James and the Staves

James and the Staves

We talk milestones, malt, and music with Arran’s master distiller

People | 21 Mar 2018 | Issue 148 | By Christopher Coates

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When he was just 23, James MacTaggart was offered a role at Bowmore Distillery on Islay after he applied for a job in its office. However, as fate would have it, the then manager Harry Cockburn decided that the young man would be better utilised as a member of the production team. His career in the whisky industry had begun.

During the following decades, James mastered every aspect of the production process, from peat cutting to floor malting, mashing to warehousing. Working at Bowmore was, in his words, ‘the complete experience’. Then, in 2007, the born and bred Ileach received word that Isle of Arran Distillers were looking for a new distillery manager to replace Gordon Mitchell, who was retiring. Just a phone call and a quick meeting later, and James found himself being offered the captain’s chair. It was a proposal he couldn’t refuse. Each week since he has made the journey from his family home on Islay to Lochranza on Arran. It’s quite the commute, but one he feels is more than worth the trouble.
In October 2017, a special edition of the Arran Malt was launched to commemorate James’s 10th year as master distiller and his 40th in the whisky industry. I took the opportunity to have a quick chat with him.

What was your first focus when you started at Lochranza?
When I came in here the wood policy wasn’t great. Unfortunately, at the very beginning of Arran they ran into financial troubles quite quickly, so the wood quality probably went down at that point, but they produced a great spirit. It was the same when I started at Bowmore. For the first 10-15 years there, before Andrew Rankin came in, there was no great wood quality because everything in the Scotch whisky industry was made for blends. It’s only when distilleries decided that they needed to concentrate a lot more on the single malts that the wood policy changed. So it was very clear to me from experience that Arran required a very solid wood policy and when I started the company supported me in that.

Did this mean re-racking the existing stock?
Quite a lot of the older stock had to be re-racked. But it’s not like wine; you can certainly recover spirit by re-racking. We have had a very good wood policy here at Arran for the last 10 years and that’s certainly coming through in the bottlings we’ve got now. It’s a pleasure to work in a company that supports you in what you think is the right thing to do.

Looking back on the past decade, what else has changed at the distillery?
When I came here there was only basically two old warehouses, two stills, and four washbacks. I have been very, very lucky in that the company have supported me in everything. Any design and any additions that I have asked for, I was always given. This site is now probably twice as big as what it was 10 years ago. There’s new offices, blending rooms, VIP lounge… I am very proud of what I have achieved here.

It has been announced that the Isle of Arran Distillers' new site at Lagg will be producing peated spirit. Does this mean the end of Lochranza’s peated make?
In 2008 I started making peated spirit on a more regular basis and I upped the peat level to 20ppm. Then in 2011 we started producing a 50ppm spirit but that’s only about 15 per cent of our production. This coming year we won’t be doing a 50ppm because that’s all going to Lagg. But Lochranza will still be doing a 20ppm spirit for the Machrie Moor expression.

How are things coming along at the Lagg Distillery? Are you heavily involved in the project?
Yes, I am quite heavily involved and I will be involved in designing the stills. We haven’t decided yet exactly what the shape of the stills are going to be down there, but it’s going to be a four-tonne mash, four 20-litre washbacks, and two stills. The type of condensers are still open to discussion too, because we are still deciding on the spirit style and we’re also looking at heat recovery.
It’s very difficult to do heat recovery with worm tubs, but worm tubs will give you a different spirit, generally a more earthy peated spirit. It’s much easier on the shell and tube to do heat recovery for, it’s likely, heating the visitor centre.

When’s the best time to come and visit the distillery?
We welcome visitors all year but you need to come over to our Malt and Music Festival, next year it’s on 30 June. You will see Andy, one of the sales guys, and I perform! I used to play guitar in various bands, you see, so Andy and I have put a band together. He plays the guitar and sings and we’ve got a bass player and a drummer.

Amazing! What do you call yourselves?
Believe it or not, we have gone for… James and The Staves!
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