Robin Shields isn't from Islay. He's not Scottish. And he doesn't have a distillery background. But as Martine Nouet finds out, he's up for the challenge of protecting the reputation of Laphroaig
Robin Shields, Laphroaig’s new distillery manager faces more than a challenge: He’s taking over from living legend Iain Henderson, discovering a brand-new job after 25 years in the brewing industry, and shifting from a mainland urban way of life to an island community.All challenging issues that Robin welcomes with a serene and determined smile, as if nothing could shake this rock of a man. With a beer brewer’s background, Yorkshire-born Robin Shields has shifted to distilling at one of the most emblematic of Scottish distilleries.The new Laphroaig distillery manager took up his new position just a few weeks ago, before the Islay Whisky Festival kicked off.I met him right after his baptism of fire – on Laphroaig Day – the last day of the festival. We were both exhausted and did not even think of invigorating ourselves with a dram of Laphroaig.Instead we stuck to tea and biscuits, whilst chatting in the distillery manager ‘s office. The whole place was silent.Quite a change from the bustling morning with visitors queuing for tours and two fully booked masterclasses.”When I came to Laphroaig for a week in February, just before starting six weeks training at the Speyside distilleries of Allied Domecq,” Robin remembers, ”I was sitting there with a dram. And I saw two grey seals popping their head out of the water. I thought : I am at work and I can enjoy this beauty. I love my new life.”This is a new life that was meant to be. When Robin Shields was offered the job as Laphroaig distillery manager at the end of 2002 – a kind of Christmas present – he could not help but see a fantastic twist of fate in the new path he was taking.A highly qualified brewer, Robin Shields nearly applied for a job at Laphroaig a good 20 years earlier. That was in 1981. Robin had started working as a biochemist with Bass Brewing and was preparing his diploma from the Institute of Brewing.He read an ad in the Brewers’ Guardian for an assistant distillery manager position.“I think that if I had applied, I would have stood a chance with three years experience. But my heart told me I needed to have brewery experience first – five years at least. So I decided not to go through with it.”Although he failed pursuing the original vacancy 20 years ago, Robin Shields is certainly familiar with the dram. The first thing he did after having read the advert was to taste Laphroaig, which was to become one of his favourite tipples.“ I would not want to do a job just for the sake of money.“The passion in my work seemed to be alcohol-related, right from the beginning.”While studying biochemistry at the University of Bath, young Robin undertook key work placements.The first one was with Bass Brewing, which was to offer him his first post after graduation a few years later.During this first six month placement, Robin was working on a research program about genetics in yeast.“In the ‘70s, industry was innovative, looking for new methods to improve quality without increasing cost.“These manipulations of yeast were aimed to try and change certain characteristics. It did not work.”But the research was fascinating and so were the daily quality control meetings in the sampling room, to which Robin was regularly invited.“There I saw brewers getting paid to enjoy themselves. That’s probably why it struck a chord later !” he confesses.Robin’s passion for beer goes back to his youth.“It developed through the years. I started drinking beer slightly under legal age. I used to go to a local pub.“At that time, nearly all the beer you could drink was brewery conditioned beer. In my first year of university, these were the early years of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) which promoted cask conditioned beers in the early ‘70s.“CAMRA came to the fore in 1975. The student bar offered a full range of beers. Only one was cask conditioned.“I graduated in 1978. The same bar was as full of beers as ever. Only one beer was brewery conditioned.”Robin acknowledges the educating role of CAMRA and draws a comparison with whisky.“All beer enthusiasts agree that cask conditioned beers are much nicer. They show a greater variety of styles and tastes and more complexity.“We could say that brewery conditioned beers are to cask conditioned ones what blended whiskies are to single malts. Cask conditioned beers are a cult, a niche market, more or less like single malts.”Bass Brewing not only had a major impact on his professional life. It also changed his private life as it was during this first work placement that he met his wife Maggie, who was born in Scotland. They married in 1978.No wonder Scotland was their favourite holidays destination. They toured Bonnie Scotland more than one time, camping with young Jamie and Ben, their two sons.“This is the time when I visited distilleries, especially in Speyside. I also visited Edradour.“Many, many years later, whisky became a secondary passion. I started collecting miniatures, maybe just because I could not afford to buy 75 cl bottles! “A few hundred miniatures later, Robin finds himself explaining the ins and outs of kilning, mashing and distilling to daily crowds of visitors.That very special enthusiasm from whisky aficionados, which makes some friends of Laphroaig go on a pilgrimage to the peat bog and plant a flag on their square foot, is a source of astonishment for Laphroaig’s new distillery manager.“There is not such passion in the beer industry. What strikes me is that star system in the whisky industry. I was asked all day long to sign bottles of Laphroaig at the reception centre. I kept saying to people your bottle will lose in value if I sign it but they insisted.”It is a real challenge to take over from a living legend like Iain Henderson. The shadow of the man who ate Laphroaig, thought Laphroaig and slept Laphroaig, as his assistant once described him to me, still floats in the distillery and is imprinted in the minds of visitors.But Robin Shields seems to be comfortable with it. He could easily have kept out of the limelight at the Whisky Festival. But he was cool, calm and collected and visibly enjoyed himself.His first masterclass was given in a relaxed but studious atmosphere. Then Robin took the participants to the warehouse and gave them a sip of an unusual 13 year-old from a sherry cask.No-one paid attention to the cask nearby with Iain Henderson’s hand-written message and signature : ”last cask filled by Iain Henderson.”When it comes to talking about the future Robin politely side steps the question.”I was brought here as a guardian of the past to preserve the heritage. At the same time, I must be mindful of the present.“I am keen on working on environmental and safety issues and get through all that without changing the quality.“Learning is important and interesting enough. I get very focused. I am not the sort of person who switches off at five o’clock.”Any ideas about bringing in new versions of Laphroaig? Robin confesses his preference for the 15-year-old – “more than adequate at £28 “ and his suspicion of all finishes.He also says a few words about the interest of distilling Laphroaig home malted barley on its own. Could we expect some limited bottlings of home malted Laphroaig in the future?Pure speculation for the moment! Robin is more talkative about his personal projects:“I enjoy gardening. The garden round my house is huge. In Bessie Williamson’s time, it was magnificent and so well kept. I’d like to restore the garden to that past condition. That’s a big challenge.”Listening to him, the Laphroaig motto comes in mind:“Love it or hate it, no half measure.”Take it or leave it, running a distillery will not make Robin Shields different from what he is. That’s the man’s message.Another cup of tea ?
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