How does one become the CEO of a respected Scotch whisky business? For Moji Shand, who now heads up the Huntly based independent bottler Duncan Taylor Scotch Whisky (DTSW), it was a case of choosing to make a career change in order to do what she loves.
Of Persian descent and born in Iran, after the 1978 revolution Moji’s family fled the country and settled in the USA. In time she went to law school, became a lawyer, worked for an AV rated law firm for 12 years and four years at another. However, in 2006 she decided to quit her job without telling anyone, even her family, sell her house and moved to Spain. Nevermind that she didn’t speak any Spanish!
A chance conversation revealed that a friend of a friend, a US importer, was working in Scotland at that time. It was suggested that Moji could go join him for a tour of Scotland. This led to a journey around the country that started in Glasgow and took in Springbank, BenRiach, Glendronach and, crucially, Duncan Taylor. The reason for the visit? The importer was buying a cask from Euan Shand, owner of DTSW, and Moji was able to experience the whole process of selecting a cask and bottling it, a Macallan 1968, no less! As a result of this experience, she became close friends with Euan, his team, and Peter Currie, who was then at Springbank. After going back to her old job in the US, she found herself thinking more and more of Scotland and wondering why she didn’t see Duncan Taylor’s products on the shelves or hear American whisky aficionados talking about it.
Mulling over how to keep a link with the whisky industry alive, Moji approached Euan about investing in DTSW, which he refused, making it clear he wanted the business to remain free from the influence of outside investors. Undeterred, their friendship blossomed into a relationship and while they were dating she became immersed in the business by attending a variety of shows and events. For someone questioning their chosen career path, in spite of great personal success, this taste of a different life proved tempting.
“I came to see that working in the whisky business isn’t just a job, but a lifestyle,” Moji recalls. “And it was one that I wanted to be a part of.”
Starting off as the company’s legal counsel, Moji began the challenging job of shoring up the company’s trademarks. More on that later. However, as her knowledge of the industry and product increased, Moji began to feel that she would be better utilised as a US importer. After approaching Peter Currie, who had recently left Springbank, and bringing him on board, she founded the company that is now Shand Import LLC, an importer of craft spirits such as Valt vodka, Villa Lobos tequila, Indian Summer gin, Philbert Cognac and, of course, Duncan Taylor’s whiskies. Simultaneously, she was heavily involved with the legal side to DTSW’s operation back in Huntly, in addition to growing management responsibility.
I came to see that working in the whisky business isn't just a job, but a lifestyle, and it was one that I wanted to be part of
The hard work paid off. After five and a half years with the business, when Euan turned 60, he decided to step back from the commercial side of the company and focus on being, in Moji’s words, ‘the whisky man’. “His passion is the maturation, cask selection, and blending of whisky,” she continues.
Moji became CEO, although she still also operates as the company’s legal counsel. A true whisky advocate. Working together, in a few short years Euan, Peter, Moji and the Shand Imports team grew the business in the United States alone from $280,000 per year to more than $4 million per year.
Before we can go further, a little background is required on how Duncan Taylor came to be. Founded in Glasgow during the late 1930s as a whisky broker, over the decades the company built up large stocks. Enter Abe Rosenburg. A businessman who had previously headed up the importation of J&B Scotch whisky into the USA, Abe is credited with being responsible for that brand’s meteoric rise to glory following the Second World War.
Sadly, Rosenburg died in the 1990s. His heirs didn’t wish to run DTSW as a business, but neither did they want to accept the many offers they received from industry giants to split up the stock. Reaching out to Euan, the Rosenburg’s children explained that they wanted to sell it to someone who would keep their father’s legacy alive. After being bowled over by the extent and quality of the stock, Euan bought the company in 2001.
With the company came the rights to a historic brand of blended Scotch that will turn 150 years old in two years time. “Black Bull is our pride,” says Moji. “It’s a very high-quality blend with a significant aged malt content.”
Today, the brand is coming on in leaps and bounds. But things could have been very different. Pre-prohibition, Black Bull had once been one of the largest blended whiskies imported into the US, but was one of the victims of a dry America. To make matters worse, by the time Euan bought the business the trademark on the Black Bull brand had lapsed and been snapped up by the Red Bull energy drink company.
Although Euan had appointed a law firm to work on the case, it wasn’t getting anywhere, so Moji stepped in. “Eventually, we reached a coexistence agreement with Red Bull where they allowed us to trade Black Bull under spirit class classification and we granted them permission to trade Red Bull under non-spirit classification.”
With care and attention for its premium products, in addition to accelerated growth of its blends business, the company has developed significantly in recent years. As a result, DTSW moved to new premises and opened a state-of-the-art bottling facility in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, the company is forging ahead to build a distillery. Planning approval for the chosen site in Huntly came through in 2008, but as other areas of the company grew at an exponential rate the project became less of a priority. Now gathering steam, the plan is to begin distilling in 2019.
The entire production facility will have a 1.5m lpa capacity per year, alternating between both malt and grain distilling, with a projected output of 40 per cent malt and 60 per cent grain. The planned single malt is ‘The Huntly’, with the associated company being ‘Huntly Distillers Ltd’.
A visitor centre will be included as, according to Moji, Euan’s dream is to turn the small Aberdeenshire town into a real destination for both general tourists and real whisky aficionados.
How does Moji feel about her future as the leader of DTSW? “This is my love," she replies. "This is my passion. This is what I live for!”
Casks maturing at the Duncan Taylor site
Black Bull 40 Years Old