Interview: Royal Salute’s Director of Blending, Sandy Hylsop

Finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks, the new expression is extra special to the brand

Many booze brands subscribe to the idea that if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it. When you have a delicious elixir that the public clamors over, it seems mad to change it. But, the most interesting brands are curious, inventive and experimental. And Royal Salute, the storied, Speyside-based whiskey company, continues to innovate for those reasons, but also to set the bar within the industry. We recently flew to Seville, Spain to experience the brand’s latest expression: a lavish 29-year-old, finished in Pedro Ximenez sherry casks. Over a few whiskeys, we spoke with Sandy Hyslop—Royal Salute’s director of blending—about the new expression and why it means so much to the brand.

What makes this expression so distinctive from others? 

I think if you’re going to do a sherry finish for a whiskey, and the Royal Salute family is going to do that, it needs to be something special. In the first instance, it needs to be 100% finished in those casks, not just some of them. It needs to be a full finish. I didn’t want to just go for oloroso casks. I wanted to go for something that was super-indulgent, rich—everything that falls in with the Royal Salute family. Pedro Ximénez is really, really rich and sweet. It’s off the scale in sweetness. It’s an expensive way of doing things, but we felt it was very, very much worth it with something so old. At 29 years old, the whiskey’s got lots of flavor already, so you need something significant to put into the cask to complement the flavor. Additionally, there were lots of different things we wanted to do. We wanted to make sure we got the right casks and I made sure that everything was absolutely perfect with them. The process for producing a PX cask for the finishing of the whiskey is a lengthy process and one that a lot of people wouldn’t engage with, because it’s too lengthy, too expensive. But we felt that that was wholly appropriate for the 29-year-old expression.

Why was this pairing—the Royal Salute brand and the Pedro Ximénez sherry casks—so successful?

That’s very easy for me to answer. Royal Salute is rich, it’s sweet, it’s fruity, it’s indulgent. It has layers and layers of flavor. PX, Pedro Ximénez sherry, almost falls into that category itself. All the different oloroso, different fino. But when you go to PX, it’s that really rich, indulgent, velvety, syrupy. The two of them, they’re two house styles, they’re two completely different flavored liquids. But their house styles are the same. It’s that opulent character.

I think that with no shackles and an absolute fastidious eye for detail, this is what you can make—you can make something really, really special.

You mentioned that this is going to sort of be the golden era of Royal Salute, can you elaborate?

I firmly believe that. And nobody asked me to say that. There’s a little bit of me that thinks Royal Salute is an amazing brand, and we’ve actually been very, very humble over the years. It’s a brand that has always produced fabulous quality whiskeys. But we’ve been quite humble. We haven’t really blown our trumpet about it. Now that we’ve started introducing the Malts Blend, the Lost Blend, these prominent additions—I think it’s always had a fabulous reputation, but we’re just at that crossroads where we can take it to the next level. We could be the brand that everyone aspires to be.

You mentioned that you’ll probably never do this again. Is there a reason why?

Well, we certainly don’t have any plans to do it again. I say that it’s unlikely we’ll do something short-term, because it takes so long to prepare the casks, from seasoning to conditioning with oloroso, then emptying them and reconditioning them with PX, bringing them to Scotland in the winter period. We never move them during the summer, because it’s too hot. The sherry wine’s lower strength can go sour. We don’t want that to happen. So everything’s moved in the winter. Then filling them. I’m not saying never, but it’s highly unlikely. They are very, very expensive casks. This is a real luxury whiskey and a real luxury finish on top.

Are there certain moments that you would enjoy the sherry cask finish over the regular expression?

The best way I could describe it is if you’re going to a really, really exclusive bar, and you’re having a glass of Royal Salute. Having the Royal Salute 29-year-old Pedro Ximénez finish is like going back to someone’s house, to their own bar, after the restaurant, after the bar. It’s something that you really want to share with somebody who you really love being in their company.

Do you have any plans to continue to sort of explore these expressions?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve already got some expressions on the go in the background that are top secret at the moment. But the good thing about working and being responsible for Royal Salute is I’m allowed to experiment. Not every single experiment I do needs to become a product… I think that with no shackles and an absolute fastidious eye for detail, this is what you can make—you can make something really, really special.

Images courtesy of Royal Salute