Brendan McCarron is head of maturing whisky stocks for The Glenmorangie Company and was responsible for creating Ardbeg’s latest release, the 19 Years Old Traigh Bhan (Singing Sands). He is based in Edinburgh and reports to director of distilling and whisky creation Dr Bill Lumsden, dividing his time between the Glenmorangie and Ardbeg single malts.
“I have a strong connection to Ardbeg because I lived on Islay for three years,” says McCarron. “I was manager of Port Ellen Maltings, and Caol Ila and Lagavulin distilleries for Diageo. I made the heavily-peated malt that we sold to Ardbeg. I’ve been working with Ardbeg for five years, so I like to think I’ve been helping to make it for eight years now.”
I’d go back and live there in a heartbeat if it was practical to do so. Every time I go over to Ardbeg my wife worries that I’m going to buy a house while I’m there
A native of Coatbridge near Glasgow, McCarron studied chemical engineering at the University of Strathclyde, going on to work for GlaxoSmithKline plc before joining Diageo’s graduate scheme.
Ultimately, McCarron found himself manager of Oban distillery at the age of 28, before moving to Islay. “I knew I would love the job,” he says, “but wasn’t at all sure about how I’d cope with island life. But I loved it. I’d go back and live there in a heartbeat if it was practical to do so. Every time I go over to Ardbeg my wife worries that I’m going to buy a house while I’m there!”
While with Diageo, he was ‘head-hunted’ by Glenmorangie, and as he explains, “When I joined Glenmorangie, they wrote a new job spec for me, they created a new role. Head of maturing whisky stocks. If all goes well, I will be the next director of whisky creation, but I’m certainly in no rush. The longer Bill is there, the more likely I am to be a success, the longer he’s there, the smoother the transition.”
Explaining his role, McCarron says that “I help produce distillation plans for the two distilleries, and I nose, taste and approve every batch. I write tasting notes, and Bill gives me projects like the 19 Years Old. I do eight or 10 weeks a year in an ambassadorial role, and work on our Bourbon brand Woodinville in Seattle. It’s small, but spectacular.
Sixty per cent is similar to Ardbeg 10 and I added 15 per cent from PX sherry casks, and to keep the smoke in, I used a lot of virgin oak. That balances the sweetness of the PX
“Bill and I have similar thought processes regarding what makes great whisky. We’re both into the importance of age, without it being an obsession. I make seven or eight trips a year to Islay for a few days each time. When I’m there I might do production trials, for example we’ve been trialling a new high protein barley, so I’ve been looking at how we should process it. Do we run the mash tun warmer, go for higher gravity fermentations, longer fermentations, or whatever?”
Prior to being entrusted with developing Ardbeg 19 Years Old, McCarron was tasked with the creation of An Oa. He notes that “It was one of the first projects ‘Dr Bill’ gave me, and I put my heart and soul into it. Bill asked for something smokier and sweeter than Ardbeg 10.
“It was challenging to make. Sixty per cent is similar to Ardbeg 10 and I added 15 per cent from PX sherry casks, and to keep the smoke in, I used a lot of virgin oak. That balances the sweetness of the PX.”
When it came to the 19 Years Old, McCarron points out that “We’ve always wanted to add something older to the range where we could declare an age. It was always important to us to have an age on it. This is the first Ardbeg with an age statement since we launched the 10 Years Old, which is still my favourite.
“Older stocks have been an issue, as there was no production from the 1980s, very little from the ’70s, and when we restarted production in 1997, we made tiny amounts of liquid up to 2000. Everyone thought we were mad to buy the distillery.
“That’s reflected in the fact that we paid £6.6m for the stocks and £1 for the distillery itself! Nobody realised the potential for this whisky and it’s a miracle Ardbeg has survived. We built up stocks to the point where we had enough to do something new.”
It should be on stream early in 2020. We can make 1.2mla now and it will almost double capacity. We’re going up from five to eight washbacks, and we also want to have more warehousing on Islay
The19 Years Old Traigh Bhan is the fifth permanent Ardbeg to be launched, following on from 10 Years Old, Uigeadail, Corryvreckan and An Oa, and all component whiskies in the 19 Years Old were distilled during 2000.
McCarron explains that “Over time, the smoke level drops – the esters go up and the smoke goes down. Between 17 and 25 years of age you see big changes. The 19 Years Old comprises 85 per cent ex-Bourbon casks, and 15 per cent whisky re-racked into sherry casks, and those proportions will remain pretty much the same from batch to batch, year on year.”
Meanwhile, major changes are afoot at Ardbeg distillery, with McCarron noting that “It’s the first expansion at Ardbeg in 203 years!
“We’re putting in a new stillhouse and two new stills. It should be on stream early in 2020. We can make 1.2mla now and it will almost double capacity. We’re going up from five to eight washbacks, and we also want to have more warehousing on Islay.”
McCarron’s ambassadorial role is expanding, with several trips to America and Asia each year..
“I love doing presentations and chatting to people,” he says, “but I also love being in the lab making the stuff, and I miss the buzz and whirr of a distillery atmosphere.”
Nonetheless, he is becoming a well-recognised ‘face’ alongside the likes of his boss ‘Dr Bill’ and Richard Paterson of Whyte & Mackay on the international whisky circuit. If you get the chance to see and hear him in action, ask him to tell you the story about the maltman who roasted a monkey, and persuade him to do his impersonation of Alan Partridge singing Bond movie themes. You can buy a bottle of 19 Years Old Ardbeg for £169, but that it priceless…