Meet the Maker: Iain J McAlister, Master Distiller & Distillery Manager Glen Scotia Distillery, Loch Lomond Group

Q: Where do you work?

A: I work at Glen Scotia Distillery, situated in the former whisky capital of the world: Campbeltown, Argyll. The distillery was opened in 1832 and was one of 36 distilleries in this small town. The distillery has evolved to what we have today and gives potential visitors a fabulous insight into handcrafted whisky.

Q: How long have you worked at the distillery?

A: I started at Glen Scotia 11 years ago, back when there was just three of us – namely Jim Grogan, the stillman, David Watson, the mashman, and myself, producing a mere 80,000 litres per year, which was a wonderful opportunity for me to learn the secrets of making a Campbeltown whisky.

Q: Describe the production process.

A: Mashing entails utilising a 2.80 tonne mash in our vintage mashtun, which is skillfully operated by our expert mashmen. The first water added is 66 degrees, second, 76 degrees and third and fourth are 85 degrees; an average mash will take eight hours and a fifth water is added to facilitate the removal of draff. We use the original distillers strain yeast, which creates – combined with long fermentation times – the correct balanced flavour profile. Distillation is by classic double pot still and is carefully undertaken by our stillmen. Our stills are relatively short, but with careful application, with due care to speed, charge capacities and adherence to cuts, we are able to produce a very flavoursome new-make spirit, which is best described as balanced with an oily salinity. Distillation of the wash still – four and a half hours per charge, resulting in nine hours per 14,500 litres. Spirit still charge is 8200 litres per charge and can result in a still running for up to ten or 11 hours with a potent still run. We reduce all new-make spirit down to 63.5% and add this into first-fill bourbon, second-fill bourbon and medium char, which will impart vanilla, caramel and rich toffee and fudge flavours and allow for a complementary maturation process. I also fill and finish in Oloroso, port, wine, etc.

Q: What’s a typical working day like?

A: No two days are the same – it could involve meeting with customers or clients, taking a masterclass, or looking for single cask samples for future shop releases; it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

Q: What would you say sets your brand apart?

A: Quite simply, Campbeltown! There is nowhere else to make whisky; Campbeltown has unique descriptors that set it apart from any other region, but make sure that its reputation has special characteristics that are demonstrated uniquely with Glen Scotia whisky.

Q: What one fact should bartenders know about your whisky?

A: You are drinking a piece of history, from the Victorian whisky capital of the world; both the Japanese and Swedish whisky industries can trace their lineage to Campbeltown.

Q: What’s your favourite part of the job?

A: I love the industry and never tire of meeting individuals who make the pilgrimage to Campbeltown; these people have so much enthusiasm and passion for our product and the industry in general that I can’t help to be empowered by their energy.

Q: What’s your favourite way to drink your products?

A: Let’s get the facts straight here, you should drink whisky the way you want to; there is no right or wrong way to enjoy whisky, if it works for you, result. I usually drink cask strength whisky with no water, but if I am out and about, I never go past Victoriana or Double Cask whiskies, with a little water.

Q: What’s your career highlight so far?

A: I started at a time when Glen Scotia was a bit down on its luck, so to see how we’ve progressed over the last few years is simply mindblowing – and this is in no small part due to our huge fan base – so to witness how the distillery has survived and is now known for producing world class whisky is what makes us all tick.

Q: Who do you admire in the industry and why?

A: I’ve been lucky enough to meet a few industry icons – Richard Paterson, Charlie Maclean and honestly you could not find more down to earth guys, who have in no small part added charisma and intelligence to the whisky industry.

Q: How do you relax outside of work?

A: The last few years have been all things whisky, so any time off is spent with my understanding wife, Shelley, and my three sons and dog called Storm.

Q: If you could invite anyone for a drink who would you ask, where would you go and what would you drink?

A: I would ask Felix Baumgartner, Austrian sky diver and daredevil. He is best known for jumping to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere on October 14, 2012. Doing so, he set world records for skydiving an estimated 24 miles, reaching an estimated top speed of 843mph. Maybe a bit sedate for Felix, but just a wee tasting at the distillery with, yes you have guessed right, some single cask whisky – first-fill bourbon; hopefully he would enjoy this.