The whisky tailor: a sartorial Italian independent bottler

Founded in 1992, Wilson & Morgan is one of the most respected independent whisky bottlers. Small batch releases, extreme care in cask management, a distinctive style that follows the owners’ personal taste but also the customers’ wishes, flair and creativity. We had a chance to interview Luca Chichizola, brand ambassador for Wilson & Morgan, who introduced us to interesting insider details.

Can you tell us how Wilson & Morgan was born?

The Rossi family has always been involved in wine trading. Giuseppe Rossi, grandfather of current chairman Fabio Rossi, started his business in Venice in the 1920s, leaving it then in the hands of his son, Mario, who relocated the family activities in the nearby town of Treviso.

During WWII, Mario Rossi collaborated with the allied troops in the area, befriended some British soldiers and had his first taste of Scotch whisky: this first spark resulted years later, in the 1960s, in his choice to expand outside of the wine business. He started acting as importer of several whisky brands, when this drink was just beginning to achieve some popularity in Italy due to the economic boom. His son Fabio Rossi was born in 1961, and still remembers the strong smell of peat in their house when he was a kid.

Still a long way before 1992, when Wilson & Morgan was born: and why the British sounding name for an Italian company?

Yes; it was only many years later, when Fabio Rossi – influenced by legendary Silvano Samaroli, who was a friend of the family – took on a long trip to Scotland to visit distilleries and whisky merchants. He returned to Italy with contacts, long lists of notes from casks he had sampled, and a strong will to start his own independent label. The company name sounds British, because he wanted it to convey a classy and genuine touch: after all, the whiskies and the bottling were 100% Scottish, and only the ownership was Italian.

Were the first Wilson & Morgan bottlings well received?

The first releases were bottled from casks selected from the Cadenhead warehouses in Campbeltown, and they included gems like Ardbeg, Springbank, Longrow, Macallan and Port Ellen. At the time there was a huge stock of high-quality malts, due to the recession of the ‘80s. All of them, from the start, were deliberately bottled at 46% and with no chill-filtration and no colouring, when most of the official brands still were using 40% – a bold statement of quality for the time, even if it has become more or less the norm nowadays. They sold well, but of course it took some years to reach market recognition as a brand. These bottlings are highly sought after nowadays and they fetch high prices at auction houses.

And then the market exploded…

Yes, at the end of the ‘90s and in the early ‘00s, the world started seeing single malts as a new luxury item. Internet made information easily available and online trade helped. Whisky connoisseurs all around the world literally started hunting for the best independent bottlings. Fabio Rossi had already started expanding his views, and stockpiling casks of different ages from several sources: now Wilson & Morgan was widely known in Europe, and was starting to get recognition in Asia, too.

We have heard that Mr Rossi has a nickname, can you explain its origin?

It was born during a dinner in Treviso between Fabio and famous and beloved whisky writer Michael Jackson. Fabio always dresses with Italian elegance, and Mr Jackson commented that also his whiskies were of sartorial quality, full of the same Italian elegance and taste.

He signed a copy of his latest book with “To Fabio, the whisky tailor”. And that suits Fabio Rossi’s attitude very well because he likes to precisely style his whiskies until they have the elegance and flair that he considers perfect. And for the regular trade customers, Fabio also loves to add customisation: again, like a tailor, he likes to offer them a portfolio of choices not only in terms of distilleries and type of maturation, but also in terms of labelling and packaging.

What do you mean exactly by ‘style’?

As I said, the first releases were simply bottlings of exceptional mature casks bought from Cadenhead. But as years passed, and with the purchase of young casks from distilleries and brokers that were then allowed to mature for a long time, Fabio recognised the need to steer the maturation towards a ‘company style’, by having direct choices on wood management so that the end result would fully conform to his impeccable taste.

So you are not only buying whisky that you like and bottling it?

Exactly. Wilson & Morgan often buys young spirit, and lets it mature for years and actively monitors its progress. We don’t want our whiskies to taste like all the others, we want them to have a unique and very recognisable style.

Fabio often visits wine makers, since he’s an oenologist, and he constantly looks for the best casks in which to re-rack young whiskies to give them the profile he wants. So we are using Bourbon casks (first or second fill), but also a lot of oloroso and PX casks from the best bodegas in Spain, and we also have experimented with virgin oak, Port, Tokaji, and Marsala. Fabio was the first in the world to use Marsala casks for whisky maturation, with some surprising results.

And as a brand ambassador, what is your contribution?

I lead tasting events, I write the tasting notes for catalogues, labels and the web, but I am also involved in the selection. I met Fabio in 2004 when I still was in the Malt Maniacs, and we started a fruitful collaboration which also became a friendship. Since then, each and every cask is sampled by Fabio and myself, we both discuss the options for maturation (especially wood selection) and the cask has to gain our approval to decide when it’s ready for bottling.

And how do you currently see Wilson & Morgan?

Constantly growing. We have an average of around 50 releases per year, and we are very active in most European markets, with a strong and loyal fanbase in China, Taiwan and Japan too. We have a good amount of casks in the Scottish warehouses, at different stages of maturation, from six to 40 years of age. So we plan to go on for a long while, and what’s driving us is that it’s a lot of fun. The numbers will never be as large as the official bottlings from the distilleries, but that’s how we like it, so we can better concentrate on quality.

And we also like to have a fair approach towards our faithful customers, by trying to offer a great quality/cost ratio in spite of the wild price hikes of recent years. We put the same effort and we aim at the same quality in our core affordable range of young whiskies (10-15 years old), that we put in the 25-30 old luxury Special Releases. And our intermediate range, the Cask Strength series with green bottles, is always a treat for connoisseurs looking for the best and for reasonably priced single cask releases.

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