The buck stops here

The buck stops here

Ian Wisniewski looks at the challenging role of distillery managers

Production | 19 Jan 2007 | Issue 61 | By Ian Wisniewski

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It takes various professions to provide us with malt whisky, starting with the farmers who grow the barley, the maltsters and the peat cutters.That’s before any of the distillery team become involved, including mashmen and stillmen, as well as the lab teams and nosing panels.Then it’s onto the coopers and warehousemen during the aging process, and finally everyone on the bottling line.But while each of these people undertake a specific task, ultimate responsibility for the production process, not to mention everything else that takes place at a distillery, rests with the distillery manager.“It’s a very interesting and well rounded role. My responsibility is from barley coming in, to the mature whisky leaving the site, and everything in between,” says Highland Park’s Russell Anderson.That’s plenty to be getting on with. But handling the intricacy of the production process is only one aspect of the job.“If you spend time, money and resources training the team there’s more knowledge, which also helps morale. The more skilled your team the more efficient your plant will be, and I invest a lot of my time in coaching and training staff. The more knowledge someone has in their role there’s a knock on effect in terms of Health & Safety and environmental issues. You can’t separate this from producing and aging whisky,” adds Russell.Beginning his career at Glenrothes as a process operator, covering all aspects of production and warehousing, Russell was appointed brewer (effectively assistant manager) at Highland Park in 1995. Becoming distillery manager at Macallan in 1998, Russell returned to Highland Park as distillery manager in 2000.The emphasis on staff training means a comprehensive approach.“I believe in explaining to staff why we do everything a certain way, and not just having them do it because they’ve been told to do it in a certain way. You need to take it a step further and explain why,” says Russell.With Highland Park one of the few distilleries undertaking malting and peating on-site, this means an additional range of responsibilities, as well as training and explaining. And as malting is influenced by factors which are themselves variable, decisions are based on constant monitoring.“If the steeping regime needs to be changed that would be my decision, in consultation with others in my team. I get the water uptake results from the lab and decide on the length of time the barley is underwater and the water temperature,” says Russell.Everyone who’s been a manager at one distillery does of course have a head start when moving to another. But then every distillery also has its own individual character, so knowing one hardly means you know them all.“Each time you move to another distillery you’ve got to relearn everything you’ve already learned, as each distillery has idiosyncrasies, and initially you’re looking at every aspect of the production process to get to know the distillery,” says Stuart Robertson, distillery manager for Springbank, as well as the maltings and neighbouring Glengyle.Stuart joined Springbank in July, 2006, after 16 years experience at Diageo. Starting his career at Roseisle maltings, Stuart completed a trainee manager’s course, then worked at distilleries including Linkwood, Glen Elgin and Cragganmore. He was site operations manager at Strathmill, Inchgower and Auchroisk before joining Springbank.As Springbank produces a range of malts this automatically extends Stuart’s role. “We use three different distilling techniques and three different types of malt. Longrow is heavily peated and double distilled, Springbank, which is lightly peated, is two and a half times distilled, while Hazleburn is unpeated and is triple distilled,” says Stuart.While it didn’t take long for Stuart to see new make spirit produced under his managership, it will be quite some time before it matures. “It’s a long time before you see the end results, and it’s interesting to see how it matures on the way. It’s between myself and Frank (McHardy) to lay down future stock,” says Stuart.With various distilleries having become major visitor attractions, the traditional role of a distillery manager has also extended to being a host.“I’m very busy with the distillery tours and telling customers about whiskies in our shop.The distillery production process is the most important part of the job, ensuring the production process is run efficiently and that the spirit quality is of the highest standard.There are only three people including myself that carry out the mashing, distilling and warehousing, so it’s a very hands on role which makes the job all the more interesting.When all the heavy work is done it’s back to the office to catch up on some paperwork,” says Edradour’s James McGown.Becoming distillery manager at Edradour in November, 2006, James was previously assistant distillery manager at Springbank for the last six years, within a total of 14 years at Springbank.As various situations can arise at a distillery outside the usual working hours, managers also have to be prepared for extra sessions.“I live on-site so I’m on call 24/7. Holidays are taken in the shut-down period during the summer, when maintenance is also arranged,” says James McGown.Russell Anderson adds, “I’m on call once every three weeks, we have a week each with my two supervisors, just in case anything should go wrong. I live 200-300 metres from the distillery, so I’m not on-site, but I am!” As though there isn’t already enough going on at the distillery, there’s also a growing demand for distillery managers to make offsite appearances.After all, whisky fans and sales teams in various countries are eager to meet them.“I recently spent two weeks in the United States, I was in New York, then Miami, Dallas, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles, I enjoy that aspect of it,” says Russell Anderson.“I’ve got two very good supervisors on site, a warehouse supervisor and a production supervisor, which allows me to travel. I know I can leave the site with this team and it’s reassuring to know that I’m leaving everything in good hands.” Among the many facets of the job, distillery managers inevitably have their favourites. “I like the aroma as I walk into the maltings, I still enjoy walking about the maltings, and picking up the malt, you test your wits against mother nature. I also enjoy interacting with the guys,” says Russell Anderson.For Stuart Robertson, “My favourite area is seeing folk enjoying the product. In terms of the job it’s the distillation process and meeting that quality.” Meanwhile, Laphroaig’s John Campbell says, “I like the scope, that I can be doing anything, I definitely need to keep involved in production, and that’s my area of expertise, but it’s also very important to do paperwork.“I also like to meet people and the Friends of Laphroaig, to see the passion people have.Visitors to the distillery are very seasonal, mainly April-October, but it’s lengthening every year.” The distillery was always a landmark for John. “Laphroaig was the closest distillery to my house when growing up, and the one I thought I knew best. You don’t realise the importance of the distillery until you’re older.I used to come up and play football at Laphroaig as a child, and for Christmas parties to meet Santa.” John’s first job in the industry was warehouseman at Laphroaig in 1994.“The traditional route at the distillery is to start there before working in the maltings, mashing and distilling, then you’ve done all the processes,” he says.Leaving Laphroaig for seven months in 2001, he worked at Ardmore and Tormore to gain additional experience as a process manager. He returned to Laphroaig as the brewer, and assistant to Iain Henderson.“I learned a lot from Iain, and from everyone else, seeing how and why they do things. A lot of it is down to you to show ambition, and willingness to learn,” says John.This approach certainly paid off on one memorable day in January 2006.“The offer wasn’t even out of my manager’s mouth and I accepted the job of distillery manager,” says John. “It doesn’t get any better for an Ileach !”
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