Chatting with James MacTaggart, production director at Arran
The sun is shining, and the first signs of spring were showing when I grabbed a chat with whisky veteran James MacTaggart, Arran Distillery’s production director. With nearly half a century in the whisky industry, there was a lot to cover – we talk all things booze from Arran’s (almost lost) distilling history, to the promise of cider from the distillery!
Pour & Sip: Hi, James! Let’s start with you telling us a bit about the history of Arran Distillery?
James MacTaggart: Arran started in 1995, and in the early 1990s, Harold Currie, who had been managing director of Chivas Brothers, was retiring and decided ‘I would like to build my own distillery’. He looked at various sites, then somebody suggested to him ‘why not build a distillery in Arran?’, because Arran’s got a good history of whisky. But it was nearly 20 years since the last time there was any distillery of any kind in Arran. It was quite strange because I’m from Islay, and Islay had the same type of distilling in the old days as what Arran had – they were basically farm distilleries. Farmers made their own and most of it was illegal, of course! That side of whisky in Arran disappeared, but of course on Islay it grew, and now that’s huge today. Harold eventually decided that he would base his distillery on Arran and in June 1995 the first whisky was produced on Arran for over 150 years!
Harold was an experienced person in running a company but, for some reason, he didn't realise how much money was required to start a small distillery on his own. He got in an awful lot of shareholders, and his own shareholding eventually diminished to next to nothing. So today, our major shareholder is Les Auchincloss, which doesn't sound like a Scottish name, but it is!
I went to Arran in 2007 and I've been there about 14 years. I came from Bowmore, but when you go to a small company it’s much more enjoyable, because people are given an awful lot of say in the distilling process, how the company is run, and everything else. In the big companies, it’s just at the top and down the way. It certainly doesn't go from the bottom up the way! When I went to Arran I found that because of financial restraints the wood policy wasn't that great, so I told the directors that we needed to have a very, very good wood policy if we were going to produce very good quality spirits. And they supported me all the way through.
P&S: Onto the Port Cask Finish! Could you tell us a bit about the expression that was in this month’s box?
JMT: We've got three core products, three finishes, and that’s Amarone, Sauternes, and Port. They are released once a year. The present Port finish – you can only say ‘it comes from a very well-known Porthouse’. That’s secret! The casks are European oak, and the spirit is aged in 50-year-old first-fill bourbon casks, and then transferred into the Port casks for approximately nine months for the finish. That’s why you've got to be very careful in the timing of it. All casks are different – some of them might take six or seven months, others will take up to a year to get to impart the flavours that you are looking for. So after six months we start testing them on a regular basis.
P&S: Do you think there is something about the Arran spirit that stands up well to these cask finishes?
JMT: Arran spirit is a light spirit, so it’s not peated. I always say, if somebody wants to be introduced to a good Scotch whisky, Arran is a very, very good one because it’s one of these where everybody is going to like it. How much they're going to like it? True. But they're not going to dislike it. And there are some whiskies out there that people will only touch once and will not touch it again. And that’s not saying that they're bad whiskies, it’s just that there’s a different flavour profile to Arran.
P&S: We’d love to hear a bit about you! You joined Arran in 2007, but that isn’t where your whisky journey began...
JMT: I left school when I was 15, but I was 23 years old when I started in the whisky industry – and that was 45 years ago! A long time ago! I was at Bowmore for 31 years. In the big companies these days there are very few of the ‘site operations managers’, as they call them. They're not really distillery managers, they never actually come through this system. I started in the warehouses and then the malt barns, mashing and distilling, through the whole system. And when I went to Arran in 2007, you needed that experience to do that job. You couldn't be a site operations manager and not know.
P&S: Did you always like drinking whisky?
JMT: No! When I was growing up as a teenager and in my early twenties, I didn't go into pubs. I was into playing in bands and playing football, so it wasn't my scene. So it’s only later on when I was in the whisky industry that I got an interest in that scene. I mean, I enjoy a whisky but I've spent all these years in Arran having access to as much whisky as I would ever need – it would be dangerous to get too fond of it! I enjoy tasting the single malts, but not in a big social way. When I’m blending I always think that everybody enjoys a dram out the warehouse. So when I’m putting together bottlings, my aim is to get as near to these warehouse drams as possible. That’s always my goal, to do that.
P&S: Can you describe the Isle of Arran to someone who has never been there?
JMT: The north end of Arran is very, very hilly, just like the north end of Scotland, and the south side of Arran is very flat. That’s why they call it ‘Scotland in miniature’, because you've got the hills and you've got the flats and everything else. A lot of people enjoy going out to the mountains. It is beautiful. I mean, I’m on Islay here which is totally different because it’s a lot flatter and has miles and miles of beach – Arran is a wee bit more rugged. But they are both beautiful, for me, in their own way.
We have a festival every year, hopefully in 2022 we’ll be back up running. Andy Bell, one of the sales managers, plays the guitar and sings, and I play the guitar, and we've got a bass player and a drummer. We do the Eagles and ACDC and all this sort of stuff. So it’s great fun!
P&S: Can you tell us if you have anything in the pipeline, in the works? Or is it all top secret?
JMT: Lagg, the second distillery started up, so hopefully in the next year or two we’ll bring out a three-year-old spirit for that. That’s heavily peated, but we are always looking at different things. The idea with that actually was we had seen a growing trend for peated whisky, so we felt we needed to move into a very heavily peated spirit and that's what we’re doing down at Lagg. But at the same time, down at Lagg, we've got two orchards, so we reckon we’re actually going to be producing cider and in three or four years’ time, and then we’ll distil that.
Thanks so much to James for talking with me! That's it for this month, but I can't wait for you all to see what we have lined up for you in March. Stay tuned!