People

Reach for the Skye

Caroline Whitfield decided to give up life in the fast lane in London and decided to set up a distillery in The Shetlands instead. Tom Bruce-Gardyne reports
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
One morning in June 2002, Caroline Whitfield found herself doing some internet research on the Shetland Isles.Living in London with her Scottish husband and pregnant with child number three, she was searching for a bolt-hole –somewhere to escape from terrorist threats and dirty bombs. She had been to the islands as a child and says she “quite likes remote, extreme places” having been brought up in the far north of Canada with an English mother and Scandinavian father.He was an inventor “full of lots of wild ideas that worked” says Caroline who feels she resembles him in many ways.Sitting at her computer, Caroline was about to have ‘a wild idea’ of her own.“Fifty two per cent of the land is covered in peat and basically the rest is covered in water,” she says, recalling what she learned that morning.“In other words it was perfect for whisky. So where’s the whisky distillery? Hang on, there IS no whisky distillery! It was so immediately damned obvious!”The next day she was on the phone to Shetland Enterprise.With a law degree from Oxford and an MBA from INSEAD, Caroline had worked abroad for Unilever and then in the United Kingdom for the toy manufacturer, Hasbro.Then came a stint as a ‘corporate incubator’ during the dot-com boom where she worked with the drinks giant, Diageo. With a well-developed knack of picking winners, she felt increasingly frustrated at seeing some of her brightest ideas taken up by others. This time no-one was going to get in her way.Caroline was not the first to dream of building a distillery on the Shetlands. There had been at least three people before, but whether anyone had quite the same ballsy determination is another matter.There were plenty of sceptics nonetheless. For a start there had never been a history of whisky making on the island due to a lack of barley – surely the transport costs would be prohibitive?Well, let’s do some sums, she thought. Picking up her calculator, she punched in some numbers, and came up with 26p a bottle – a premium that most whisky lovers can probably live with.As the plans took shape, a growing band of enthusiasts have joined the project. Among them are whisky expert, Dr Jim Swann and master distiller, John McDougall who has worked for Laphroaig and Springbank. There was also the man who gave us Bailey’s Irish Cream, the great
drinks innovator, Tom Jago. The islanders themselves became enthusiastic as did Shetland Enterprise. The only problem was how to raise the funds. Caroline toured the country talking to others who had set up distilleries such as George Christie at Speyside and Arthur Davis in Wales.She decided the company, called Blackwood Distillers after her husband, had to start producing gin, vodka and a new cream liqueur developed by Tom Jago. This would get the business up and running while the distillery was being built and the whisky left to mature in cask.But she still needed money. So, with business plan in hand, she set off to charm the City and had the door repeatedly slammed in her face. It
seems the corporate moneymen couldn’t get to grips with the idea. When asked for the umpteenth time why Scotland needed another distillery, she gave up.“You just think, I don’t have time to educate people who are really not interested. Private individuals got it in nano-seconds.”Instead, the distillery is being funded by 135 shareholders from all over the world. Some are personally involved, others just have a belief that because the project is so unique and fascinating it has to succeed.With the white spirits and cream liqueur starting to sell at home and abroad, the omens look promising. Even one or two institutions are having second thoughts. Too bad if they’ve missed the boat.The aim is to root the whisky on the island and make it as authentic as can be. One or two farmers on Shetland have thought about reintroducing the traditional ‘beer’ barley that once grew here, and the hope is to use as much of it as possible.First, however, the distillery has to be built. The site chosen is an old RAF base by the sea (pictured left) and a local architect has already drawn up plans. Planning permission was due on April 1st. And now?“A queue of people with spades four miles long,” says Caroline. “The target is whisky in barrels for Christmas.”