The quiet man of whisky

The quiet man of whisky

Meet the man whose CV is a Top Trumps of whisky

Interview | 18 Oct 2019 | Issue 163 | By Mark Jennings

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You may not be familiar with the name Stuart, but mention it to whisky professionals anywhere in the world and they are likely to break into a gentle smile, nod and say, “of course I know Stuart”. 

Stuart is a veteran of the Scottish whisky industry, but has always been most comfortable behind the scenes. So where do you start with someone who was distillery manager of Highland Park and Glenrothes, distilleries director for William Grant & Sons – responsible for such luminaries as Glenfiddich and Balvenie – who presided over the launch of the now mighty Hendrick’s gin, and brought back the Glenglassaugh distillery from mothball? 

Who really is this man in the shadows? I sat him down in the hallowed ground of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s London rooms to find out more. 

He’s not what I expected. With a CV that reads like a Top Trumps of the world’s favourite whiskies, he could, and perhaps should, be a thoroughly egocentric man. Yet, he’s not at all. Bespectacled, wiry, with the gentle manner of a man whose pride is in the work, not himself. His stories come slowly, without adornment, in a soft Scottish brogue.

What was your first distillery job? 
“I left university in 1979 with a chemical engineering degree. Everyone was going for jobs in the oil and gas industry but that didn’t attract me. In ‘81 Bells were looking for a chemist, so I joined them for three years. This was at the time when they purchased Bladnoch Distillery in the borders, and I was the project manager on the refurbishment”.

That’s a big responsibility for someone in their mid 20s. Where did you end up after Bells? 
“I became the distillery manager of Highland Park in ‘84 before moving to Highland’s bigger distillery, Glenrothes in ‘87. I also looked after Glenglassaugh which had shut the previous year. So I looked after one and a half distilleries!”.

With an MBA under his belt Stuart moved to the giant United Distillers (forerunner of Diageo) for 15 months. That probably tells you how much I enjoyed that job”, he says with a smile. He then moved to William Grant & Sons, managing Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie distilleries. “I absolutely loved it, the responsibility, the opportunity to keep pushing the boundaries. Grants really let you try lots of things”. Ultimately as distilleries director, responsible for the giant Girvan distillery, as well as the Grant’s Speyside empire, he oversaw all distilling activity and new liquid development. It was here he spent the longest part of his career, which included the launch of Hendrick’s gin, distilled at Girvan’s famous ‘Gin Palace’.   

After working at the highest levels in some of the most respected distilling businesses, Stuart was able to realise a “growing ambition”. He set out on his own. He initially planned to consult to the whisky industry, but was quickly sought out by a group of investors who longed to own a distillery. As chance would have it, the distillery they ended up buying together in 2008 was the mothballed Glenglassaugh distillery, reuniting him with it 22 years after he’d first managed the buildings in his 20s. 

This is his proudest moment and he can remember every detail, right down to the exact specifics of the first refill sherry-butt cask he filled, as if it was yesterday, painting a vivid, vital picture of the day from memory.   

He recounts the moment Glenglassaugh’s outgoing head warehouseman handed the keys to him on the first day, with a simple “all yours Stuart” to get him on his way. “Suddenly you’re sitting there thinking I’ve got all this responsibility; just me and 35,000 casks. A lovely but scary moment”.  

He also remarked that the distillery was re-opened by Alex Salmond (then Scotland’s First Minister), with an obvious glow of pride, giving a little hint to one of the two subjects very close to his heart, Scottish politics, and his beloved Hibs football team.   
I ask him about the luminaries he’s worked with and, characteristic of the man, he doesn’t reach for the known names of whisky, instead reminiscing about characters of the past that are unknown to me, and I suspect, sadly, to everyone except those who were there; the vital people whose names never grace a bottle, but without whom the liquid wouldn’t be the same.  When pressed though he does mention the legendary David Stewart MBE (malt master at William Grant & Sons). “A fabulous man, even though he supports Ayr United!”. He drops in the name of Brian Kinsman (master blender at William Grant & Sons) too - “we support the same football team!”, which for Stuart seems to be a byword for, ‘he’s okay wi’ me’.    

It’s evident that Stuart is a family man, and he talks openly about his two daughters, neither of whom followed him into the world of whisky. Well not initially. Jennifer Nickerson may be familiar to our readers as the recent winner of the Irish whiskey brand ambassador of the year, at our Icons of Whisky awards. She recently left a career in accountancy to found Tipperary Distillery on her husband Liam’s family farm. Of course Stuart has been lending a hand - ‘gypsy distilling’ the farm’s grain at two Irish distilleries while their own distillery plans develop.   

So was it really fate that drew Jennifer into the business, or was it in the blood? 
“When she was 7 or 8 we were driving the motorway through Glasgow, passing Port Dundas. All I heard from the back seat was “{loud sniff} is there a distillery nearby”. However, he tells me perhaps it started even earlier, “We lived near Dufftown Glenlivet, in the employee houses, which backed onto the warehouses: warehouse One in front and Eight behind us. Jennifer was five days old and wasn’t sleeping, but we noticed when we had her in the pram outside with the warehouse doors open, and she’d drop right off. That was the trick; anytime the doors opened she was quickly put outside”. 
He adds, “I feel very pleased and proud, but I’m equally proud of my other daughter who isn’t in this industry. It allows me to be involved
in a different way”.

I wonder what his typical day looks like and am surprised, pleasantly, to know that it’s not locked behind a computer smashing out emails but “some form of exercise even if it’s just walking around the village, no matter what the weather conditions”.

He spreads the rest of the day between overseeing and developing his new-ish gin distillery in Shetland, advising Tipperary distillery, and when he can fit time in, he’s still advising distilleries and sourcing casks.

Oh and if that wasn’t enough, he also bottles his own whisky. 

Honestly I’m exhausted just listening to his day and he has 20 years on me.   
I could hear Stuart recount tales all day but he has to be somewhere else. We finish with a warm handshake and he bounces off to promote his Shetland Reel gin at GinLive around the corner. No sign of him slowing down yet it seems, and more power to him for it.
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