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Howmanyofushavethoughtaboutgivingitallupandstartingafreshasaworkerintheworldofwhisky?RichardJonesspeakstosomepeoplewhohavedonejustthat
By Richard Jones
Goon,admitit,thethoughthascrossedyourmind.Thereyouwereafteradistillerytour,onedramsafelyinsideyouandanotherinyourhand,quietlysoakinguptheatmosphere,thehistory,thegeneralwonderfulnessoftheplace.Orperhapsyouwereenjoyingaformaltasting,evenaMasterclassatthisyear’sWhiskyLive,listeningtothelikesofIainHendersonorRichardPatersonregaleyouwithtalesfromtheirenviableworkinglives–thecolourfulcharacters,overseastraveland,ofcourse,thegreatwhiskies.Oryoumightsimplyhavebeenrelaxinginthehavenofyourownhome,pouringyourselfaSpringbank21yearoldafteraharddayattheoffice,whenitcametoyou.Whynotturnmypassionforwhiskyintosomethingmore?DoingsomethingIreallyloveforaliving,leavingthedailygrindbehindanduppingstickstoaremotedistilleryinanidylliclocation?Inshort,whydon’tIgoandworkinthewhiskyindustry?ForJimCook,nowtheUnitedKingdomsalesdirectoratGlenmorangie,evenacareerinprofessionalfootballcouldnotcomparetowhisky.“It’sprobablyeveryyoungschoolboy’sdreamtobeafootballerandplayforhisfavouriteteam,”heremarks.“ButonceIfulfilledthisambition,Ineededtodosomethingdifferent,Ineededtomoveon.”JimplayedforthetwoEdinburghfootballclubs,HeartsandHibernian,beforefinishinghisplayingdaysatKilmarnock.“MyteamstravelledquiteextensivelyinEuropeandsoIcameacrossalotofdutyfreeshops.“That’swhenIbegantodevelopapassionforwhisky,particularlymaltwhisky.“WhenIcametotheendofmycareertherewasneveranyquestionofstayinginfootball.Iwantedanewchallenge.”First,Jimheadedbacktocollege,beforetakingupasalespositionatthedairyfirmUnigate.Usingtheexperiencehegainedthere,hemovedtoAlliedBrewers,sellingwhiskiessuchasTeachersandBallantynes.“WithinthreeyearsofleavingfootballIwasworkinginthewhiskyindustry.Howeveritwasmaltwhiskythatreallyinterestedme,soIjumpedatthechancetomovetoGlenmorangie.I’venowbeenhereformorethan20yearsandit’sbeenimmenselyfulfilling.”DouglasDavidson,currentlymanagingdirectorofIsleofArranDistillers,alsoplayedprofessionalfootball,plyinghistradeinitiallyforPartickThistleinGlasgowandthenforSelkirkintheScottishborders.“InthosedaysmostteamsinScotlandonlyhadsmallsquadsoffull-timeplayers,”heobserves.“SoIalwayshadanotherjobduringmyfootballdays,trainingtwoorthreenightsaweek.”Douglasenteredthewhiskyindustryrelativelyrecentlyafteradistinguishedcareerinanumberofdifferentsectors.“IbeganasapersonnelmanagerintheCivilService,eventuallybecomingthepersonneldirectorofalargetextilebusiness.Ithenworkedasmanagingdirectorforanumberoftextileandclothingorganisations,beforesettingupmyownconsultancy–allwithaninternationalflavour.“WhenthechancecametojoinArran,Iwasdelightedtohavetheopportunitytoheadasmallteamagain,especiallyinanindustrywithsomanyoverseasmarkets,marketswhichIalreadyknewwellfrommytextileandconsultancydays.”IfCookandDavidsonmaketherouteintotheindustrysoundrelativelystraightforward,thepathchosenbyEricVermeire,nowdutymanagerattheFamousGrouseExperience,wasmoretreacherous.“IusedtoworkforadistributioncompanyinEeklo,betweenBrugesandGentinFlanders,Belgium.“Itwaswellpaid,butthejobwasverystressfulwith90to100hourweeks.Ihardlygottoseemywifeanddaughters.”EricandhisfamilyhadbeenvisitingScotlandformorethan15yearsandhadfalleninlovewithfirsttheplaceitselfandthenthewhisky.“We’dbeenconsideringamovetoScotlandforsometimebutneverhadthecouragetodoanythingaboutit.Butwhenmymotherdiedatjust56,Idecidedlifewastooshorttolivewithregrets.“IpickedupmyMichaelJacksonbookandbegantoringroundthedistilleries.“GlenturretwasprettyhighonmylistandIwasluckytobeofferedaninterview.FourmonthslaterImovedoverwithmyfamilyandbeganworkingasaseasonalguide.OurhousewasstillonthemarketinBelgium,soitwasaprettystressfultime,butIknewwe’dmadetherightdecision.”HumanresourcesdirectoratGlenmorangie,IanDrysdale,reckonstourguideworkisoneofthebestwaystostartinadistillery.“AlltheGlenmorangiedistilleriestakeontourguidesinthesummermonths,andyoudon’tnecessarilyneedaScottishaccenttobesuccessful.Infactwithsomanyoverseasvisitors,peoplewhocanspeakotherlanguagesareparticularlywelcome.Aknowledgeandpassionforwhiskyisalsoamajoradvantage.”Ofcoursethemajordownsideofsuchworkisthepay,especiallyifyou’removingfromaprofessionalormanagerialjob.“Howeverit’sagreatavenuetodevelopagoodunderstandingofwhiskyproductionandtheinnerworkingsofadistillery,”Ianexplains.And,hemighthaveadded,ifyoucanmakeapositiveimpression,itcaneasilybearoutetobiggerandbetterthings.Forexample,EricVermeirequicklywentfromseasonalguide,tobarsupervisor,todutymanagerattheFamousGrouseExperience.Ifyouareunwillingtodownsizeyourpaycheque,thingscangetmoreproblematicforpotentialcareerchangers.AsIanDrysdaleremarks:“Mostofthetimeapassionforwhiskyisnotenough,we’realsolookingforexperienceinyourchosenfield.Ifyouwanttoworkinmarketing,you’llneedatrackrecordasamarketeerforexample,althoughnotnecessarilyinthewhiskysector.”DouglasDavidsonbelievesitwashisknowledgeofexportingandoverseasmarketsthathelpedhimlandhispositionatIsleofArran.“I’dalreadyworkedinthecashmereindustry,anothertopqualityScottishproduct,andhadacquiredconsiderableinternationalexposure.”Thingsgetevenmoredifficultifyouwanttoworkinthemostimportantand,forwhiskyloversatleast,themostdesirableareaoftheindustry–whiskyproduction.“AtGlenmorangiedistilleriesmostofthepeoplecomeinwithnotraining,they’llnormallyjoinasawarehousemanwhereyouneedtobephysicallyfitandhealthy.Youthenlearnonthejob,andperhapsbecomeareliefoperatorinthemashroomorstillhouse,beforeyou’rereadytodotheworkonapermanentbasis.”Ifyou’repreparedtogobacktoeducation,certainsciencedegreescanprovideafast-trackprogrammeintodistillerymanagementwithsomecompanies,however.Youdon’tevenneedtobecomeafull-timestudent:HerriotWattUniversityinEdinburghnowofferanMBAinBrewingandDistillingbydistancelearning.Onreflection,it’seasytoseewhysomanyofusdecidetokeepourwhiskydreamsintherealmsoffantasy.Aloveofwhiskyisonething,butarewepreparedtoriskeverything,changeourlifestyleand,normally,takeseveralstepsbackwardinpursuitofsomethingmore?Howmanyhogheadswouldyoubepreparedtoheavearoundawarehousebeforeyouearnedthechancetooperateamashtun?Andwouldyourfamilybepreparedtouprootsatthesametimeasyoursalarytookaratherfrighteningnosedive?Forthosepreparedtoleapintotheunknown,however,therewardsspeakforthemselves.“I’menjoyingmyselfimmensely.Ithoroughlyrecommendthewhiskyindustryforanyonewhowantsalongterm,rewardingcareerinachallengingbutenormouslyfriendlyenvironment,“explainsDouglasDavidson.Asyouwouldexpectfromsomeonewhoreallyhasputeverythingontheline,EricVermeireputsitinslightlymoreemotiveterms.“Myonlyregretisthatwedidn’tmakethemove10yearsearlier.“WhenIusedtoliveinBelgium,lotsoffriendsusedtosay‘I’dlovetodothisordothat’.Isaytothem,‘Youdon’thavetosayyouwanttogo.Yougooryoudon’tgo.‘“Becauseintheendthat’sthedeal.”