We sit down with Ron Welsh, Master Blender at Beam Suntory, the owners of five of Scotland’s most iconic distilleries. Laphroaig and Bowmore on Islay are probably the best known along with Auchentoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow. But it is in the North East of Scotland, in rural Aberdeenshire that our focus lies, at the lesser known Glengarioch and Ardmore distilleries.
Educated at Strathclyde University after schooling at Eastwood High, Ron’s career started in steel before taking a turn into the Whisky Industry almost by chance. Amongst his favourite creations are the Laphroaig 18 year old and this year’s Handfill at the Glengarioch distillery, opened on the 1st January 2020, thought to be the only cask in Scotland opened on the first day of the new decade.
Ron is renowned for his quality whiskies, and also his enthusiasm for his brands. Often seen at Distillery events backing his own products, he is one of the more ‘hands on’ Master Blenders. While thousands revere his whisky, Ron is a most modest man. Indeed, standing next to him in the Glengarioch warehouse opening the first cask of the decade, his wife asked him how he knew so much about the cask and it’s contents. “What do you think I do for a job?!” Was his reply. It seems not all are so keen to take an interest in his new releases! Always humble and honest, Ron tells us of his beginnings in the whisky world.
Q1, What first drew you into the whisky industry?
After graduating with a Degree in Chemical Engineering I started with British Steel as a Graduate Trainee, after initial training I started working within production, making and casting steel at Ravenscraig. With the closure of Ravenscraig imminent, I took voluntary redundancy and returned to University at the age of 29 to study Information Technology. Having gained my MSc, I found getting a Job in IT rather difficult, I decided to apply for a couple of production roles while waiting for my opportunity to start in IT, one was with BNFL (British Nuclear Fuels), the other was Shift Manager at Strathclyde Distillery. I got the job at Strathclyde, not because I wanted to get into Whisky, I just wanted a job in production, it happened to be in the whisky industry
Q2, Can you sum up your journey to become the Master Blender at Beam Suntory?
I started off as the Shift Manager at the Strathclyde Grain Distillery in 1992 for 8 years, and then asked to join Grain Distilling Strategy Project Group, which eventually lead to the decision to close Dumbarton Distillery. As my Shift Managers role had been filled, I moved into Primary Planning, heading up the team that selected casks for all Allied Distillers Blends and Single Malts using recipes maintained by the Master Blender Robert Hicks. During this 5 year spell I worked closely with Robert and Sandy Hyslop, developing my knowledge of maturation and new make spirit quality as well as the blending rules used to maintain consistency between batches.
When Allied Distillers was split between Pernod Ricard and Fortune Brands (Jim Beam), I worked for Pernod carving out the stocks that Fortune would receive for taking over Teacher’s and Laphroaig, on completion of the carve out, Fortune not only got the stocks, they took me on as their Inventory Planning Manager. Robert Hicks was hired by Fortune as a contracted Master Blender while I further developed my skills in Blending. Around 2011, Robert Hicks’ contract was terminated, from that date all new expressions were developed by myself, the first of note being Laphroaig PX. Eventually my job title changed in 2013 to Chief Blender and Whisky Stocks manager recognising the fact that I had been doing the job for a couple of years, in 2014 Suntory purchased Beam, the role of Senior Manager – Inventory Manager & Spirit Quality for Beam Suntory was offered to myself, with Rachel Barry as Master Blender reporting to me. When Rachel left in 2017, rather than bring in another Master Blender, I reorganised my team and took on the role of Master Blender and Strategic Inventory Manager.
Q3, Of the Beam Suntory distilleries that you are involved with, is there a particular standout for you emotionally?
All our distilleries stand out for me for different reasons. First, there is the emotional attachment to Laphroaig, as its been in the company I worked for during my 27 years in the industry. I love Bowmore, also on Islay, for its range of inventory, in the North East we have Glengarioch, which I really rate for its passionate workforce and and Ardmore for its consistency. Then, last but no means least, in the Lowlands Auchentoshan, which is a vibrant distillery, which shines through in its spirit.
We will be chatting again with Ron nearer the start of the Highland Whisky Academy, when he will be letting us know what to expect from Glengarioch and Ardmore Distilleries, both of which will be featured in our Academy Tours. Find out more about the Highland Whisky Academy at www.highlandwhiskyacademy.com