People

Frank's wild years (Frank McHardy)

Frank McHardy has given his life to whisky. He's now installed in the newest distillery in Scotland and he's a proud man. Dave Broom spoke to him about his exceptional career
By Dave Broom
It’s hard to recall what it once looked like. The last time. When it was just a vast empty barn with no windows and a thick layer of pigeon guano.Now we walk on a clanging metal floor hanging high above the floor heading towards the pair of stills framed at the end of this mezzanine platform.He doesn’t give much away does Frank, but on this occasion he’s exploding with pride. All his four decades in whisky have been poured into this, the newest distillery in Scotland.And Frank? Well Frank has come full circle. 40 years ago he was looking at the same two stills he’s now installed in the Glengyle distillery. They originally sat inside the Invergordon grain distillery where they (very occasionally) made Ben Wyvis malt and it was at Invergordon where Frank got his first job in the trade.He swept floors in those days. Now he’s running one distillery which malts,distils, ages and matures three whiskies on site and designing and building another.Invergordon. The Cromarty Firth. A place where they think big, from the earth-mapping musings of the great geologist Hugh Miller, to the building of oil rigs to making whisky.When the Invergordon distillery was built in 1961 Frank was working land. He’d left school at 14 with no qualifications.He ended up on the farms and going to agricultural college on day release. His father landed the job of personnel manager at Invergordon and his family moved there in 1963. Frank went and doubled his wages, one of the 180 people working at the plant.He was like any young lad. The job gave him enough cash to go and enjoy himself stalking deer, shooting, playing football. As he recalls, the main criteria for getting a job there was that you either played football or the bagpipes. It was a job. Nothing more.Three years later he moved as a shift worker to the newly built Tomnavoulin (aka Tamnavulin).“At that time there was a culture of drink, but I managed to steer clear of it.”Or so he says. There’s always a twinkle in his eye and his wealth of stories about pails filled with new make being whisked away from under the noses of the gaugers, the cunning use of self-tapping screws and many more suggests he was more involved than he protests to be.“Dramming was the culture. We’d all get three glasses of new make a day. Do a dirty or difficult job and it’d be ‘have a dram boys’. God knows how any work got done or how there wasn’t a serious accident.”The previous night I’d driven with a friend round the southern tip of Kintyre. Down to Southend with its views of Sanda and Ireland, to Machrihanish where we looked across to Islay’s Kildalton coast, the dark Mull of Oa and to Rathlin Island.If you believe whisky was brought to Dalriada by Celtic monks, then this is the spirit’s cradle. Kintyre. Islay. Ireland. Frank has worked in all of them.On April 1 1973, he started as working brewer at Bruichladdich.Islay suited him. Unlike many incomers from the mainland the closeness of the community appealed to him. It was also here amid a life of darts, pool and ceilidhs that he began thinking of whisky as a career.“As you assume responsibility so you take responsibility for your own life. It was there I developed a love for the industry.”Four years later there was another step up the ladder when he sailed across to Kintyre to became assistant manager to Roy Allen at Springbank, eventually taking up the reins when Roy retired in 1979.“Roy taught me about book work, but there was the added carrot of Springbank being a one-off. With Invergordon you’d never see your bosses. Here I’d be responsible to the MD alone and there wouldn’t be the same paper chasing.” It suggests that Frank’s personality suits this place. A place where the buck stops with him, where he has a direct say in the whisky-making process.Where tradition is important. He is from the old school and shares the attitudes and fears of his generation of managers who were almost the last to be able to work their way up from the shop floor.“I wouldn’t say I’m old-fashioned, but it is important that we carry things on in the same way.“We’re removed from the rest of the industry, but it’s interesting to see folk coming back to our way of thinking. Jim McEwan, Iain Henderson, myself, we’re the association of old codgers, who like traditional methods of making whisky – no accountants swarming about the place.”It might then seem strange given this aversion to accountants and paper-chasing that in 1986 Frank nipped across the North Channel to become manager at Bushmills.“I saw it as another way of furthering my career. The position carries clout and everyone likes to be respected.”He was also making whisky again. His first spell at Springbank had coincided with a downturn in production. At Bushmills he oversaw a distillery which was expanding.There was also more long-term planning.“Marketing guys have pipe dreams, but production have their feet on the ground, so at Bushmills we worked hand in hand and it’s something I’ve applied here.“There had been no forward planning at Springbank, now we have a 20 year plan.Some hard decisions were made, but sales and production are now tied in, we have a smaller range and all our production is ploughed into our own brands.”The downside was accountants watching his every move.“I had to get better yields every year but make the whisky cheaper every year.”It wasn’t just dry business plans he brought back. At Bushmills Frank learned about the contribution wood makes to a whisky’s flavour from the man he calls Irish Distillers’ greatest asset – Brendan Monks.Frank arrived at the time when Brendan was embarking on a review of all of Irish Distillers’ wood – chucking most of it out. Much the same happened at Springbank when Frank returned. At least he’d beaten his jinx: Ben Wyvis barely operated, Tamnavulin closed, Bruichladdich mothballed, Springbank barely running.He was the Jonah of the whisky before some Irish good fortune came his way. It was enough to make him contemplate early retirement. Then came a call from Springbank. In August 1996 he returned.He pats the side of the Glengyle still. It’s been a long journey. He’s changed in those four decades and so has whisky.“I’ve seen the upsurge of interest in malts, the de-manning of distilleries and the industry being dominated by one major player. One is good, the other two I regret. Making whisky isn’t a chemical engineering exercise, but now you have chemistry and engineering graduates becoming managers. How is the expertise going to be passed on if you’ve got some chemist telling you what to make?”But the old buggers association is fighting its corner.Glengyle is the latest manifestation of the rise of a new, small, confident, independent sector. The shabby old building has been re-roofed, repointed and now houses a simply designed, logically set-out distillery.Light floods in through the new velux windows. It should be open in March 2004. When will it’s Kilkerran Malt appear? That’s up to Frank.Is this your legacy to the industry, Frank?“It’s just nice to look at a bottle and think that I was there when that was made. That’s every manager’s legacy: to be remembered in liquid form.”And he is.