Distillery Focus

The experience game

Gavin D Smith discovers Glentauchers unplugged.
By Gavin D. Smith
The expression ‘unplugged’ in musical circles has come to denote an acoustic set performed by an artist or group.The implication is that there is no electronic wizardry to distract audience attention from technical virtuosity or to act as a ‘safety net.’ It is stripped down to basics, with skill at a premium, and there are no hiding places.The distilling parallel works on the premise that most large-scale, modern distilleries are designed to be operated by a minimum number of people and a maximum number of computer chips. Chips are cheap, by comparison with today’s relatively well recompensed distillery operatives, and while people are fallible and may make mistakes or interpret instructions and data in different ways, a computer program never varies.So it is that few of today’s mainstream distilleries are allowed to perform ‘unplugged’. But is this always a good thing?There is surely a danger that the industry creates a generation of distillery employees who do not need to think beyond the touch screen or computer mouse to what is actually happening as a result of their remote activities.One distiller who has identified this issue and is taking steps to address it is the industry’s second-biggest player, Pernod Ricard, via its Chivas Brothers’ subsidiary.The overall company ethos is to develop one man per shift operations where applicable, with a single technician on each shift controlling everything from the input of malt to filling spirit into the spirit vat.However, as Chivas’ group distilleries manager Alan Winchester notes, “Douglas Cruickshank, our production & spirits supply director, thought maybe it was time to leave one distillery as it was, not update it from two-man to one-man operation, as we might otherwise have done. He decided to review our training policy. We have a lot of experienced staff, but he thought the younger ones who were being trained in automated plants weren’t getting the same level of knowledge.“This was a chance to give new folk full exposure to the way we developed when we were learning the job. We decided that when Trevor Buckley was appointed distillery operations manager at Glentauchers last year, part of his brief would be to oversee this training aspect, which would be centred on Glentauchers.” Glentauchers distillery is located four miles west of the Speyside town of Keith, in the very heartland of Chivas’ activities. It dates from the dying years of the great Victorian whisky boom, being built in 1897/98 by blended whisky pioneers James Buchanan and Co Ltd and the Glasgow whisky merchants WP Lowrie & Co Ltd.Like so many other distilleries, Glentauchers was absorbed by the vast Distillers Company Ltd during the economically harsh inter-war years, but was expanded when the next period of ‘boom’ hit the whisky industry.In 1965/66 the number of stills was increased from two to six, and the still house, mash house and tun room were reconstructed in their present form.Glentauchers was silent from 1985 to 1989, when it was purchased by Allied Distillers, and the distillery became part of Chivas Brothers following their acquisition of Allied Domecq assets in 2005.Alan Winchester makes the point that “The distillery was set up to provide malt for blending purposes: it nearly all went into the Black & White blend in the old days, and today it still fulfils the same role as a major provider of blending malt, now principally for Ballantine’s, though a fair amount is also used for reciprocal trading.” Glentauchers was ideal as the base for Douglas Cruickshank’s new training venture because, as Winchester puts it, “It was effectively a 1960s distillery which was fairly manual and old-fashioned, and had not subsequently been upgraded. It works with two men per shift.“Also it isn’t open to visitors and has a fairly low profile. Additionally, geographically speaking, Glentauchers is bang in the centre of every distillery the group has in the area. Douglas Cruickshank calls it a ‘centre of excellence,’ and it truly is a centre.” Trevor Buckley says “Little money was spent on Glentauchers until 2006, when we refurbished the still house, taking out the cast iron tanks and replacing them with steel ones. We then changed the old cast iron mashtun for a full lauter one last year, just keeping the old copper dome.” In terms of his training role, Buckley notes that “If staff have started from scratch with no prior distilling experience they sit a small exam after six weeks here just to show what they’ve learnt. We started the training scheme in November last year with Gordon Strathdee, and he’s now working at our Glenallachie site, near Aberlour. Since then we’ve had Fraser Hughes spend time here, and he’s managing Glendronach. Duncan Morrison came to us with no whisky background at all and he’s on the permanent Glentauchers staff.” Duncan Morrison says “The training’s first class, no doubt about it. You’re learning from guys with 20-odd years of experience in some cases. Because it’s so manual you understand why you have to mash in at a certain temperature, for example. And you learn how to correct things when they go wrong. You learn the whole business from the malt coming in right up to filling tankers.If it was all done by computer you could just be making anything. I really enjoy the work, everyone’s incredibly helpful, and no matter what you ask, there’s so much experience here you always get an answer.” “Before they start on the production side of things we will get trainees to look at how the whole company works overall,” says Trevor Buckley, “and engineers and brand ambassadors spend time here too. It’s all gradually building up and evolving. The majority of our staff have been here since Allied took over in 1989, and they’re sharing their knowledge with the new guys. At first they were a bit apprehensive, but now they feel really good about that.” Matthew Morrison has been on the Glentauchers’ payroll for 18 years, and he reckons that “The way the place is run makes the job more interesting. It makes you pay more attention to what you’ve learnt over the years and don’t generally think about anymore. Here the trainees are physically doing what the computer will be doing for them when they go off to a one-man distillery.” Walk through Glentauchers and it soon becomes apparent just how ‘hands-on’ the plant is, compared to many distilleries operating today. Each production area is festooned with levers and valve handles, made more obvious by being individually tagged or labelled for easy identification by trainee staff.Somewhat incongruously, a shiny, computer monitor with touch-screen operation stands in the tunroom and another in the still house, each capable of displaying a bewildering array of data. However Alan Winchester stresses that “The computer technology which we put in during 2006 is very much for information only. The guys still have to open and close everything manually.” “We have manual milling operations, the mashing temperatures are all manually controlled, and the yeast is put in by hand,” adds Trevor Buckley. “On the distilling side, all the charging and monitoring is manual, and the steam to heat the stills is controlled manually. The guys still read hydrometers in the spirit safe and make cuts in the spirit by moving levers.“It will be satisfying to see people who have been through here on the training scheme going on in the company and getting promoted in time.“And training never really stops. I’m still learning things myself, 20 years after I started in the industry!” Judging by a recent sampling of its attractive, floral, fruity, new make spirit, Glentauchers ‘unplugged’ is playing a very fine acoustic tune indeed.