My recent review of the Blackadder Raw Cask bottling of Amrut piqued my interest in this independent bottler. Despite a comparatively long track record (relative to newcomers like Single Cask Nation), Blackadder’s selections have had no coverage here on MALT, and we’ve not done a deep dive on the history of the business.
To remedy this, I rang up Hannah Tucek (pronounced two-check). She and her brother Michael are the next generation of Blackadder, working alongside their father Robin, the company’s founder. Hannah generously shared her time and insights with me. Our conversation is reproduced below, condensed and edited for clarity.
MALT: Tell me about your personal experiences and thoughts on whisky?
Hannah: I grew up surrounded by whisky. Since I was born, my father was involved in whisky. Growing up, the house was full of whisky and the smell of whisky. As a young child, I have to say it wasn’t something that gave me good thoughts. To a young child, the smell of whisky is pretty strong… it almost seeped into the walls of our house. It was an interesting childhood.
MALT: How did Blackadder get its start?
Hannah: My father formed Blackadder in 1995. It was something that he has singlehandedly grown from there, from his love of whisky. As my brother and I got older, we both started working for his company. I used to help pack up whiskies when I was a kid; child slave labour, and all that! [laughs]. Not until I became late teens-early twenties did I start to be more seriously involved and learn about the business. It’s a family business; we’ll keep it in the family. That’s very important to us.
MALT: What makes Blackadder different?
Hannah: My father has always told me that, as far as Blackadder is concerned, our philosophy is very simple: it’s all about the cask. The cask is king. What we are interested in doing is bottling whisky – and other spirits, rums and gins as well now – as simply as possible. As far as whisky is concerned, it’s all about not tampering with the spirit. That’s why we’ve never done anything to it. We don’t chill, we don’t filter, we certainly don’t colour. We keep it as natural as possible. We let the personalities of the whiskies shine through.
MALT: How has this informed your perspective on whisky?
Hannah: Growing up and learning about whisky and where my joy from whisky came, I think I’ve been very spoiled. I have grown up with whisky as it should be, as they all used to be: pretty much from the cask, no tampering with it. No doing anything to it to make it what it’s not. When you do all these things to whisky, you do strip a lot of the flavours and the taste. When I have had whisky that’s been reduced down and chill-filtered they all taste the same to me. You’ve got to keep the whiskies natural, and that’s the most important thing to us.
MALT: What were the types of whiskies that got Blackadder started?
Hannah: I can’t say that there was ever particular regions or distilleries that were of interest; it’s not about that for us. Every single cask of whisky can vary so massively, that you can have two single casks of whisky from one distillery, same year and everything, and be completely different. What has been important is the whisky itself. We don’t buy whisky without trying it first. We don’t bottle anything that we don’t personally believe is good enough.
MALT: When you first taste a cask, what immediately jumps out as a marker of an exceptional cask?
Hannah: For the Raw Cask range, it’s hard to find a word. It’s so subjective. It’s got to be something that has got a great, fully-rounded flavor. You can get whiskies that have got a bit too heavy in certain areas and you think, “Ooh, that’s not going to work.” It’s all down to personal opinion. The three of us, my father, my brother and I, we enjoy tasting whiskies and seeing which ones jump out at us. We seem to be getting it right because what we bottle, people seem to be enjoying.
MALT: Between yourself and your father and brother, is there much difference in terms of personal preferences?
Hannah: Definitely. I’ve always much preferred the sweeter whiskies, I quite like the Speysides. My father quite likes the smoky whiskies. My brother is the best at deciphering the complexity of a whisky; he actually used to be a chef. He has such a good nose. He does all of our tasting notes now.
MALT: What sets an independent bottler up for success?
Hannah: It’s all about relationships. Especially amongst independent bottlers like ourselves, there’s a camaraderie and a respect for what we’re all trying to do. There’s a lot of support that goes on within the whisky industry. It’s about building good relationships to be able to find good casks that we can buy.
MALT: Have you seen increased competition for casks?
Hannah: Casks have been a lot harder to get a hold of in recent years. It’s not so much the competition, it’s generally more the source. You get peaks and troughs when it comes to casks as the larger companies that own the distilleries hold on to casks in the anticipation that they will sell them. Then there are cycles when they don’t get rid of as much as they think, and then they’ll suddenly release a whole load of casks. Over the years that Blackadder has been around, it has gone up and down in terms of the availability of casks. Generally, we’re quite lucky in that we’ve built up some really good relationships with brokers and distilleries. Because of that, we’ve always been able to get hold of a reasonable amount of casks. But the popularity of Blackadder has grown; we struggle to supply all of our customers with as much as they need. We have to restrict the level of whisky that we sell to make sure that everyone gets a fair amount of whisky.
MALT: We hear about the challenges facing women in whisky. What is your experience, being a woman in the industry?
Hannah: It is an industry that has been heavily dominated by men for a long time. I can’t say I’ve ever felt anything negative, but I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that there are women in the whisky world that have felt belittled. In terms of the people we work with, I have never felt anything but respect. The women that I’ve dealt with in whisky, I have never felt anything but respect for and have always found to be truly inspirational and hardworking and knowledgeable. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female when it comes to whisky. I’ve met a lot of great people in this industry. The world of whisky has changed a lot, there are a lot more women involved and will continue to be. You see a lot more women at whisky festivals than there used to be, out there enjoying whisky. Talking to people who have been doing it a lot longer than I have, it has changed a lot for women.
MALT: We have a range of readership in terms of experience. How would you recommend a novice drinker make the transition to cask strength and more challenging flavor profiles?
Hannah: Firstly, add a bit of water. Build up to it. I’ve grown up with cask strength whiskies; I like it as-is, but that’s what I’m used to. With the Raw Cask, the range is so diverse, with whisky from distilleries from all over. Maybe you don’t like something sweet, maybe you like something a bit drier. People don’t know where to start. Finding out a few bits of information from them will help us steer them towards one that will stand out to them.
MALT: Anything on the horizon that’s especially exciting?
Hannah: Japan; we are starting to do bottles with Shizuoka distillery. It’s only just started so at the moment it’s just new make. Japan has always been a huge market for Blackadder; my father is in Japan right now. We’ve got wonderful relationships with people over there. We get to work with so many people that we greatly respect and admire. Always looking out for exceptional casks, that what gets us really excited! Who knows what we’re going to be doing? You don’t know what you’re going to get your hands on. There’s always that element of surprise in whisky; there’s always that moment of coming across a fantastic cask.
MALT: I have to ask, where did the name Blackadder come from?
Hannah: My father says it wasn’t at all inspired by the television show but, growing up, let’s just say we had a dog named “Baldrick.” Blackadder is symbolic: something out of the ordinary, something that is bold and strong and stands out. A lot of our branding and labels are very different to your classic style; we want to be doing our own thing.
There will almost certainly be more Blackadder to come in this space, but for now: my sincere thanks to Hannah for the conversation.
Photographs kindly provided by the Whisky Exchange.