Iain Henderson: a life less ordinary

Dave Broom talks to Laphroaig's legendary – and now sadly retired – Distillery Manager about the highs and lows of his career and life
By Dave Broom
There aren’t many army deserters who end up being Manager of one of the world’s most prestigious distilleries. It’s a strange journey from drinking arrack and coke on 1,000 mile taxi journeys from Abidjan to Tehran to single malt festivals around the world. You can bet no-one will have a life like this again. It belongs to Iain Henderson.“I wanted to drive a train,” he is saying recalling a boyhood in Fife. “What wee boy didn’t?” What you soon realise with Iain is once he sets his mind to something he usually gets it. Though this was the dawn of the diesel age, he became an apprentice engineer at Burntisland aluminium works because it had three steam locomotives. However, the imminent arrival of his National Service meant his time with trains was a short one. Realising he could earn more money – and keep working with engines – he signed up with the Merchant Navy. Trouble was he forgot to tell the recruitment board. “I left Fife on Friday,” he recalls with a laugh. “On the Monday the police were at my door to find out why I hadn’t reported to Catterick camp. Technically I was a deserter who had run off to sea!”It was a time which defined Iain’s life. Every time he wavered over a return to the land, the sea called him back. Only when when he met his future wife Carol during another attempt to stay ashore did he decide enough was enough.We’re talking in the lounge at Laphroaig, the window looking directly over the bay, waves breaking on the reef, white painted walls of the warehouses like the hull of one of the liners he served. It only seems appropriate that a man who cannot get the sea out of his blood should end up here. Even now, in charge of this tethered vessel, it is the sea which helps to flavour ‘his’ whisky. “I feel better physically living by the sea. When I lived in Glenlivet I always used to think there was something missing. Now I realise it was the sea.” Throughout the day the conversation will ebb and flow as we break off to look out the window at the ever-changing seascape.His whisky journey has been a circular one, starting and now finishing on Islay. “I saw the ad for an Engineer in a distillery (Bunnahabhain), thought how do you top that and applied.” Despite a slightly hairy first flight to Islay – the door on the flying box that served the island flew open half-way down the runway – they arrived and were captivated. “The sun was shining, the sea was blue, it was like paradise sitting at the Port Askaig Hotel with a dram watching the world go by.” It was a culture shock – not just a different career, but one where the men would get 17 free drams per day. He survived the baptism but two years later was on the move again, this time to the recently built dark grains plant attached to The Glenlivet, a distillery he would end up managing. It was boom time, a time when Chivas was expanding. “We did the first mash at Braes with no roof on the building,” he recalls with a laugh. ”The Bronfmans were due to pay their annual visit and the Manager had told them he’d mash on August 1st and we did, roof or no roof!” While he learned a lot about whisky making and quality with Chivas, the changing management structure was not for him. While he’s unfailingly polite about people he worked with, the feeling is this time on Speyside wasn’t the happiest time of his career, so much so that a chance meeting in an Elgin car park with Roy Pettigrew (then Production Director at Bell’s) saw him accepting the Manager’s job at Bladnoch.It meant a switch from flagship Speyside plant to a half-forgotten wreck in the far south-west. The package was a good one, but you suspect that the motivation for taking the Bladnoch job was the challenge which it entailed and a freer role. “At Chivas the Manager was playing less and less of an active role. It took the challenge out of the job. Being told what temperature you should mash at? It didn’t suit me. I’m a fiddler.” He laughs again.There was plenty to fiddle with at Bladnoch. This, it strikes me, was the first time he could really say ‘this is my distillery.’ “Aye, I thought I might be there for the rest of my career – and it was only when UDV took over (Bell’s) that doubts appeared.” By the time those doubts had arisen Iain, Carol and the Bladnoch crew had turned around a broken down distillery into an efficient, profitable plant. He and the men built a visitor centre in their own time and Carol ran it. The engineer was back where he loved to be, getting into the gubbins of the job, welding pipes, fixing boilers while starting a new departure – whisky tourism.Importantly for a man with his character he was in charge. “Bell’s was different in those days,” he says. “Every Manager was his own Managing Director.” Even now he considers Bladnoch his biggest challenge and the one which gave him the greatest satisfaction. Once again though you get the inkling that there was a clash between his Iain’s independent spirit and company practices. Post-UDV takeover he was head-hunted to take over from Colin Ross at the then Burroughs-owned Laphroaig. “I had 10 minutes to decide. It took me just two,” he laughs.It was serendipity that he should end up at Laphroaig. His relationship with the malt goes back a long way. “We were shipping locomotives to Angola and one evening the Chief Steward told us that we’d drunk all the Dewar’s and that the only thing we had left was six bottles of ‘LeapFrog’ – how that bloody word came to haunt us. Now going from Dewar’s to Laphroaig in one step is a bloody culture shock. I was thinking ‘God almighty there’s something wrong with this’.” Still, being good Scots they persevered and by the end of the voyage they had adopted Laphroaig as their dram. “Who would have thought that all those years later that I’d end up working here. Talk about life being pre-ordained.” He chuckles again.When I first met Iain I was terrified of him. He has a way of looking at you which makes you think twice about contradicting him, but this apparently stern mien immediately gives way to generosity. It’s strange to think that he won’t be here telling me about something new, patiently clarifying some detail. How can you have Laphroaig without Iain? He isn’t just the Manager, he is the spirit of the place itself. When he goes not only will the brand lose its fiercest champion, but Islay and the industry one of its most effective lobbyists.He inherits this political streak from his father who fought for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War. “He influenced my mindset. I’m a political agnostic, but I like a good debate,” he says. I wouldn’t fancy being the politician at the end of Iain’s arguments defending the industry. The latest thing to raise his ire is the ‘rain tax’ – a subject we’ll be covering in Whisky Magazine in more detail. His (and the SWA’s) fear is that this tax on water sources could make remote plants such as those on Islay uneconomic.“Accountants will only do so much before they say it’s not worth running these places,” he says. He’s seen it when Allied sold Ardbeg, a plant he’d have retained. ”When that happens the blenders will try to make ‘Islay-type’ whiskies on the
mainland. Ultimately they won’t need this island anymore.”Paranoia? Hardly. He recalls an abortive attempt by Chivas to do just that. “They had a peaty water plant on Lewis and shipped the water over as they believed if you mashed in peaty water you’d get peaty whisky!” He shakes his head and though he grins, the topic of ‘Islay-style malts’ returns to haunt us throughout the day.Political with a small ‘p’, opinionated, a man who gets his own way, he’s a strong-willed individual who will say ‘bugger the lot of you’ if he thinks his way is right. In many ways he bridges the generation between the autocratic managers of the 50s and 60s and the PR-friendly figures of the post-malt whisky boom. “I like people to enjoy their work. If they don’t they’re not good performers. The Manager of a refinery in the Hudson River once told me never to believe that knowledge is power. It is misplaced power. I’ve tried to model myself on that.” Whether consciously or not, his career has been one of trying to retain his individuality and not be dictated to by upper management. He’s leaving at a time when the Manager’s influence is declining. Unbelievably he’s the last Distillery Manager within Allied. It’s a major regret. “I think a lot has been lost by not having a Manager at a distillery. A distillery becomes a production unit when you don’t have a Manager there. I still believe you need some sort of figure. I do regret the demise of the Manager, but as business methods are changing it becomes inevitable.”Are skills in danger of being worked out of the industry? “I think they are. There’s no career structure now. If a young brewer wants to get on there’s no avenue open to him. We’re going down this avenue when everything is being written down and procedure can take the place of experience. This isn’t a job you learn in five minutes, which is something people in other parts of the industry don’t understand.”Yet Iain manages to be not just one of the last old-school Managers but also the public face of Laphroaig, a role which he loves. There again where would the brand have been without his stubborn get-things-done mentality? It was he and Carol, learning from their success at Bladnoch, who started doing public tours at Laphroaig, while the Friends of Laphroaig started from a brainstorming session, the convening of which may surprise many.“Laphroaig’s sales were declining in the early 90s and there was a crunch meeting here to decide what to do with the brand – it was either sell it or try and resurrect it.” It was decided to combine Iain’s in-house ‘Letter from Islay’ with the idea of leasing plots of land to consumers. Today there are 185,000 Friends each with their own square foot of peat bog (though whether they have to pay the rain tax hasn’t been revealed). You wonder if the same crisis had hit a mainland distillery whether the same rescue package would have been tried.Maybe this could only have happened on Islay. I ask if the island has changed him. “It’s made me appreciate things much more,” he replies. “The lifestyle has made me much more tolerant of other people’s views. Maybe that’s the calming influence of the sea.” He looks out the window. “There’s something about this island which has a pull on people. A lot is to do with the friendliness of the people. I’ll miss it desperately.” He pauses, gazes out to sea. Another weather front is passing over the island. He seems to be brooding over something. “We don’t have a big circle of close friends. The other Managers are the closest friends I have. This is an easy place to live.” I presume that he and Carol will stay on, honourary Ileachs. “No. I couldn’t stay here and watch someone else run this place. We’ll possibly go back to Fife. The family are spread over the globe, our sons are all over Britain … ” There’s regret in the voice. Out of the window of this place he’s called home the waves are being churned by the wind. Despite his assured public persona, his ability to entertain and educate he remains private, even shy. “We’re only custodians of these places,” he’d said to me earlier. “I like to think you leave some of yourself when you move on and you can only hope the people who follow on take as much care as you did. I’ve got four things I need to do before I go: there’s the museum area, another area I need to clear up, I have to get the guys a new tractor.”And the fourth?“My garden. In all the places I’ve lived, I’ve moved on when the garden’s finished and it’s almost finished here. I told the guys that and they said we’ll all come and help!”What you must understand is that in Scotland, on the west coast especially, teasing is a form of flattery. It’s Caledonian machismo, not wanting to show too much emotion. I remember the audience’s faces at the Managers’ evening at last year’s Islay Festival; the Managers were ripping into each other. The fact Iain had the most abuse heaped upon him is a mark of their respect. “These guys,” said one bemused man to me at the break, “they really hate him.” No, I correct him, they love him, cherish him. As should we all. We won’t see his like again.