For five or six years I had the pleasure of working with the whisky legend Jim Swan before his untimely passing last year. Jim was a world-renowned expert in the chemistry of distilling, but his experience went wider than that, he was central to the growth of craft distilling, perhaps he was fundamental its expansion. His wisdom and experience was the cornerstone of numerous craft spirit start ups, and his name gave comfort, a guarantee of quality, to investors.
I once asked Jim how he described his role. He called himself an alcohol designer, a category of one I believe! He was the most prominent of a band of quiet experts who each spent a lifetime in the industry.
In his passing he left a great gap. One year later many businesses he was consulting are still looking for the advisors who can fill his shoes, but it is testament to the breadth of his knowledge that it seems three or four different experts are needed fill all of the gaps that he left.
Jim and I first worked together on the Ardnamurchan Distillery, where I designed the distillery and Adelphi had retained Jim’s services, confident that he would deliver them an excellent spirit. He did.
Jim approved of our design for the practical ease of servicing the entire building, and he liked the traditional style of the courtyard layout. I think at some point he came to joke about all of our distilleries as having courtyards. On reflection he may well have been correct!
In time when I started a new distillery design project for an aspiring distiller I would recommend Jim’s services as part of the team to ensure the quality of the product. When a designer was not already in place for a new job he recommended me. I did discuss with him the idea of forming an affiliation, but I got the impression that this tickled him as he had no need to drum up more work. Nevertheless we carried out a good number of projects together in an informal affiliation.
Jim started work when the brewing and distilling industry was perhaps less glamorous than it is today. He was a chemist who pioneered numerous methods of analysis and held patents for chemical processes, including one to remove the taint from corked wine. During his work with Tatlock and Thomson his reputation developed to the point that he became the go-to consultant for new distillers.
It was his craft distillery work which seemed to define him during our time working together. He was determined to demonstrate that a young whisky could be a good whisky, even when matured in the cold Scottish climate. He was constantly on the move; apparently there were always three packed cases at his house so he could leave get away with the utmost efficiency – an indication of his rigorous approach to business matters.
Most of his time would be spent working on-site with craft distillers all over Scotland, in England or Israel or Wales, visiting cask suppliers in the States or Spain, or spending time with the project which perhaps became his signature creation – Kavalan in Korea.
Although Kavalan is not widely distributed in the UK it has quickly become a world renowned success story. The collection of whiskies was the vision of Mr Lee, I would hear tales of the clear vision which the coffee entrepreneur had for his collection of whiskies, the length of time they would be matured and the scale of the distillery, recently simply doubled in scale. The liquid has gone on to win literally hundreds of gold awards and the distillers respect for Jim and his part in their success will be eternal. He was involved in the design of the process, analysis of raw materials, maturation conditions and product testing, indeed even training the master distiller, Ian Chang.
The distillery in Taiwan receives one million visitors a year, attracted by the whisky and the renown of the owner and his King Car coffee brand. And the whisky matures tremendously quickly – 2 to 3 years can create a rounded and high quality whisky in the tropical heat. Indeed their problem is large evaporative losses, not the slow returns which are usual in the British whisky industry. If the liquid were left too long in the cask there would be nothing left!
Needless to say British experiments are now underway to heat whisky warehouses to give the same speedy maturing Korean effect, but one can only think that whatever the conditions their products will be lacking one ingredient... the expertise and experience of Jim who would visit each distillery regularly to taste and test and care for the maturing product.
Many of the physical aspects of the new distillery plant were specified by Jim, working with Forsyths or the nominated still suppliers: Long lyne arms were a trademark of his, ensuring that only fine vapours pass to the condensors. Small spirit stills at Lindores Abbey ensure lots of copper contact – the batch is split into two small stills, not double distilled. Stills looked traditional, the way they had always looked. He had no truck with straight sided stills, suspicious of their ability to handle barley spirit.
When we teamed-up to compete against other design teams Jim could turn out to be a secret weapon. We once turned up to a competitive interview with a board of directors on a Friday evening after a gruelling day of international travel. I had previously met the MD in Scotland and I really wanted to bring Jim to the next meeting, I knew that he could get this complex project built. Jim was new to them and calls came asking why I wanted to bring another person the meeting.
But I insisted, and by the time of the interview the directors had done their homework. The CEO virtually kneeled and bowed as Jim walked in the room and after a short time discussing our combined experience we won the contract, the other team were told to cancel their tickets and off we all went to the swankiest restaurant in the country to celebrate.
The whisky industry is a tight-knit world, and staying at a hotel in Elgin, or showing clients around a snowy distillery Jim seemed to know people everywhere.
I recall a discussion with a foreign client when we were all up in Rothes at Forsyths factory. “Have you ever met with royalty?” came the question. I bet they wish they hadn’t asked. Between Jim and Richard Forsyth they seemed to have met with every royal, minor to major, testament to the attractions of tradition, the success and the quintessentially Scottish nature of whisky.
What Jim really brought to any job was an air of utmost professionalism. If you called him and left a phone message when he was on a plane he would return the call instantly he landed, no matter where he was in the world.
He liked to quote from the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, a book which he obviously knew very well. Upon his recommendation I read it myself and I can see how the polite and business-like content chimed well with the man I worked with. The ‘habits’ are all good and solid and common sense; be proactive, begin with the end in mind… but most typical of Jim’s approach is “think win – win” and “seek to understand, then to be understood”. Just the titles of those two habits really demonstrated his approach - in working with Jim you would come away feeling better about yourself and reassured about your project. Vital when millions of pounds of investment were on the line.
One particular passage in the 7 Habits seemed to appeal to Jim; there is an anecdote about a serious navy ship nearing a light in a shipping channel which isn’t moving out of the way… the captain radios the light to tell it to get out of his way, and the other captain (a lighthouse keeper!) radios right back to set the captain straight! The message being that hubris gets you nowhere. It is a tale of taking account of the other person’s perspective to everyone’s benefit, care for the other side.
So Jim’s professionalism is sorely missed, and no one person seems to be able to step into the void which he left. But his legacy is any number of great, award winning spirits and beautiful distilleries across the world.