Profile: Speyside born and aged

Chivas bros’ master distiller Alan Winchester received the International Spirits Challenge prestigious lifetime achievement award in 2018. Christian Davis meets him


WHAT’S WINCHESTER FAMOUS FOR? Once the Anglo-Saxon capital of Wessex and England, today the city is best known for the great hall of its formidable castle and, of course, it gives its name to a repeating rifle. But there is another Winchester – scotch whisky’s Alan. This is the man who oversees Chivas Brothers’ raft of distilleries – The Glenlivet in Speyside, Strathisla, Glen Keith, Glen Grant and Longmore. These are key distilleries of malts that go into the blends of global scotch whiskies such as Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s.

The man is stepping down but is apparently retaining the title of master distiller at The Glenlivet.

Alan Winchester has one of those huge smiles, along with a large presence and a soft Scottish lilt. Beguiling. He is a man who exudes patience – he’s used to things taking time, taking their course. So he seems perfect for looking after Pernod Ricard’s significant scotch whisky portfolio.

Distilling is a basic chemical process but it has to take its course with heads, tails and, of course, the heart. Not a job for the faint-hearted or control freak. And then there’s the ageing. Put the clear liquid in a barrel and wait for at least three years, often longer – much longer.

Winchester’s family were mainly farmers working close to Glenfarclas. So how did it all start? His father was a policeman but Winchester worked at the Glenfarclas distillery in his school holidays. The plan was to go into the navy but a job came up in the warehouse and that was it. He was in among the barrels, starting at the end of the process.

Around 1979, he went to work for Seagram at The Glenlivet, which also produced Glen Grant, the scotch Italians love. He did a bit of everything, probably smiling, if not all, but most of the time – stenciling barrels, labouring in the cooperage. He probably polished the spirits safe. He ruefully admits to having a ‘cooper dog’ – the cylindrical cooper tube on a chain which distillery men kept down their trousers for partaking of the spirit when the manager and excise men weren’t looking. So much for the angel’s share…

In 1991 Winchester went back to Glenfarclas as assistant distillery manager. “It was a bit like coming home,” he says. “I thought that was me settled. But then a director left for Pernod Ricard and he asked if I fancied coming along.

“I spoke to the wife, weighed up the pros and cons and went to work for Aberlour.” At the then Campbell Distillers, he became distillery manager. This year marks 25 years with Pernod Ricard. Will he get a gold watch or gold (copper) dog? Watch this space.

In the early noughties, the scotch whisky industry underwent massive changes. Earlier, Bell’s, which was the number one blended scotch whisky, was bought by the company that became Diageo. Then the Canadian Bronfman family decided to sell up and Seagram was carved up by Diageo and Pernod, at the time a small, very French company, which called its modest scotch division Campbell Distillers. Then Allied-Domecq came up for sale and Pernod and Beam provided the executioners and beneficiaries.