22 Feb, 2024
20-21 March 2024
10 April 2024
4 March 2024
Euan earned a Master's degree in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University. Soon after graduating, he accepted a position as an assistant distiller at The Dornoch Distillery Company. He understands the scientific concepts underlying the production of various alcoholic beverages. His time as a volunteer and paid distiller provided him with extensive hands-on experience in all aspects of small-scale whiskey and gin production. In addition to his production work, he has experience working as a bartender at the acclaimed Dornoch Castle Hotel Whisky Bar and as a senior visitor assistant at The Scotch Whisky Experience.
I've only been distilling full-time for three years and working within the wider spirits industry for five years. My gateway to the spirits industry was through hospitality. I stumbled across a job as a waiter at the Dornoch Castle Hotel that offered "Live-In" employment opportunities. I didn't realize at the time that the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar was a world-famous whisky bar, so when I arrived and found myself behind a bar with over four hundred bottles of rare and exclusive whiskies, including the likes of Brora, Port Ellen, old bottlings of Laphroaigs and an incredible selection of Japanese whiskies, I was pretty overwhelmed. However, Simon and Phil Thompson, the founders of the bar, and the then bar manager Nick gave me a lot of help and advice, taking the time to explain to me why these bottlings were special, in particular the merits of "old-style" production techniques.
At the same time, the brothers were operating their recently launched distillery. To increase my knowledge of whisky production, I would volunteer to help out with emptying the mash tun, cleaning floors, bottling gin, and more. I learned so much in that time, gaining a much deeper appreciation of these "old-style" production techniques. I began to feel that whisky was what I wanted to do with my career. I left Dornoch after ten months to study at Heriot-Watt University to study the MSc in Brewing and Distilling and took a part-time job as a tour guide at the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. Working here introduced me to the wider whisky industry, which, combined with my studies, massively increased both my knowledge and enthusiasm for whisky and the drinks industry in general.
While studying in Edinburgh, I found myself focusing more and more on during my studies on novel production techniques and the more experimental side of the industry, and I knew that I wanted to focus my career on small-scale production where we as producers can have a direct impact on the nature of our spirit. When a job became available at Dornoch, I couldn't wait to get back.
It's been a busy three years since then. We've had challenges such as the COVID pandemic, where we made and distributed hand-sanitizer, and launched a wide range of new products, including our first single malt, produced spirit from some incredibly special and unique heritage barley varieties, and grown significantly as a business. It's been an incredibly varied and fast-paced five years for me, but I'm incredibly privileged to work where I've worked, had the teachers and professors I've had, and work with a great team, which has made it incredibly fun.
I am relatively new to the spirits industry, but there has been a significant change in the five years I've worked there. Consumer knowledge has increased massively, encouraging us distillers to not only push for the highest quality but also look for new ways to experiment and innovate. With whisky, it is no longer just about the taste and taste alone; consumers want to know where the product has come from, the story behind it, and the brand, try different expressions, and see variation across products. I think this has increased the range and overall quality on offer, and it's incredibly exciting and rewarding as a distiller to see how the consumer responds to spirits produced with different barley varieties, yeast strains, cask types for whisky, or unusual botanicals in gin.
I think whisky has also become more accessible In recent years. It's become incredibly popular in the last few years and is no longer seen as an "old man's" drink. It was great to see so many people attending the National Whisky Festival in Inverness recently and especially great to meet so many people who were relatively new to whisky. This has definitely spilled over to the trade as well, and many bars have a wide range of whiskies on offer, often including independent bottlings, premium bottles, and international whiskies as well, which is great to see. I'm also meeting an increasing number of bar staff who are incredibly passionate about their offering, whether it's spirits, wine, beer, or cocktails. Factors like price increases could be a potential challenge for the industry. Still, as long as producers focus on quality, the trade continues to provide a great offering in a welcoming environment, and everyone involved in the industry works to make sure that whisky is accessible to everyone, I think the industry is in a really strong place.
We're incredibly hands-on here with our production here at Dornoch Distillery, so no two days are the same. The first thing I will do every morning is, fire up our stills. We still use no anti-foam on our wash, so it must be carefully monitored as it reaches boiling point. At the same time, I will start my spirit still. Again this must be closely monitored, as here at Dornoch, we make our spirit cuts by sense, which means keeping track of the sensory qualities of the spirit and deciding when is optimal to make our heads and tails cut based on not only the smell and taste of what is coming off the still. Here at Dornoch, we are looking for a predominantly fruity character and a waxy mouthfeel, so we will make our cuts around these qualities.
Once my wash still is set, and my head cut has been made, I will begin with either mashing if it's a mash day or emptying and cleaning washbacks if it is a non-mash day. Both these jobs are done by hand. For the mash, that means the malted barley is poured in by hand, the mash stirred manually to ensure an even consistency, and factors such as draw-off speed and temperature are dictated based on what we are trying to achieve that day. If I am not mashing, I might be cleaning washbacks, often done using hot water and a scrubbing brush! Throughout all this, the stills must be constantly monitored, and the mash draw-off analyzed.
During the intermittent periods around these processes, we need to cask new make spirit, assist with warehousing and bottling of our various products, maintain records and paperwork, and plan for future projects or research new avenues for production or ways to improve. We also make our award-winning Mediterranean Gin, where all the botanicals are distilled individually and blended together to create the final product. As with our whisky, cut points are made by sense rather than a pre-determined set point. Additionally, when blending the final product, the recipe will be varied based on the individual distillations that have been produced. We're very busy here at Dornoch, but that's essential to keep our hands-on, interventionist style of whisky production that we believe produces a quality product.
We are a small-scale, quality-driven brand that prioritises quality across all our products. We prioritise creating a distinct, flavour-driven single malt based on "old-style" production methods such as long fermentations, brewers yeast, heritage grains, and cut points made by hand, looking for quality and character over quantity and efficiency.
With our gin, by distilling each botanical separately and blending them together, we can create a gin that manages to be well-balanced whilst being bright and lively on the nose and palate. Our single-cask independent bottlings come from our director's years of experience and vast knowledge of quality whiskies, which has resulted in an incredible range of high-quality single malts. Our newly launched SRV5 Blended Malt is produced by blending a variety of malts in a solera system to create a whisky that is fresh and fruity with a great waxy mouthfeel.
We will generally advertise that the bar or venue has our product in stock and offers them in some format, usually on social media. We like to do our bit to help the venues that support us, especially given the difficult time the hospitality industry has had over the past two years. Recently we did a "break-even cask" for trade customers to support the industry that's been supportive of us.
We're lucky to work with many fantastic on-trade customers and hospitality establishments. A great many of our team come from hospitality backgrounds themselves, so it's always exciting to see your product in these venues, see whisky bars talk about our production methods, or cocktails bars use our gin in a new creation. When I talk to bartenders about our company and our products, I try and emphasize our production methods and how they lend flavour to our products, as our production philosophies and methods have always been a key focus for us as a brand. I highlight our use of heritage barley varieties, brewers yeast, and long fermentations for our single malt, our solera system for our blended malt, and the use of single botanical distillations to help make our gin bright and vibrant. If we can get the bar staff to be as excited about these methods and products as we are as producers, that enthusiasm will be passed on to the customer.
There is great potential for a distiller to help drive sales and marketing, especially in the whisky industry. With consumers becoming more knowledgeable and increasingly interested in the process behind the product, many want information directly from the person producing it. Suppose distillers can inform the consumer why they made a particular decision during production, where the inspiration came from, elaborate on how it is made, or even just tell a few anecdotes about its production. In that case, it draws the consumer in, gets them closer to the brand, and increases their overall experience. This can happen at a festival or tasting, where enthusiasts can pick the brains of the people behind the whisky, or even through social media, where a distiller can have a public work account that can be used to share "behind the scenes" information from the distillery. I think this also runs true when promoting our product to on-trade customers. These trade customers are enthusiastic, passionate, and incredibly knowledgeable. If distillers can help to communicate their brand's message, and what about their production makes them unique and distinct, it all helps to create a special connection between the brand and its customers.
I might still be figuring this out myself, but if I had to pick two qualities, I'd say that you need to be geeky and inventive. In the production of any spirit, there is a myriad of ways to experiment or try something new, from raw materials to production techniques, and maturation methods. Additionally, several incredible sources of inspiration are available, such as the new research published by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, or the wealth of historical information and research being done into production methods that have fallen out of favor over time but can still produce some incredible results. Being geeky enough to delve into this research and inventive enough to try new things or explore new options is important if you want to create something different in the spirits industry.
Simplicity and character are the two big things for me when I'm enjoying a drink, and for me, a great Cask Ale and a Single Malt Scotch are unbeatable in those regards. My favorite drink and setting was a bottle of a great session IPA, accompanied by a single cask single malt, in the Highlander Inn on a summer's day in Speyside overlooking the Telford Bridge at Craigellachie. Absolutely unbeatable combination.
I definitely try to relax and recharge the batteries. It can get very busy here at the distillery, and the work is often quite physically demanding, so when possible, I like to get out of Dornoch and go for a hike in the local area. If not, I'll make the trip down south to visit my partner, family, and friends or try to read something other than brewing and distilling texts. Saying that, I always seem to end up in a whisky bar, so clearly, I don't want to escape from whisky that much.
I am incredibly privileged to have the life I do now, working at a great company, with great people, in an industry constantly expanding and producing something new. It struck me at Heriot-Watt how fortunate we are in this industry to be surrounded by genuinely talented and enthusiastic people. Hence, a good life for me definitely includes staying in the whisky industry and the wider brewing and distilling world. I get great satisfaction knowing that our products are doing well, being enjoyed, and new people and enthusiasts are finding them. I'll be happy if we can keep that up and keep growing.
Header Image: Euan Christie
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