So, let’s start at the beginning. You’re a native highlander, and you ‘got into’ whisky whilst taking a year out of your studies (we can only assume that you never went back and decided to study whisky instead). Was whisky always on the cards for you? Could you tell us a little about your formative years and upbringing? Any relation to ‘Long John’?
I was born in Inverness and spent my first 11 years in Fort William before moving to Tain in 1976 and leaving Tain Royal Academy in 1984. From there, I went to Edinburgh to try Publicity Studies but hated it. I really enjoyed student life socially, just not the studying part of it.
I was homesick too. I love the highlands. I came back and did a few jobs in supermarkets then my brother Kenny (40 years at Glenmorangie this year) told me there was a warehouseman job going at Glenmorangie.
I went to the manager’s door and asked him about it. That man was a wonderful gent called Ian McGregor. I’d known Ian for a long time and he invited me into his kitchen where he proceeded to pour 2 large whiskies. He asked if I wanted water in it and when I replied just a splash he said I could start on the Monday. I did every role in production there. I enjoyed many good times and was privileged to meet many great people.
I left Glenmorangie and became Balblair Distillery Manager on 21/8/2006 – one of the happiest days of my life. I’m so proud to be here.
My dad was a policeman for 30 years and my mum tee-total so whisky is not in the genes!
I am not a relation to ‘Long John’ as far as I know. Having the Fort William background is interesting and I still love that place. It’s a spectacular part of Scotland.
Balblair is known for only releasing vintages, which seems to imply that, like in the port business, you’ve got to be confident that you’re declaring a good one, right? Could you tell us more about the process of releasing a vintage, is there one that particularly stands out?
We started releasing vintages in 2007 and to be involved in that process was very satisfying.
We sample every cask of a particular year and then nose each one individually. The casks that are deemed the very best will then make their way into bottling. We ensure only the crème de la crème Balblair is used.
I think they’re all stand-out, but the 1989 and 1990 are particular favourites of mine. The recently released 1991 is also fantastic. Smooth, complex, balanced. It ticks every box for me.
As I understand it, the approach at Balblair is a lot more ‘old fashioned’ than much of the larger, automated and mechanised distilleries. Could you tell us a bit about that? How do you make that work, commercially? I once read that you said visitors are sometimes surprised when they see that ‘Balblair is made by people and not a computer’
Balblair is the oldest working distillery in the highlands. To see it being highly modernised would not seem right to me. However, we do have some automation but the guys here make the decisions. The computer is a tool for them. Rather than them going to the still house and manually opening a valve they use the click of a mouse.
Do you have a favourite whisky, or can you recall a best whisky drinking experience? Or the dram that ‘got you started’, as it were?
My favourite whisky has to be the Balblair 1969. I will never forget nosing the samples in my office. It’s an absolutely stellar whisky – 999 bottles of beauty.
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into what you do at Balblair?
A distillery manager wears many hats these days but production remains paramount.
Every part of process is monitored from start to finish. I have very capable and experienced operators here so they make that part of my job easy.
Visitors to the distillery are always increasing, but thankfully talking to them and giving tours is a part of the role I really enjoy. .
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
Being offered the job at Balblair. By a mile.
Where do you get your ideas?
Through experience. You learn what works and what doesn’t. You have to make mistakes to learn how to develop new ways of working.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Trust your instincts and treat others as you wish to be treated.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
Becoming distillery manager. It’s a lot of responsibility to take on, but with help of my colleagues here and throughout Inverhouse Distillers. I learned to listen more. Lots of people can talk, but not everyone can listen.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific influences?
I have met so many brilliant people during my time in the whisky industry, it would be unfair to name individuals and leave others out.
What advice would you give to aspiring whisky professionals who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Love what you do and be patient.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
I really have no idea. I can’t think of myself doing anything other than this.
If you could get anyone to try your products (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the whiskies would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Frank Sinatra – a whisky fan. I would offer him a Balblair 1991 because it’s elegant, complex, and magnificent. As he travelled the world he could spread the word of Balblair.
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for Balblair and/or your career? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
My aim and goal for Balblair is to see it established as a known and revered whisky which, in my opinion, is where it should be. It is already revered by many who have tried it, but more people need to experience it.
Where next for you and the distillery?
Watch this space.
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you had to have any character from Celtic mythology come and work with you at the distillery, who would you employ?
We have an ancient Pictish standing stone on the grounds of the distillery, and I would love to meet a real person who was here at the time so they could tell me all about the stone, the engravings and its symbolism.
If you had to be transformed into any kind of household appliance, but retained your memories, ability to speak and personality, what would you pick?
It would have to be a radio. I love music, it’s a true passion of mine. I could tell whoever was listening to change the frequency if I didn’t like what I was hearing/playing.
If you were given an infinite budget but had to spend it all on entirely frivolous stuff, what are the first 3 things you’d buy, and why?
This could be an endless list! I would buy my daughter a Stradivarius violin because she loves to play.
For myself, I would buy a vintage Fender Telecaster guitar. They’re wonderful guitars and owning one would maybe encourage me to play more and get better.
And of course, I’d buy large drams for everyone I know.