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Interview with Robert O’Neill

“What the heart thinks, the tongue speaks.”

Some 25 years ago, whiskey connaisseur Robert O’Neill exchanged the Scottish Highlands for the Flemish flat land.

Robert O’Neill © Beeldhouwers

Some 25 years ago, Robert O’Neill exchanged the Scottish Highlands for the Flemish flat land. The Scottish accent still flows lazily from his lips and the saying ‘what the heart thinks, the tongue speaks’ is right up his street. Want to know more about whisky? Robert is your man! During tastings he’ll you everything about Scotch whisky and especially for LIFE, this connoisseur shares his best tips & tricks.

Gouden Carolus Single Malt

Gouden Carolus Single Malt, Robert’s favourite Belgian whisky

Why did you ever trade the splendour of the Scottish highlands for Belgium?

‘When I graduated in Glasgow some 25 years ago, the Scottish economy was doing very poorly. Moving to England didn’t feel like an option to me, as a Scot (laughs). At the time my brother was living and working in Belgium. So I decided to follow him, met my Flemish wife and decided to stay. Presently, my brother and I run an English-language marketing and communications agency within the high-tech and industrial sector. Our office is located at Fosbury & Sons, a deliberate choice because we find co-creation extremely important.’

In addition to being a communications marketing director, you’re also a Whisky expert. Did you get that from your Scottish roots?

‘Whisky and its tradition are strongly linked to Scotland. My father loved it and drank all kinds and flavours. Like every teenager, I sipped from one of those bottles at home but didn’t like it. I assumed whisky was not for me. It wasn’t until I was 18 and in a pub thinking, ‘Let’s try something different than a pint’. Impulsively I ordered a Scotch, and it was an instant hit. The balance between the flavours was wonderful, and from that moment on, I tried different whiskies wherever I could.’

‘I did tastings, looked up information, went to speciality shops and visited small-scale distillers. Everything revolving around whisky became a real passion. My palette and knowledge have developed enormously over the past thirty years. But I wouldn’t call myself an expert, rather a connoisseur with an enormous mission to share.’

“At a tasting like this, I can wear my Scottish kilt unabashedly. That alone makes me happy!”

You now run a whisky club and organise tastings. Does your mission gradually feel like a new business path?

‘It feels like a path of passion that’s entirely in line with what I love: flavours, whisky, Scotland and storytelling. Many people tell me, ‘I don’t like whisky’, but maybe they gave up after one try? There are so many different nuances to taste, depending on the alcohol content, the number of years the whisky has matured and the type of wood of the barrels. You can often find one you like after a bit of trial and error. I want to introduce people to this rich palette of flavours. Moreover, I can wear my Scottish kilt unabashedly at these tasting. That alone makes me happy! (laughs)’

What defines a good whisky for you?

‘I like very balanced flavours. I don’t generally like a heavily peated whisky. This is a matter of personal preference. I don’t like dominant flavours and enjoy magic happen on my tongue. The best – and I recommend this to everyone – is a single malt whisky straight from the barrel. On a tour of a whisky distillery, you sometimes get the chance to taste it. Those are happy moments for me. I also advise everyone to follow their tastes and feelings. After all, that’s all that matters, just like why a particular perfume makes you happy or not; regardless of the recommendations or the price attached to it.’

Written by
Veerle Symoens


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