It’s the 17th June and I’ve come up to Glenglassaugh to meet Stuart Nickerson, MD of this beautiful cliff-top distillery near Portsoy, Banffshire.
Glenglassaugh was built in 1875 and mothballed in 1986. It was bought by the Dutch investment house Scaent in 2008, who appointed Stuart MD of Glenglassaugh Distillery Company and the site was officially re-opened by Alex Salmond in November of that year. Glenglassaugh is one of the few independantly-owned distilleries in Scotland.
Dram per Day: Can you tell me a little about your history in the whisky industry, how did you get into it?
Stuart Nickerson: My history in the whisky industry goes back a long time. I left university in ’79, worked with a contracting company in Leven in fife doing design and build contracts for process plant and I worked in a division that did a lot of work for the distilling industry. I visited Bunnahabhain and Convalmore and fell in love with the industry. A job became available in ’81 with Bells, I was there for 3 years and joined Highland in ’84 as manager of Highland Park. In 1987 I became manager of Glenrothes where I spent a short time looking after warehousing here at Glenglassaugh. I left Highland in ’89, spent 15 months at Diageo (the less said about that the better) and then joined Grants as General Manager Malt Distilling in 1990. I left in 2004 to start my own business, consulting, helping people in the industry.
DpD: How did you get involved in the reopening of Glenglassaugh?
SN: That came out of being a consultant, I was approached by someone who was acting on behalf of a group of investors who said they wanted me to carry out due dilligence on a couple of distilleries and give them some recommendations. I did that, gave them my recommendations.
DpD: What sort of criteria did they have for choosing a distillery?
SN: At that stage, and it did change, they had already chosen the distilleries themselves, they had two in mind and wanted me to look at spirit quality and everything else that went into it. They two distilleries were both in production but did they make a good enough standard of whisky? What availability was there to up the production? How much more investment would be needed? These sort of things.
So, I did all that, went for a particular distillery and the deal fell through because the seller upped the price at the last minute. We went back to the other distillery and the exact same thing happened, mainly because the distillery was going through a boom period. I would say that people got greedy.
The investors still wanted to go on and and wanted:
One, to find someone who was going to be good to deal with, a gentleman.
The second, I had to find a distillery which met three criteria:
1: It must have heritage. They weren’t interested in a newbuild (although that would probably be cheaper.)
2: They must have top quality whisky.
3: They must have stock.
I knew about Glenglassaugh, I knew about the quality so I approached Highland and basically they were complete gentlemen. We agreed a price for the distillery and a price for the stock and the deal was done!
Even though it took a long time to get through customs and excise, Highland never came back wanting to change the price.
I still have good relationships with Highland, we’re very pleased with how it went.
DpD: What do you feel were the biggest obstacles in getting the distillery restarted?
SN: You need backers, they employed me, they said “We don’t know how to run a distillery, would you like to run it for us?”
So I gave up my consultancy. I have no capital invested in it myself but i have a lot of blood and time invested!
The biggest obstacle is money. An investor has to remember that it’s not a short term thing, you have to invest over a number of years
Customs and Excise are an obstacle which can be managed as are Health, Safety and Environmental concerns.
But after all that, the biggest thing is building the brand, getting cash in, making sure we are making the best quality whisky and doing it consistently.
So…it’s about financing and building the brand, making a product you can sell, you’ve got to be able to sell it and be able to sell it to a very well educated public.
People treat whisky with a great reverence. I like that, it gives me good feedback, people will very quickly tell me what they think about the product. Being reactive is very important, listening to what people are saying.
We had success straight away, one in particular was selling small casks
DpD: the Octaves?
SN: Yes, they’ve been really popular, I had the idea, theres a distillery in Sweden that sell small casks. I put the idea out on a blog and overnight 20 people said they were interested, we put the package together, started to sell it and now we sell over 100 every year.
DpD: that’s amazing, superb. Octaves are not something i’d heard of until Ronnie [Routledge] posted something on your facebook page a few months ago.
SN: yes, a lot of people sell casks but that’s not what all consumers want.
DpD: It’s a lot of investment for a private individual
SN: Exactly, one person, a lot of money, you don’t see a result for at least 10 years. That’s the other thing, a large cask gives upwards of 200-300 bottles but an Octave gives 50 or 60 bottles in only 5 years time.
DpD: A tempting deal, that’s much more managable then a hogshead or sherry butt…
SN: Have we sold you one?
DpD: I’m going to speak to Ronnie about that today! A friend of mine wants to come in too but I’m going to persuade him to buy one himself.
SN: Even better!
DpD: You must be pleased with progress, all the awards especially IWSC and San Francisco?
SN: Delighted, right at the beginng we entered into International Whisky and Spirit, we entered 2 products, the 30 and 40 and each won a trophy, Gold Medal (Best in Class).
DpD: A great start!
SN: There are only 6 trophies, we could only enter 2 categories and we won a trophy for both. It doesn’t get much better. Then we won double Gold at San Francisoco in 2010. Jim Murray gave us great accolades for the 40yo in the 2010 whisky bible. I start to think, do i want to enter any more?!
DpD: I can imagine, where do you go from there?
SN: We don’t enter too many more! Actually, I’m not sure the benefit of enterting awards, it’s nice to hear nice things about your product but it doesn’t help to sell any more.
People have real brand loyalty and to spend a lot of money (our 40yo is £1,500 per bottle) takes somebody who knows the brand. What we find is that its all about shoe leather, going to the market, doing tastings, doing masterclasses with the product. We have to put the 30 and 40 in front of people, it really helps, people can undertand the product.
DpD: How are continental sales and those beyond mainland Europe?
SN: What helped us was that were a number of independant bottlings while the still was silent. Quite a number in Germany and ovenight Germany became our biggest export market.
We also quickly got into Russia and then tried the USA but then, of course, the economic downturn happened, just as we were devloping the brand and we didnt get into the us until last year.
America looks to be becoming a real growth market, we’re doing well in Canada too and we export to 25 countries now. In 2 years we’re very pleased with that.
DpD: What’s next?
SN: As of the first of January next year we’ll have a 3yo.
DpD: Not new-make-spirit any more, it’s scotch whisky! Are you releasing it?
SN: Well, we haven’t released details but we will have a special bottling on Dec 16th which is when the whisky becomes 3 years old. Just one limited edition.
DpD: sounds great, it’s very exciting!
SN: It is! For me it is. For me, 3 dates stick in my mind:
The 29th February 2008. The guys at highland said “here’s the keys, byebye” and everybody drives away and I’m left on my own at 1pm in the afternoon and I thought “My God I’m responsible for this now.” A few other people joined me on the Monday.
4th December 2008. The first spirit ran. It’s worrying, the first spirit can be crap. If it’s ok we have something to work from but we had the records from Highland, they documented everything very well and they gave me everything they still had. Brilliant, we followed them and the spirit was spot on!
The third date is December 16th. I’m really looking forward to that, we already have the cask lined up.
In January opr February next year we will release a 3yo single malt.
DpD: i’m looking forward to that. What’s your maximum production capcity?
SN: A million litres, just over, we’re at 200,000 at the moment but thats more than sufficient for a brand of our size. We do what we believe is going to drive us forward to a good volume. If our cask sales go through the roof and the 3yo sells well we can always turn up production to keep up.
DpD: How “hands-on” are you in the day to day running of the distillery?
Personally, very hands-on with regard to quality, I buy the casks myself and sample 3 or 4 times a week. I’m hands-on in terms that I take people around on tours, I oversee whats going on but I leave it to the staff, I trust them.
For me, the bigegst issue is quality, it has to be top notch.
DpD: Taking samples, 4 times a week sounds great! Can you describe a typical day? Theres no such thing I bet!
SN: You’re right, there’s no such thing. Normally, email is my morning, distributors, importers. Then sampling casks! I’ve been working a lot on thinking about what will go into the 3yo.
I’m also heavily involved in packaging design,we have an excellent designer who does the drawings and artwork but I come up with the concepts, from bottles to lables to boxing etc.
DpD: Did you come up with names for the spirit drinks?
SN: Yes, well, Ian Buxton came up with “The spirit that dare not speak it’s name” but I came up with Blushes and Fledgling. We got feedback that the original names were too long!
DpD: Have they been popular?
SN: Yes, people really like them but i would like to see them more used in cocktails. I don’t want to try to do too many things at once. We should have done them in bigger bottles, people like that.
DpD: I loved them Clearac especially. So m,uch more character than other new-makes I’ve tried.
SN: Thank you, the spirit has to be right and by god, the packaging has to be right because people buy “the whole thing”. Everything that goes out the door has to be right.
DpD: For people who haven’t tried your whisky, what characteristics of Glenglassaugh make it stand out?
SN: For me, it’s a very fruity, tasty, whisky. Clearac has the green apple and pear, it picks up superb dry fruit, spices, a wee bit of tang. It matures very well and I feel it develops over time, and it does take time, but develops into a fantastically well balanced whisky. Many drams are 1 or 2 dimensional, Glenglassaugh is 3 dimensional, very complex. You have to drink it slowly, savour it. It’s elegant, well balanced, well rounded. I describe the 30-40 year olds as light fruitcake, over 40 it’s Christmas Cake!
The 40yo that went into IWSC was the ultimate Christmas Cake!
We have a new range about to come in, “The Chosen Few”, the choices of individuals that work here, each will choose a cask 3-4yo. there are 10 of us, so 10 casks.
DpD: Apart from Glenglassaugh, what are your favourite drams? Distillies? Favourite expressions from certain places?
SN: I think a lot of it depends on emotional ties and my mood, time of day etc. Having worked for 14 years at Grants I have a lot of time for their products and the effort that goes into the product and keeping the quality up. There’s not a nicer light dram than Glenfiddich 12
My favourite Speyside is probably Mortlach, I’ll be honest, the one I really like is one bottled for Whisky Shop Dufftown by G&M, that I tried first in Germany of all places! Absolutely fabulous.
I worked at Highland Park for a number of years and some of the older ones are wonderful but I’m not convonced they have the same peat as they used to.
DpD: The older 18 and 25yo weres absolutely wonderful, I adore them. The 18 from 8 years ago or whatever, the newer one is a little sweeter, not quite as complex as it was.
SN: I agree, made for the masses perhaps. I do like Cragganmore and I do love Ardbeg…
DpD: I’m a big fan of Ardbeg too, I must admit.
SN: I like springbank, lots of others! There are no distilleries I don’t like, there’s one blend I dont like, that will remain nameless!!
DpD: You said that you find your tastes change by time of day, I find that mine change by season. In Autumn I’m really into heavily sherried speysiders, in Winter and Springtime I’m into big Southern islays, Summertime is for unsherried, unpeated whisky. Do you find the same?
SN: Not as much as that because I’m focussed so much on Glenglassaugh, in winter I do look at more robust whiskies, in summer definitely the lighter drams. I do like peat, not too much.
DpD: Have you got a special cask sitting in a dark corner with your name on it?
SN: I’ve got the very first octave! I paid my money and got my cask, I’m very proud of it!
DpD I’d have done the same! Anything really special tucked away?
SN: There are a few casks tucked away that I want to see mature a bit longer. There’s a 1963 that will be 50yo soon and looking quite nice…
DpD: How much stock was there when you came here?
SN: Under 500 casks
DpD: Wow, not much then?
SN: It sounds a lot to some people but it’s really not. Trying to eek it out while we grow to a 10yo is difficult. Even after that how do we keep the other expressions going? It doesn’t give us much income which limits our cashflow again.
DpD: I loved the three pack of new spirits, why didn’t you do a 4 pack with Peated?
SN: 4 sounds a bit too much, a bit bulky, becomes expensive for a gift. We really had to look at pricing. The peated is the one that has real legs, it gets a lot of interest from barmen. Bramble bar in Edinburgh has made a Queen St Julep as a signature drink, made with our peated spirit, it’s wonderful.
Thats where I want to go with Glenglassaugh in the future, to introduce some more peat. Going back to its origins, the distillery used local peat. it’s not just marketing, it’s getting back to our roots.
The first year we ran peated spirit for 1 week. Last year 2 weeks, this year 3 weeks. Peated octaves are very popular.
DpD: I’ve not decided yet for my octave, peated or unpeated. My problem is that I’ve really struggled with some sherried peated Islay whiskies, in my opinion many have been unsuccesful, it’s a very difficult thing to balance the two.
SN: For me, the big difference is that Islay peat is very medicinal, our peat is much softer more gentle.
DpD: Like Highland Park?
SN: Yes, exactly, you get some smoke in the back and it’s going extremely well.
DpD: I write my blog in a very informal, casual, chatty style, I don’t go into hugely detailed tasting notes (I dont have the palate frankly). Have you got any advice for casual whisky drinkers looking to learn?
SN: Down South people drank blends with their beer. Up North people drank malts very sociably, often with the same amount of water. Whisky is different now, people nose it far more, appreciate it far more. I always add water, more than just a few drops.
DpD: A lot of people feel there’s a stigma to adding water to whisky, that it’s a form of sacrilege, I don’t buy into that at all.
SN: It’s definitely not sacrilege, many of the taste components are tied up in the water soluble side and if you just take your time and add water you’ll find a lot more in your whisky. I do masterclasses and put notes up from Dave Broom or Jim Murray or Charley Maclean or whoever and say these notes are what these people think but what you find may be totally different.
Just take your time and savour it. Find one that suits you.
DpD: I’m trying 365 to find my favourite!
SN: I hope it’s a Glenglassaugh!
Many thanks indeed to Stuart Nickerson and to Ronnie Routledge for a throughly enjoyable afternoon at the distillery, putting up with my stupid questions and for an excellent tour, nosing casks and tasting some of their wonderful products.
For anybody looking for a personal distillery tour, I thoroughly recommend getting in touch at http://www.glenglassaugh.com