffe was introduced to the rigours of Scottish country dancing, that Sutcliffe and Phlilips vowed that at some time in their lives they would go on to make whisky together.
Before they could do that Sutfcliffe was tasked with making The Macallan’s name in the US which he has dutifully done over these past years through his own Craft Distillers business. A company that has a history all of its own being, claims Sutclilffe, the US’s first craft distillers and behind brands such as Hanger One vodka.
Well it has taken a long time for the dust to settle, but now, nearly 30 years plus later they are finally working together to create The Exceptional range, sourced from some of the finest aged whiskys in Scotland.
The premise for the Exceptional range is to find some of the finest examples of grain, malt and blended whisky chosen from several different Scotch distilleries, including rare casks from closed distilleries. And with Sutcliffe, Philips and Miller they have three of the best whisky Sherlocks to go out and find them.
They also have some clout between them and were able to call in a few favours along the way. The Exceptional Malt blend, for example, saw 68 barrel samples put forward, from which 11 were selected for the final blend.
The result is a range of whiskies that are, in their way, even in the cluttered world of limited edition whiskies, unique. Even if they weren’t, Sutcliffe would make them appear so.
He says they owe a lot to John Glaser at Compass Box for the work he has done in changing the perception and profile of blended whisky. He hopes they have been able to take that on to a different level with The Exceptional.
“I thought there was an opportunity to bring craft in to blended whisky. After all the act of blending whisky is the human bit of the process.”
Sutcliffe says they also wanted to create a range where the emphasis was all on the quality of the liquid and not the branding or the marketing which so often dominates the agenda in premium spirits.
Interestingly he believes there is still much for the whisky industry, particularly at the craft end, to learn about how it actually talks about what it does. There are lessons, he says, to be drawn from how the wine sector has created a whole vocabulary around how it describes wines. “We still to some degree need a new vocabulary to do that in whisky, particularly craft whisky,” claims Sutcliffe.
Otherwise the human element in the whole process is not being fully appreciated as say the cellar master is at a prestigious Champagne house. The human element here is helped by master blender, Bill Arthur.
Starting a conversation
“You have to be able to create a wider conversation with the consumer,” he explains. “Technology and what information consumers can find online is what drives spirits now. Younger consumers are looking for that information, that story.”
Hence with the Exceptional range the interest does not come in the fact the blend is created to a recipe and is the same every time. But it is crafted, and is different for every batch. Or every 3,000 bottles. Each bottle has an individual batch number to differentiate it.
“We have to do it in small enough quantities to really discover the differences between them,” he adds. “So it is enough of volume to do it efficiently, but small enough to access great individual whiskies.”
Being American he is particularly excited and interested in being able to make Scottish grain whisky.
“When I first tasted Compass Box it really changed my mind as to what you could do with grain whisky,” says Sutcliffe who happily admits he uses Compass Box as a benchmark to follow.
“We want to make complex whiskies and create our own vocabulary for them. Whiskies that are in tune to my palate.”
Which means leaning towards the sweeter, Speyside style with each of the whiskies in the range matured in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks.
For the grain whisky, for example, it helps give a lovely soft, smoky sweetness to the whisky with elements of butterscotch. It was picked as the number two whisky in the US’s Spirit Journal in 2014.
The range includes the following, all priced at £86.
- The Exceptional Grain 3rd Edition (43% abv); the blend includes whiskies from Loch Lomond Distillery, North British Distillery, Strathclyde, Cameronbridge and a barrel of 30-year-old from Carsebridge Distillery, long since closed. Married in first-fill Oloroso sherry casks.
- The Exceptional Malt 2nd Edition (43% abv); includes a 16-year-old Ben Nevis, a first-fill sherry butt of Glenburgie, a vatted barrel of Glenfarclas, Balvenie, Kininvie, Glenfiddich, Alt-a’Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Westport, a 13-year old Speyside, 25 year-old Spebyrn and 30-year-old Macallan, blended and married in Oloroso sherry butts.
- The Exceptional Blend 1st Edition (43% abv); this is a combination of 60% grain whiskies and 40% malt made from 11 malt whiskies and five grain including North British, Strathclyde, Cameronbridge, Glenfarclas, Ben Nevis, Balvenie, Kininvie, Glenfiddich, Alt-a’Bhainne, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Westport, Speyside and Macallan distilleries, blended and married in first-fill Oloroso sherry butts.
Sutcliffe believes each of the whiskies stand up on their own merits, but are best seen and tasted as a set. “Each one builds on each other. You also need all three to tell the story,” he says, ever the salesman.
Talking of stories. We can’t leave without Sutcliffe “squaring the circle” as he puts it. After having first met Willie Phillips in 1987, and then all these years later finally getting together to create their own whisky, they were out having dinner on New Year’s Eve in 2015 with their wives at Martin Wishart’s Honours restaurant in Edinburgh. There sitting behind the back bar was a bottle of The Exceptional whisky. One of the first to be listed in the UK. “It was such a magical moment,” says Sutcliffe. “They had been following our project and managed to get one of the first bottles released.”
An Exceptional story indeed.
* The Exceptional range is being distributed through Number One Drinks Company.