Back in September we joined single malt Scotch whisky maker Glen Moray to mark the distillery’s 120th anniversary. While we were there we caught up with distillery manager Graham Coull to discuss how Glen Moray – and the wider industry – has changed during his 12 years in role.

Time flies when you’re having fun. This is possibly the most belated follow-up post ever – Glen Moray’s epic 120th anniversary bash feels like it was yesterday, but in fact took place back in September. We just wanted to extend the celebrations!

You can catch up on events and get a feel for Glen Moray’s history in this earlier post. While we were up in Scotland with the Glen Moray team we grabbed 10 minutes with Graham Coull, only the fifth distillery manager in the brand’s long history. He took the helm in 2005, when Glen Moray was still owned by the Glenmorangie Company. The distillery was taken over by French drinks group La Martiniquaise in 2008 – and if you think September to November 2017 zipped past, it’s extraordinary just how much has happened at Glen Moray under Coull’s tenure.

From extensive distillery expansion to developing cask sourcing procedures and thriving during whisky downturns, it’s been hectic for Coull and his team. Here, Coull discusses the joys and pitfalls of whisky-making today, and recalls the distillery’s transformation in recent years.

MoM: 2005 is somehow 12 years ago now! What were you up to before you joined Glen Moray?

GC – Pre-2005 I had experience in bottling and distillation for Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kinninvie, so I came to Glen Moray knowing a bit about spirit distillation, but the maturation side was relatively new to me. I think it probably helped that Glen Moray was relatively quiet in terms of single malt activity back then, so it allowed me time just to find my feet and just find out what was in my warehouses.

How did you do that? We gather there are 103,000 casks around today…

At that time there was probably 60,000-70,000 casks but you can summarise that into different things, different ages and different cask types, and focus on in the interesting ones. You know, the ones that are either from a different spirit type or wine type or whatever. And then the next big change for Glen Moray was being purchased by La Martiniquaise in 2008. When that happened, some of the tasks that Glenmorangie as a company did centrally came swinging back to me because it was the only whisky distillery within La Martiniquaise.

Former distillery manager Ed Dodson [L] and Coull
That must’ve been an interesting transitional phase!

Ah, you learn quickly! Purchasing the malted barley, sourcing casks, allocating, choosing the spirit for everything… it’s a one-man job, instead of being shared among a few people. And that was good because you learn a lot. Again, in terms of Glen Moray single malt, it was still quite quiet at that point. It took La Martiniquaise a little bit of time to realise what they had, the potential, I think, because they were more a blender than a single malt seller. It was really probably 2010, 2011 that it started to ramp up, and we started to see new expressions being asked for.

At what point did your remit go from looking after the distillery to developing all the single malts?

From day one, but because of the nature of Glen Moray and how it evolved it wasn’t a step-change. It never felt like it, you just absorbed what was there to do. If there had to be spirit chosen for bottling, I just did it. See, you learn very quickly if you’re… not thrown in at the deep end because you know what you’re doing, but you can look back and see what’s traditionally been happening. So it was all fun. And then the expansion of the distillery – it’s expanded twice since 2012. That has gone kind of hand-in-hand with the expansion of the range, the Classic range has developed from one expression to five now, and we worked on the Heritage range as well. It’s been a busy four or five years where the distillery’s developed!

What were your biggest concerns for the distillery when you joined in 2005?

Well, we were still with Glenmorangie, so I think things were quite stable then. I’m trying to think when everybody kind of went crazy with production, that was probably towards late 2010, 2011… lots of expansion and lots of demand. So in the first few years it was very much maintaining what Ed [Dodson, Glen Moray’s distillery manager before Coull] had started, and making sure that the distillery was maintained well, the mundane things like keeping it running. And filling the right casks at the right time. Looking back then, compared to now, it felt simple, but things always do. And then the complexity really kicked in probably from 2010 when the range started to develop. Now you’re looking for cask suppliers for lots of different things and that’s never-ending if you’re continuing the expressions.

Coull addresses guests at the Glen Moray 120th anniversary celebrations
Scotch exports declined a bit from 2012-15. Did that change your priorities or your outlook at all?

Not really because Glen Moray bucked a trend. La Martiniquaise has taken it under its wing and promoted it and developed it. So we’ve shown growth where maybe some haven’t. We’ve developed markets that we were already in but not doing an awful lot, and we’re now really focusing on opening up new markets. So it’s kind of odd for us. Within the company it’s only now, maybe this year, last year, that Glen Moray can produce enough single malt for the whole company’s needs. Before that we were always purchasing in malt for blending. So it’s been different, we’ve been produce, produce, produce.

So does that mean now you don’t buy any malt in anymore?

We don’t buy anything, but we do still swap to get the reciprocal malts in for blends. But not as much as we used to. Probably 10% of our production is swapped now, whereas when I first started 50% would have been swapped. And that’s just the different emphasis going from The Glenmorangie Company, when Glen Moray was mainly produced for blends, and La Martiniquaise. It’s much more ‘normal’ what we do now, we produce 30% for single malt, and 70% for blend, which is kind of the norm.

Is there less swapping in general in the industry now, or are you an outlier with your decline?

It probably has decreased a little, I would say. I think, not knowing what everybody else does with their blends, that many have simplified their blends. The old days of 20 or 30 different malts in your blends are gone. As blends become bigger and bigger volume sellers, it just becomes unmanageable to try. Blends are all about consistency, and it’s much easier to be consistent if you simplify those ingredients.

In terms of 2018 and looking forward, what things are you keeping an eye on? What things are on your radar?

I think now that we’ve reached the point where we have the capacity to produce as much as we need, planning spirits volumes for the next few years is one of my key things to nail down, because that determines how the distillery operates, how many weeks per year you’re going to run, when you schedule in all your maintenance and everything else. It’s quite boring-sounding but it’s important. It’s about being as efficient as you can. And then obviously tying in the purchase of casks to match that. You don’t want to have surpluses of casks because if they’re sitting around they dry out and you’ve wasted your money! So it’s truly about getting the basics rights just now and planning, because with the bigger production and bigger volume you fill warehouses a lot quicker than you do before. It just needs a little bit more attention.

Coull in one of the Glen Moray warehouses
How has cask availability changed? You were obviously filling different casks before, but now you need a lot more of them.

Cask availability is better than it was two or three years ago. There was a year, maybe 18 months, when bourbon casks were really quite hard to get and scarce, and obviously the price shot up. Out of necessity we, and other distillers, filled different casks. That’s when we were talking about the brandy, Cognac, the type of casks you probably haven’t touched previously, because, if nothing else, 600 litres is a big thing. Out of choice you wouldn’t probably go there, but they are interesting. The bourbon supply is sorting itself out, but I spend more time sourcing the small quantities, our chardonnay casks for example, which are probably the hardest to get. Sherry casks are ok, Port casks we have that internal Porto Cruz link [the Port brand is also owned by La Martiniquaise] so that’s easier. We’ve got rum as well within the company. So you spend more time sourcing the interesting casks.

How have you seen the wider Scotch industry change during your time at Glen Moray?

It’s become more complex and more varied, definitely. Everybody has more expressions within their range and they’re all quite, quite different. Before you could quite easily differentiate between Glen Moray and Glenfiddich and Glenlivet… but the boundaries are so grey now. And you could differentiate between Speyside and Islay, but you can’t do that now. You get peated Speysides, unpeated Islays. And it just adds more complexity.

What do you make of all the new distilleries coming through? How will they impact the industry?

I think it’s certainly good for the industry because it gives everybody a bit of a wake-up call that things are changing. And it’s not just single malt distilleries; in Scotland you’ve got rum distilleries, so there are lots of challenges there. The one thing about single malt is its history – it’s been built up and there’s been room for everyone because of the blending and the malt aspect. I would think the industry can help these smaller ones along. Because they will hit tough times. There’s big investment in building a distillery, but even bigger investment in making whisky and storing it, and putting all that money aside for so many years. I think unfortunately some may not survive, or survive in the form that they started, or they might change direction, but that’s the business.

Glen Moray Mastery celebrates five decades of blending
And what excites you most about working in whisky right now?

It’s the variety, and the fact that you’re never ever bored. You never reach… you never exhaust every opportunity out there. There’s infinite things you can do and it’s wonderful to see things like Mastery [Glen Moray’s 120th anniversary release] coming through that you work on. And if you’re honest, you’re a bit nervous about it because you’re never quite sure how people will accept the concept of mixing different age and different cask types. So it’s nice still to have that bit of excitement, and a bit of panic as well.