Glass talks to Royal Salute’s Sandy Hyslop about their new limited edition 29 Year Old Expression

WHEN Sandy Hyslop, the master blender of Royal Salute, sat opposite me swirling a glass of his newest blend, it was clear that this new expression was something he was immensely proud of. He drew the glass close to his nose and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. A picture tells a thousand words but when it comes to scent, the subtle smells we experience in life are banked deep into our minds. In that very moment, I watched Sandy relive his own memories as he described the smells of “boiled sweets and treacle” in reference to his newest blend. 

The launch of Royal Salute’s 29 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask Finish is a true milestone for the brand, as this limited edition release is Royal Salute’s first ever blended whisky aged in PX (Pedro Ximénez) sherry casks. 

Royal Salute originated in 1953, when their 21 Year Old Signature Blend was gifted to Queen Elizabeth II for her coronation. It’s name comes from the 21 Gun Salute which is a respectful nod towards the Royals, and ever since that very same legacy has lived on, making it a luxury whisky brand that boasts a continuous run of 21 year old, and older expressions. Taking inspiration from the Queen’s royal tour of Spain in 1988, Royal Salute pays homage to Spain, launching the new 29 Year Old Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask Finish, which is of course finished in Spanish oak.

As whisky lovers around the globe waited in anticipation for one of the most adventurous releases to come from the Royal Salute family, we travelled to Seville to get our first taste and talk to master blender, Sandy Hyslop about why this is perhaps Royal Salute’s most important release so far. 

The Royal Salute red clay flagon bottle

How long did it take to develop the whisky recipe for the Royal Salute 29 YO Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask Finish?
The actual whisky recipe took about 8-10 months to bring that together. The cask process takes a lot longer. We had the casks ordered and specified the PX that was going into them and specified the condition of them, but as far as the whisky was concerned, I knew that I could work on them closer to the time of them arriving in Scotland. We brought the casks in and finished the whisky before the packaging was ready, so I had to take the whisky out of those casks and back into the Royal Salute casks to sit there because I didn’t want it to go any further, otherwise it would have tasted like real treacle toffee so I had to stop. The whisky came out the casks, went back in, back out, then it sat and waited.

Is there an expectation to maintain that classic Royal Salute flavour when creating new blends?
You can see there’s a DNA that runs through the whisky. It’s that big, rich, opulent, sweet, fruity character and it’s through all the expressions but then you drag them through different directions by giving them a nuance of a different flavour. The 29 year old is taking it to another level because you have another 8 years maturation over and above the Royal Salute expression so it’s very indulgent to say the least. It’s a difficult process to manage because of the amount of influence the cask has at that stage. 

Do you ever come across Royal Salute drinkers that don’t like it?
I don’t think so, no. The general feedback is that everybody loves it because it has so much flavour. I firmly believe that it’s about that finish. Loads of people enjoy it because it really stays on the palette. Subconsciously you’re not going back for the glass. 

 Creative advisor Barnabé Fillion giving us the olfactory experience

Talk me through the story of the cask.
We wanted it to be Spanish oak, as we wanted it to be as traditional as possible. That Spanish oak is dried for about 18 months to 2 years. Then we fill those casks with oloroso and then PX there’s another 18 month, 2 year period where they’re being filled with oloroso first then the PX. Loads of people think you just put PX in but you don’t do that. If you put PX into a brand new cask, it’s too thick, it’s too syrupy and it will not permeate into the wood and will not withdraw the tannins. The minute you put whisky into it the whisky will just spit all those tannins out and it will be like getting splinters when you drink it. If you put the oloroso in first it removes the tannins and get rid of that oloroso, fill the PX then empty them and them bring them to Scotland. But we only bring them over in the winter. We’d never bring them over in the summer because it’s too hot for casks in a container. You’ll end up with the Sherry going sour.

With a PX finish, it was every four weeks that I was seeing a sample. It wasn’t just from one cask. We were drawing it from multiple casks so we could make sure that the flavour was what we were looking for and that it was linear across the casks. It is absolutely bespoke what we were doing. We were doing it the way we did it 100 years ago. The Base blend that we put together was sampled from individual casks and then brought into the sample room, and then we made it a miniature. So all the different sizes of casks were taken in portions and we took a sample of them all and mixed them together and let it sit overnight and tried it again. We worked on three or four permutations before we settled on what the blend was going to be. We did have some that were slightly more smokey but we didn’t like that. I didn’t like the smoke coming through because when you taste the PX, it’s so sweet, so the smoke doesn’t work with it. 

Marmalade appears heavily on the nose of this new expression

Why did Royal Salute wait this long to release something as special as the 29 YO Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask Finish?
Royal Salute has been available since 1953 and we have the amazing 21 year old. To be totally honest, I think we’ve been a bit humble over the years, and we’ve not blown our trumpet enough. We have amazing credentials already. We have The Lost Blend, The Malts Blend and now we’re really showing what we can do. The PX is a good way of showcasing how we can make something uber luxurious, and it draws people into Royal Salute’s permanent expressions. 

The Lost Blend was my introduction to Royal Salute. Does it have a place as a permanent expression?
Yes. This won’t be a one off. It contains several distilleries that no longer exist. They’re precious in themselves. We need a core expression if we want it to keep going on and on and on as an extension to the range. 

What was the inspiration behind the 29 YO Pedro Ximénez Sherry Cask Finish?
Royal Salute’s whole range is rich, sweet and indulgent so I wanted to finish it in a cask that was really indulgent and syrupy. Something that almost matched the flavour of the Royal Salute 21 Year Old, and that was quite concentrated. Some people will find it quite a shock because this 29 YO is a really exclusive whisky. I’m talking premier league here. 

Royal Salute’s grand Olfractory dinner

How does the launch of the 29 Year Old tie in with the legacy of Royal Salute?
I think it ties in perfectly in the respect that we’ve done everything correctly. We’ve 100% finished the whisky in the PX cask. We’ve got the casks built. We didn’t just go out and buy PX casks. There’s empty PX casks available everywhere! We could go to bodegas and buy them any time. Instead, we bought Spanish oak, we got it made into casks, we conditioned it with oloroso, we conditioned it with PX, we moved it in the winter to Scotland, we filled it with our whisky. I wanted to make sure that we were in control of every step of the process so that we could make something that was going to be fabulous. 

Why Spanish oak?
Spanish oak is a lot harder to get than American oak. It’s more expensive as well. All our casks that we bring in are Spanish oak. It’s sweeter and not as dry. It helps if you’re doing a length maturation. Obviously ours start at 21 onwards. Not many brands can say that.

You feel the pressure of having the responsibility to keep the legacy of Royal Salute going?
The process is very collaborative. I’ll come up with an idea and we meet up every 10 days to do the blending but I like to lead it. I am chuffed to bits to be responsible for this brand. I’m always on top of everything that’s going on. I don’t want anything to go wrong on my watch. I don’t want to leave making someone else’s life miserable either in years to come. It’s a genuine passion of wanting to keep that legacy going.

The 29 Year Old is such a success. What’s next?

You’ll have to watch this space.

By Katrina Mirpuri

For more information about Royal Salute, please visit their website.