Keith Bonnington, director of Colonsay Beverages, talks to SLTN
Q: Where do you work?
A: Our company was founded in June 2007 in the port village of Scalasaig on the remote Inner Hebridean island from which we take our name. The island sits about ten miles north-west of better known Islay.
Q: How long have you worked there?
A: I took a small support role with the brewery while I was still employed by Edrington – approved by its HR of course. I had worked there for almost 11 years and wanted to do something in my spare time to support a small Scottish drinks enterprise. After a few meetings, it became apparent that I could use my 18 years of Scotch whisky experience to help them develop not only their beers, but also a portfolio of spirits. I left Edrington in 2016, the same time that the brewery launched Wild Island Botanic Gin – our first foray into spirits. Fast forward three years and we now have two premium gins, island distillation, an oat-based vodka and an incredibly exciting first step into Scotch whisky – The Scalasaig ‘Island Hopper’.
Q: What’s a typical working day like?
A: A typical day might start with early morning correspondence which, nowadays, means largely email. We deal with marketing and PR agencies in Stirling and Edinburgh, and warehouses and suppliers in Glasgow, so I am normally in each place at least one day a week. There could be a meeting with our designer to approve artwork, a lunch with a supplier to review available inventory, a PR brief meeting or a brand photography shoot. Then, of course, is the selling of the product and occasionally hosting whisky and gin events or tastings.
Q: Describe the production process.
A: The Scalasaig ‘Island Hopper’ has been launched to market initially as a blended malt to exactly the style that we aim to produce on the island within the next three years. Using my industry network, I was able to source and select a number of island malt whiskies which would give us our smoky backbone and complex character. Working with the support of renowned whisky maker and good friend, Max Macfarlane, we hand-selected and vatted around ten casks together and filled into first-fill dry Oloroso sherry hogsheads back in December 2018. The resulting spirit is a fantastically well-crafted blended malt with all the rich sweetness of sherry-aging and a big warming hug of smoke in the background.
Q: What would you say sets your products apart?
A: We maintain a business mantra: ‘quality above everything else’. This means that we are proud to work with third parties if we know they can help us produce a better quality product than we might be able to do ourselves. We’re a relatively new spirits company and have built our business sustainably – and without crippling debt – while at the same time winning international gold medals for our products. For The Scalasaig, we follow the very same set of values. We are building towards our own Scotch whisky production within our three-year plan, but our collective knowledge and network means that we are able to source exceptional casks of whisky and marry these together in the best industry standard sherry oak.
Q: What one fact should bartenders know about your brand?
A: Blended malt is an exciting and upcoming category within Scotch. The skill and knowledge involved in consistently producing a good quality, well-balanced product is an art form. We have the support of one of the best whisky makers in the business; and he has helped us to produce this intensely sweet and automatically smoky style, which is the exact benchmark for what we will soon produce on the island.
Q: What’s your favourite part of the job?
A: I am a creative at heart and, probably to the annoyance of design agencies, I take a hands-on approach to the whole development process. There’s something truly rewarding about working on a project from the start right through to watching a customer pick a bottle off the shelf. I also love dealing with Scotch whisky people. Some of the best characters I have met have been from the whisky industry and the stories of old keep me entertained for hours on end.
Q: What’s your career highlight so far?
A: Within Colonsay Beverages, the Gold Medal awarded to Wild Island Botanic Gin at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in 2017 was extra special as a lot of work went into generating the recipe. However, I feel like the biggest highlight is yet to come – and the prospect of producing our own small-batch single malt Scotch whisky is hugely exciting.
Q: Who do you admire in the industry and why?
A: I admire the pioneers that launched Scotch whisky to the world at a time when even faxing was an unknown technology.
Q: How do you relax outside of work?
A: I live in Perthshire and an energetic black Labrador means several hours of walking every week, which I love as a way of clearing my head. I also play a bit of golf, but the ultimate relaxation is cooking for family or friends with a glass of easy drinking Scotch by my side.
Q: If you could invite anyone for a drink who would you ask, where would you go and what would you drink?
A: My closest friends to this day, a bunch of guys I went to school with. We’d go hillwalking in autumn and finish up at a bothy somewhere on a remote Highland moor, with a big stew, a roaring fire and a full-bodied Scotch whisky.