Interview with the Bottler: Davide Romano

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I love visiting whisky festivals. Seriously, it’s such a great chance to try new and old products, and to meet new people! At the Spirit of Scotland 2017 in Rome, before ending up shitfaced going home very tired and happy, I managed to annoy at length Davide Romano.

Co-founder with Fabio Ermoli of Valinch & Mallet, an Italian independent bottling company working with rum and whisky, Davide bravely and patiently underwent a brief interview session. On their nice site you can find further information on their collections, their philosophy, whereas here you can find Davide’s answers to my Interview with the Bottler.

Hi Davide, I firstly have to thank you to bear with me and with my questions. Let’s start with the name of your company: Valinch & Mallet. Does it have a meaning or did you simply choose two names which sounded good together? And in this case, why didn’t you choose a more musical combination, like “Rotogravure & Breakwater”?

Hi Fabio, thank you for your interview. Initially we thought about something more emotional and romantic like Davide & Fabio Whisky Ltd., but we soon opted for something more “low profile”, and the result was Valinch & Mallet! The name actually refers to two fundamental tools used in the whisky world: Valinch is the Scottish name of the “thief-tube”, the tool used to draw the liquid out of the cask bunghole, while the Mallet is the typical hammer used to hit the casks when checking them and when popping out the plug. They are our tools of the trade!

How did you start your adventure as an independent bottler? Did you get a mystic enlightenment in hangover? Who did you get help from along this road?

I have a very different background, and originally I was simply a distillate lover. When I realised that the job I worked so hard for was not making me happy, I understood that I had to make a change. I met Fabio, my partner and mentor (don’t tell him though, otherwise he’ll feel too old), who had been working with wine and spirits for over 25 years, and I realised that selecting whisky was truly something special, a unique experience. The hard competition you have to face these days made us question if creating a wholly new brand was a good idea at all, but at the end it has been the enthusiastic philosophy of “let’s do it and then we’ll see” to prevail. Two months after this hazardous hypothesis, Valinch & Mallet was born.

– What are the biggest issues in your line of work? I mean beside living in a world where most people don’t understand the artistic greatness of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura.

Becoming misunderstood like Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura! I’m joking, actually the biggest issue right now is to stick to our own principles: we don’t want to bottle everything we nose, and we try not to choose what could sell better at the expense of quality and originality. Most of all we don’t want to transform a great passion into a mere economic exercise like, sadly, many you can come across nowadays. We want to overcome the temptation to think at the quantity and to forget the highest possible quality.

– Your labels and your bottle design in general is really great. Who helped you in designing your style? You asked help to Daenerys Targaryen’s stylist, right?

Actually we asked Lord Varys’ stylist, but he was unavailable! We are quite proud to be able to say that nobody helped us in that. During the months prior to the creation of our company, I learned how to use graphic processing programs, in order to realise my ideas without the filter of another person. I needed hours of practice, and tens of trials before arriving to the design you see now, but the satisfaction to create it myself was incredible. To manufacture labels and metal plates, I chose small, family-owned companies, 100% made in Italy. In general, the possibility to materially touch all the working tools and to work side by side with those professionals, choosing every detail was fundamental to give birth to my design.

– You produce four whisky collections right now, do you want to talk about it? Do you have some new projects you want to share with us?

Initially the collections were only three, divided by age: up 20 years old, from 20 to 30 years old, over 30 years old, and rigorously bottled at cask strength. We then added a fourth one, the “Dumpy Series” then renamed “The Young Series”. To this serie belong those younger whiskies where the dilution is a fundamental process to enable the drinker to fully enjoy their characteristics. In this collection the alcohol content is generally limited to the 48%-53% range, the best one in our opinion. The names of the other collections are quite evocative: the “Hidden Casks” are those casks we found randomly, hidden in a far corner of the warehouse. “Lost Drams” are those whiskies that because of their age were distilled using some techniques disappeared today and becoming unrepeatable in the future. Finally, the “XO” collection represents those truly fantastic and special whiskies, and it stays more for “Extra Ordinary” than for “Extra Old”.

– How do you select a cask? Do you have a working habit or it depends from bottling to bottling?

All starts, obviously, from the sample. When we get the sample we first taste the whisky at cask strength, controlling meticulously temperature and date of sampling. We then dilute it in order to find its possible flaws. Then it comes the most difficult part: we have to imagine the future evolution of the whisky in the bottle, since there is a huge difference from the sample taken from the cask and the same sample bottled afterwards. It’s something that comes from experience, and sadly there is no specific rule for it. Last but not least, at the end of the process we have the estimation of the bottle cost (we want people to drink our whisky) and the originality: one of the most fascinating aspects of this job is the possibility to offer a product from a distillery not so well known, even rare, perhaps underrated.

– Once you got your hands on a cask, how does the maturation work? Do you have some warehouses in UK or do you let them mature in the distillery warehouses? Do you have an approach similar to the one Gollum has with his “precious” when you taste your own bottles?

It obviously depends on the maturation level of the cask we are examining. If it is very young we prefer to leave it at the distillery where we bought it, in order to limit the potential changes of, say, the climatic condition typical for a said whisky. If we are, instead, in the “controlling phase” we move it to our warehouse where we can follow its maturation with periodical samplings. Both Fabio and I actually have this kind of Gollum-y approach, no doubts about it: with the samples we look like two kids with a new toy, we can’t wait to nose them!

– Is there a bottle you’re particularly proud about? If you had to choose one bottle to sacrifice to Godzilla to prevent the destruction of your city, which one would you choose?

All our bottles are kind of our kids, and we love them without any distinction. Nonetheless, if I really had to chose one, I’d say our Benrinnes 18 years old, cask number 910: it’s a distillery relatively less known, mostly used for blended whiskies, but which sometimes produces a great distillate, with thrilling scents and evolution. I always recommend it to people who ask me for “something not peaty” as an example of the “fruity” kind of whisky, “full” and “chewy”. We were undecided among 5 “sister” casks, and it was Fabio to choose this one without telling me anything, in order to give me the possibility to get a personal opinion without biases. I was at home with the flu and I remember I tried those 5 samples early in the morning and I spent more than one hour trying them, tasting and nosing them, just to finally choose the same one Fabio also selected. It’s this kind of experiences that make each single bottling even more special.

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– Let’s pick another bottle: your Caol Ila 14 years old, for example, received great praises by Serge Valentin. How do you react to reviews? Do you get furious when you get negative feedbacks? Do you destroy all the bottles with your lightsaber like Kylo Ren does when people don’t find him BB-8? Or are you normally more calm and collected?

In a review the “numerical” part is the one I care less about: there are too many subjective variables. I very much enjoy, instead, to read the descriptions, as I find incredibly fascinating to discover what different noses and palates can smell and taste in the same glass. We actually had the luck (or the skills, maybe?) to avoid bad reviews so far, and that might be a sign that we’re keeping a high level of quality. Sure, reading a very positive review is always a great satisfaction, especially when it comes from someone with a great experience such as Serge!

– Do you often read about whisky? Or do you rather go for some more relaxed reads, like, I don’t know, The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks?

I always say, being very honest, that what I still lack in experience, I try to compensate with preparation and knowledge. I mean, I read a lot of books on distillation and on the specific characteristics of the different distilleries. Knowing how long fermentation lasts, or the particular shape of the pot still help you understanding why whiskies smell and taste differently. The reason why things are the way they are it’s always hidden behind some data, a detail, the keystone to better understand everything. Alternatively, I’m a fan of historical novels: nothing much more “relaxed” than a technical manual.

Final note: thanks Davide for bearing with me, both here and at the tasting stand when we meet at festivals. I really recommend you guys to try some of Valinch & Mallet bottlings, they are always very interesting. Oh, and I bought that bottle of Caol Ila myself, even before reading Serge’s review! 

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