Global Ambassador for Douglas Laing, Trained Chef, Fantastic Host and All Round Good Guy
Hi Jan (@WhiskyJan), thanks so much for agreeing to this interview and for giving us this tour. We’d love it if you could tell us a little bit more about yourself.
When did you start your whisky journey?
My personal whisky journey started under the guidance of my older brothers and brothers in law, at the age of 16 (which is the legal drinking age in Belgium).
My brother was in the army at the time, (military service was compulsory in Belgium at the time) we were in Germany having a drink in the mess, and the only whiskies widely available at the time were Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the most expensive whisky at the mess was the Chivas Royal Salute and that was the first dram that I was treated to, expect for when I licked my fingers after making cocktails.
What have you been up to since we saw you last?
I’ve really enjoyed being over at the Victoria Whisky Festival over in British Columbia, Canada, they ran several master classes and tastings through the day and all were very well, It was really enjoyable, the people there were so enthusiastic, and there was a good mix of experts and really knowledgeable people as well as people just starting their whisky journey. I even took over the kitchen to make some big peat chocolate mousse (this mousse is to DIE for) I tried to torture the recipe out of Jan but no luck.
How long have you worked for Douglas Laing?
Almost six years now, although it doesn’t feel like it. I started working for Glenfiddich in 1998 as a tour guide and in the winter I worked for Interbrew who make Stella Artois etc, which was enjoyable, however I had decided to make the choice that I would stay in Belgium as I wasn’t getting anywhere in the whisky world, despite having some good contacts and a passion for whisky.
I started working in a call centre (gas and electric) in order to work regular hours and earn a reliable source of income, and I started hosting my own tastings at night, this was mainly with the hope that I may be able to make contacts with importers, although I did sometimes hold private (corporate) tastings too. I already knew Susan Colville, my predecessor here at Douglas Laing (@DLaingWhisky) and as such Susan had introduced me to a Belgium importer and the Douglas Laing brand. Whenever I was able to hold Susan’s portfolio tastings, I always used bottling’s from the Douglas Laing range.
How did you become the Brand Ambassador for Douglas Laing?
I knew that Susan had moved on from Douglas Laing, I asked Susan if she would mind if I applied for the position, as I also knew that her boyfriend (now husband) was looking for work, Susan said to go for it, and so I phoned Fred up, as I had met him a few times before, and asked if the job was open, Fred told me that it was and coincidentally, Fred was coming over to Belgium and I phoned the importer he was meeting with and asked if I could pick him up from the airport.
We had a long chat on the way back from the airport and Fred asked if I was still interested in working for Douglas Laing, which I was, and so I was brought over for an interview with Fred and Hugh (right here in this room), I was given a dram and Fred and Hugh asked me to talk about the dram there and then. A few weeks later I had a call from Fred (although I missed it) but I was delighted to pick up a message left for me offering me the job.
As Douglas Laing is very much a family run business, are you a close team, like an extended family?
Yes, very much so, In a way I feel part of the family and Fred is like my adopted Scottish dad, I work very closely with Fred, if something happens somewhere in the world where I am or somewhere my family are Fred always phones to ask if I am ok, or if my family are ok. It shows that he really cares and that’s really important to me, I know that I am very lucky to have that relationship and that not every company is run the same way. We enjoy going out together outside of work too.
What’s a typical day like for you?
It really depends if I am in the office or out on the road. When I am in the office, 9 out of 10 times samples will be on my desk waiting for me to taste and write my notes and musings on, also I host whisky tastings here in the office, mainly for importers only, or I’ll be surfing the internet, all in the name of research of course.
When I am out on the road, I sometimes (when lucky) get picked up and taken to the customers directly to hold tastings and have meetings. Letting customers see all the different ranges that we can offer and how different they can all be. The big advantage of my side of the job, is that I can let my passion show through, I don’t have to worry too much about the sales and the targets as that is Chris, Fred and Cara’s job. Sometimes there is a beer or two to be had after the tasting, which really helps develop relationships and allows me to talk about whisky and our range further.
How easy is it to break though into working in the world of whisky?
I wouldn’t say it was easy, but it is possible. A lot of it is really being in the right place at the right time, there is a real domino effect in the whisky world, when one person leaves a position there are many people underneath them and so someone fills that position and everyone steps up a level, and this leaves one position at the bottom of the ladder.
What’s your favourite part of your role?
Sharing my passion, it’s a dream come true, be it sharing my passion through a tasting, or even better through combining whisky and food, seeing as I was trained as a chef. What I really enjoy about cooking is getting to see people enjoying what you make, seeing empty plates and sometimes, if you are really lucky have someone compliment you.
When I started training as a chef I had already started to work in the whisky world, which was my dream. However I am getting more of a chance to host food pairings now, although some people still feel that only food and wine can be paired and as such they order wine throughout the meal, which can make the event a bit rowdy!
We held an food pairing event in Vancover and one of the highlights was a sherried braised short rib with Scallywag at Fat’s Whisky Kitchen (they have a great whisky selection), it just feel to pieces as soon as you touched in, when someone asked for a fork they were told they wouldn’t need one, and you really didn’t.
Every year I host a charity tasting in Belgium (last year with the help of my sister in law who is a dentist, and so we raised money to finance a team to travel to Naples and provide dental care, which is something people otherwise just wouldn’t have access to. My sister is a midwife and we held another one of the events in raise funds in Congo to provide a water supply, as before then any woman going to hospital to have a baby would need to take 25 litres of water for their own use as the hospital did not have its own supply. On that night I produced a dish of Ham with a dark chocolate, Laphroaig drizzle, everyone was very sceptical at first, but the Laphroaig complemented the lovely smoked flavour of the ham perfectly.
How much travelling do you have to do as part of your role?
My time is about a 50/50 split between being on the road and being in the office, and so I tend to divide my schedule up through the year with late September to December brining one event after the other along with January to March, then things begin to calm down a little and this allows me to spend time here in the office for tasting samples and new batches.
How involved are you with the whiskies Douglas Laing bring on board, do you try them personally first?
Yes very involved. When it comes to single cask selections it’s either Fred or myself that taste them and then make a decision if they are of the quality for one of our ranges. If we want to create a vat, Fred and I sit down together and keep working the numbers and trying the whiskies again and again until we make our decision. We try the whiskies over several days, in a different order each day, as you often find that the first whisky of the day you try will be your favourite, but when you then taste them again in a different order then that will change.
When it comes to creating a blend you can’t always just add more of your favourite whisky and think that it will make it taste better. There isn’t a science to this when we do it, its trial and error, we won’t stop until we are sure it’s just right.
Have you had to compromise your own personal time for this role, or is it easy to achieve a work/life balance?
It’s so much more than a job for me, I don’t have a family at the moment, and I think it would be very different if I did, but at the moment as I enjoy what I do so much my work, doesn’t feel like work for me.
I’m lucky that I’m in the position whereby I enjoy myself every day, I use what is my passion for my work. If you can change your life so that your passion is your work you are very lucky, there are people out there that have to wait till they retire to have their passion and then sometimes it’s too late, but for me, I live my passion every day. Quite often I find whisky friends and they become personal friends too and we see each other again and again, usually at different locations around the world.
What have you been doing recently?
We only really supply by the case, but we have started trading locally with wholesalers which then supply Big Peat (@BigPeatWhisky) and Scallywag non-trade. A local restaurant here make a big peat sour sometimes and this works really well, they also make a big peat bloody Mary, using tomato and clam juice this works so well with the peat and gives it a wonderful salted edge.
What’s your favourite whisky?
I don’t have one favourite whisky as such but I really like and enjoy Speyside whiskies, especially as I spent so long there as a guide. I remember when I used to take clients into the warehouse and take a sample from the vat, I would always say I had to check it first to ensure the quality of the whisky and again before closing it back up again.
Whisky doesn’t need to be too overpowering, I do like an Islay whisky but these are suited more to other occasions, as oppose to a bottle which can just sit open on the table during a meal. A current favourite of mine, which I am always trying to use in tastings is a 16 year old Ledaig, smoky, sweet, and salty, with a lovely meaty bacon quality. A really great whisky.
What’s your proudest whisky moment to date?
The first bottling that had my initial next to the tasting note on the bottle, (there is always either a J or a F on every label, which means the notes are either Jan’s or Fred’s), the first batch of many are my tastings notes. My first ever being a Laphroaig 16, and I bought an entire case of this. I gave one bottle to my dad, he was so proud.
One of the great things about working as an ambassador is that I can pick the whisky myself, I am not just talking about whisky that I like, but actually whisky that I have helped produce, especially with vats.
Any big events coming up soon for yourself?
On Tuesday I will be travelling to Belgium for a whisky festival in Spa, and then after that France for a week to spend a few days taking a non-trade trip through Paris, visiting bars and handing them Scallywag and Big Peat and asking them to make me a cocktail, trying them neat, talking about them and then hopefully the bars will then stock up.
Are you doing anything for Burns night?
Not this year, as we are all heading out travelling at the moment. This year I will be cooking my own haggis myself and enjoying it with a dram or two.
How many work at Douglas Laing
There are twelve people in the office including Fred, Cara, Chris and myself. The four of us have a role in the market. There are three in charge of bottling and labelling, duty free, warehousing etc, and three in charge of logistics, every country has different regulations when it comes to tax and duty etc.
Do you ever have a difference of opinion?
We do have the odd discussion or two sometimes when it comes to certain things, but we all have the best interests of the company at heart and we always find a way to come together.
What’s next for Douglas Laing?
Much of the same, targeting more new markets which we haven’t yet branched out into yet, and releasing our new range.
Kirsty Clarke (@kirstyclarke29)