Day in the life feature – Keith Bonnington
I recently had the pleasure of being involved with the new launch of a interesting concept from independent Bottler Whisky Illuminati, on the night a Keith talked us through the idea and 5 single casks due for release within this concept..
The idea sparked an interest and an idea to have Keith involved within the “A day in the life” series..
Name: Keith Bonnington
Position: Co-founder of Whisky Illuminati
Hello. I’m Keith Bonnington, co-Founder of the Whisky Cellar Ltd and creator of the Whisky Illuminati independent label.
I have worked in the Scotch whisky industry for 18 years, most recently spending 11 great years at Edrington, owner of The Macallan, Highland Park and The Glenrothes single malts. I parted company very amicably with Edrington three years ago to pursue my own path within the industry.
My daily role is widely varied and encompasses all facets of the business. One day could be spentworking through inventory lists that we get presented with, either from the distillers or brokers we work with. Another day could be meeting with design and PR agencies planning our next releases. Then there are days spent at the warehouse and bottling plant, overseeing the production of one our launches and, of course, approving dry materials from our suppliersfor the products. There’s also a lot of administration in terms of completing and filing transfer documentation for casks, organising logistics and export documents for overseas clients. Above all, there’s the sampling of the whiskies, which I carry out with a trusted and very experienced group of industry friends and ex-colleagues, normally out of regular working hours, for example, a Friday evening. No two days are ever the same.
Our first release in 2018, the Whisky IlluminatiCandlelight Series, was a real eye-opener for me. We have a partner in South Africa, a market which requires specific labels and a bottle size not used for spirits in the European Union (750 ml). Then we took a large order from China, which again needs a market specific label. The amount of work involved in creating products which are internationally compliant took me a little by surprise but, having experienced it once, I am far better equipped for it now.
I moved into Scotch whisky from the beer industry and was instantly hooked on all aspects of it. I love the history, the heritage, the values and, as a Keeper of the Quaich, I take particular pride in representing this amazing product when I am overseas. You get a real feel for the high esteem in which Scotch is held and I feel like a real ambassador for it. I also love the product, the processes and, above all, the people who make the industry what it is. I remember fondly the times I spent in the company of Morag Ralph and Margaret Gray and the team at The Macallan and would always make time to go down to see the late Willie Bremner, formerly the Ghillie on The Macallan’s River Spey fishing beat. They all contribute to the make up of this rich industry tapestry and inspired me in their own ways.
There have been many highlights (and a few lowlights) but I think I enjoyed our second and most recent release, the Whisky Illuminati Solaria Series,most of all. It is an ambitious, complex three-part release of five single malts from Speyside distilleries which, I believe, is a genuine industry first. I took many of the learnings from the first release and applied those to the second and it has been an evenmore enjoyable, if not seamless, experience. Anticipating pitfalls, for example production delays, makes life a lot easier but you never really know what’s coming at you until you experience it at least once.
Whisky is something I would be involved in even if it wasn’t my career. I spend a lot of my spare time thinking about it and talking about. I just love everything about it and have several well–thumbed books in the house – some are full of reviews, some touch more on the history and traditions and others are just iconic reads like Aeneas MacDonald’s simply titled ‘Whisky’. I particularly enjoy the brand development side of things and I am working on a project at the moment which revives an old lost brand. These traditions need to be upheld and I am delighted to have the opportunity to play a small part in that.
I really enjoy sharing what Scotch whisky can offer to guests, partners and clients from overseas. Some of my most treasured moments have been sharing a dram by an open fire, late at night in the company ofguests after a day of meetings, distillery tours and perhaps a wander around the distillery estate or the neighbouring town or village. These quieter, more contemplative moments are needed to recharge the mind and really strengthen bonds.
While I do enjoy sharing my whisky moments with friends and industry colleagues, I am equally happy at home, with my family nearby and the wood burner giving off its warm glow. I love a Friday night after a productive week, sipping an easy single grain or a good blend while cooking a meal for the family and relaxing with a movie later on with a big, bold Speyside malt in hand.
I have a feeling that blends and blended malts might be about to have a significant revival. I am a real advocate of the art of blending and I personally feel that is a highly misunderstood category. Whisky companies have spent decades instilling the virtues of single malt to their consumers but have perhaps lost sight of the importance of their blended portfolio, often the life-blood of the business.
There’s also a real snobbery around grain whisky which, of course, is a major component in blended scotch and widely considered a poor substitute for the ‘real thing’. As I have found out fairly recently, this is largely without foundation. I really hope, and I will do my bit to make sure this happens, that consumers get the opportunity to taste some of the older single grains that are sitting quietly in good wood in darkened warehouses – largely American oak, ex-bourbon. Some of this liquid is exceptional and should be brought to market.
I have several and often it’s about occasion, or season, or even the company I am. I tasted a cask sample of an Invergordon single grain (late 1980s) recently which blew me away. In general, though, I tend to go for The Macallan, Mortlach, and Glenfarclas, which are probably my three favourite distilleries and, in particular, their signature sherry matured styles.
My role has introduced me to so many other whiskies I like, and I was at the heart of selecting the foursingle casks for Candlelight Series in 2018 and our recent five cask Solaria Series. If I was pushed to select one favourite right now, I would have to say the ‘Artis Secretum’ unnamed distillery release from our Solaria Series – it holds just about everything I look for in a whisky. It is bottled at a high natural cask strength, so it does need a bit of water, but it is an absolute joy to drink.
I am an avid dog walker and I like to make sure our black Labrador, Toby, is well exercised. We live in Perthshire and we’re just a few minutes from some of the most amazing countryside in Scotland, so finding places to stride out is very easy. I also love cooking and standing over a risotto, ladling and stirring for half an hour is like my own version of therapy.
I would like to thank Keith for his time and wish Whisky Illuminati all the best for the future.. If you haven’t checked them out then here is a link to the website..