Just following a fantastic virtual tasting of 6 brilliant whiskies from one of our favourite brands, The Firkin Whisky Co., we spoke to our special guest, founder Mike Collings!
Although he is unlikely to admit to it, Mike Collings can claim to be the most influential Scotch whisky marketer of the past 40 years. Pick up any whisky book, and it will be littered with his achievements and brand successes. Dimple, Hanky Bannister, Southern Comfort, Glenfarclas, Johnnie Walker Blue Label, Johnny Walker Green Label, The Diageo Classic Malts, Rare Malts, Distillers Editions, Flora & Fauna series, Cardhu, Royal Lochnagar.... Many of us can trace the start of our whisky journey to one of Mike’s brands, and luckily he has decided to continue his innovation with a new brand, The Firkin Whisky Company. The Whisky List spoke to Mike about some of his newest releases.
Q: With such a stellar resume behind you, it’s hard to summarise it all in a few minutes, but can you give us an overview of how you ended up building some of the most successful brands in the whisky industry? Were you always a whisky lover, and was this a natural career choice?
A: I wasn’t always a whisky lover. I joined the wine trade way back in 1971, with the Courage group. I spent 10 years with that company, running pubs, going through off-licences, being a salesman, doing all sorts of things. I ended up in the marketing department, and cut my teeth on ‘learning by doing’. Then I joined United Distillers in 1987, and it was just a great opportunity. I was given a number of brands to work on, and one of those was ‘what do we do with the malt portfolio?’ it was being in the right place at the right time. Just imagine, looking at malt whisky in those days it was very difficult to understand as a consumer. Learning from the wine industry, we came up with the idea of regionality, and applied that to malt whisky, which gave rise to the Classic Malts. In a time of very little knowledge about malt whisky, it was a breakthrough. Just look at Johnny Walker Green Label, which started as Johnny Walker Pure Malt. Why can’t Johnny Walker have a malt whisky? We came up with the idea of a blended malt whisky. JW Pure Malt became Green Label - people always want a short, easy to understand term, so Green Label it was. It was at a time when there was the freedom to succeed, just pick up the ball and run with it. Be prepared to experiment and innovate.
Q: The name ‘Firkin’ is no doubt intentionally cheeky, and you’ve probably heard all of the innuendo and plays on words over and over. But how did you come up with the name, and what does it mean?
A: It was really simple. Whisky needs to be about enjoyment, there’s too much of taking life too seriously. It needs to be more appealing to a whole lot of people, and that’s why I came up with Firkin. Yes, it’s a type of barrel, but it’s never really been used for whisky, other than it’s close to a quarter cask, but we’ve taken a mischievous fun look at it. There’s an international understanding there - we have a Japanese distributor who says “this is going firkin well.” Whisky is about enjoyment. I’ll give an example - we do a Firkin Islay, with Caol Ila. Someone asked ‘How many parts per million?’ I thought, we can use that. There’s cartoons on our boxes, so we had one guy at a bar saying ‘parts per million’ and another chap says ‘that’s firkin phenomenal!’ You see the whole proposition is to get people to have fun and enjoy it, there’s a camaraderie. People talk about this, but they don’t do it.
Q: The concept of not taking whisky too seriously, and having fun, is a common thread on the Firkin website and blogs. This certainly resonates with us at The Whisky List, but was this something you’ve always thought has been missing in the industry, or was it a recent ‘eureka’ moment for you?
A: I think there’s a time and a place for everything. I was looking at it with Robin Tucek of Blackadder, we were in a bar in Tokyo. All this malt whisky stuff was getting far too serious, we thought it needed to lighten up. It’s about sharing, having fun and enjoying whisky.
A: We put it under four heads, or styles, and they’re all different. Firkin 10 which is a 10 year old that we choose and usually pair with a madeira cask finish. Firkin 49 is a Tullibardine, Because the distillery was started in 1949, and so was I. Each release is in a custom cask, made from 2 types of oak made to our specifications, and paired with a fortified wine that matches the style of whisky we’re looking at. We want to accentuate what is already there, and not disguise it. Madeira for Firkin 10, a blend of amontillado and oloroso sherry for Firkin 49. Marsala for Caol Ila, and for the Firkin Rare, we look at the whisky we have, and decide what to pair it with. For the latest release we have an Aultmore, and I’ve paired it with a tawny port. Aultmore has very earthy notes, so we add richness with the tawny port. There’s probably one or two releases a year of each, and all single cask.
Q: Each Firkin release is bottled at 48.9% ABV. This appears to be a random but pretty specific number across the whole range. How did you decide on this alcohol strength?
A: It’s our signature strength - Robin & I were discussing it in the bar (after a few drams, of course) and talking about what the ideal strength would be. I’m a firm believer in keeping any filtration to an absolute minimum. Any time you filter you take out flavour, so we wanted to keep it at quite a high ABV. It became quite simple then. Robin was born in 1948, I was born in 1949, so we put it down the middle at 48.9%. It’s not cask strength, it’s not a standard ABV, it’s like us. A bit eccentric, a bit individual.
Q: You use casks constructed from two different types of oak. Is this something unique to Firkin, or had you seen this done before? How does this affect the maturation of the whisky?
A: I’ve done a bit of work around wood regimes, and what is the effect. What can give depth of flavour? 60% to 70% of the flavour comes from the oak, so I thought why can’t we put 2 different types of oak in the one cask? We take first-fill bourbon, which we deconstruct, and new French oak made to our custom char. We then take the extra step to season it with the fortified wine which we want to pair it with. If we take Firkin 49, for example, Tullibardine is quite a light whisky. You don’t want something too heavy, so we use a mix of amontillado and oloroso sherries to season the cask. Oloroso has a richness to it. Amontillado has a dry, nutty flavour. The combination achieves a flavour profile that Tullibardine has never achieved.
Q: The Firkin labels and boxes certainly have elaborate and extremely detailed designs. We have seen a lot of brands moving to a lot more modern and simplistic labels, why have you chosen this approach for Firkin?
A: I wanted to reflect the craftsmanship that goes into whisky. The main label of the bottle is intricate and embossed, it’s very tactile. That’s what I wanted to achieve. Then below that we get to the communication as to what’s in it, and that’s fairly simple. In design terms I’ve always had the opportunity to to be a leader rather than a follower. If you look at the Classic Malts - at a time when everyone was using big and bold colours, we went with pastel colours. This then became a genre for the industry.
Q: With each release being single cask, there is obviously a limited number of each available. In how many countries is Firkin sold, and how do you manage demand?
A: We’re in about 6 or 7 countries now. We work through family and boutique businesses, it’s horses for courses. Demand will sometimes outstrip supply, but that’s something we have to live with. The whiskies are released when they’re ready, and being a small operation, we can do that. We work with people that understand that approach.
Q: In addition to the Firkin, you have also created a blended malt brand, Spencer Collings, with the Imperial Tribute and Founders 10yo. What is the philosophy behind these two? Do you see premium blended malts growing in popularity in coming years?
A: Spencer Collings started in 2005, and Imperial Tribute was the first venture into luxury malt whisky. I looked at what we could achieve with single malts, and found that’s not what we want. So I looked at three distilleries from three regions, and found I could get great depth of flavour with those. It isn’t about entry level, it’s about depth of flavour. People say ‘it’s blended’, like the dreaded ‘B’-word. A lot of great Australian wine, and Champagne even, are blends. We need to be more open-minded, and not only think in terms of single malts, you can also have great blended malts. Imperial Tribute is very restricted, we only issue it in 300 bottle releases, but we personalise every one of those to order. It makes a magnificent gift. The Founder’s Reserve is the 10 year old component of Imperial Tribute, at virtually cask strength. The depth of flavour there goes on and on.
Q: You now live in Adelaide, Why did you decide to move Down Under, and how long have you been here?
A: My wife is Australian, from Sydney. We came down to Adelaide on holiday, and thought it was a fantastic location. Of course I was aware of the stunning wines from my background in that industry. We were living in Devon at the time, and I realised I could run the business from here, so we made the move down under. The best move I’ve ever made.
Q: When you’re not drinking Firkin or Spencer Collings, what are your go-to whiskies?
A: Sometimes I’ll rummage around my cask samples, but I have 2 or 3 go-to whiskies. Glenfarclas 15yo - I first cut me teeth with malt whisky at Glenfarclas. I love the Distillers Edition of Lagavulin, which I created way back when. My fall-back of JW Green Label, it’s still a great whisky.
Cheers Mike! (And everyone reading this!)