When Mark Lochhead started in the whisky industry in the late ’80s, the world was a different place. There were no bloggers, like yours truly; no iPhones or Internet; the Berlin Wall still stood; the idea of climate change and a black US president were still light years away. And, single malts were still, well, the small fry.
“When I started, single malts were a very small area. At the time, you had Glenfiddich and a few others,” said Mark, now the distillery manager at Talisker. “And you didn’t have the forecasting you do now. You either had too much or too little. It was very different.”
Mark has been at Talisker for three and a half years, having started at J&B in 1987 as a blending clerk after randomly getting involved.
“It was a very happy accident,” he explained. “I was 21 and I doubled my wages overnight and got a bottle of whisky every month. It didn’t take long until you realised what a great industry it was.”
He worked his way through the ranks as a head of inventory administration, then to learning recipes and blends in the lab. He moved to Clynelish in 2005, before coming to Talisker in 2008. Over that time, he says the dramatic shift in demand for single malts has been incredible.
“There’s a big change in the air. Whisky growth is phenomenal,” he added, during an interview at the distillery.
This was partially started – he believes – during the late ’80s and early ’90s when the tourism industry began to grow and more people began visiting distilleries. Talisker’s visitor centre – which once got 15,000 visitors a year at a push – is now bursting at the seams with 55,000 global guests every year. It is in the midst of an expansion of its visitor centre to keep up with demand without making tour groups too large.
From his office – which overlooks the dramatic Isle of Skye landscape and misty Loch Harport – it’s easy to see what lures visitors to this volcanic, rocky outpost. Skye is magical and, as Mark believes, so is the whisky.
“There is still a wee bit of magic in production,” he said, as he took my partner and I around the distillery.
While Mark is the man to talk to if you want to know about Talisker’s production, he equally admits the beauty in not knowing everything that goes on in the stills as the rich liquid becomes what will later be a quality dram.
Talisker – which uses peated barley from the Black Isles – is the only distillery in Scotland, according to Mark, which has an odd U-bend in its stills, making for a longer “copper conversation” with the wash, which then creates the distillery characteristic of a lighter, fruitier flavour, despite its peatiness.
Back in the office over a few drams, Mark told us he considers this the most exciting time for the Scotch industry while equally knowing one musn’t get ahead of oneself.
“You’ve got to appreciate the likes of Japanese whisky, which has really come on. And Irish whiskey has got a big push right now. You have to respect your competitors. We’re [as an industry] particularly proud but we’re not arrogant. But if you rest on your laurels, that could change.”
Over the next two to three years, he says he wants to make sure he keeps up with demand so that “come the time and day, Talisker is ready to be sold.”
Equally, he has ambitions to push the brand higher up in the market.
“I’d like to get it back into the top 10. And, I’m not trying to overtake Glenfiddich or anything. But I want to make consumers admirers of Talisker,” he added.
The hardest market to convince might just be Scotland, which Mark says disappoints him with it lack of appreciation over the product.
“There’s big expansion and all these good news stories are out there. But in Scotland, whisky is taken as something that has always been there. It doesn’t set the heather on fire,” he said.
But, he hopes with all the international attention this boom will last.
“It’s the one thing that’s bucking the [recession] trend. Hopefully the bubble won’t burst. But, the figures come in and they’re consistent and much higher than expected,” he said.
And, unlike the sub-prime mortgage market, at least the Scotch industry is producing something of quality.
“In my 25 years, I’ve very rarely tried something that I thought was not good. Whisky is a very high quality product,” he concluded.
One can only begin to guess what the next 25 years will bring…