In the South Korean capital of Seoul, Royal Salute recently introduced two permanent additions to its prestigious 21 Year Old range. Chivas Brothers Ltd chairman and CEO Jean-Christophe Coutures talks to Options about the highly-anticipated blends and how they reflect the times we live in.
SINGAPORE (Feb 14): The slice of Seoul visible from a window at the Four Seasons Hotel embodies the spirit of the South Korean capital. In the not too far distance, the austere, expansive grounds of the 14th-century Gyeongbokgung Palace sequester it from the contemporary world of skyscraping steel and glass that strives to rival the stature of the surrounding mountains. These contrasting elements — nature, history and modernity — coalesce rather than collide, depicting an almost impossible coherence. The entire scene calls to mind the Taegukgi, or the South Korean flag, which features a blue and red yin and yang symbol framed by four black trigrams, collectively signifying harmony and movement.
Outside of Scotland, Royal Salute might have been hard-pressed to find a more suitable venue to launch new expressions of its 21 Year Old range. Produced by the Pernod Ricard-owned Chivas Brothers, the self-styled King of Whisky was created in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and was christened after the 21- gun salute, or royal salute, that honoured the occasion. While Speyside is the birthplace of numerous such nectars, Royal Salute immediately distinguished itself by producing labels with a minimum age of 21 years, starting where others end, as most average an age statement of 12 to 21 years. The 21 Year Old label that marked Her Majesty’s ascension to the throne was a blend of the rarest Scotch whiskies in the world and has achieved the impressive feat of being in continuous production since then. An international cohort was invited to celebrate a new chapter for the range — for the first time, two expressions were introduced to stand alongside The Signature Blend. A whirlwind itinerary of heritage venues, superlative settings and immersive experiences portrays the upholding of tradition and the embrace of ambition. This dualism, like the yin and yang, are values familiar to both Royal Salute and the city of Seoul.
STEERING THE COURSE
Chivas Brothers Ltd chairman and CEO Jean-Christophe Coutures might be just a year into his role, but the appointment was a homecoming of sorts. Born and raised in Bordeaux, the MBA holder started out in the banking industry but joined Pernod Ricard in 1997. He held various roles over the next two decades, from Asian vice-president of finance to chairman and CEO of Pernod Ricard Korea and the Pacific, before he assumed the captainship of Irish Distillers in July 2016. His return to the French company two years later seemed almost inevitable.
In a private workspace at Four Seasons Hotel Seoul, Coutures exudes enthusiasm despite being subjected to backto-back interviews all morning. “The whisky and spirits industry is great, in that people are always enjoying themselves,” he says. “It is a happy business: there’s conversation, they’re having a good time. I’m in the business of conviviality.” His grandparents moulded the framework of what constituted a dream career. “My grandmother was in the wine industry and my grandfather managed forests, determining the boundaries of private property and measuring land areas. His life was outdoors, among the trees and animals. He sometimes took me with him and I thought, wow, this is what I want to do. My parents were civil servants in Paris and I definitely didn’t want that, working in an office. “Yet, I started my career as a trader,” he continues with a laugh. “And then I met my wife. Her grandfather was Vietnamese and she wanted to return to Asia. We honeymooned around the continent — Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand — and when we came back, we agreed that it was where we wanted to live and work. We looked at companies that had global opportunities for young people and Pernod Ricard stood out, so I applied. Meeting my wife changed my life.” Although he spends the bulk of his time in the UK, divided between London and Scotland, where Pernod Ricard operates over a dozen distilleries, the rest is spent in various markets around the world to meet local customers and craft strategies for individual territories.
“We have a large portfolio of whisky brands, including Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, The Glenlivet and Aberlour, and the challenge is to ensure that each is well articulated and has a space in the market. My vision is to open up Scotch to the new world of whisky,” he says. “Open up” is a key phrase in Scotch lingo but Coutures is referring to a picture bigger than adding water to a dram to release its aromas and flavours. “It also means innovation and new ways of working,” he explains. “Scotch used to account for 70% of the whisky market 20 years ago but innovation by other markets and categories, like what Japan is doing with whiskies, means it now occupies perhaps just under 50% of the field.”
The company and industry at large have realised the need for innovation. Chivas is endeavouring to slash its carbon footprint all the way down to carbon neutrality with tactics such as circular packaging and biogas and solar technology.
Through the Chivas Venture, it also annually channels US$1 million in funding to social entrepreneurs who drive positive change by attempting to solve the world’s most pressing social and environmental issues. “It’s not just about carbon emissions, it’s about giving back to society,” says the chairman. “At Pernod Ricard, I think Chivas Brothers has the highest bottling footprint, so we need to lead the way. I’m personally very fond of this topic. My childhood was all about nature and a healthy planet is important to me. I couldn’t work at a company that wasn’t serious about this and I value the direction Pernod Ricard is taking. Its values correspond with my own. We have a lot to do, but it’s exciting.”
Earlier this year, a new ruling by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) took the industry by surprise. The notoriously conservative trade organisation relaxed a few rules governing the strict definition of Scotch for greater flexibility in cask choices. Limitations in the previous guidelines saw most distillers use old casks that had been used to mature sherry or American bourbon to add character to their whiskies but the new ruling allows casks used in the maturing of wine, beer, ale and spirits such as tequila, mezcal and Calvados. The resulting product must bear the traditional colour, taste and aromas of Scotch to be labelled as such, thus excluding casks that matured anything produced from or made with stone fruits, as their dominant flavours are atypical of Scotch.
The move was greeted with enthusiasm by industry players, who welcomed the opportunity to increase their relevance in the whisky and spirits sector, where they stood the risk of becoming old-fashioned. Coutures was among those who celebrated the news. “I’m part of the SWA, so I was in on those discussions, and I’m happy with the outcome,” he says. “The change in rules means we have the flexibility to compete with other whisky markets and innovate.”
Even before the new codes expanded the game, Royal Salute was already batting among the best with its diverse output. The extension of the 21 Year Old range, with the flagship Signature Blend as a starting point, is the result of a careful configuration of tradition and heritage burnished with imagination and ingenuity. Take The Lost Blend, which derives its name from silent distilleries. Master blender Sandy Hyslop immortalised exceptional scarce whiskies from distilleries that are no longer in production, such as Dumbarton and Caperdonich, in the first permanent peated blend in Royal Salute’s portfolio.
At its heart is whisky produced by the now-extinct Imperial Distillery. Established in 1897, the same year as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, it only produced whisky for 46 years across its turbulent history before being demolished in 2013. The Malts Blend, meanwhile, is the first blended malt from the King of Whisky. Hyslop took two years to perfect the composition of 21 precious single malts from the five whisky regions of Scotland — Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown — each aged for a minimum of 21 years. “The Lost Blend is especially meaningful,” says Coutures. “We had some decades-old barrels from defunct distilleries and thought we could bring them to customers. As for The Malts Blend, blended Scotch is typically made of grain and malt whiskies but we wanted to experiment with a 21 Year Old made entirely from malts. To my knowledge, it’s the first time this has ever been done. The series is a very prestigious product and distillers usually want to showcase the liquid, but you don’t see it at all here. The bottle is very mysterious. And then there’s the packaging.”
Similar to The Signature Blend, bottled in deep blue, The Lost Blend and The Malts Blend respectively rest in obsidian and emerald porcelain flagons, hues inspired by jewels set within the Imperial State Crown. They are accompanied by matching boxes designed by Icelandic artist Kristjana Williams, animated by a curious collage of vivid, whimsical illustrations of flora and fauna, British landmarks and royal imagery. “When you think about the monarchy in England today, you can see that Princes Harry and William and their wives are bringing about new ideas,” says Coutures. “They are young people of their time and as Royal Salute was created to honour a new era of the British royal family, it needs to evolve with it and reflect its current vibrancy.
The wildlife on the packaging refer to the Tower of London when it had functioned as the Royal Menagerie, housing all the animals presented to the kings and queens. But even while the illustrations tackle serious ideas, their attitude is relaxed, because in British culture, one must show substance along with a sense of humour.” The contents mirror these sentiments of nobility, significance and merriment, which we experience for ourselves. We are whisked to Seoul Museum for sundown cocktails by the Seokpajeong, the 19thcentury hanok (traditional Korean house) that was the summer villa of a powerful politician.
The dress code of smoking jackets and formal floral and feathers complement the fantasy setting: a profusion of full, bright blooms scenting the air, candlelight lending its glow to dusk, bird cages wreathed in flowers and faux peacocks fanning their trains by gilded trolleys displaying familiar flagons. Dinner proper is served at a makeshift pavilion erected beneath a lush canopy of trees that recreates the wild floral imagery on the new 21 Year Old packaging. It is here, under the light of crystal chandeliers and stars, that we are acquainted with The Lost Blend and The Malts Blend.
The former is a nuanced symphony of sweet orange and peaches underscored with smouldering bonfire embers and the latter is a profound explosion of orchard fruits and subtle spices. We are made to recall these notes the next night, when master perfumer Barnabé Fillion conducts an Olfactory Studio session at the charming Korea Furniture Museum. He takes us through his interpretation of The Lost Blend and The Malts Blend’s noses. We sniff fragrance cards and perfumed ceramics, trying to identify rose and grapefruit and Szechuan pepper, and even handle a meteorite, whose dry and slightly sulphuric scent is reminiscent of the smoke in The Lost Blend. Along with The Signature Blend, Fillion distils the new expressions into an exclusive trio of perfumes that evoke their dominant notes. The heady evening of poetry and science, as well as texture and aroma, succeeds in imparting the multi-layered nuances that define a good blended whisky.
THE ORCHESTRA CONDUCTOR
“I wanted one to be subtly smoky and another to be a bridge between single malt and blend,” says Hyslop when we sit down for a one-on-one meeting. “The Lost Blend is amazing not just because we’re using whiskies that are no longer in existence but because they are the right balance of sweetness and smoke. As the flavours subside on the palate, you will find yourself chasing that bonfire smoke. The Malts Blend, with its ripe and rich flavours, is really concentrated, like peaches in syrup, almost jammy with indulgent fruitiness. With the three of them, including The Signature Blend, you have the classic of sweet, creamy vanilla, the concentrated fruit and the spicy smoke.” While he names The Malts Blend his personal favourite courtesy of an unrepentant sweet tooth, he believes the individual blends, and the range as a whole, will appeal to existing and new customers. “I didn’t want to alienate any Royal Salute consumers. I think they will recognise the key family flavours, which have just been stretched in different directions here,” he says.
Famous for being only the fifth master blender at Ballantine’s since 1827, Hyslop is now the director of blending across all of Chivas Brothers’ blended Scotch whisky, a position created expressly for him. Despite receiving abundant honours throughout his illustrious career, being entrusted with extending the Royal Salute 21 Year Old range appears to be the crowning glory. “I’ve worked in the whisky industry for 36 years. When you start in the business, you have no idea that you’d be able to gravitate to this position someday,” says the Scotsman, whose accent becomes exponentially more pronounced as his fervour increases. “To be able to introduce something permanent to the Royal Salute family in your tenure … It’s a huge responsibility but a major milestone.”
Equipping him for the job, he believes, is his scrupulous attention to detail. “It’s probably my strongest asset: I operate at three decimal points all the time,” continues Hyslop. “I love a good spreadsheet. I like to look at our inventory stocks and run formula simulations on how it’s going to look over time and anticipate what we need to do this year for five years out. It’s important that I leave the house in good order for the next blenders who come through. There has to be continuity. Distilleries close and open, stocks change … Conditions are different every year, and that’s where the blender earns his money, bringing together all these variables to create the same flavour package, year after year. But we are good at what we do. We know whiskies inside out.”
And consumers too, going by the high spirits that trailed each event, coaxing out the inner bon vivant of even the shyest guest. Through the lens of Royal Salute, Seoul’s heritage and vibrant culture are magnified and the metropolis seems like a place straight out of a fantasy. But while South Korea is a monumental market for Pernod Ricard, raking in some of the highest sales for duty-free and non-exempt bottles, celebrating this landmark launch here has personal significance for the company chairman. “I am very big on nostalgia,” shares Coutures at the gala dinner. “I was living in Seoul in 2008 when my daughter turned a year old, and we celebrated by opening a bottle of Royal Salute 21 Year Old with friends. Because of that, this blend and this city will forever remain my favourites.”