Brendan McCarron is the head of maturing whisky stocks for Glenmorangie and Ardbeg. In this interview, he speaks about how he got into the role, what the best parts are, what developments are upcoming for both the distilleries, and what to expect for Ardbeg Day 2015 on 30 May.
How did you get started in the whisky industry?
I worked with Diageo for eight years. I did everything from working at Oban distillery as distillery manager to looking after maltings on Islay and as a distillery manager there.
What was the reasoning behind the move to Glenmorangie?
Diageo was such a large company that it was enough to be doing one thing, whereas I was at the stage where I wanted to work across a range of things and specifically learn more about blending and maturation. That’s where my biggest learning curve comes from: learning about wood management and whisky creation.
What was the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
When I first moved I was quite established in my previous role so I was nervous. I also moved house twice, got married and changed jobs in the space of two months. So I think the biggest challenge was actually starting the job itself! The other challenge was trying to get to know how everything works, who the people are, what the processes are and maybe also learn to bite my tongue a little because things were done differently to my previous company. I didn’t want to turn into that guy that says: “Well, I used to do it this way.” I tried to open my mind a little as that’s the way you learn best. But it’s been such a good move that it hasn’t been that challenging at all, once I started. Dr Bill is my boss and I get on really well with him; he’s happy for me to go off and try things on my own or be there if I have questions. I’ve learned so much more than I thought I would have in the first year. But there’s so much more to learn.
You do a bit of blending and whisky creation, but you’re also the person in charge of the warehousing. What are some of the things you’re doing to keep up with demand?
Yes, I’m in charge of the warehousing strategy: when we build warehouses, where we build them, what style they are and how we fund them. Glenmorangie is six times the size of Ardbeg. The latter is just over one million litres per year and Glenmorangie is just over six. We fill around 60,000 casks of Glenmorangie and we empty a proportion as well of course, but we’re almost at the stage where we’re filling more than two brand new empty warehouses every single year. The stock we need to leave for the future is enormous and it’s been really interesting to get my head around.
I’m also working to put in an anaerobic digestion plant at Glenmorangie to improve environmental impact, which will mean we have a couple of weeks working slow so going down to around 5.2 million litres of production this year. It takes pressure off the warehousing but might be a challenge 10 years down the line if we don’t have as much stock as we need.
I’m kind of doing my dream job. It’s hard not to think of it that way. I’m working for Bill. Getting taught lots of things by everyone who works in the whisky creation team and how to be a whisky creator. I worked for a very very large company and had a very focused job, which I loved, but now I work for a company with two very different distilleries and I get to get involved in a broad range of projects and tasks. One day I’ll be talking about warehousing, and the next I’ll be pulling samples to make a blend, and the next day I’ll be in a meeting with marketing to come up with new ideas and to talk people through a new liquid. It’s the broadness and the variety of the job that makes it brilliant. I also love that I have two brands that are so different and I love them both so I can happily stand up and talk about both of them because they have so much to offer.
What have been some of the most interesting things you’ve learned in the role?
A few years ago, based on what I knew, I would have thought that putting whisky into new bourbon oak casks wouldn’t have happened because new charred wood is too powerful and it would overpower the whisky – the logic behind that was good but we’ve seen with Ealanta and Duthac (Glenmorangie’s latest release; see more details at the end of the post) that there are huge opportunities to experiment in that space. I’ve learned that when we try things out it opens up certain doors. For instance, Dornoch had Amontillado sherry casks and the feedback from customers is that it’s been a massive success so that lets us know that this cask type is something we should use more and do more experiments with. Dornoch also had some medium peated casks in it and it hasn’t changed the spirit completely from Glenmorangie, which would have been a fear of mine. So it’s great to know that something medium peated can make something really interesting. Tusail used Maris Otter barley so that’s opened another door of using different varieties of barley and knowing that it doesn’t just affect efficiency but flavour.
You worked on Islay for many years. How does it feel to be back in some ways, looking after the stocks of such an iconic brand as Ardbeg?
I feel incredibly lucky. I have spent almost ten years in the whisky industry and for three of those I lived and worked on Islay. I supplied the phenolic malt to Ardbeg and got to know the team and the whisky there very well.
What’s most exciting about this year’s Ardbeg Day release for you?
This is Ardbeg’s 200th anniversary and our forthcoming release, Ardbeg Perpetuum, has been made not only to mark this anniversary but also to look forward to the next 200 years of Ardbeg whisky. Perpetuum is a big, full, intense expression reflecting everything that Ardbeg has to offer. I love how you can find hints of Ten Years Old, Uigeadail and Corryvrekan in there as well as many other flavours. It’s very complicated with lots of hidden surprises so I think it’s the perfect whisky to mark 200 years.
Who are the people you have most looked to in the whisky industry?
There was a guy who worked for Diageo who sadly just passed away called Mike Jappy. When I first started with Diageo I was put for a year in malt distillation and he was assigned as my mentor and I stayed in touch with him throughout my career until he passed away. He’s the biggest influence in my career. He’d worked as a maltster. He’d worked as a distiller. He’d worked on Islay. So I got to follow some of the things he did. He was in charge of building RoseIsle and I worked on RoseIsle. And another guy named Brian Higgs, who was in charge of the whole thing. When I was on Islay it was great because it was quite a community so I spent a lot of time and got a lot of knowledge from Micky Heads at Ardbeg and from John Campbell at Laphroaig who I’m still good friends with and now I work with Micky too.
The 2015 Ardbeg Day release – Perpetuum – is non-chill filtered and bottled at 47.4%. It will be available to purchase from 30th May 2015 at Ardbeg Embassies for a two week exclusive period. From June 13th, Perpetuum will be available at Ardbeg Embassies, Whisky specialists and department stores for £84.99.
Duthac is the latest release from The Glenmorangie. Finished in a combination of Pedro Ximenez and charred virgin oak casks, it is the first in the new Legends series, which will be available exclusively in Travel Retail. It is bottled at 43% and priced at £59.99 for 1L.