Interviews With Mr. Sandy Hyslop, Royal Salute's Blending Director and Mr. Mathieu Deslandes, Marketing Director.
Conversation between Luxurious Magazine Asia’s Publisher, Mr. Ooi and Royal Salute’s Blending Director, Mr. Sandy Hyslop.
Mr. Ooi: I have tasted some of your amazing blend, what is your secret? can you describe your blending process? Where do you begin and conceptualize? What tools do you use?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: It's almost like a picture inside your head. It has nothing to do with single malts. When I was talking to the team, we were talking about making the polo edition based on our own beach polo. We talked about beach polo and how completely different it was from playing on a grass pitch. I was brought up in Carnoustie, a small town on the East Coast of Scotland that is right on the beach. I spent all my summer holidays on the beach, and I knew the salty air flavor I wanted. When we were young, we used to walk along the beach smelling the draft of wind filled with the scent of smoky bonfire. I felt all these things, and they became pictures inside my head. I wanted to make the flavors together with those pictures inside my head. I knew what I wanted it to smell like.
Mr. Ooi: Your conceptualized approach sounds interesting and very similar to an architect or an artist. As a master blender, you do have this conceptual image and forming rather than starting with a taste in mind; it’s more like a drawing from your personal experiences.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: It is like a flavor book and pictures inside your head that you build up over time; you get a vision in your head and in that picture, there are some trees, a river, a house … A lot of it is related to experiences of when you were young. If I ask you to describe the smell of cut grass, you might think of the freshly cut grass of when you were a child. You'll think of a time many years ago. That's when all your flavors were built up inside your head and edged in your memories that you can instantly associate with.
Mr. Ooi: Each blend sounds very personal. It's like a friend of mine who smells Asia each time she arrives in the Penang Island and walks out of the airport lobby.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: My friend has a Chinese girlfriend and she says the same as well. Every time she walks into her house, she smells kiwi malt flavor; so you're right and that's a really good point you're making. Because younger members of my team are learning to be blenders, I encourage them to have their own words: don't use mine as those are my experiences, not yours. I told them that if they lose first cask and think "oh my goodness, what is Sandy thinking,” they'll never be a blender. They need to lose it and think for themselves. Tell me what that flavor is, keep telling me, so they can keep learning. They build up their own flavors with their own portfolio of flavors that they're looking for.
Mr. Ooi: Tell me the structure, roles and expectations you have of your blending team.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: I have seven people in my team working on blending, and I have a look at what the concept would be. I'll think about what we have in our inventories, casks and warehouses and I'll write out a specification of what I think. I'll also leave a better scope in there for changes, so I can draw more than I need. We bring in all the samples and we build up the blend in miniature sample instead of using the cylinders. Just take a little bit in proportion of all the casks, so you've built up a blend, exactly the same way they would have done it one hundred years ago; this doesn't change. There is nothing changed in the blending process. The master blender was also doing this a hundred years ago.
Mr. Ooi: Do you feel you are confined, limited and dictated by all those existing 20 plus years stocks?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: You're absolutely right. It can be dictating. When you start your career as a blender, you'll be working with stock that has been made by you and the previous master blender. In the middle of your career, you'll be working with everything that's just been made by you. I'm now just about getting to the stage that the new whiskies are being filed, but I won't see them mature, it will be the next master blender because it takes that long to mature.
Mr. Ooi: It sounds like you can't afford to lose the master blender.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: It's about working with the master blender for many years before he retires. To get in the groove and understand exactly what's going on. And you have to be consistent; you have to totally understand what and where you play. And, that's interesting because you won't be able to use the stock you create. Two guys working with me at the moment could, either of them, potentially become master blender for Royal Salute. And, this also creates a bit of a healthy competition.
Mr. Ooi: What's the main draw for choosing Hainan and Beijing? Do their distinctive characters and / or historical backgrounds play into your blending?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: No, it’s not all about locations, it’s about the story of how well it ties in. At the end of the day, Polo is a very elegant game and I want to make sure that the whisky with luxurious flavor fits perfectly. I want it to be elegant. I want the whisky to be really multi-faceted.
Mr. Ooi: Do you have any intention to complement the whisky with traditional Chinese food because so far all the testing and paring that we have are with Western food.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: When Barnabe and I worked together to create the 28-year-old flask edition, we wanted it to have oriental scent / flavor, sort of like aromatic tea, "Oak Sandalwood" flavor coming through. We need to stay true to the Royal Salute brand and produce other tastes that are just a slight twist to the original recipe. That’s why, last night, I wanted two samples there so that people could look at the normal Royal Salute and try against it and get the difference it makes. The new blend is very subtle, not as strong as typical Royal Salute. I specifically asked for the 21-Year-Old Royal Salute to be here so you can try them together. I wanted it to be softer, with complex, with a bit of smoke in there.
Mr. Ooi: How do you determine when your blend is finished and what you create is successful?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: I'm pretty good at making up my mind. As a person, I'm quite black and white. I don't have lots of shades of grey. I'm good at making decisions and that's probably one thing that people really compliment me about in the business. They’ll speak to me if they want an answer. Speedy definite answer is always good. You can keep tweaking, and it might get worse, more confusing and the message will get lost in the process. The team uses me a lot for making decision. The team would have done some work on a product or I would ask the team to look at it, when they can't make up their mind, they'll give me three samples. I have a look at them and decide on what it should be and where to go from there.
Mr. Ooi: Would you say that is because of your experience?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: Experience, yes; and because I've been brought up in the whisky industry from a young age – I know it well.
Mr. Ooi: On average how long does it take to create a blend?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: Beach Polo takes about eight months from start to finish - eight months with drawing samples and putting some formulations together. I need to look at the casks in our warehouses and make sure that I'm not stealing any casks that are required for other blends. I need to make sure that Royal Salute, Diamond Tributes and all other ones are okay, and the stock I’m using is not going to affect these other blends.
Mr. Ooi: The smell is of subtle difference for us and with so many different blends, how do you remember them all?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: We're doing it every day and so we get really tuned in. It's like our second nature – we don’t even have to think about it, we just know
Mr. Ooi: In a way, you drawn from your experience. But this is not so much of China. It's more like your life experience. China is just the location ?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop : Royal Salute is a whisky that has a good reputation and is very popular in China. I would like to think that the polo edition is showing the Royal Salute’s consumers that we are really quite expert at making blended whisky. Anyone can make a small peated whisky, it’s the easiest thing in the world; you just put in a lot of smoke and it comes out with a really strong flavor. The real challenge is making a blend that just has a sensation of the smoke, but still has the family style of Royal Salute.
Mr. Ooi: Japanese whiskies somehow give me an impression that they are a little more hip, even though they also have the same conditions and traditions that tie them. How different you think there is in terms of the Japanese whisky? Do you have the intention to do something similar? I know that you have a target, or a very specific target audience, but when you plan the taste, do you ever think of creating something that will attract a more diverse audience?
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: If we're doing a special edition for a brand, we want to make sure that that whisky has some real nuances. We will pay homage to the whisky from that region. Some of the Japanese whiskies have quite strong oak keynotes. If we're making a special edition, we may increase the oak slightly with the character of our own to complement that, to give the Japanese consumers the style that they are used to.
Mr. Ooi: As the master blender, would you envision yourself thinking out of the box and pushing the boundary? I felt that this is one industry that doesn't seem to take risk.
Mr. Sandy Hyslop: We're really governed by the rules of Scotch whisky. Scotch Whisky Association doesn't allow us to add things to the whisky, it doesn't allow us to use anything else other than oak. We are controlled by our own regulations, there is a limit to what we can do. Other countries don't have those limitations. Japanese whisky can blend Scotch whisky into their whisky and still call it a Japanese whisky. We can push them so far by using different oak casks, different charring techniques or using different flavors from the distilleries to make different blends. We have really strict boundaries that are there to protect Scotch whisky, to make sure that other people can’t call it that as well. It works both ways.
Conversation between Luxurious Magazine Asia’s publisher, Mr. Ooi and Royal Salute’s Global Marketing Director, Mr. Mathieu Deslandes.
Mr. Ooi: As the Royal Salute’s Global Marketing Director, how does your team formulate strategies and works in tandem with the Master Blender Sandy Hyslop?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: Staying true to the heritage, staying true to Sandy’s novelty, and respecting that it takes at least 21 years to make a whisky. The youngest age of our whisky is 21 years old, which is not the case for many other whiskys. We are probably the only one that very specifically starts at a very high level. This means that we have to be very respectful of this known tradition. We try to inject something that is more vibrant and more modern. We came up with the idea of a polo edition respecting the whisky for its twenty-one year old criteria, respecting traditions and culture of Britain. But how do we express the king of sports such as Polo and something modern in a different? This is why Sandy is so good; he is giving a different perspective in his approach to making whisky, with the idea of doing something closer to the sea and sand. We’re thinking beach polo, and beach polo has some kind of emotions attached to it and very inspiring for Sandy. Tradition and history are very important to us because we have a strong heritage and belief but at the same time, we try to inject something new and more modern. I would say even the color of our polo edition’s bottle is much more vibrant, modern and daring, something which you would know is not traditional.
Mr. Ooi: Royal Salute definitely has its certain target audience, do you think it’s a limitation? Do you have any plan in the future where Royal Salute would look beyond Polo and look into other field to create a different product, to give it a fresher look?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: We have started with polo, to make it more modern; but being more modern doesn't stop with just doing one thing, you have to do more in every aspect, through substance and culture; it could be through art, design or architecture. All these areas of inspirations would probably help to create something more contemporary. It's probably something we would explore in the future. I can't tell you when and what because I don't want to reveal it; but it's true that we are in the same way with what we did for polo, we want to make sure that the brand is relevant today and to the new generation.
Mr. Ooi: Do you see polo as the only sport? Would you see in the future you'll be doing other sports?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: Well, polo is there because it has been there for years. And for me, it's important that we don't change what we do all the time. It's important to be consistent, to be loyal to what we do, and I think we will continue to do that. There is a high possibility that we will inject more artistic elements to the brand – this could be with a British designer or a well-known artist from around the world for example. We’re exploring some of these ideas in order to inject more styles to what we do.
Mr. Ooi: Will it evolve around Polo only?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: No, not about Polo only. We could look at using designer and artist to express their views on the brand. In the last two years, we have been collaborating with a perfume expert, Barnabé Fillion. He has worked with Sandy to create new whiskies as well. It is important to us to work with the best. Malcolm is the best of polo and Barnabé is a supreme expert in perfume. Bringing the expertise of perfume into the art of whisky is a good blend that works for us. We consistently try to bring some fresh ideas but always to the best standard.
Mr. Ooi: Would you say that Royal Salute’s mission is less of a reinventing the wheel, but keep refining and staying true to traditions and heritage?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: I think both. We need to be true to the history of Royal Salute which is about being adventurous. Sam Bronfman created Royal Salute in 1953, and it was probably one of the first 21-year old whiskies to be created. We want to do two things: to do the best and to do something that nobody else has ever done. I think we need to keep that spirit. Despite the fact that we are branded with a long history, we need to continue doing things that nobody else has done. It is something which has been missing in the last years. We need to inject more, to be more audacious with what we do.
Mr. Ooi: How do you view the current China market in both long and short-terms for Royal Salute?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: I think it is very positive in China. We're doing well. There is a strong appreciation for good spirits and high quality in the spirit industry. Chinese people are keen to look for the best, and as we stand for the best of Whiskies, we have a role to play. I'm confident on the future of our footpint in China because economy has been booming. There are more people who can access international brands and prestige whiskies. People in China like to show that they are successful, and they want to show that they are wealthy enough to afford certain products. Things have changed recently; it is no longer about showing what they have, it's more about showing what they know. The cultural aspect is much stronger now than it used to be, at least on the international side. It’s much more important for Chinese people to show their activities to friends; that they've been abroad, that they've been educated about whiskies, and that they know what a good whisky is. It is no longer about buying what is expensive. This is why I'm super confident with Royal Salute. We are a brand with substance and of high quality; we have a strong story to tell. Therefore, now that people want to express that they know about whiskies, Royal Salute is a good fit for that.
Mr. Ooi: Even though, from a broader standpoint, only very small percentage of Chinese or the world understand Polo?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: Yes, but I will say that when we do Polo Editions, we do it not just to talk about Polo. It is Sandy’s inspiration with emotional aspect. The inspiration is about beach polo and about being out on the beach. The beach, food and sound are different from when you are in a city. The whisky is more peaty because the inspiration is about the sound and smells of being next to a sea; its salty aspect is written into the whisky.
Mr. Ooi: What would be the challenges in the Chinese market for you? There is difference between the Chinese taste and the other western markets.
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: The challenge is to be able to talk to a large number of people. I'm super confident in what we do in terms of whisky. What I know is that compared to other outlets that are about just being distributed or being known, Royal Salute is not as well appreciated unless you know it. It's about having experiences with it in a nice way, in the right place with the right people, and that takes time.
Mr. Ooi: So what are some of the strategies you have in mind? Royal Salute seems to be very exclusive, and that is a good thing. How to reach a bigger audience is a problem. Do you have solutions to overcome this challenge?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: One of the stronger aspects is to get close to the right people. It’s not about reaching many people and advertising. It is about good experiences for the right people. These right people would advocate for our product, and they would talk about it. There’s a long-term effect. It is, therefore, better to have people who are passionate about our whisky than people who buy it just because others are buying and without the appreciation of it.
Mr. Ooi: I'm more like a mainstreamer, and you can't disagree or overlook the mainstream. How does Royal Salute play out against mainstream?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: I would say that, by definition, our whisky is considered luxury with each bottle costing around 160 or 170. It is not mainstream. It’s not about lots of people, it is about the right people.
Mr. Ooi: I was expecting some celebrities on promotional events. Do you foresee working with celebrities and the movie industry in the future? If not, is there a particular reason?
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: The star is the product, the whisky. I would say people who are actors or people who are famous can do it, however, the actor works for one brand but can also work for another, and that doesn’t feel right for me. What matters is whether it's done in a genuine way. It’s not about paying to have the endorsement; it's about whether it is meaningful, whether the person is involved, interested, and passionate about our whisky. I think we, at Royal Salute, are always patient; we think more about the long term, rather than short term "let's fit with a celebrity, talk about it" and then it goes right under. Celebrity can be the celebrity of our brand one day and becomes the endorser for another brand the next day. So, there is no plan today to do endorsements with celebrities. It's much more about talking about the history of Royal Salute and making sure that whisky is the center.
Mr. Ooi: There are celebrities that endorse brands that they are truly passionate about, like fashion. These celebrities draw consumers to their endorsed products due to their passion, not because they are paid.
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: I think the other way to talk about it is to say that Royal Salute is not about being fashionable, it's about being timeless. Think about some true values that are going to be here forever. There may be a few people who can endorse it, but compare to the fashion industry that changes over time, we don’t.
Mr. Ooi: That’s why I am saying that your industry seems to be one of the least with risk taking.
Mr. Mathieu Deslandes: Yes, but that could also be debateable. The rarity of what we do is that to create a whisky like ours, you need to wait for 21 years. The limitations and the rarity of our palette are not something that you could say I want to change. Because to do what we need to do today, we need to think about it twenty years ago and forwars – that’s the beauty of it. There are some constraints compared to fashions. You could decide to do a different color or shape but it is different on the whisky side. I would say that timelessness is there. It’s up to us to inject modernity with new blends like Beach Polo or look for ways to express the brand in a different scenario and location. Bringing experiences with cocktails into the mix for example. I I think that way we can bring modernity. I think we need to take our heritage and make it up to that. It is very important for us to reach people who are interested in what we do. Because there's an education aspect with what we do, and this cannot be done with celebrities and advertising. This can only be done with face-to-face interactions and with experiences. It takes more time, but once you achieve it, the end-result is timeless because memories of experiences last forever. Watching a film on YouTube, you might remember it for a few weeks and but then you switch to something else. The experiences with Sandy and education, however, last forever.