On 14 February 2017 – just two days before the whisky was to lose another legend, Silvano Samaroli – Dr Jim Swan passed away at his home in East Lothian.
If you’ve never heard of Dr Jim Swan, that’s probably because he was very much a behind-the-scenes man, using his lifetime of experience (and staggering amount of knowledge) to help young distilleries produce great quality whisky very quickly.
As a testament to his complete understanding of whisky – from a consumer, producer and scientific perspective – many people in the whisky industry refer to him as ‘the Einstein of Whisky’.
Dr Jim Swan: the Einstein of Whisky
Dr Jim Swan (he had a PhD in Chemistry and Biological Sciences from the Heriot-Watt University) began his journey toward becoming a whisky legend at the Royal Society of Chemistry. At the RSC, he became an expert in gas chromatography, the process that allows different components of a mixture to be separated and studied. From there, he went on to form a scientific team with Dr Jim Gray at Iveresk Research International.
Now, if you’re a whisky history nerd, a penny should have dropped by now; Inveresk Research International became Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research in the mid-seventies. After that, the PSWR slowly transitioned into the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, an organisation established to ‘give the Scotch Whisky industry a centre of scientific excellence that was dedicated to its needs and able to provide technical expertise in all non-engineering aspects of Scotch Whisky production’.
While at SWRI, Dr Swan helped usher in an era of ground-breaking research and new schools of thought among the whisky community. Alongside Sheila Burtles, Jim Swan created the Scotch whisky flavour wheel (later expanded upon by Charles MacLean) that continues to influence how people taste, judge and write about whisky today.
By the time he had left the SWRI to start a new business and then start his career as a consultant for the drinks industry, Dr Jim Swan was an expert in almost every aspect of whisky production, from intimate details of the maturation process to the role of wood in whisky production.
An unparalleled understanding of the whisky making process
To say that Dr Swan understood the whisky making process would be an understatement. He knew it inside out, back-to-front and on a molecular level.
In fact, he understood the process so well that – under his tutelage and guidance – younger distilleries were able to produce young whiskies with the mature and well-balanced flavours associated with much older whiskies. His creativity, understanding and pioneering approach allowed him to tweak and change the whiskies to – in his words – ‘optimise every stage of the process for being ready at a young age’.
Starting out in Scotland, Dr Jim Swan’s expertise ended up taking him around the world. Distilleries around the globe – from the Penderyn Distillery in Wales to the Milk & Honey Distillery in Israel – called on Dr Swan as their go-to expert on all things whisky. He remains best known for his work with King Car Distillery in Taiwan on their award-winning Kavalan single malts.
Sadly, Dr Swan died just before the topping off ceremony at the fledgling Lindores Abbey Distillery in Scotland, where he had worked very closely with the owners to produce a new whisky.
Stephen Davies, the chief executive of the award-winning Penderyn distillery, remembered Dr Jim Swan with a few words:
‘It’s a sad time for his family and for the whisky industry as a whole. Jim was instrumental in creating the house style of Penderyn: matured in Bourbon barrels and finished in Madeira wine casks. He gave us a style which suited the character of the spirit. None of it would have worked without Jim’s involvement.
He had such a depth of knowledge. If we came across a problem and we didn’t have the knowledge locally, you could be sure that he would help, or he would know someone else you could go to.
There are quite a few people in our business and around the world who are in his debt for the way he so generously educated everybody.’