The Whisky Illuminati is a new venture spearheaded by Keith Bonnington who is an ex-Edrington executive with a wealth of experience in the industry working with brands like Macallan, Highland Park and Famous Grouse. He’s brought together an anonymous collective of industry experts with over 200 years of industry experience who hand-select rare and exquisite malts to form a series of drams that are individually unique but form a really special collection altogether.
Naturally, GreatDrams had a few questions for Keith – KB – so we got down to business…
What led to you setting up the Whisky Illuminati?
KB: 18 years in the Scotch industry opened my eyes to the growing global appeal for premium, rare bottlings of whisky and I felt that, with a strong network of contacts and a decent amount of experience, I could source, bottle and bring to markets around the world some of these hidden gems. Eleven years working on brands like The Macallan and Highland Park, watching them sell out practically every rare, exclusive release before they had officially hit the market, highlighted the level of interest in Scotch whiskies rarities and collectables.
What are your ambitions for the brand?
KB: My ambition is to create a brand that premium Scotch whisky drinkers seek out to see what’s coming next. I am an innovator at heart but at the same time respectful of all the traditions of the industry and I think we can sustainably build something that is constantly bringing interest and excitement to the category, either through one-off rare casks or multiple releases under a named series.
What sorts of products are you looking to release, and where are they from?
KB: We have an industry leading assessment panel – our “Whisky Illuminati” – behind us, helping us source, in their opinion, the best of the best casks that are available. A sampling lunch will involve typically around 50 cask samples from various sources and an uncompromising selection process that may result in us taking less than 10% forward for bottling. We are not constrained by age nor the appeal of any particular distillery but are driven by our desire to uncover little gems hiding at the back of a warehouse. The same applies across both Single Malts and Single Grains.
What has been your process been from going from working in the industry for big brands, to having your own brand?
KB: I had to put the thought of not having a stable income every month to the back of my mind before taking the leap into setting up my own brand. I quickly started to appreciate that, when you become the wheel, rather than a cog within it, you feel every single bump in the road much harder than working for a larger corporation. But I worked on some amazing brands and feel I have taken chunks of each to mould my own products. Quite often I have been presented with a situation where I have asked myself, “what would The Macallan do?” My view is that, even if you are small, independent boutique brand, it pays to carry the values and integrity of some of the industry’s big name brands.
What has changed in your opinion over the years in whisky?
KB: I think there is whole new generation of Single Malt whisky drinkers who completely by-passed Blends on entering the category. This is probably something to do with the ‘craft movement’ and the commonly-held belief that the terms “Malts” and “Single” denote superior quality and craftsmanship. The variety of products on offer has increased significantly, with a lot of positive innovation around non-age-statement whiskies. Then, of course, is the performance of some of the emerging markets and the recovery of some of the older, more established markets, all culminating in the latest export numbers (2018) from the Scotch Whisky Association declaring a near 8% growth in sales.
What does the future hold for whisky and independent bottlers vs the big brands?
KB: Independent bottlers like us can do the things that bigger, established brands can’t necessarily do and I think that helps build excitement in the indie sector. Finding unique casks of whisky, not constrained by name nor age, and quickly turning these into bottled and beautifully packaged products is feeding a growing consumer demand. Very often these casks are owned by the bigger distillers but not ear-marked for any particular purpose. Then it’s a question of having the contacts who can identify and source that cask for you, having the reputation that encourages distillers or brokers to sell that cask to you and maintaining the integrity and values of the Scotch industry when you come to bottle that cask.