Frank Sam on the Tun, NAS and a Sponge

Sam Simmons is a remarkably frank chap considering his status as a global brand ambassador.

Sam does his thing for The Balvenie, the designated ‘craft distillery’ in William Grant and Sons’ portfolio. One of the company’s most understated brands, The Balvenie isn’t particularly shouty in terms of its branding as well as its spirit, and tends to fly under the radar of most whisky drinkers.

So naturally we got him to spare a few minutes away from his whisky to talk about some of the recent updates to the portfolio this year, as well as profess his love for Whisky Sponge…

Why was the ex-bourbon Single Barrel 15 discontinued? That was lovely.

It was, wasn’t it? Over the 22 years since the Balvenie range was launched the way we know it today (in 1993) we have been the only distillery to have an ongoing “core range” single barrel whisky. David Stewart decided to create a full range of Single Barrel Balvenies showcasing three different casks: first fill bourbon at 12yo, sherry butts at 15yo, and refill American oak at 25.

The Tun series seems to be the only one in recent memory that eschews the age statement in documentation. As a craft distillery, wouldn’t it be in your interest to provide all the info?

With full freedom to pull from our most mature stocks, Tun was created by David Stewart using casks no younger than 21 years old, most from the 1970s, and some casks from 1966. When age is stated on a bottle of whisky, the youngest must be stated. We did not think it did the whisky justice to call it 21 years old and instead chose to name it after the marrying tun (a 2000L oak vessel).

With each Tun 1401 and now with Tun 1509 (a larger tun, 8000L) have worked to share as much information as possible. The 1509 label comes with charts and graphs giving nearly every piece of information we are allowed to share without breaking any laws around age or vintages used. Tun is truly one of David’s greatest creations.

Will we ever see a NAS Balvenie in the Core Range? Either way, why?

As David Stewart always says, he was fortunate to have worked for a family company where he has been permitted to lay down more casks than forecasted time and again so we are proud to say we have no shortages in our stock model thanks to his vision and the long term vision of the family.

Further, we both believe that age allows an often intimidating and confusing category of strange distillery names to be easier to navigate when you can compare 12YO with 12YO rather than a whisky named after a star system against one named after a weather system.

Age statements are what, years ago, allowed me as a whisky lover to explore the world of whisky from brands I knew, to ones I didn’t with some confidence. I would fear that a category of NAS whiskies will limit the variety currently available in Scotch whisky rather than expand it, as some are arguing.

It’s almost that time of the year – Whisky Bible 2016. Care to take a punt as to who Jim Murray will pick to win?

One of my favourite whisky writers, one of my least favourite whisky books. I really don’t care which whisky was one man’s favourite in any given year and I wish he’d go back to writing great books about this great spirit.

(Ed: Question was posed before the announcement. Canadian whisky Crown Royal won that award, but we doubt that it will rival Yamazaki’s phenomenal boom in the past year)

What is your view on whisky awards in general?

I respect the results of IWSC, ISC and the WWA but I do not think I have ever made a decision of what to drink or buy based on medals or points.

What do you think are the landmark events in the industry this year?

My weekly escape into the world of Whiskysponge.com.

Sam Simmons (L), with Regional Brand Ambassador Neil Strachan (R)

Sam Simmons (L), with Regional Brand Ambassador Neil Strachan (R)