Full name: Alan Winchester
Role: Master Distiller
Year of birth: 1958
Twitter Handle: @theglenlivet
Fun Fact: “I named my dog (a black lab) after the water supply in Jersey.”
So, let’s start at the beginning. You’re born in Inverness and spent most of your life in Speyside, and you got your start in the industry in 1975? Could you tell us a little about your formative years and backstory, prior to you becoming Glenlivet’s Master Distiller in 2009? Was a career in the industry always on the cards for you? Would you ever have foreseen yourself at the helm of ‘the original single malt whisky’, the Glenlivet?!
No, I was going to be a sailor. I planned to join the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy, but that career path didn’t open up. Prior to leaving school, I got a job showing visitors around a local distillery. I was aware of the distillery then because it was next door to my grandfather’s, then uncle’s and now my cousin’s farm.
With my career path not opening up, I got a job in a distillery and I’ve stayed there since then – so a long time ago!
You are now associated with quite a number of famed and delicious expressions – most lately the Captain’s Reserve, you even have your name on the Winchester Collection. Could you tell us what your most favourite creation is, and the process behind your latest, the Captain’s Reserve?
I’m immensely proud to have been involved in The Glenlivet Captain’s Reserve. The idea of Captain’s Reserve was formulated by listening to customers, and them wanting something different. So it introduces the richness of one style – of the cognac – to the fruity-floral style of The Glenlivet.
It’s been a fascinating example of how The Glenlivet can be adapted by the use of a cask. It’s obviously great to see work like that coming through.
What else might we find you up to when you’re not distilling, I read that you’re quite the keen hill walker, amongst other things…
Yes, I’m very keen on hill walking. I’ve climbed all of the Munros (the most significant hills in Scotland over 3000 feet (914.4 m), according to original compiler Sir Hugh Munro) and the outlier tops.
I’m currently struggling through the Corbetts, that’s all of the mountains below the Munros from 2500 feet, so yes I love going out into the wide open spaces. I love exploring the area around me because you can lose yourself in the mountains behind the distillery.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the whisky-making business?
The whisky making process is a cycle. It’s still attached in a sense to its agricultural roots – you get the cereals each year as it’s harvested, and then it’s malted. So after the harvesting around September time in these parts, the barley will be starting to malt by the end of the year, and that produces the raw material for the new year. It’s just a
It’s just a continuous cycle of making whisky, which is fascinating. We traditionally stop in the warmer months, the distillery here in July is currently silent, but that allows us to do maintenance for the plant.
Traditionally, the distilling is done in the winter months, with distilleries that are of a fairly high altitude, as The Glenlivet is, carrying on until summer. However nowadays with the new production methods, we can produce all year round.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
Being made Master Distiller in 2009 was a great honour. I have been involved in whisky for over 40 years, so I’m immensely proud of the distilleries and the whiskies I’ve worked with, and The Glenlivet is most notably one of the first to start the style of the modern whisky industry.
Where do you get your ideas?
We’ve always been innovating – Captain Bill Smith Grant, for example, who inspired the Captain’s Reserve, was innovative in that he visited America after the prohibition was lifted and managed to get The Glenlivet stocked with the Pullman Company. We’ve continued the legacy of innovation in our cask collections and with our new expressions.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
I think my philosophy is probably the same as the folk prior to me, and that’s to just continue maintaining that high quality of The Glenlivet for which it has been known throughout its history.
As a guardian of what George Smith and the previous Master Distillers have handed down to me, it’s very much about continuing the style and keeping it going by innovating like our predecessors.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
There’s been a lot of challenges over the years [laughs]. We used to call them problems but we don’t call them that now! As a company, the distillery wasn’t large enough so a few years ago we had to expand it.
That’s always been a challenge for a distiller, making sure that the whisky continues to be the style that we expect. The expansion allows us to continue to create our delicious whisky!
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from, or do you have any specific influences?
The founder of the Glenlivet – George Smith. Over the years, you always get inspiration from the folks you work with, and I always listen – I’m not sure if I’m a good listener, but I always try to be – and I always try to reflect on what others are saying and take something new from it. That allows innovation as well.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
Most: [Laughs] What I enjoy most is taking my work home with me so I can have a dram at home. I also get great satisfaction in seeing a bottle of The Glenlivet in a bar, actually, seeing The Glenlivet anywhere, or mentioned. I get a real sense of pride not only for myself, but for everyone who’s involved in it at the distillery.
Least: What do I least like? Billy Connolly once said there’s no such thing as bad weather, but there can be quite challenging weather conditions in these parts of Scotland, and that can be a challenge to water supply. But I’d say on the whole, the positives often outweigh the negatives.
What advice would you give to aspiring whisky professionals who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Passion, enjoy what you’re doing, and take great pride in what you’re doing. That’s what I would say.
If you could get anyone to try your whisky (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the expressions would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
I would probably like to have a dram with Captain Bill Smith Grant, who was the great-grandson of the founder of The Glenlivet, George Smith. He brought monumental success to the brand when he won a contract from the Pullman Company to stock The Glenlivet in its restaurant cars and acquired a loyal following from businessmen and well-to-do passengers on Blue Ribbon trains after the US prohibition ended. I’d quite like to see what he thought of the Captain’s
He brought monumental success to the brand when he won a contract from the Pullman Company to stock The Glenlivet in its restaurant cars and acquired a loyal following from businessmen and well-to-do passengers on Blue Ribbon trains after the US prohibition ended. I’d quite like to see what he thought of the Captain’s Reserve, and to see what he thought of his Glenlivet whisky now.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you could swap lives for the day with any fictional character (and you’d be guaranteed to return to your life after 24 hours), who would you choose, and why?
James Bond I think – he’s the epitome of secret agent and debonair.
If you had to become some kind of vegetable (or fruit) related superhero, which would you become, and what would your superpower be?
It would have to be the Seville orange, to be like the style you often get in the Glenlivet. I think a Master Distiller would be looking for that sensory smell and taste so that would be the super power I’d like to have.
If you were forced to live on one kind of food for the rest of your life (assume that your metabolism becomes specifically adapted to use this as your sole source of calories, so you had to eat this to survive) – which would you pick, and why?
Well funny enough, it would probably be oatmeal, the reason for that is oatmeal is such a big part of the highlander’s diet – I always start the day with porridge. The farmers roundabout used to grow oats for their men and horses and in the bar, they’d make the whisky and used barley for their broths and soups but if I had to live off something, it would be oatmeal because it’s something I do like and we eat it in all its different forms.
The farmers roundabout used to grow oats for their men and horses and in the bar, they’d make the whisky and used barley for their broths and soups but if I had to live off something, it would be oatmeal because it’s something I do like and we eat it in all its different forms.