Scientist and whisky expert

Born: December 25, 1941

Died: February 14, 2017

DR Jim Swan, who has died aged 75, was a scientist and consultant who applied his unparalleled knowledge of whisky to help design and commission numerous new distilleries in Scotland and around the world.

With a degree in applied chemistry from Heriot-Watt University, he became one of the founding members of a unique scientific team led by Dr Jim Gray at Arthur D Little, based at Inveresk, East Lothian.

Following pioneering work on the control of haze formation in bottled whiskies, a research consortium was formed by a number of independent Scotch whisky companies. The team worked all over Scotland in malt and grain distilleries and Dr Swan became a specialist in distillation, spirit stability, and maturation of Scotch whiskies.

In 1974, the team was bought out and became Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research Ltd, based at Slateford Road, Edinburgh. Dr Swan was an expert in gas chromatography and the sensory analysis of Scotch whisky, which meant conducting his studies side by side with the mashmen, stillmen, and operators in distilleries and bottling halls across Scotland.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Dr Swan managed research programmes funded by the EU and UK Government and published his findings on the compounds contributing to the peatiness of Scotch whisky, and co-authored a paper on the flavour vocabulary of Scotch whisky. He embraced the new desktop computer age for scientific analysis, applying multivariate statistical techniques to analytical data of maturing whisky aligned with sensory analysis, for which he was awarded his PhD in 1988 from Heriot-Watt University.

In 1993, Dr Swan partnered with Dr Harry Riffkin to buy the renowned Tatlock & Thomson business in Bath Street, Glasgow, and helped to turn it into an internationally recognized analytical business to the wine and spirit industry.

During the late 1980s and 1990s, Dr Swan’s focus switched to investigating how to optimise the seasoning and toasting of the oak to make the best casks and improve whisky quality. With Glenmorangie, he pioneered some of the earliest experiments into whisky finishing, the process of enhancing a mature whisky by transferring it to a second cask. He was also a leading participant at the International Barrel Symposiums in Missouri in the late 1990s.

Demand for Swan and Riffkin’s skills and experience grew, and the Tatlock & Thomson team worked on distilleries in India and embarked on the establishment of Penderyn distillery in Wales. Launching his own consultancy business in 2002, Dr Swan became highly sought after for new distillery projects from Taiwan to the US and in his native land. He became master blender for Penderyn distillery, he was instrumental in creating the signature flavour of Kilchoman single malt, and he became talismanic to the success of Kavalan whisky in Taiwan. In typically Scottish manner, he dealt with the media attention with humility, modesty, and good grace.

Dr Swan was a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and was awarded a fellowship of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. He was named Pioneer of the Year by Whisky Advocate magazine in 2005, and subsequently, numerous prestigious industry awards were bestowed upon his distillery clients for their whiskies.

Dr Swan was the embodiment of the intrepid and inventive Scot. To understand the impact, influence, and developments he evoked throughout the whisky industry, one only needs to contemplate the quality of the whisky poured into your glass today. He was the eminence grise of the whisky world, greatly respected by all, championing quality whisky making around the world, and taking quiet satisfaction in his life’s achievements through sharing his knowledge with others.

He is survived by his wife Thelma, daughters Caroline and Victoria, and three grandchildren.