Remembering our friend and whisky visionary
The guardian of world whisky, Jim Swan shaped the distilling community we’re part of today.
He was also our first master distiller. We look back on the life and achievements of the celebrated distillery consultant.
The word ‘legend’ is often overused in whisky. So too is ‘master’. Very few people have the knowledge, credentials, influence that the words require. Yet there’s no debate about them when it comes to describing the late whisky consultant, Jim Swan.
It’s difficult to think of another person so instrumental in world whisky. Before Jim, very few distilleries outside of Scotland, Ireland, the US and Japan were taken seriously. He devoted his career to the spirit, gaining a PhD in chemistry and biological sciences from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
Building on his training, he invented the flavour wheel back in 1979 with colleague Sheila Burtles. He then delved into understanding oak maturation before moving into food and drink analysis. It wasn’t long before he set up on his own, advising distillers around the world as they realised their own whisky-making dreams. His knack was hacking distilling and maturation techniques, enabling start-up distillers to craft well-rounded young spirits. But despite a career spanning 40 years, his creativity was cut short. He passed away suddenly in February 2017, aged 75.
A new-world maverick
Why do we hold Jim in such high regard? Because it was under his guidance that we founded M&H Distillery. He helped us develop our processes for crafting unique Tel Aviv whisky. But Jim wasn’t just a consultant. He was our friend, too.
“He was a person that was a friend of everyone,” recalls Tomer Goren, our head distiller. “But he was also very professional, the best man to learn from.” He remembers his first impressions of Jim. “He was a very calm person, very gentle. And very impressive. There was endless information coming out of his mouth.”
Tomer met Jim at the very start of his own career in whisky. “He taught me all the basics of whisky production. I feel lucky, really lucky, to have worked with him. It meant a lot for us as a distillery, and for me personally.”
It’s a sentiment held by many. The list of distilleries he worked with and consulted for is numerous. And they’re some of the leading lights in world whisky.
Taiwan’s Kavalan Distillery. Wales’s Penderyn. India’s Amrut. England’s Cotswolds Distillery. Victoria Caledonian in Canada. And let’s not forget his Scottish roots: as well as developing his early career in Scotland, Jim was also instrumental in the set-up of Clydeside Distillery in Glasgow and Lindores Abbey in Fife.
The inventor of the STR cask
While there’s much Jim was known for, his pioneering cask maturation work was arguably the most important. Initially trialled at Kavalan, the process of shaving, toasting and re-charring (STR) wine casks revolutionised early-days distilling for new makers. The way the casks are processed in many ways accelerates how much flavour the spirit can access from the wood. And it’s fascinating.
In a nutshell, a few millimetres are shaved off from the inside of the cask. They are then toasted to break down some of the component parts of the wood that are alcohol-soluble – useful for flavour. Finally, the casks are re-charred over a powerful flame. Sugars in the wood become caramelised, meaning the spirit can get further into the barrel. A secondary, almost magical, side-effect is that the resulting char can filter out harsh notes. This can be especially useful with boisterous young spirit.
Today, thanks to Jim’s inventiveness, STR casks are used all across the world by both fledgling and established distillers. This includes here at M&H.
His spirit at M&H Distillery
With every single spirit run, Jim’s legacy lives on here in Tel Aviv. He helped our team with every area of production, from mashing and fermentation all the way through to maturation. He designed our equipment and honed the water we use. Jim is as part of the M&H Distillery story as the team here now.
With his help, we pioneered techniques to harness our sense of place and craft our very special whiskies. He was not fazed by our hot climates. Known to result in rapid ageing, there’s also the risk of over-evaporation – with too much oak influence and not enough spirit. Under his guidance, we struck the balance.
Jim was our very first master distiller. He worked alongside head distiller Tomer Goren to develop our inaugural single malt. Sadly he didn’t get to see its release in June 2017. We’ll always remember Jim.