With news of the constant churn of distillery manager jobs in Scotch whisky, industry veteran Dr Nick Morgan takes a look at the history of the role, and how it has gone from job for life to gun for hire. 

Lagavulin Distillery has found a new distillery manager, and whilst wishing him all the best in his new role, it has to be hoped that he lasts a bit longer there than the last two incumbents. Time was when a distillery manager’s role was a posting for life, or at least for seven to ten years. And in larger companies with multiple malt and sometimes grain distilleries too, it was unusual for managers to leave the corporation, even if they might rotate around its sites. 

Not it seems any longer. In 2018 Diageo announced it had ‘appointed three of the most coveted jobs in the Scotch whisky industry’ at Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Brora, and yet within a few years each of the successful candidates had moved elsewhere, leaving these ‘dream jobs for any whisky-maker’ behind. What is it about the role of today’s distillery managers at large companies that might makes some turn their backs on dreams in order to embrace a preferred reality? Single malt marketeers used to like to put distillers at the heart of their brand stories, but are they still at the heart of the whisky their distilleries produce? What’s changed in the role of a distillery manager, when, and why?

pierrick Guillaume

Pierrick Guillaume left his dream job on Islay to make whisky in France

A short history of distillery managers

The large, complex, and highly capitalised Lowland distilleries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, often with absentee owners, quickly adopted strictly hierarchical management structures. However, in the Highlands the newly-licensed distilleries of the 1820s, often former illicit operations, worked by early proprietor-managers (like John Cumming at Cardhu) struggled to achieve both quality and consistency as they sought to commercialise their pre-industrial operations. Cumming’s spirit was of such a variable character that his agent in Edinburgh (his brother) complained bitterly about his inability to manage the production of whisky properly. It was so poor, he said, that he had to ‘cover it’ with other makes before it could be sold (an early origins of blending story). Distilleries such as these only slowly transitioned into management by a new and highly accomplished managerial class by the middle of the century.

Accomplished though they were, these men were first and foremost practical distillers, with skills and secrets learned on the job, very often from fathers, uncles and brothers. Few could match the family of John Smith, who worked on his father’s farm in Glenlivet before following his brother to George Smith’s Upper Drumin Distillery, where he learned the trades of malting, mashing and fermenting. This ‘far famed brewer’ had six sons who ‘seemed to possess naturally the distilling faculty of their father’. The most famous were John Smith, like his father a graduate of Glenlivet distillery and later head brewer and manager there, and his younger brother George who also began his career under the tutelage of his father. John was a giant of a man (‘he turned the beam at 26 imperial stone’) famed for Cragganmore Distillery which he established in 1869, but it was George who was the giant of distilling. Having honed his craft at distilleries from Aberdeen to Argyllshire, he was appointed brewer and manager at Royal Brackla in the late 1860s where the owner Robert Fraser ‘gave him carte blanche powers as to the improvement of the buildings and machinery’. When George Smith died [in 1927] one obituarist wrote ‘his lifelong experience in distilling gave him a knowledge of the art which few men possessed’.

Royal Brackla

Royal Brackla Distillery

Masters of their own destiny

Men like Smith, who transformed the production of malt whisky in the second half of the nineteenth century, were masters of their own destiny with wide-ranging responsibilities that would gradually be diminished for most distillery managers, particularly in the second half of the twentieth century. They led the expansion of an industry where output increased from around 14 million proof gallons in 1870 to over 30 million at the turn of the century. They also pioneered the introduction of technology like pneumatic maltings, mashing machines, refrigerators, steam-heated stills, and condensers and purifiers (the last two of which would have a profound impact on spirit character) in new distilleries and old. They were responsible for purchasing raw materials, and very often for selling (on a commission basis) their yearly output. They would have been known from the barley fields of Banff to the breweries and blending rooms of Britain’s major cities, making annual sorties south at the start of each distilling season.

‘Everything’ said one critic of the management of late nineteenth century distilleries, ‘is entrusted to the workmen, the head of the establishment who generally has no scientific knowledge giving directions’. But what these managers may have lacked in scientific knowledge they made up for with their practical experience and learned technical skills. To proprietors they were indispensable. 

At the end of the first world war, John Walker & Sons was desperate to have two men returned to them from wartime service. One was marketing director Sir James Stevenson who had worked in the Ministry of Munitions, the other was Cardhu distillery manager William Fraser, who was serving in the Royal Corps of Signals. “There is a great deal to be seen to which Fraser alone knows about’ wrote John Cummings to Stevenson, who while unable (and quite possibly unwilling) to quit working for Winston Churchill was able to employ his considerable influence to get Fraser back to Cardhu, and the distillery back in operation in the autumn of 1919.

Mortlach 47 Year Old

The famous Mortlach stills

Demoted to the lower decks

Fraser remained as manager until 1933, when he spent a further seven years as ‘overseer’ of both Cardhu and Mortlach distilleries. His career was to witness the start of the emasculation of the traditional all-encompassing role of the distillery manager, brought about by the rationalisation of malt whisky production within the newly expanded Distillers Company (DCL) under the oversight of Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD), which by 1935 owned or managed 51 distilleries. 

At the helm of this unwieldy fleet of over fifty distilleries in the 1930s and 1940s was Stuart Hastie, war hero, chemist, fermentation expert and passionate advocate of an interventionist centralised control of malt whisky distilling where science was to rule over the waves of tradition. And with Hastie at the helm, with an officer’s mess of regional distillery inspectors, scientists and technocrats, distillery managers found themselves demoted to the lower decks. Raw materials (barley, yeast and casks) were purchased centrally, upgrades and expansions were determined and managed from the SMDs office in Edinburgh in conjunction with the DCL’s General Works Department, and the final arbiters of quality were the blending departments of the main brand-owning companies within the DCL. Distillery managers were still figures of considerable local importance in the communities in which they worked and lived, and their general managerial and technical skills were still highly valued but in this new corporate structure they were mere ciphers compared to their late Victorian and Edwardian whisky-making predecessors.

The changing industry

Nor was this approach confined to the DCL. Whilst few turned their backs on the company’s generous pension scheme, DCL trained managers were best in class, and the few who left took the production philosophy championed by Hastie with them wherever they went. After the second world war as new capital and new holding companies began to challenge the DCL’s supposed pre-eminence, the centralised distilling operating model it had developed, with specialists back-rooms attending to all the technical, scientific and quality issues, was adopted by all. One leaver was John McDougall, who turned his back on ‘the nannying culture of the DCL’ to manage Balvenie for William Grant & Son’s before joining Long John Distillers in 1970 to manage Laphroaig, where he was told, he would be ‘king of your own domain … you can go walking or shooting, or you can take the afternoon off and play golf when you want’.

Long John Distillers was owned by the expansionist Schenley Industries of New York. The distillery, ‘a series of ramshackle old stone buildings’, ‘certainly wasn’t hi-tec in fact … it wasn’t even low-tec, more no-tec at all’; it had suffered from a lack of investment, had very low spirit yields, but ‘did have that magical ingredient of the personal touch’. A highly invested workforce however, made change particularly difficult to effect. At the end of the day it was neither McDougall nor his workforce, but the engineers and accountants at Long John who determined the distillery’s destiny. When the stillhouse was upgraded in 1972, rather than pay for two new spirit stills they installed one double-sized spirit still, very much against the manager’s wish. ‘From the point of view of the traditionalist’, wrote McDougall, ‘what emerged was not the Laphroaig of old’. ‘Economic considerations’, he continued ‘mattered more than maintaining the quality and tradition of one of Scotland’s finest and most distinctive whiskies’, and certainly mattered more than the opinion of the enervated distillery manager.

Laphroaig John Campbell

Laphroaig on a rare sunny day

Manufacturing excellence processes

Ask a distillery manager employed today by one of the large distilling companies about his or her day job and you’re more likely to hear about manufacturing excellence processes, health and safety regulations, permits to work, efficiency improvements and boiler breakdowns than you are whisky making. 

That’s not to suggest that these companies don’t care about quality – quite the reverse. They are obsessed by quality. Everything they do is to deliver precisely defined and specified spirit characters, and to ensure consistency. And whilst the manager has some responsibility for this, like a process engineer manufacturing Bird’s Eye Fish Fingers, it’s all determined, assessed and ultimately managed elsewhere. It’s the blenders and the boffins who call the shots. The totemic distillery manager of yesteryear, still much beloved by marketing departments, PR agencies and gullible consumers, is no more, and has been no more for a long time.

Arbikie and Inchdairnie

The Stirling Brothers, the brains behind Arbikie, one of Scotland’s new wave distillers

Distilling disruptors

Of course, that’s not entirely true. There are new distilleries the length and breadth of the kingdom where the onus is on the distillery manager and distiller (not always the same thing) to deliver innovations through grain varieties, yeasts, and distillation and maturation regimes. And they are often being asked to bring palatable products to the market at ages that turn category norms upside down. They are distilling disruptors. It’s almost wilfully reckless: anything goes (within the Scotch Whisky Regulations) in the pursuit of an eye-catching story that might tempt a punter to open their wallets. Why, some distillers are even being given the chance to design and build their own distilleries from scratch, just like they did in the good old days.

Where once there were few opportunities for people to enter the distilling industry, challenging opportunities for creative distillery managers to spread their wings are almost endless. Consequently, the lure of the big name ‘dream jobs’ at larger companies is correspondingly diminished. The days of distillery managers being lifers are long gone.

The barriers to movement, particularly the very generous pensions offered by some large companies, have also been removed as schemes have been closed and potential retirement benefits significantly reduced. With the handcuffs unlocked, and with all the noise, energy and excitement in distilling in Scotland apparently coming from these newly established businesses, it’s hardly surprising that people are on the move, trying to turn their dreams into reality.