People

I think a lot more is known than people realise (Dr Gordon Steele)

Ian Wisniewski talks to Dr Gordon Steele,director of The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI),located near Edinburgh.
By Ian Wisniewski
IAN
How would you describe the role of the research institute?GORDON
We go all the way through from raw materials to bottling problems, it’s very comprehensive.We have a core of projects that we have to deliver on, some short term, some long term.We have a membership that covers about 98 per cent of the industry.Our staff are a mixture of pharmacists, food technologists, chemists, a broad base of different skills.There are surprising amounts of innovation within Scotch whisky to be looked at.IAN
Is demand for information across various areas fairly even?GORDON
Yes, and it’s an illustration that Scotch whisky flavour comes from the whole process, not just one particular area.The thing that works best is a dedicated help line, people phone up and say tell me about X, so we do.One of the great pleasures of the job is that you get to see all the whisky companies, who are effectively trying to do the same thing, they all have the same problems, they all have different strategies of tackling it, and that’s really interesting, trying different approaches.What they require from us is very different in terms of knowledge.IAN
What’s known about malt whisky has increased enormously, while speculating on what isn’t yet fully known is also very interesting.GORDON
I think a lot more is known than people realise.We certainly understand perfectly well how to make it, we do understand where malt whisky flavours come from, what the main drivers are – there aren’t just main drivers, there’s a whole load, every little nuance in the system has a nuance on the flavour.IAN
What is the real key to discovering more about production, assigning the required work hours or developing the required technology?GORDON
It’s a combination of the two, the technology has to be very sophisticated, particularly when it comes to flavour, so it’s not the pieces of kit being that unusual, but having people with the skills to look at the results and interpret what they mean.IAN
So howdo you recruit the right people?GORDON
With difficulty.Everyone has a degree or second degree, phd, we also look within the industry itself which is obviously a good source, but we also have to spend a lot of money on training.We have a structure, research scientists and senior research scientists, and people work their way up. We also have a number of phd students and that really keeps us connected into academia. There are 23 of us.IAN
Do staff usually focus on one speciality or move across?GORDON
We have people who move across but there tends to be a bit of a split between biologists and chemists, raw materials tends to be biology, maturation and distillation is more into the chemistry of it.IAN
How do you decide on your list of projects?GORDON
Through consultation with members, ideas can come from ourselves, the industry, and they go into our research management committee, made up of a wide range of people from the industry, blenders, distillers, people involved in the purchase of raw materials, they all have some development role and decide on the projects, and the priorities for those projects. The board then decides on the overall funding.IAN
How do you see the next five years at the SWRI?GORDON
It will change with demand from our members, seeing new markets opening up, seeing new production targets going up. And we can see the world changing in terms of the whole sustainability issue, so that is where we’re really going to be involved. It’s not that we’re going to have less things to do, as there’s more and more demand actually. If production targets are going up but there’s pressure on us to use less energy, produce less waste, how are we going to be able to do that? Can we do that?Yes, of course we can, those are new areas that are coming, with a background of obviously keeping the costs under control, quality issues are never going to go away. I see an increasing role for the SWRI. I came from a science background and it’s far wider than I ever imagined it would be, I like the variety, you don’t know what’s round the corner, though one thing you do know is that there is something round there.