People

In conversation (Evan Thomas Cattanach)

Charles MacLean meets Evan Thomas Cattanach, long-term Distillery Manager and now Director of Scotch Knowledge for Schefflin & Somerset in New York
By Charles MacLean
Evan Thomas Cattanach made malt whisky for 33 years before becoming a Global Brand Ambassador for Johnnie Walker and the Classic Malts. His tall and imposing figure, invariable dressed in the kilt, is well-known by lovers of Scotch whisky in five continents.CM I think you are a Highlandman, Evan?
EC Yes, I was born in Kingussie in 1935, just down the road from Dalwhinnie Distillery. For generations my people have come from there. We are called ‘the race of the wild-cat’, Clan Chattan, which includes the Macphersons and the Mackintoshes, and are supposedly descended from a Gaulish tribe – the Catti – driven out of Gaul by the Romans.CM Do you number many distillers among your ancestors?
EC Many distillers, both legal and illegal. But also farmers, engineers and soldiers – and shinty players: Kingussie is the heartland of shinty. I joined the whisky industry in 1961 and have worked in 15 distilleries; as Manager at Linlithgow, Lagavulin, Dalwhinnie, Caol Ila, Coleburn and Cragganmore, then Cardhu between 1986 and 1993.CM You will have seen some changes …
EC I have. I first worked at Balmenach Distillery at Cromdale, Speyside. Like most distilleries in those days, it was direct fired by coal. The fire had to be stoked manually, and when the stills came in, physically pulled out, so the still would not boil over. There were no sight-glasses in the spirit stills at Balmenach; we had to judge how high up the neck of the still the low wines were rising by banging a wooden ball against the side and judging by the echo. Most distilleries in the 1960s still had their own maltings, augmented by supplies from central maltings. This meant there was more staff in every place: 25 or 30 people. When the maltings closed, this was reduced to 16 or 20. Now the average is eight.CM Have these changes affected the character of the spirit?
EC I don’t think so. Floor maltings produce very variable malt, which makes for erratic spirit quality and quantity. Although direct fired stills were equipped with copper rummagers to prevent solid particles in the wash sticking to the base of the still, they could not be excluded altogether, and this could give the new make a scorched character. I have done comparative tastings of Cardhu made in the late 60s and the late 80s, when I was Manager, and there was no noticeable change in the style of the mature whisky.CM What other changes?
EC The most noticeable change is in openness. Until Guinness took over, the DCL was incredibly secretive. Managers were not supposed to talk to one another. They were there to do what they were told, and had no connection whatsoever with the other parts of the business – blending, marketing, sales, and so on. Allowing members of the public or journalists inside a distillery was unheard of, though occasionally groups from within the company were shown round.CM It was one such group that changed my career. It was in 1983. I was at Cragganmore, when a group of people from EC Johnnie Walker were being shown round. I must have said something right, for the next thing I was asked to go to Cardhu, where they had just re-packaged the single malt and wanted to promote it and the place more vigorously. I did my first overseas tour, to the USA, in 1985 (the centenary of the distillery), by which time sales of the malt had increased 200-fold in three years.CM After this you moved more into a ‘brand ambassadorial’ role?
EC Yes, but I was still Manager of Cardhu Distillery. I was the first production person to be sent ‘on the road’. Between 1985 and 1993 I visited 40 different countries, many of them several times, mainly talking about Johnnie Walker – for which Cardhu is the ‘heart-malt’ and the spiritual home – talking to distributors and sales people, but also to journalists and consumers as well. I did 91 Walker training programmes in New York alone. My largest audience was 365 people in Chile, with two simultaneous translators! After 1993 I retired from production to work full-time as a Brand Ambassador, and since 1999 have been based in New York, working for Shiefflin & Somerset, Guinness UDV’s American partner. The increase in interest in Scotch whisky – particularly malt whisky – in the last decade is phenomenal, as is the general increase in knowledge about it. Increasing sales is all about increasing knowledge. The subject is inexhaustible, and nowadays it is not enough just to trot out some glib marketing message. People want substantial information as well as good stories.CM You’ll have plenty of these, Evan?
EC Well, I’ve been in the trade a long time. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than talking about Scotland, the Scots and Scotch whisky.