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The unsung heroes of Scotch whisky

Master distillers and blenders are rightfully lauded for their invaluable contribution to Scotch whisky. But the success of the industry rests on the dedication of an extensive workforce spanning disciplines such as farming and tourism. Here, SB shines a light on those whose stories are often left untold.


Andrew Jones – Coull Farm

By law, single malt Scotch whisky can contain only three ingredients – barley, yeast and water, all of which undergo a series of processes and interactions to create the final product. Despite the rigidity of Scotch whisky’s regulations, producers are intent on offering drinkers something new.

For Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay, barley is an expression of single malt’s terroir, drawing similarities with the world of wine. The distillery is continuously exploring how different varieties of barley, and the location in which they are grown, affect flavour. For such innovation to be possible, the team needs a close relationship with Islay’s farmers.

“A lot of people don’t want to be experimental; they want to stick to what they know,” says Andrew Jones, who has lived and worked on Islay’s Coull Farm all his life. “But we are great believers that you don’t know what’s out there until you’ve tried it.” Coull Farm, which is a mixed farm, spread over 2,000 acres, started producing barley for Bruichladdich in 2009.

“We try to find a happy medium, if you like, by trying to find varieties that suit Bruichladdich but are also cost effective,” explains Jones. “We usually put a field down every year of a variety we’ve not used before and see how it goes from there. If it suits, it suits and if not we’ll try another next year.”

It’s not only experimental distilleries that rely on skilled arable farmers – the entire Scotch whisky industry could not function without receiving huge quantities of reliable-quality cereals on a daily basis. Jones praises Bruichladdich for shining a light on the importance of farmers to the wider sector: “It’s good they are not taking all the credit and leaving the farmers behind.”

Jones also notes that while there are many farmers who “wouldn’t want cameras in their faces or people walking through their fields”, others “would be quite happy, given the chance, to show the public what they are doing”.

Curious visitors would see the exceptionally hard work of arable farming, which is particularly evident at Coull, the most exposed farm on Islay. “We are as far west as you can go on Islay – the next stop is America,” muses Jones. “So we are pretty exposed and the weather has a massive part to play in how well or how badly we can grow barley.”


Robin Bignal – Kilchoman

A farmer by trade, Robin Bignal was convinced by Kilchoman’s late manager John MacLellan to join the distillery’s production team in 2010. “At the time I didn’t really know anything about whisky – I didn’t drink it either,” recalls Bignal. “I went from working part time on the farm at Kilchoman to joining the distillery team as production grew.”

An independent farm distillery, Kilchoman became the newest member of Islay’s thriving whisky community in 2005. The distillery’s 100%-­Islay malt is the island’s only single­-estate whisky, with all processes – from barley-­growing to hand-­bottling – carried out on site. Kilchoman is also one of only a handful of distilleries across Scotland to use traditional floor maltings.

Bignal oversees the malting process, along with the distillery’s other production stages, and his hands are full as Kilchoman embarks on a considerable expansion project. In the middle of this year, the distillery installed new floor maltings to enable it to increase output of its 100%­Islay line. It is aiming to use 70% commercial barley and 30% estategrown barley in production. The current percentage ratio sits at about 80/20.

“A lot of work goes into making something that is 100% your own product,” says Bignal. “When we tell visitors we do everything here, a lot of people are surprised. We do everything on site, even straight through to bottling.” Bignal calls floor malting a “dying art”, and says a younger generation of Scotch whisky makers may not develop the operational know­how of their elders because of the influence of technology.

However, Kilchoman continues to invest in its traditional ways of working. The distillery now owns the farm on which it sits, and is aiming to double production by building a new still house. Bignal says: “It’s exciting times, but if you look outside, it’s a building site. It should look the part soon, but we don’t want it to look commercialised – Kilchoman is still a farm distillery. We want to try and keep it unique.”


George Singer – The Balvenie

Almost 25 years ago, George Singer started his career as an apprentice welder/fabricator at William Reid Engineering in Forres, Scotland. In 2001, after completing a Higher National Certificate in mechanical engineering “on the side”, Singer joined William Grant & Sons as a maintenance engineer for its famous Glenfiddich and The Balvenie distilleries. The whisky industry, he claims, was where he wanted to be.

“I settled in quickly and learnt a lot of new skills from my new colleagues, in particular Dennis McBain, who was the company’s coppersmith,” he recalls.

“Back then, Dennis was the only second coppersmith in the company’s history, and worked for William Grant & Sons for more than 50 years. He was heavily invested in his role, and even to this day he still checks in to see we are doing everything to his high standards.”

As McBain slowed down his work schedule, Singer began a coppersmith apprenticeship and worked with still maker Forsyths for four months. He is now responsible for all copper work at The Balvenie Distillery, including its stills, condensers and spirit safes – and even discussed his craft with famed chef Michel Roux Jr in The Balvenie’s Craftsmen’s Dinner series.

Indeed, the work of coppersmiths is not confined to pure mechanics – they play an important part in the final flavour of the whisky. Singer explains: “At The Balvenie, the distinctive shape of our stills gives the whisky its honeyed flavour, and it’s the coppersmith’s skills that are essential for maintaining The Balvenie’s character.”

The work of a coppersmith is strenuous, says Singer, but it is rewarding, and younger people should be encouraged to enter the trade.

He says: “Being a coppersmith is an often overlooked craft. Yes, it’s physically demanding, but it’s a very rewarding job and is a great opportunity for young people who aren’t scared of hard work.”

It is also a career with longevity, as Singer explains: “My favourite whisky is The Balvenie Portwood, which is 21 years old. In three-­and-­a-­half years’ time I will have worked at The Balvenie for 21 years, and I look forward to tasting my favourite whisky knowing I have had a hand in creating it.”


Kevin Arthur – Edrington

Coopering is a time-­honoured craft that is thought to predate the Roman age. While whisky-­making processes are becoming increasingly mechanised, apprentice coopers learn traditional techniques in an intense and thorough training course that lasts four years.

“Good fitness and being able to work with hand tools, as well as having an eye for detail, are key skills I use to make sure the casks I produce are of the highest quality,” says Kevin Arthur, who has worked at Edrington for 20 years, starting as a general worker at its Lochwinnoch cooperage before becoming a cooper based at The Macallan’s new £140 million (US$180m) distillery.

The Scottish group is one of the biggest investors in Spanish oak, spending millions of pounds every year on casks from Jerez. Last year, The Macallan’s managing director, Scott McCroskie, told The Spirits Business: “We obsess about wood because we believe it sets us apart and underwrites the quality of our whisky.”

Workers such as Arthur are therefore integral to Edrington’s core ethos. “I take my role very seriously and make sure that only the very best quality casks are going to be used for The Macallan,” he says.

“I now have first­hand involvement in the Sherry casks that come into The Macallan from Spain, and can see the value that this investment provides.”

At Macallan’s new site, Arthur spends his days checking casks that have been emptied and preparing them for refilling, as well as assessing newly filled casks that might need small repairs. He says: “I would certainly encourage the next generation into the trade. It’s a great career and when you see a cask come full circle, and the golden colours that come out of it, it makes you realise that was a job well done.”

Blending teams

Emma Walker – Diageo

A member of Diageo’s 12-­strong blending team, Emma Walker’s responsibilities include quality control for the group’s entire whisky portfolio, and also the development of new and exciting innovations. After receiving a PhD in organic chemistry, Walker joined Diageo in 2008. She will soon be based at the group’s new and improved research­-and-development lab in Menstrie.

Under the leadership of master blender Jim Beveridge, Walker works to maintain the consistency of the world’s best­selling Scotch whisky brand, Johnnie Walker. She says: “When I joined the company, I loved learning about Johnnie Walker Black Label and how you create flavour during maturation, then bring all those different profiles together. This is an ongoing process – I am learning from my colleagues in malt distilling, grain distilling, in maturation and inventory to understand what goes into that flavour creation.”

For Walker, quality control and innovation are “symbiotic processes”. She explains: “The samples we receive for testing feeds into how we approach our innovation projects, so they go hand in hand. If we are looking at a new way of blending, that feeds back into how we create Johnnie Walker Black Label.”

When exploring new innovations, Walker says the whisky team “does not work in a bubble” and constantly questions how a potential new product will be enjoyed. “If we were to create whiskies just for us, we’d end up with quite a narrow range of styles,” she says. “It’s really important for us to think about who will be drinking the whisky and how they will be drinking it. So we taste the samples straight, over ice, with water and in longer serves.”

One of the most exciting new launches Walker has worked on, she says, was the Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost & Rare series, which contains liquid from Diageo’s closed distilleries. “It’s been great to get to know some of these whiskies and understand how their styles interact with the flavours from the distilleries I know in more detail. I definitely feel really honoured to work with these whiskies that not a lot of people get to try.”

Tour operators

Jonathan Wilson – Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery

Distilleries with top-rate visitor facilities will continue to benefit from growing consumer desire to connect with brands on a deeper level. Last year almost 2m people visited Scotland’s whisky distilleries, an increase of 14% on 2016, according to figures from the Scotch Whisky Association.

Jonathan Wilson is brand home visitor operations manager at Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery – which houses the flagship visitor centre for Bacardi’s Scotch whisky business. “My job is to oversee day-­to-­day visitor operations,” he explains. “I ensure that guests can visit our distillery safely and connect with our brands but not get in the way of production. The job is incredibly varied. In the morning I’ll go through the tour diary and ensure the tour team is ready. There are a lot of risk assessments and spreadsheets, but I also work with our amazing tour team on new innovations.”

After graduating university, Wilson landed his “dream job” at the BBC, but eventually “got fed up sitting in an office talking to the same people every day”. He decided to move into drinks retailing and after completing the WSET Diploma moved to Aberfeldy, which he describes as his “spiritual home”.

In 2000, Aberfeldy opened the Dewar’s World of Whisky to “showcase the Dewar’s archive rather than hiding it away at head office”, according to Wilson. Following a significant investment and rebrand – which saw the site renamed Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery – the distillery won the Scottish Thistle Award for Best Visitor Attraction in Scotland. “I love knowing that I am contributing to a bigger success when our guests share what they have discovered with friends around the world,” says Wilson.

Community & family

Fay Coull – Glen Moray

It takes more than an internal workforce for a distillery to truly thrive: members of the local community play an important role in welcoming tourists and advocating their local brands.

“The help we receive from the Glen Moray team, friends and family makes Glen Moray what it is,” enthuses Graham Coull, master distiller for the Elgin­-based distillery.

And as with any job that includes managing a 24-­hour operation, the support of loved ones is invaluable. “My role is wide and varied,” adds Graham. “The distillery runs 24/7 so I can be called on any time. If there are any issues they have to take priority, so our plans can change at short notice. My wife, Fay, is very understanding and takes it in her stride.”

Fay not only supports Graham in his role, but also works as an unofficial brand ambassador for Glen Moray, attending numerous events at home and abroad.

“Fay throws her heart and soul into all things Glen Moray,” says Graham. “It is a great help to have her beside me at events because we can engage with so many more people – and she is far better at keeping in contact with people through social media!”

Fay manages to balance her unofficial duties with a part-­time job in nursing at the local hospital. “We have four grown­up children who like to come home and help out at events and the distillery as much as they can. They are part of the extended Glen Moray team,” she says.

“I try to be as actively involved as I can be – from helping Graham with tastings to representing Glen Moray on stands at events. I’ve also been lucky enough to co­host dinners with Graham for overseas customers and visitors.

“Graham is actually quite reserved and shy, so I think he’s happy for me to chat and support him in that way.”

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