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Hellenic Malt Whisky Society, interviewing Mr. Robbie Hughes, Group Distillation Manager at Glengoyne Distillery

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Dear Members of HMWS and Whiskyforum.gr.
We are more than happy to present you Mr. Robbie Hughes, Group Distillation Manager at Glengoyne Distillery.

Before moving to the actual interview and Mr. Hughes' reply to our questions, I really feel that i also have to write a few words regarding his kind reply to my mail. His e-mail provided me with a clear understanding on how pioneers and people with such experience and valuable footprint in the whisky industry, can be open to societies, easy to access and kind to provide all information requested in a modest and friendly way.

I need to also thank Mrs. Sarah Bottomley, Distillery Sales and Marketing Manager, who was so kind to facilitate the overall communication and from the first moment to provide us with the clear "message" about Glengoyne culture and support towards people sharing the same passion.

(P.S. The following interview is covered by all proprietary terms and conditions of whiskyforum.gr and HMWS).

Part 1 of the interview.

1. Mallios: Dear Sir, kalimera (which is good morning) in Greek. First of all, let me thank you for this interview and the time allocated to reply to our questions. Please allow me to start with a Scottish-Nation related question. Referendum, independence and whisky industry. Will “No” play a significant role for the whisky industry and in what manner?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

Many whisky companies regarded the No vote as being the best option for the whisky industry. There were too many uncertainties with regards an independent Scotland, for example what currency would we use in an independent country? Would Scotland get easy access to the European market? The No vote meant Business as usual for the whisky industry and continuity. Business hates uncertainty.

2. Mallios: Following up on your cv we can find that you joined Glengoyne in October 2003 as responsible for the production of Glengoyne Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky and Tamdhu Speyside Single Malt Scotch Whisky and for maintaining their exceptional quality. That is enough food for thought and the questions are obvious:

What are the main differences between Glengoyne and Tamdhu single malts?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

There is obviously a Geographical location difference between the two sites, Tamdhu being a Speyside whisky and Glengoyne being a Highland whisky. Tamdhu New Make spirit is a floral whisky, with a very low phenol level and Glengoyne is a fruitier whisky with no phenols at all.

  • What are you responsibilities and how you can “maintain their exceptional quality”?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

I work with two highly motivated and skilled teams at Tamdhu Distillery and Glengoyne Distillery. The main guardians of the exceptional quality are the two production teams. They are working at producing the spirit every day so their responsibility is great. I do regular checks along with the Tamdhu Management team to ensure both sites are producing the desired spirit character and achieving the maximum yield from the malted barley.

My responsibilities are divided between production issues affecting the distilleries, dealing with compliance for the group, meeting and greeting VIP visitors, assisting with the development of new products, quality control of whisky, travelling to our sister distillery Tamdhu in Speyside, giving whisky tastings, procuring energy for the group, working my way through ever increasing government regulations and working with most company departments on a weekly basis with one thing or another.

3. Mallios: among the Six guiding principles that keep Glengoyne true to its past, true to its taste, can you please elaborate on “The slowest stills in Scotland” and how that affects the overall Glengoyne taste?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

We operate a balanced distillation system at Glengoyne Distillery, for every two wash backs we fill this enables us to charge the Wash Still three times and both Spirit stills three times also. A balanced system ensures a consistent spirit quality is always achieved. We are very boring at Glengoyne, we have been following the same process for decades.

We operate our Wash Still at 15 litres per minute when we are driving off the low wines (first distillation). We operate our spirit stills at five litres per minute when we are drawing off the spirit and we draw off the feints at nine litres per minute. This gives us a spirit run that lasts for three hours when we draw the spirit off at five litres per minute with an average alcohol strength in our filling store of 70.5% Alc.

This very slow distillation rate ensures we capture the flavours and alcohols we need. If we increased the distillation flow by one or two litres per minute we push the heavier compounds over the neck of the still and this would change our spirit character. Glengoyne Distillery spirit character is a Fruity one. If we reproduce everything exactly as it should be then this is what we achieve, every time. This fruitiness is so intense it carries on through the maturation process in the oak casks. More noticeable in the younger Glengoyne expressions, the longer you leave whisky in a cask the more influence the cask has on the whisky. If one of the Glengoyne operators was to have an idea to alter any one of the flow rates by either increasing or decreasing them they would change Glengoyne, theirs is a very responsible position.

4. Mallios: Your extensive experience in the Scotch whisky industry began when you joined Hiram Walker in 1984 as Production Operator at Balblair Distillery before moving to Diageo in 2000 where you were involved in the running of four malt whisky distilleries.

So, obviously the question is to provide us with a feedback about the differences between Balblair, the DIAGEO times and Glengoyne.

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

From 1984 to 1993 I was working at Balblair. I began as a warehouseman working with casks. Back then a Canadian Company called Hiram Walker owned Balblair Distillery along with six other malt distilleries. Very soon I became a production operator. During this nine year period I learnt about the process. I was very fortunate to work with some men who had been at Balblair since the 1940’s and 1950’s and they passed on their knowledge. In 1993 I moved to Speyside with my wife to train to be a Brewer, by now Hiram Walker had sold the Scotch whisky business to Allied Lyons and we became known as Allied Distillers. I spent the following years working between a number of distilleries, understanding different plants and learning how to control and manage a distillery. My wife and I also had three children in the meantime. I eventually ran my own site at Tormore Distillery.

In January 2000 I moved to Diageo, looking after Linkwood and Glen Elgin Distillery. Later I was moved to Glenlossie and Mannochmore. Diageo is a far bigger company than Allied Distillers was, with excellent support for its staff. In 2000 it operated twenty seven malt distilleries, this support network was key to the smooth operation of the geographical location of the distilleries in Scotland. At Diageo I was able to increase my understanding of how to achieve a certain spirit type and how you should operate your distillery to ensure you achieve this. My four years with Diageo allowed me to fill the gaps in my understanding of Scotch whisky production.

In October 2003 my family and I moved to Glengoyne Distillery in Stirlingshire. Back then the company operated under the name of Peter J Russell Ltd. Up until April 2003 Peter J Russell Ltd had been whisky merchants and had never operated or owned a whisky distillery before. Peter J Russell is a family business, it is privately owned, basically a father and son operation. Whisky production was all new to their business. I had moved from Diageo, the biggest whisky company in Scotland with a vast network of support to a company with only the one distillery and very little production support, to be honest with no production support. My previous nineteen years of experience was steering me towards a position with such a challenge. This was an exciting time, great to be part of this company in this early stage of a new venture. We changed the company name to Ian MacLeod Distillers Ltd soon after the purchase of Glengoyne Distillery. In 2011 Ian MacLeod Distillers decided it was time to get a second distillery so we purchased Tamdhu Distillery in Speyside.

5. Mallios: Moreover, regarding malt whisky quality, an obvious question. Golden Promise barley, Scotish Barley, Local Barley, Bere Barley , Port Ellen Maltings, Bairns Maltings, Islay Farms, Octomore Farm, Spring Water, peated barley, unpeated barley, port casks, sherry casks, new oak casks and so goes on. What is actually making the difference in malt whisky?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

All of the above.

Each distillery has its own reason for doing things and also has its own recipe. It is possible to make some big changes to the smell and taste of Glengoyne whisky by making small changes to the way you operate the distillery. This would apply to all distilleries. Your list is extensive but by no means exhaustive. You have listed ingredients, but other key factors of making “the difference” are the way the distiller operates the distillery. I wish I could tell you that there is one silver bullet that would work for every distiller but there isn’t. That said, if you don’t use good quality casks to mature your whisky in then all of your earlier efforts could be in vain.

6. Mallios: Now that we know your opinion about: making the difference in whisky”, allow us to make a more personal question. Simple question, though a triggering one and your input is highly appreciated (especially if you can also provide us with some hints and “secrets”). What is actually needed to become a master distiller? What are the attributes needed to be among the ones that can actually say when a malt is ready to be bottled, when a malt conforms with Glengoyne quality standards?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

For me it took many years, gathering experience as mentioned above. During this time of working in the industry I also took every opportunity to sample what the industry was producing. One of the character traits we need is patience; we spend a lot of time waiting. This time is spent monitoring and checking the New Make spirit and the Maturing whisky. If you do enough of this you will be able to gather experience.

You will know what the whisky was like at the beginning, when it was distilled and the journey the whisky is on now, depending on its age or the type of wood it was filled into. The trick is to decide when the journey has come to an end, is this whisky the best it can be? Often that decision is made for you simply to provide whisky of a certain age for a blend, there may be no alternative.

Times such as those emphasise the importance in getting everything right at the earliest stages of production and cask management, to avoid inferior whisky being bottled. When it comes to the Glengoyne single malt a different ethos is employed. If the maturing whisky needs extra time in the cask it will get it. If the whisky isn’t of the quality we are looking for then it won’t go into a bottle of Glengoyne single malt. A Master Distiller and Blender understand the importance of quality and how to detect it if it isn’t there. This experience will allow you to identify if something is right at an earlier stage of the process or maturation stage.

See answer to Question 7.

7. Mallios: Following up on your interview on planetwhiskies and this specific question “Do you meet up with any other master distillers for other Scottish distillery and discuss the whisky industry? “ please allow me to ask the following. In 2015 Jim McEwan retired and now Adam Hannett continues in Bruichladdich. How easy it to hand over to new generation? Are there people considered irreplaceable and what are your personal expectations, what new things you expect from new master distillers?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

The graveyard is full of irreplaceable people, yet still life goes on! I imagine it’s easy to hand over to the next generation but the difficult part is letting go. For many in this industry it’s been a life time’s ambition to get to the role of Master Distiller, Master Blender or Distillery Manager. These positions aren’t easily achieved for most.

When you get to that level you have demonstrated you have a passion for what you do, you have the ability to carry out the duties and responsibilities of the position and you are enjoying your work. If I was looking for the next Master Distiller I would certainly expect these qualities to shine through.

Young people are bringing new skills, ideas and energy that us old farts had decades ago.

Yes, I meet up with other men and women in the industry who have similar roles as mine and we do discuss business. More often than not we talk about some completely unrelated topic over a dram.

(please continue to the next part)

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7. Mallios: how easy (if possible) is to make an imaginary travel back to 1833, where it all started for Glengoyne Distillery and make a comparison of what was whisky back then, what was whisky when you first started working on whisky industry and what it is in the modern times? Should this be possible, please share with us which are the most important things that changed all these years that you are involved in whisky industry.

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

I would love to be able to taste a glass of Glengoyne whisky produced from over a hundred years ago to compare to the whisky we produce today, but this isn’t likely to happen. I would imagine Glengoyne whisky from the 19th century would have been a heavier character whisky than from the one we produce now.

Back then Worm Tubs would have been used to cool the distillate; today we use shell and tube condensers. Condensers tend to produce a lighter spirit due to the increased copper contact with the distillate. Hygiene in the distillery would have been a problem back then too. There was no stainless steel pipework, they wouldn’t have used liquid caustic to flush out the mashing and fermentation lines and they wouldn’t have had steam to purge Wash backs and further flush and sanitize pipework.

We are able to keep our Distillers yeast chilled in refrigerated system; this preserves the viability and vitality of the yeast and keeps it fresh. They would have used Brewer’s yeast and had a constant battle to prevent yeast infection entering their fermentation and affecting their spirit character. What would now be regarded as “off notes” in our distillery, back then could have been seen as beneficial, simply because they couldn’t prevent them.

Basically they would have had to put in a lot more effort to achieve their goal. I suppose this is true with most industries that have been established for centuries.

8. Mallios: Likewise, please share with us the things that you consider unchanged in the whisky industry and more specific in whisky making on Glengoyne?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

The whisky industry has always attracted a passionate and dedicated workforce, this was the case when I joined the industry in 1984 and is still the case now. I am sure it was the same back in 1833 when we first produced Glengoyne Whisky. This is at the heart of what we do and who we are.

The people are the industry.

At Glengoyne we operate the distillery now as it was in 1967. There have been a few tweaks made in the last 50 years, for example, instead of producing steam using Heavy Fuel Oil we now use gas, this is cleaner, better for the environment and causes fewer boiler problems for the site. In 2013 we converted the Mash Tun into a semi louter Mash tun from a traditional Mash tun, this was done because we could no longer source spare parts for the stirring gear in the Mash tun at short notice. If we wanted to continue operations without long delays we needed to convert. Apart from that, as I mentioned earlier everything else in the process is the same.

We hold true to the recipe handed down to us from previous generations of distillers. Our operators, many of them started work at Glengoyne in the 1970’s learned how to produce Glengoyne from operators who started working here in the 1940’ and 1950’s. Those operators learned from operators who started in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and this goes back to the beginning of Glengoyne.

We listen to what is important in producing our individual whisky and we don’t change it. In a world where everyone is rushing around, demanding everything now, wanting more for less, we have stayed on the same path as we were told by our forefathers. To try to speed up the production, to tinker with it for the sake of efficiency would be noticed in 10 years time when you taste our whisky.

9. Mallios: Massive production, Roseisle distillery, new markets. How are all these things connected? Do you consider that there will be a threat for traditional “smaller” whisky distilleries? Are we living a “whisky boom” and if yes, are you considering that a crisis could also follow?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

We have seen massive investment in the whisky industry over the last decade and history will look back at this period and will call it a “Whisky Boom”. There will inevitably be a slow down with regards to global sales and this will knock on to investment and building of new distilleries or expansion of existing ones. I don’t think a crisis will follow as it did in the past resulting in whisky Lochs and distilleries being shut down. Some of the newer distilleries may find it more difficult to survive if there is a down turn. Only time will tell!

With regards to the building of big distilleries capable of producing 10,000,000 litres or more per annum these sites are mainly there to generate whisky for their companies blend portfolio. They will produce a whisky that is not only very good value for money but has a very consistent spirit character. Will this affect smaller distilleries? If that smaller distillery belongs to a company that owns one of these new bigger distilleries and if that small distillery produces the same spirit character as the big distillery and there is a down turn in the sale of the whisky they produce, then maybe the smaller distillery could suffer as a result mainly because it’s costs are higher than the bigger site.

10. Mallios: Following the previous question, I also think about Kilchoman, Gartbreck, Abhainn Dearg on Isle of Lewis, Waterford on Ireland. Is this also a part of the whisky industry future you are thinking of? Will it be there a place for newcomers in the future?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

Ian MacLeod Distillers Ltd is always looking for the next opportunity but I think establishing a new distillery on an island is highly unlikely. The market is becoming quite congested now and there are new distilleries being built in what seems like a monthly basis.

Many of the new distilleries are small sites and will have very high running costs in relation to other much larger distilleries, but if they get their whisky right and have a route to market there is no reason why they shouldn’t be successful.

Just take a look at the selection of wines and Gins there are now, consumers aren’t monogamous, they are more inquisitive and looking for something new to spend their hard earned money on.

11. Mallios: Finishing the discussion about distilleries, a typical question. Apart from Glengoyne, which are your favorite whisky distilleries? Moreover, how would you describe a distillery that you think / consider a great distillery?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

I have had the pleasure of working at many different whisky distilleries in my career, they are all different and they all hold treasured memories for me. If I am not allowed to include Glengoyne in my list then the three distilleries that always stood out for me are Balblair, Tormore and Tamdhu.

I started my career at the age of 18 at Balblair Distillery, I joined a team where some of the men had been working there since the late 1940’s, they were all rascals, I use that term with affection. They taught me how to produce whisky. Balblair is a very old distillery established in 1790, they have a colourful history.

I learn about distillery management at Tormore Distillery, my mentors were John Black Distillery Manager, Willie McCallum Assistant Manager and Ronnie Mennie Distillery Brewer, between them they had almost a 120 years experience and they were a great help.

Tormore was a modern distillery when I worked there, much bigger than Balblair. Balblair has two Stills, Tormore has six. Balblair is a coastal distillery, Tormore a land locked distillery. Being inland away from the coast brought other factors to running a distillery that I had never experienced. Coastal distilleries could release their effluent into the sea, inland distilleries had to treat their effluent. New challenges and learning for me. When I left Balblair I didn’t have any children, when I left Tormore I had three. Must be something in the whisky they produce at Tormore!

Ian MacLeod Distillers purchased Tamdhu Distillery in 2011 from Edrington, the site was “mothballed”. There was no staff employed there and the distillery hadn’t operated in over a year. It was my job to recruit a new manager, and then the new manager and I would recruit a new team and then we would train the team and start up Tamdhu Distillery again.

Tamdhu Distillery is in Speyside and recruiting a good manager and a good team was easy, Speyside people have whisky in their blood. Most people in Speyside will have a member of their family working in one distillery or another. The manager and team was recruited and Tamdhu started production January 2012. We also needed a new effluent treatment plant, nine new Wash Backs and complete upgrade to the Still House steam control system. Tamdhu was a big project for us but we got there in the end. It became very personal and therefore always feel pride in what we are achieving there.

You also asked “How would I describe a great distillery?”

In my opinion they are the ones who have survived for over a century. These distilleries have managed to keep operating through some very tough times on a National and Global scale. Just look at the twentieth century and how many occasions there were for distilleries to fail, especially after being closed for many years during the two world wars. They only managed to keep going because they have produced great whiskies. I am not saying all of the younger distilleries have an inferior quality whisky, I am sure most of them are very drinkable. If they are still producing single malt Scotch in 100 years time then they too can consider themselves great.

12. Mallios: Going one level down, please share with us (should this be possible) your top 5 Glengoyne bottlings and the top 5 of your overall tasting list. Similarly, how would you describe a great whisky?

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

Top five Glengoyne Bottlings

Glengoyne 17 year old,

Glengoyne 25 year old,

Tea pot dram batch 1,

Robbie’s Choice and

Glengoyne 15 year old.

Top 5 overall

Glengoyne 17 year old,

Laphroaig 18 year old,

Linkwood 1974 23 year old Rare Malts,

Glengoyne 15 year old and

Old Pultney 12 year old.

If I was to answer this question in six months I wouldn’t give you the same five whiskies, I am always discovering something new.

13. Mallios: Whisky prices today, are they justified? Let alone the “Manager’s Choice” series from Diageo which is the perfect example, we see on the market many non-age statement expressions that cost more than standard 12 year olds. We see large price fluctuation between similar expressions from different distilleries/companies. Take for instance the Glenfarclas 40y.o. and the just released Old Pulteney 40y.o. … I’m thinking that we have reached a point where collectors rule and a lot of companies set prices however they like, not taking into account the actual production cost.

Mr. Robbie Hughes, reply:

If a whisky is very old or rare then I would expect to see a high price for that bottle, obviously what I would consider a high price would be different from somebody else. It depends on your wealth. Businesses are always going to try and make as much money as they can, so if collectors are willing to pay thousands of pounds for an old whisky and you have some to sell, would you sell it cheaper? Personally, I have always enjoyed my whisky 25 years old and younger, this is at an age within my budget.

Many whisky drinkers are voicing their opposition to the non age statement on single malts and the elevated cost, I hear this all of the time when I am doing tastings or attending whisky fairs. Many companies have moved from an age statement to a “name” on their bottle due to their whisky stocks. By moving for example from a 12 year old age statement and being restricted to that age they can have flexibility to use their stocks.

Ultimately a whisky company wants consistency with their product; the only way they will get this is to use their quality whiskies. They aren’t selling an inferior whisky, often it may be improved, it could now be slightly older or younger whisky from what used to be available.

That said, I do take your point! For years customers have been sold whisky with one of the key messages being around the age statement on the label, as if this was one of the main influences of quality.

The older the whisky the more money you were expected to pay for it because you believed it must be a better whisky. Ultimately the customer is king, sales will fall if the customer isn’t happy and I would be very surprised if whisky companies didn’t respond accordingly and revert back to an age statement.

For companies to start charging 200 Euros or more for a 14 year old single malt is very expensive and taking their products away from the “Grass Root” drinker into a “luxury Category”, that seems a shame!

HMWS: Dear mr Hughes. Thank you very much for responding to our questions. On behalf of HMWS and whiskyforum.gr, we hope to see you in Greece and have the opportunity to have you among us in a whisky tasting event.

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Μπράβο Mallios ! Με την πρώτη ευκαιρία ελεύθερου χρόνου και διάθεσης θα πέσει διάβασμα.

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Συγχαρητήρια Γιάνναρε! Ανεβαίνουμε επίπεδο με κάτι τέτοια!

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Thanks παιδιά. Δεν το κάνω για συγχαρίκια... απλά προσπαθώ να μεγαλώσω και αυτό το topic. Το επόμενο συμφωνημένο Interview είναι έκπληξη και θα προκαλέσει σεισμό! :laugh1:

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Επαγγελματικη επιμελεια και επαγγελματικες ερωταπαντησεις με εναν επιφανη επαγγελματια του χωρου.
Ποιοτικο το σαλιο που σπαταληθηκε και το μελανι που χυθηκε,συνεντευξη αξιολογη και αξιεπαινη !!!
Μονο μια ερωτηση εξωστρεφειας δεν του απηυθυνες (ελπιζω στην επομενη σεισμογενη συνεντευξη να την συμπεριλαβεις).Ποια ειναι η γνωμη και οι εντυπωσεις απο τα ιαπωνικα μπαντιλικια...Θα τιναζουν απλα την σκονη απο πανω τους ή θα κατσουν να ραψουν κανενα καινουργιο κουστουμι ?

ΥΓ..και τωρα,ελα,πες μας,ειναι αληθεια θειος σου ο Robbie ? :on_the_quiet:

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Βρέθηκε επιτέλους ο χρόνος και το διάβασα όλο. Μπράβο Γιάννη και εις ανώτερα!

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