Ian Macleod: Revitalizing Scotland's Existing Infrastructure

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Part of my marcom job in tech requires me to take large, complicated ideas and summarize them into short, bite-sized (“snackable” as the techies say) content. For example, I’ll listen to a podcast about trends in venture capitalism, identify the core issues, and then relay that information to my CEO in a series of bullet points. One such podcast recently featured former Evernote CEO Phil Libin talking about why Silicon Valley’s start-up structure is bullshit and how the idea of a company itself is completely outdated—a conversation I wasn’t expecting to enjoy as much as I did!! I won’t go into the whole dialogue, but at the essence of what Phil was saying was a very good question: why do we feel the need to start new companies in order to create something meaningful?

Talented musicians don’t create companies in order to play music. They just play. Actors don’t start acting companies. They act. Why do we need start-ups to solve problems? Why not instead bring your talents to an existing company and employ them there, tackling the issue with a solid infrastructure already in place, rather than distracting yourself with fundraising and other logistical tasks? That got me thinking about the whisky business. It seems like an endless amount of new distilleries have been built over the last decade, and the same question applies. Do we need new distilleries to make new whiskies? Or is it more efficient to update an underperforming facility already in existence and revamp it to modern-day standards? Obviously capital plays a role, but it’s also a matter of intent. Is the end goal to sell or to make great whisky for decades to come? I don’t know many people in Silicon Valley these days who start a business with the intention of actually running it, which is part of Libin’s point: start-ups are built for VC profits, not better business.

Does the same model apply to whisky? Start-ups used to be quite the spectacle in the Scotch industry, but now it’s getting quite crowded. With over fifty new Scotch whisky distilleries recently launched, or in the works, most are now opening with only a fraction of the press and fanfare. It used to be a big story when a new single malt came into being, but so much new blood in the Scotch industry, I have to wonder if the start-up investment is still worth it. One company, however, has been taking a page from the Libin playbook. Rather than build from scratch, Ian Macleod (the first company I ever visited back in 2011) is quietly revitalizing Scotland’s underutilized and lesser-known distilleries into some of the best in the business. Starting with the purchase of GlenGoyne in 2003, Macleod’s methodical approach has expanded over the last fifteen years, demonstrating top-notch quality without the need to build. The proof is in the glass.

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When I first broke in the booze business, all marketing were efforts were moving away from Scotch whisky tradition. No one wanted to be stale or boring. New whiskies needed to be bold and edgy with over-the-top ABVs and explosive flavor profiles. The only way you could sell a single malt described as “mellow” or “delicate” was if it had an age statement of 25 years or more attached to it. Exciting flavors and exuberant descriptions represent the top of the marketing funnel, however; they’re what initially attract new drinkers to the category. As the funnel narrows and consumers become more educated, a large portion of drinkers invariably gravitates towards complexity and restraint. We’ve seen the same thing happen in wine culture, with lower-alcohol, food-friendly expressions becoming much more popular with the general public, rather than jammy Zins and inky Syrahs. Ditto for cocktails: they’re getting drier by the day.

I wasn’t paying much attention to traditional, dependable GlenGoyne distillery back in 2010 (I was too busy drinking Ardbeg Uigeadail), but lately it has become one of my go-to standards, and a brand I consider undoubtedly one of the best values in all of whiskydom. My colleagues in tech are huge single malt fans (it’s sometimes hard to know if they actually value my marketing and communications work, or if they just wanted someone knowledgable about Scotch) and they concur. Of all the whiskies I’ve shared afterwork in the office setting, the crowd favorites have been the GlenGoyne bottles. We’ve got all kinds of luxury bottles to choose from, but when it comes time to place an order for home consumption, the guys in my company always spend their money on GlenGoyne. What separates the GlenGoyne whiskies from other bargain malts like the Glenlivet or Glenfiddich? One word: texture.

There is a supple, mouthcoating richness that makes itself apparent on the finish of every GlenGoyne whisky. In the case of the older expressions, I think it’s because Ian Macleod has an outstanding Sherry barrel program, along with a team that really understands how to blend. But in the case of the 10 and 12 year old whiskies, I have to think a big part of that character comes from how slowly GlenGoyne runs its stills—the slowest in all of Scotland, according to them. I’ve tasted first-hand the concentration of character that slow pot-still distillation adds to whisky (Kilchoman, for example, runs some of their malts at a drip), but as we know in any business: time is money. The slower you distill, the less whisky you have, and the more expensive it is to make. But the point of revamping a distillery is so the whisky tastes better than it did before. The 10 year old Glengoyne is a perfect example (and a value at $36 retail), as there are few unpeated 10 year olds on the market that are this satisfying.

With the exception of Tamdhu, of course—the Highland distillery purchased by Ian Macleod in 2011.

The warehouse at Tamdhu distillery

The warehouse at Tamdhu distillery

Eight years after purchasing GlenGoyne, the team at Ian Macleod saw another opportunity to expand. Edrington’s subsidiary called Highland Distillers decided to shutter Tamdhu in 2010, closing down operations for over a year until Macleod purchased the facility in the summer of 2011. By 2013, the site was back up and running and the company’s second effort at a revitalization had begun. As part of Edrington, Tamdhu was mostly utilized for blends like Famous Grouse, but Macleod wasted no time in establishing a single malt brand to market the whisky as a stand-alone commodity. The Tamdhu 10 year old (soon to be replaced by the upcoming Tamdhu 12 year), blended from the inherited stocks, was delicious upon its release, but every batch seems to get better. It’s another supple and gratifying whisky, an experience that starts with heady sherry aromas and oozes with oiliness across the palate with a fat finish.

I adore the 10 year edition, but I don’t get anywhere near the same level of satisfaction from independently-bottled Tamdhu casks that pull stocks from the same regime, again highlighting the talent of the maturation team at Ian Macleod. Aged entirely in Oloroso Sherry casks, they sourced top notch barrels from Jerez and upgraded the quality of the wood at Tamdhu, enhancing the spirit and heightening the quality. It’s also the texture here that wins the day. With Macleod’s makeover, I went from not giving two shits about Tamdhu, to considering it one of the best Highland malts in all of Scotland.

That’s a helluva turnaround, if you ask me.

The long-dormant Rosebank distillery in Scotland’s Lowland region (photo from Scotchwhisky.com)

The long-dormant Rosebank distillery in Scotland’s Lowland region (photo from Scotchwhisky.com)

Six years after the Tamdhu purchase, the gang at Ian Macleod decided three times was a charm, buying the long-dormant Rosebank distillery in 2017 from its property owners, while simultaneously securing the trademark and backstock from Diageo. One of the lost legends of the Lowlands, Rosebank never quite garnered the same cult prestige of Diageo’s other fallen treasures like Port Ellen and Brora, with its lighter, triple-distilled character and fruity charm (which may be why Diageo decided to let it go). Set to reopen in 2020, Macleod plans to slowly release Rosebank editions from the 80s and early 90s, while undertaking its third distillery refurbishment. This project, however, will require a much larger overhaul, as almost all of the existing equipment has been stolen over the years. A heavier marketing effort will also be needed to convince malt fans globally that Rosebank’s Lowland style is something worth seeking out. Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie aren’t names that ignite passion among whisky’s top enthusiasts, so it remains to be seen if Macleod’s magic touch can suffice.

Given the company’s fifteen year track record, I’m not betting against them. Rather than build a completely new start-up from scratch, Ian Macleod has clearly shown the benefits of applying talent to an already existing infrastructure. I think Phil Libin would approve.

-David Driscoll