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SB meets… Caitlin Heard, The Borders Distillery

From the classroom to the still room, 23-year-old Caitlin Heard tells The Spirits Business about her role at The Borders Distillery in Hawick, Scotland, and what she thinks needs to be done to attract more young women into the world of distilling.

Cailtin Heard went straight from sitting her school exams to working at The Borders Distillery

What made you decide to become a distiller? What is your background and training?

I started working at The Borders Distillery straight from school, so came into the role looking for my next step.

I worked initially part-time while studying for and sitting my Highers, had a weekend in Alton Towers to celebrate the end of school and that was me.

There were a few things about a career in distilling that really appealed to me. I knew that it would be very mechanical – my dad was a mechanic and I would help him out in the workshop every day after school and at weekends, so that was an aspect of the job that I was really up for.

Biology and chemistry were my favourite subjects at high school and both have been hugely helpful in understanding the distilling process, although learning something in a book and then applying it in real life are worlds apart.

Since I’ve joined the distillery I’ve had training in all kinds of things, including going on a brewing and distilling course, first aid certification, and forklift driving (so we can move casks about in the warehouse).

As team leader, what are you daily responsibilities at The Borders Distillery – what does an average day look like for you?

My job has changed a bit since I was made team lead a few months ago. While I used to spend most of my time in the still room or warehouse, or leading guided tours, now I spend around two days on production and three days behind a laptop planning the production schedule, managing the staff rota and monitoring the production targets. The distillery is operational seven days a week and the teams work in shifts to maximise production time.

The Borders Distillery was the first Scotch whisky distillery to open in the Scottish Borders since 1837

How do you think brands and distilleries should and could recruit more young female distillers?

I think we need to show that distilling can be a job for anyone who is keen to work hard and produce great-quality product.

We don’t hire based on industry experience, just that you’re the right fit for the job. Hawick has a manufacturing background, so I think it’s second nature to the people here to feel at home in a factory environment. It kind of comes with the territory of being based in the Borders. 

I do think we, as an industry, can make progress by working more closely with schools, colleges and universities to show distilling as a possible and exciting career path. That’s the ethos we’ve taken on at the Borders Distillery, where we hire based on attitude and aptitude – everything else can be taught. 

What are your career aspirations?

I aspire to reach a managerial position that will allow me to introduce more young people to the production process of Scotch whisky.  If I’m going to be able to achieve this, I would still want to run production because there is no better feeling than being told someone loves the whisky you make. It can really make your day.  

The distillery boasts two wash stills, two spirit stills and a specially commissioned Carter Head still

What have you learned so far in your career that has been priceless to you?

I’m always told not to think the worst, not to set up for failure. But, it’s in my nature to always be prepared and preempt a potential problem rather than face the fallout after the fact, which can have huge a knock-on effect.

The weather can wreak havoc with production – it’s the biggest variable we deal with and so I’m always checking the forecast and planning ahead, working through various scenarios and figuring out solutions to minimise any impact adverse weather may have.

Who is someone in the industry that you look up to?

James Casey who is on our distilling team. He started out in the industry about the same age as me and worked his way up the ladder from the warehouse floor. He retired after a very long and successful career but wasn’t quite ready to completely hang up his hat, so joined us part-time back in 2018. It’s been an absolute privilege to learn under him.

The Borders Distillery officially opened in 2018, and last year it released a Navy Strength Gin made with barley grown within 33 miles of the distillery.

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