SB Voices: Behind the stills

21st September, 2018 by Owen Bellwood

‘Craft’ spirit producers are great, but with an increasing focus on smaller brands it’s easy to take for granted the impressive work carried out by the world’s biggest producers.

Bottling lines at Diageo’s Leven plant can fill upwards of 100 bottles per minute

Here at SB towers, it seems that rarely a week goes by without the emergence of a new fledgling brand, supposedly produced in a shed by a team filled with entrepreneurial spirit. Alongside these crafty start-ups, we’re often told that millennial drinkers are more interested in the origins and story behind a brand than they are in the products themselves.

While I think it’s great to hear of people paying attention to history and provenance – it really is – sometimes we need to recognise the incredible infrastructure and operations undertaken by some of the world’s biggest brands.

There’s few who would doubt Diageo’s position as one of the world’s most important producers of spirits – its globe-straddling brands such as Smirnoff Vodka, Gordon’s Gin and Johnnie Walker blended Scotch whisky are recognised the world over. The company is also the largest producer of single malt Scotch whisky, operating distilleries such as Lagavulin, Talisker and Clynelish.

It’s clear then, that producing this many brands requires a slick operation.

Last week, I travelled to Scotland to learn more about the company’s production process, taking a look inside every aspect of its whisky-making empire – save for its maltings.

After travelling from its Glenkinchie distillery in the lowlands of Scotland to its site in Leven, home to production of Gordon’s and Smirnoff, maturation warehouses and Diageo’s bottling plant, the scale of its operation blew me away.

There was also a chance to look round the Abercrombie coppersmiths and see inside Diageo’s archive, which further opened my eyes to the huge infrastructure that keeps a global company, such as Diageo, running day in and day out.

Still are built and repaired at the Abercrombie Coppersmiths

This stark contrast from rural distillery to industrial bottling hall is not something many people are able to experience, but one thing that stood out to me was the breadth of skills required across the whole operation. Coppersmiths and whisky blenders train for years to hone their skills, while the bottling hall utilises experts to spot any issues as they arise and includes a team of craftspeople to produce bespoke bottles and one-off decanters.

Throughout my time in Scotland, staff were eager to talk about the company. At the distillery, there was a palpable excitement about Diageo’s investment in the region; at the bottling hall, team members were excited to show off their one-off creations; and at the coppersmith, the prospect of creating stills for a brand new distillery, Roe & Co in Ireland, seemed to have the facility in a buzz.

This brand passion is something many people may not think of, and it’s easy to forget the number of people behind your bottle of spirit. Even though there’s no arguing that Diageo as a whole is a million miles from the grocery store John Walker owned when he blended his first Scotch, I was surprised to learn of the skills required and the roles filled across the production of vodka, gin and whisky. I was also impressed by the amount of pride from many of its staff, which would rival that of any ‘craft’ distilling start-up.

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