The Whisky People – Billy Abbott
Welcome to the first 2017 edition of our ‘Whisky People’ series. As with our previous Whisky People articles we will be focusing on different people within the industry, getting their ‘whisky history’, feelings on the industry, delving into how they got involved, and discussing some of their favourite drams. In this article we will be focusing on Billy Abbott. Billy is a former software engineer turned drinks writer (among other things) who works for The Whisky Exchange. Having said that, his preferred job title is ‘Whisky cheerleader and righter of wrongs on the Internet’, and who wouldn’t want that as their job title!
Billy wasn’t always the whisky aficionado he is now though. He recalls being a rum and coke drinker in the early days, that’s until his friend Andy poured him a dram of a very interesting Lagavulin. All Billy can remember is that it was excellent, or good enough to turn him from rum and coke to Jamieson and coke at the very least! The full transformation into ‘whisky-dom’ happened a little later than that. While working at a bar, an annoying bar manager (you know who you are) sat him and the rest of the bar staff down after a Sunday night shift. He then announced he was going to ‘teach them about whisky’… They tasted their way through the Diageo Classic Malts selection, complete with a few nonsensical interjections from ‘the tutor’. It was then he realised whisky wasn’t as bad as he had once thought. Billy recalls that it was while sipping a Talisker 10 he first though there was something special going on. The final dram (Lagavulin 16) was the one the completed his transformation into a whisky fan.
In 2009, while working as a computer programmer, Billy started a blog called ‘Billy’s Booze Blog’… This has since transformed into ‘Spirited Matters’, mostly because it’s much easier to spell out the URL after a few drams! Billy wrote about a multitude of drinks tastings he went to, including a couple at the Whisky Exchange. This led to him having an ‘informal chat’ with the guys at The Whisky Exchange with a view to him covering some of their tastings for The Whisky Exchange Blog. Little did he know this was actually an interview, and an interview that went surprisingly well. With that he left the IT world behind to begin a new life as a whisky writer, which incidentally, is also a good job title!
Since starting his new role writing tasting notes and product descriptions, Billy has over time become the general copywriter for the company. He is also responsible for their news letters’ and states, ‘ if you have an inbox full of bottles and pithy one liners – it’s my fault.’ He also looks after The Whisky Exchange’s social media accounts, so if you receive a sarcastic response on twitter from them – it’s probably him! Whisky Quarterly Magazine employs Billy’s literary talents too, and he has the terrible chore of being a judge for the World Whiskies Awards’, Independent Bottlers Challenge, and Spirits Business Masters! He also runs some of the London based ‘Whisky Lounge’ tastings, where he mainly teaches people about blended whisky and how it’s made. As if that wasn’t enough, Billy is one of the people that runs the ‘Whisky Squad’ (a London based tasting group) who meet up every month to have drams and ‘talk rubbish’, something he says is very proficient at after a few whiskies. I know that feeling myself!
So that’s Billy’s involvement in the industry, but what does he look for in a dram? To sum it up, balance and spirit character. He likes to taste what the stills have created as well as what the casks have added. Billy feels that many newly created whiskies focus on the later, i.e. the percentage of flavour that comes from the casks themselves. This is what gets rolled out at tastings and he feels this has been going up with each new generation of brand ambassadors. His favourite things (at the moment) are Clynelish-style waxiness, Bladnoch, and Old Bruichladdich. In short, whiskies with floral notes, meadow grass / hay, and tropical fruit. Whiskies like they had back in the 70’s. He also loves the fruitiness you get when a peaty dram has been matured for a long time. Having said all that Billy still says he is fickle and doesn’t often return to a bottle of a whisky he has already tried. That said, he has a soft spot for Clynelish and has yet to dislike a Bruichladdich from before they reopened. Springbank also makes him happy, and if there is nothing else a Johnny Walker Black Label will do. He also has an on-off love affair with young and punchy Ledaigs depending on how his palate is on the day.
When it comes to the industry itself Billy’s immediately thoughts were ‘it’s less romantic when you are chipping away at the coal face’… Once he got over that though he realised it was full of great people who he could learn a lot from. Not everyone loves their job, or feels lucky to have had the jobs they’ve been in. Billy however feels he has been lucky in all his jobs, as each time he has been paid for doing something that was once a hobby – computers and drink! Getting paid to do what you love makes the admin a lot easier he says. There’s a lot more than ‘just drinking whisky’ to what Billy actually does though, and he left behind 11 years of being on-call 24/7 in the IT world to do it… Yet it’s the hardest he has every worked, and he continually tells his Mum that it IS a real job!
With all that said and done I will leave you all with Billy’s final quote of the interview, ‘in the end it’s all just stuff to drink – don’t get het up about it, just have a dram’… Now that’s a sentiment we can all get on board with.
Article by David McNeill