Cover Photo: Courtesy of Royal Salute

Royal Salute’s director of blending and inventory talks us through the intensive process of creating the Royal Salute Platinum Jubilee Edition whisky, how best to enjoy it, and his most memorable royal moment associated with Queen Elizabeth

70 years is a significant milestone to mark in any culture: in the East, a 70th birthday is one of the most important ones that a person can celebrate; in the West, platinum is used to mark the occasion, symbolising such noble qualities such as strength, rarity, and endurance. So imagine the momentousness of a monarch commemorating a reign of 70 years—Queen Elizabeth II’s, to be more specific.

For luxury whisky label Royal Salute, whose history is closely entwined with that of the British monarch (the brand was launched in 1953 to commemorate the Queen’s coronation), their celebration plans were naturally befitting that of royalty.

Kicking off the celebrations at the Tower of London, the brand hosted an intimate dinner for 150 guests from various countries, transforming the Banqueting Suite at the New Armouries into a floral wonderland and the perfect backdrop to unveil their latest creation: the Royal Salute Platinum Jubilee Edition.

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Blended with high-aged whiskies from more than seven silent stills, and finished for over two years in tawny port (which is known as the queen of vintage ports, and was served at the Queen’s coronation banquet dinner) casks. The result? A deliciously dark elixir boasting gorgeous fruity notes on the nose, a sweet, caramel palate and spicy finish that lasts long after your first sip.

The design of the boxes and decanters also pay tribute to the Queen: 147 collectible decanters made from handblown Dartington crystal features one of seven brooch designs inspired by the Queen’s personal collection, and are housed in one of seven boxes with colours drawn from her colourful wardrobe.

The Platinum Jubilee boxes and decanters inspired by seven of Queen Elizabeth II’s brooches and her colourful outfits

Of course, the pressure to create a whisky worthy of its royal muse was almost monumentally huge. And this pressure fell to one man: Sandy Hyslop, Royal Salute’s director of blending and inventory, who was tasked with blending the rare celebratory whisky that reflected the historic moment.

“You can’t go back and start it again, so you’ve got one shot at getting it right,” Hyslop tells me the day after Royal Salute’s fabulous Platinum Jubilee dinner at the Tower of London. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got all the right plans in place.”

Here, Hyslop talks us through the intensive process of creating the Royal Salute Platinum Jubilee Edition whisky, how best to enjoy it, and his most memorable royal moment associated with Queen Elizabeth.

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When you first heard that you had to work on the Royal Salute Platinum Jubilee edition whisky, what three words immediately came to your mind?

Sandy Hyslop (SH): Responsibility, quality and outstanding.

And why did those words come to your mind?

SH: Responsibility—because I felt like it would be something that’s amazing to work on. But it was a huge responsibility for me as Master Blender to make something that is phenomenal, which [brings me] to quality. 

Since 1953, we’ve been making Royal Salute—it has an amazing reputation. So to make something at an even higher level during my tenure as Master Blender was something that was quite a bit of pressure, but was really exciting that, probably, I’ll be the only Master Blender that’s ever been, for Royal Salute, that will have the privilege of making something for a 70th year on the throne. It’s not going to happen for a long time again. 

I think it’s exciting because at Royal Salute, I’m allowed to experiment. In fact, our chairman encourages me to experiment, to try things that might not work. “Let’s do stuff. Let’s be cutting edge. Let’s try different casks.”

What do you think is the synergy between Royal Salute and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee?

SH: We have documented evidence that two bottles of Royal Salute from the first batch were given to the Queen for her coronation in 1953. There are no better credentials than that. This whisky has its foundation firmly set with the Queen going on the throne in 1953. We have never produced a whisky under 21 years old. We start where other whiskies finish. We’re working in this luxury territory of Scotch whisky, and, at the risk of maybe being a bit boastful, are experts at it. We’ve been doing it for a long time. We know how to get the balance between long cask maturation and distillery character to get the right flavour. The Platinum Edition is taking it to another level because we’re taking distillery character, cask maturation, and bringing in a third dimension of tawny port casts. This project is not just something we thought about six months ago.

Yeah. You’ve been working on it for about two years, right?

SH: Well, two years for the finish, but probably four years [in total]—because we got samples of the port, and to try the ports to make sure that it was the right flavour we were looking for. We had to look at the different stocks we had that we could mix together, so the blend had to be formulated first, then wait for the port casks to come in, and it was actually two years and 10 months that the whisky was in port casks. That’s not an insignificant finish.

I saw samples every eight weeks during that whole two years and 10 months, because I wanted to make sure that the flavour complement from the port didn’t overpower the blend. I wanted it to complement it, not compete with it. I wanted to make sure that that was the flavour. I’ll give you a little secret: the whisky was ready before the decanter, which was a big problem for me, because it was still in the port casks. And I think it was six to eight weeks before the decanters were going to be ready, and that was a big concern. So, I took the whisky out of the port casks and put it back into American oak for the last six weeks to make sure that there was no risk of the port becoming too strong.

You tried the whisky last night—I wanted it to be sweet, I wanted it to be syrupy, I wanted it to have a viscous character. And that’s what the port casks brought. They brought a real sweet jamminess to the whisky. You get that sweet, fruity, orchard fruit distillery character, but with a texture that I thought was amazing. I absolutely guarantee you that if I had given you that sample blind last night, you could not have told me that it was 50% volume.

You used long aged spirits from more than seven stills to represent the seven decades of the Queen’s reign. What was the selection process like and how did you reach the final blend?

SH: I drew about 400 samples, and then brought them into the blending room and set up all the samples. And from those, we took out and took in what we wanted. Then I took portions from each of the casks, and made the blend in miniature in the blending room, taking into consideration the size of the cask. 

I wanted anybody who drinks the Platinum Edition—they probably know Royal Salute already—they’ll know the signature blend, so I wanted it to have that rich, sweet, opulent character. I wanted it to be big and fruity, but also I wanted it to have that—I talked already about that—sweet, jammy texture to it. It was a case of trying different formulations that I thought would be the best to go into the port casks. I got samples of the port, the actual liquid port, so I knew those casks before they were even empty. I knew exactly the kind of flavour [they had]. Then the casks were emptied, and within 48 hours were shipped to Scotland, and within 48 hours, were filled with whisky. So I wasn’t just buying empty casks that were lying about somewhere. I was actually buying empty casks that were freshly emptied and had the maximum flavour impact for the score, and then sample every eight weeks thereafter. So it’s a lot of work going on in the background, all the way through.

Of course. And what was your favourite part about the process of creating the whisky?

SH: I’m absolutely honoured to be able to do it under my tenure as Master Blender. As I said, I think I’m probably the only one left to get the chance to do this. There’s two words that I use all the time: I use quality, and continuity. It’s about making the quality right, but making sure it’s right year after year. Because there’s an expectation if you drink Royal Salute, that you get the same flavour, year after year, with a signature blend. Something like the Platinum Jubilee Edition, it’s like a pet project, like a hobby for me, because I don’t need to worry about making it next year. I can just make something absolutely fabulous. And I’m not worrying, “God, how am I going to make that same flavour next year? How are we ever going to get the port casks? How are we going to finish it?” I don’t have that. 

It’s a one-off project.

SH: Exactly. A one-off project where you can actually make it quite magnificent without even worrying about next year. As a blender, I’m working at the two extremities of the whisky-making process. I’m working at the new distillate cask sites and making sure that we do the right things, but we’re also working at the end, 21 years later on—in the case of the Platinum Edition, working many years later—making sure that we can get the right flavour. But that’s the big difference. No worry about having to repeat it. You can just make something absolutely fabulous and not have to worry about repeating it.

How should one best enjoy the Platinum Jubilee Edition whisky, according to you?

SH: I’ll answer your question straight: I think the Platinum Jubilee edition can be drunk neat, no problem at all. I think that last night proved that, with the amount of people that came up to me and said that was amazing whisky. No water, no ice, just phenomenal. If I was drinking a larger measure at home, I would probably put maybe a dash of water in it. I think if I had more time with everybody last night on a one-to-one basis, I would have loved to have let people try it neat, then add a little bit of water. When we test professionally in the blending room, we always add water, and adding water just opens it up even further. It’s amazing, the flavours: the sweet, jammy notes, that caramel toffee comes through with a little bit of water. But it’s eminently drinkable at cask strength. Nobody was going, “Oh, too strong for me last night.” Nobody was doing that, which is where I wanted it to be. I was really pleased.

What foods would you pair it with?

SH: I think it would work really well with some sort of dessert, like crème brulée. Or something that has a real sweet, thick consistency—it would work really well with that because it’s got quite a strong flavour. It might actually work quite well with meat as well, like steak, because it has that viscosity and thickness to be able to overpower, or to complement beautifully, a strong meat.

What is your most memorable royal moment associated with Queen Elizabeth? 

SH: It’s got to be this, without hesitation. Tuesday night. Tower of London. Have you ever had a Tuesday night like that? I’ve not! It was phenomenal to be able to do the 70th anniversary of being on the throne, to be able to have done a project to match that—it’s a dream come true. And I’ve had some amazing experiences with Royal Salute. You know, I’ve been involved in all the Polo editions, a tribute to honour all these things, but this is a major milestone in the United Kingdom, never mind in Royal Salute. You know, this is amazing. And I think I’ve said it before today: I think we are absolutely the best place to do that. There is not another whisky company in the world to have the credentials to produce something like this. I think in 10, 15 years time, people will talk about the Platinum Jubilee Set—it will become the stuff of legend. If you have an amazing whisky collection, do you have the Platinum Jubilee Set? I’m convinced of it. There’s only 21 sets! It’s tiny, you know? And if I had the money, I would buy it myself. [laughs]

“It was phenomenal to be able to do the 70th anniversary of being on the throne, to be able to have done a project to match that—it’s a dream come true”
Sandy Hyslop

Which brings me nicely into my next question: when future whisky aficionados look back on the Royal Salute Platinum Edition whisky, what is the legacy that you want them to take away?

SH: I think I’d like people to say that the team at Royal Salute—you know, the blenders, everyone at Royal Salute—really knows their craft. They have huge experience in making high aged whiskies, and this is really the pinnacle of a fabulous luxury, bespoke whisky. And I said that last night in my presentation: people talk about bespoke and handcrafted all the time, it’s mentioned in everything these days, but this is proper bespoke and handcrafted,  right from start to finish. We even bottled in the blending room. We even filled the bottles in the blending room—the team did it. We didn’t go near a manufacturing plant, or a bottling hall, or anything like that. Everything was done in house to make sure that it was right, because it was really small. 147 bottles, when you start dividing that down into the different components from the different distilleries, it’s only small parts of each bit to go to make those 147 bottles. It was something that, as a team, we dealt with from start to finish, which was great. Everybody’s really proud of it.

Of course, and I mean, obviously you’re talking about legacy and continuity, as well. It’s a big part of your job. So that’s very important.

SH: Yeah, love it. Love it. I’ve been 39 years with the company last week. Last week was my 39th anniversary. 

Oh, congrats! 

SH: When I started in 1983, I could not have dreamed of being the Master Blender for Royal Salute. And I’m not just saying this because you’re interviewing me. It is a huge honour for me to be responsible for such a prestigious whisky with such an amazing reputation and lineage.

So you’ve done how many Jubilees now? You’ve done 60th, 50th… did you do the 40th?

SH: Did I do 40? No, I wouldn’t even have been Master Blender then! [laughs]

Okay, so 50th, 60th and 70th. Wow, that’s a great achievement. 

SH: It’s been phenomenal, you know, and we’re now into territory that will never be repeated. Because Charles is next in line to the throne, and he’s already 73. William is in his late 30s now. So we’re going to have a good many hundreds of years now, where [their reigns are] all much shorter. So it’s great to have been part of that, to be able to do it.

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