Design and distillation: Royal Salute's stunning new collaboration with Richard Quinn
The first instalment in the famed whisky maker's new Couture Collection sees it team up with one of Britain's most talented young designers
Although it goes without saying that fine whisky has never been the pursuit of the uncultured, the opportunity for makers of the spirit to push the artistic envelope is all-too-often passed up, and elements of the industry are regrettably let down by a certain drabness. There’s nothing about the culture of whisky, the processes by which it comes to be, nor its inherent flavours, to suggest that more could not be made of a whisky bottle; effectively a blank canvas begging to be conquered by artistic flourish.
Yet all too often the natural habitat of Scotches and bourbons, be they on offer in a swanky whisky bar or a home collection, is aesthetically arid, taking the form of uneven rows of awkwardly shaped bottles perched on dusty shelves, each receptacle partly filled by monotone amber nectar hidden behind fusty beige labels.
But this needn’t be the case, and a small handful of movers and shakers at the heart of the industry have clocked a gap in the market for a new breed of whisky - one which encompasses both classic flavour and cutting-edge art without sacrificing either one. And one extraordinary collaboration in particular has set the bar high, pinging back and forth from disparate worlds in the windswept Scottish northeast and a design studio in Peckham. In these disparate worlds, something unusual, sophisticated and beautiful is brewing - or should I say distilling?
Royal Salute, since its founding in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, has rarely shied away from making visual statements with their products. One might think that a distillery which has produced expressions in specific tribute to the British monarchy would perhaps be one of the the biggest offenders when it comes to rather conservative, old-fashioned marketing and design, but the brand’s now-iconic porcelain flagons, with their unique bottom-heavy shape, have been pushing boundaries for decades. Deep reds, royal blues and gorgeous jades adorn their more mainstream bottles, while more out-there experiments with flavour have seen them dive off the deep end in thrilling ways - a particular highlight was this year’s 21-Year-Old Polo Estancia Edition being unveiled in a vibrant terracotta flagon.
But these playful brushes with colour and design have merely served as an appetiser for the Couture Collection, Royal Salute’s intriguing new limited edition expressions curated by master distiller Sandy Hyslop, each of which comes in a bottle featuring bespoke work by some of Britain’s most celebrated designers. The first installment in the series, unveiled at a suitably opulent, star-studded event at London Fashion Week, is a stunning collaboration with Richard Quinn, the young British designer who has made waves with his striking floral pieces.
“As far as I’m concerned, Richard was a fabulous match for Royal Salute,” Sandy Hyslop tells me via a Zoom call. “He’s a really great up-and-coming British designer which fits in with us perfectly; he was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in 2018.
“His designs were just perfect for our flagons, though it was a very different experience for me - it was the first time in my 38-year career that I had been asked to design a whisky around pre-existing packaging, rather than the other way around,” he adds. “I saw the design before I started working on the blend, but knowing that this was a limited edition expression meant that I could really throw the shackles off and try to make something amazing; I wouldn’t have to worry about recreating it every year like I do with the 21-Year-Old signature expression.”
Sandy’s conundrum begs the question: how does one interpret Richard’s design? It is perhaps no surprise that the designer has once again turned to the world of flora for his flagon artwork, with striking blue rose and purple thistle prints overlaid on either white or dark blue backgrounds, while both patterns also feature notable use of thorns - something not present in much of Richard’s other work - with sharp colour contrasts; the blue bottle features white thorns while the white bottle features black thorns.
Speaking to me from his studio in southeast London, Richard tells me: “I’m actually an avid whisky drinker, so this is a collaboration I had a personal interest in. They came to me and said ‘here’s the history of the company’, and so I went away and came back with a series of designs that they then picked from, and we developed the idea in a few rounds from there.”
Explaining the thistles and thorns, he adds: “Obviously it’s a Scotch whisky, so we were looking for elements that we could entwine with our staple flower designs, and searching for colourways that really clicked. For example the electric blue worked really nicely with the white, and the printing process of the flagons - dipping and wrapping the bottles - also informed our decisions when it came to choosing colours.”
“It’s great to see my work in different contexts,” he says of his experience of working with Royal Salute. “I’ve seen my work on runways and in films before, so it’s nice to do a unique creative project like this. I’m a designer and I’m fascinated with how things are made - seeing how different colours appear after being fired in a kiln for example - so being part of the 360-degree process has been interesting.”
For a less dedicated distillery, it would perhaps be rather easy to simply kick one’s feet up and let Richard’s stunning design do the talking; packaging up an old or less exciting expression in his floral pattern and calling it a day. But while his admiration for Richard’s artwork is palpable, he refuses to let the aesthetics steal the show, instead using the opportunity to create a superb blend crafted from over 31 hand-selected rare single malts and grain whiskies.
“I wanted to make something that had the Royal Salute DNA in the blend, but I still wanted it to be discernibly different to our signature malts blend,” he tells me. “I wanted people who were trying it for the first time to go ‘oh my goodness that’s different’.”
He points - through the medium of his laptop camera - at the small glass of the blend that I have just poured myself.
“I see you’re taking a sip of it there; are you seeing how long that takes to dissipate on the palate? It’s lovely and slow, you’re not reaching back for that glass because you can let all that flavour just rest on the palate as it ebbs away - that’s the sign of a really good, quality whisky.”
I ask him what he feels are the great strengths of his monumental blend, but his answer is curiously coy, asking me what I think first. After hinting at green apples and using the most cliched word in whisky journalism - “smooth” - Sandy steps in.
“It is smooth, absolutely. I wanted it to be silky smooth, syrupy sweet and rich, like a dessert of pears and syrup, with that lovely texture coating the mouth,” he says, but then divulges the real secret behind the blend.
“Well it’s all about oak casks. That’s what’s making the difference. For example all of the Braeval single malts we’ve used in this blend to dial up the floral flavours were 100% matured in first-fill American oak casks,” he says. “At Royal Salute we’ve got a phenomenal inventory of whiskies to work with. We’ve been working with 21-year-old whisky since 1953. We are experts at blending old whisky and making sure that you still get a sweet character that is complemented by the cask maturation.
“If I’m honest, this was more like a hobby than a job, creating this one-off, magnificent expression,” Sandy adds. Waxing lyrical about his spectacular new expression, I sense an opportunity to probe as to the plans for the next installment in the Couture Collection, but Sandy sees what I’m up to.
“Ah well, I’m heavily involved, but I’ve been well warned not to divulge any details on the matter!” he laughs. “This Richard Quinn edition is exciting enough for one week.”
The Royal Salute Couture Collection 21 Year Old Richard Quinn Edition will be released in limited quantities from September 2021, and available at select luxury retailers worldwide at an RPP of $250 USD.