The Whiskey Issue: Whisky's wild side

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Thanks to e-mail, social networking sites and digital phone service (a Glasgow number rings at his home office), Topping is making his mark as a whisky blender from an unassuming suburb of Cincinnati.

And you thought Scotch came from Scotland.

Well, technically it does. Topping's Wild Scotsman blends are distilled, aged and bottled in Scotland. And he travels there once or twice a year. But he does most of his work from his home in Kenwood, including buying, selling and trading casks of aged whisky via brokers from around the world.

"I think most people are surprised because they don't have any idea that somebody could put all these things together to bring a product to market from Scotland," said John Haskins, general manager of Columbus-based Heidelberg Distributing, which represents Topping's brands in Ohio.

"He literally is functioning as a big company," Haskins added. "He's produced a label of his own over there and he's importing it and doing it all from soup to nuts."

But even more important than the technology that makes his long-distance business possible, Topping brings an energy and a passion to the centuries-old drink that's distinctly new world.

In an industry that sometimes clings to the past like a Robert Burns poem, Topping is a punk rocker. At 39 years old, he's younger than some of the malts his colleagues are putting on the top shelf. And he's a boisterous American in a field that's all about the subtleties of ye olde Scottish tradition.

"I want to make whisky accessible to everybody," Topping said of his American approach to Scotch. "I'm not some stuffy old guy."

Dressed in a Black Watch kilt, with a heavy-metal beard and a wild mane of black hair that matches his brand's name, Topping enters every room with a huge smile and a tasting glass. He engages drinkers with colorful tales about what whisky means to him, going well beyond the index-card list of adjectives that can turn other tastings into snoozefests.

Still, he's not turning his back on tradition. While he wants to bring the drink to young Americans, he does want that drink to be true whisky. "Hopefully the image of Scotch and Scotland doesn't get lost in the translation," Topping said.

His road to Scotch blending started in the Brewery District in the early 1990s. While he was a student at Ohio State, Topping worked at The Patio, and he spent a lot of time hanging out at the Columbus Brewing Company.

"I used to go in there and watch these guys making beer. As a college kid I thought that was the greatest thing," he recalled, comparing the local microbrews to the mass-produced suds that nourish most students. "It really got me enthused about the craft of production."

Fast forward to 2002. While on a trip to visit some cousins who live in Glasgow, Topping took a fateful detour to a distillery school in Bladnoch. There, he learned the basics of distilling, but he also earned his love for whisky in a way that few get to appreciate firsthand.

"One day I was in the [Bladnoch] warehouse with the owner, Raymond Armstrong, and some of the other students, and we were actually drinking whisky straight from the cask," Topping said. "It was an unbelievable flavor experience, the aromas were so intense. I was just like, This is like nothing I've ever had to drink."

That was the epiphany that eventually led to Topping's Wild Scotsman brands. "It really opened my eyes to what craft whisky could be."

Also at Bladnoch, Topping met the man who would become his mentor: John McDougall, the only person in the world who's both a master distiller and a master blender of Scotch malt whisky.

Topping approached McDougall with his idea of bringing handcrafted Scotch whisky to the United States, and he agreed to take Topping under his wing. With McDougall's guidance, Topping spent two years creating his first blend: Wild Scotsman 15 Year Vatted Malt Whisky.

"I wanted to capture that moment that I had at Bladnoch," Topping said of the inspiration behind his 15 Year.

It's a delicate whisky, with sweet, citrusy and grassy notes on the nose and a warm, spicy finish. "I wanted to catch the aromas, the tastes, the smells, so when I meet people and tell them my story they could drink it too," he said.

Topping followed it with his Wild Scotsman Black Label, a bold, smoky whisky that was created to complement two of his other interests. "I love smoking cigars, and I love eating heavy meals," he said. "And so I thought to myself, I want a Scotch whisky that could really stand up to that punishment to your palate."

Wild Scotsman is now available in eight states, including Ohio. Since Topping is essentially a one-man marketing force, he limits his distribution footprint to how far he can drive in a day.

Through personal appearances, trade shows and tasting events, he's sharing his love of whisky and winning over fans one bottle at a time.

"People are looking for something unique, something a little less mainstream," Ron Criswell, co-owner of The Rossi, said of local interest in Topping's Scotch. "They're a lot more willing to try something if they see a connection, or if they see the passion of the person who's behind it."

"Normally they don't get to meet a brand in the sense of a brand being a person," Topping added. "There's no Tommy Dewar anymore. There's no more Johnnie Walker."

Perhaps someday soon we can add the name Jeff Topping to that list of famous blenders. For Scotch drinkers in Ohio, he's the one we get to meet in person.