Interview – Jaclyn McKie, Isle of Arran Distillers
When I first started this interview series, it was intended to be chats with members of family whisky (or related) companies. The Covid problem and people‘s availability put paid to that and it‘s not as good doing group interviews via Zoom. The dynamic isn‘t the same. However, in choosing Jaclyn McKie from Isle of Arran, I was conscious that this is a small company with many who have stayed a long time so it may be just like a family. This was confirmed by Jaclyn during our chat.
I wanted to know more about Jaclyn as well as her work (she‘s Marketing Manager at Isle of Arran) and the company so began by asking her to tell us where she is from and what it‘s like there. Transpires she was born in Greenock but grew up in Skelmorlie, a small place on the Ayrshire coast, „A typical west coast village… everybody knows everybody. My wee Dad still lives there.“ So it was a seaside childhood with beach visits to nearby Largs, ice cream, fish and chips and the usual seaside activities. The envy of many, I suspect! She adds, „It must be a thing about growing up on the coast that you do miss it when you leave…Also, it was the sort of place where you went out to play after school and were told to come home when the street lights came on or for your tea.“ Jaclyn muses on how different life is for children now. She also now lives in a more landlocked location and does, indeed, miss the water.
I once had the good fortune to meet Jaclyn‘s Mum (who was also a musician) at an Isle of Arran event where she proudly told me of her daughter‘s musical talent. Jaclyn‘s main expertise was in singing during her time at the Music School of Douglas Academy but also played saxophone and piano. She gets no time for that these days with a busy job, a family and a dog. I wondered if there were any regrets at not pursuing that but, no. „When I started to enjoy other school subjects, I realised there were other things I could do. My sensible side kicked in. A lifetime career as a musician isn‘t a steady one. As for professional singing, „… it‘s competitive and cut-throat environment. I could see that and didn‘t see it as something I would thrive in.“ I know Jaclyn has a languages degree (French and Italian) from Glasgow University – „I loved and was good at languages and felt I needed a change so walked away from the music.“
Jaclyn left uni and bravely took herself straight off to France to find a job. The confidence of youth! She‘d spent some university time working as a language assistant in schools and after graduation went back down to do a few more months in the schools. By chance she found a job with an agency working on sales for wine caves of various sizes down in the Languedoc Rousillon area. Jaclyn loved her work in the wine trade, fascinated by the heritage and speaking to producers of all sizes who all needed help. She worked on a number of aspects there. However, „It was a typical southern French male-led environment. You weren‘t allowed to have your own e-mail sign-off. Everything had to be double-checked by the male managers. I was loving what I was doing but not getting enough freedom in my work. You were dictated to and your voice was never heard. I looked into opportunities in whisky and came home.“
That was in 2004 and there she has remained so what‘s the attraction? There are a number of long-stayers in the company so is it like a family set-up? „Yes and it‘s the variety and freedom in the work and very nice people. It‘s a small independent company so everyone gets the opportunity to contribute and you feel your contribution is valued.“ And what does she enjoy most? „Having a broad view across all aspects. I touch most areas of the company. I‘m involved with the sales team (and was involved in sales herself early on). They understand the company’s approach which carries on to the distributors.“ Jaclyn is also involved with production with regard to new products and with the distilleries and their visitor centres on the tourism side. She says marketing the visitor centres is very different from marketing bottles but that Arran is an easy sell as an island. For her, covering all aspects brings certain pressures but the advantage is that activities are more cohesive.
I wondered what advantages having the Lagg Distillery brought to the company (it opened in 2019 and concentrates on peated spirit) as they had already produced some peatier expressions from Lochranza. Jaclyn tells that the warehouses at Lochranza were full so more space was needed and as their researches and needs grew larger, it turned into a second distillery. For the company it is an exciting and ambitious journey which simply made sense when they reviewed things.
Jaclyn also points out that there are two very different sides to the island – north and south and the distillery located in each reflects its local landscape. It opened up a category not so accessible to the company before and added another dimension for them. She says it is a gift from a marketing point of view and there are good stories behind both places. Lagg „Afforded us the opportunity to be a bit more experimental and even more creative with different types of peat, with different parts of the process and the distillation cuts. Being small and independent gives us the luxury to try new ideas and be agile. Decisions happen more quickly and things aren‘t lost in translation.“
I wondered who chooses the expressions the company releases – the Managing Director, the marketers or is it a team effort? It‘s collaborative in that the distillery management know what they have and what they could likely do with the stock levels and how it is progressing as it matures. The quarter cask and sherry cask ideas were led by the distilling team though ideas can come from elsewhere in the company. The re-brand came in 2019 and the Isle of Arran Lochranza core is now at 10,18 and 21 years of age. As Jaclyn points out that might seem like a middle gap but they don‘t offer a 14 year old any more as that would be to the detriment of future releases. A shame, in a way, as I‘ve enjoyed that one in the past but understand the issues from my own time as a marketer. They could not commit to large scale listings, preferring to be smaller and steady with their supplies.
It occurred to me that Isle of Arran were there early on the wine cask finish proposition which then became more prevalent at other distilleries. Jaclyn agrees but ponders that maybe they did too many of them. Reining back allowed them to keep more focus on the whisky but those trials showed what worked and allowed some fine tuning.
Turning to Jaclyn‘s own activity, I asked if there were any achievements that particularly stood out for her. Turns out there are a few but one that she named is their White Stag Community (www.arranwhisky.com/white-stag-community) which they‘ve built slowly and carefully. Jaclyn is aware that other brands have such friendship/loyalty schemes but feels the engagement they have with members is genuine and that there is a lot of friendship and support from the community and between those in it.
I went on to ask how she sees the Isle of Arran range evolving. She points out, as examples, that their first expressions were at 43% and chill-filtered. When Euan Mitchell arrived as head of European sales (he‘s still there too, now as CEO) he had asked questions about non-chill filtration (NCF) which led to trials of chill-filtered and NCF at 7 years of age to see what was preferred. For their core 10 Year Old they chose to offer it at 46% abv /NCF. „We‘ve already done a lot and it has been evolution. I‘ve grown up alongside the brand and we‘ve both had big life milestones. It‘s good to see us no longer being the ‚new kid‘. We were one of the first in the new wave/new generation. Integrity as an independent must remain. We‘ll have some new, small, rare batches towards the end of this year.“
This led me to ask what the company looks for in a new expression. What drives it – age, cask type? Also, what is the plan for their Calvados cask matured whisky – were the casks filled with new spirit or were they used as a finish? Jaclyn replies that there is a variety of things to consider –“Anything new has to complement the core range. It also depends on the needs of distributors and trends in the different countries.“ She reiterates that they listen to their distillers and look at what something new brings to the range as a whole. On the Calvados question, this is apparently the beauty of the finish experiments from the early days. The casks have been re-used for full maturation, some at Lochranza and some at Lagg. Some were filled with new spirit 15 – 16 years ago. There are also „some lovely wine casks now with full maturation whisky in them.“ which she describes as „Almost like a curiosity. We look at them through a slightly different lens.“ The brand loyalty is built through the core range and others are to build interest but they don‘t want to be known only for limited editions and one-hit packs. „They add dashes of colour [a lovely way of considering special bottlings] but we‘re not defined by them.“ She also repeated their conscious decision to draw back from too many finishes as there would be no character line formed and it might be confusing out in the markets.
I‘d read in an old interview that Jaclyn wanted to be around to see an Arran 25 Year Old released and that‘s now happened. Was she hoping now still to be there when it‘s time for a 30 Year Old. She laughed, „It‘s looking that way. I‘ve never done any other job – in this country – in my adult life. It‘s not boring as it‘s fast paced and there‘s always something new happening.“
The biggest seller for them is the Arran 10 Year Old.They always wanted it to be their flagship and now it is. Some years back she feels it wasn‘t given the credence it deserved but as it shares the same credentials as 10 year olds from elsewhere says there was no need to assume it was inferior. People just need to taste it and „do now understand it better“. Jaclyn thinks the re-brand has helped to cement its position. I agree. A while back many people had difficulty with the concept that Arran had actually been distilling and maturing their whisky for 10 years and maybe couldn‘t quite believe it would be good. Daft but I have heard that. Make no mistake, they make really tasty whisky. I was working for a whisky major when they started up and I find it hard to think they‘ve been going so long now.
As we saw earlier, Jaclyn has also been involved in the marketing of the visitor centres and I wondered how Lochranza had changed over the years (I have visited a few times). Again, it‘s an evolution. „Lochranza has always been a special little corner. It‘s not changed hugely but the visitor experience has been streamlined as we‘ve gained knowledge. The welcome, the warmth and friendliness have remained the same. No matter how big the brand is that little corner is untouched.“ Lagg, being the newer distillery has gone on producing during Covid but the visitor experience was halted.And has the UK lockdown caused any job difficulties? Seems not. “Most jobs can be done from home and we’ve maximised the use of tech to help. We got creative with the virtual contact. The re-brand happened before lockdown so there’s been continued interest in that. We’ve coped well.”
Jaclyn is now a long-term whisky person so I was sure she must have seen some big changes in the industry and asked what were the positive ones. „The biggest is people‘s attitude to innovation. When I started out there were a lot of conservative views on e.g. age statements and people weren‘t so interested in intricacies; they were less demanding. Now they ask for a lot more detail and that‘s in general across food and drink. People want to drink less but better, to know what‘s in a product and are interested in the less well-known.“
I was guessing Jaclyn views social media as a friend rather than foe and asked what its development allowed her to do in her work now and the company to do better. „Firstly, it allows us to listen, especially if managed well. We can have much more direct communication with consumers. It can be a foe if it‘s not done well and spiral out of control if the message and tone aren‘t right. We want to get a connection with people on a much more direct level. It‘s been the only view on the world for many in the last year and that connection can be an important part of someone‘s day. For whisky brands it‘s an amazing way to have a conversation and garner opinion. There are times when there can be a mild sense of entitlement where people think they can pass comment on every aspect of your business, though.“ I think many companies suffer from those who don’t have all the right information before putting digitts to keyboard.
Jaclyn‘s work used to have her speaking at whisky fests and doing outside events but most of that is now done by the Arran Brand Ambassador and the sales team. In recent years she‘s done more on tne tourism side supporting the island staff. Given Jaclyn‘s long time in the job and her proficiency with languages where are her favourite places to visit for work and leisure? „For work I regularly went to Belgium. The people are so friendly and hospitable and the market was very receptive to Arran. I loved France but back then there was a bit of a barrier round food and drink. As the „newbie“ they were a bit unsure of us.“ And for leisure? „France – and Orkney. As a family we went there a few years ago and loved it.“ Nice choices. Were there any aspects of work travel Jaclyn didn‘t like? She tells us she‘s quite impatient and likes to fill each moment productively so waiting in airports and lengthy travel doesn‘t sit well with her. Jaclyn also has two children and her husband is a busy lawyer so I asked how she has worked the travel round the family. Transpires she travelled a bit after her first child but there was no family support nearby. Isle of Arran was – and is – an enlightened enough company to make her role more office based. Distributors from markets or agencies for marketing matters (the latter now more Scottish based) tend to come to them or, if it were a pre-planned piece of travel far enough in advance, that was manageable. However, there are no more two weeks out of office trips or weekends away for work. Other companies in whatever sphere should take note – or maybe lockdown has taught them something.
That moved us on to outside interests. I wondered if Jaclyn still sang or played music and whether it‘s something she‘s encouraged in her children. „I love singing but the type on my own in the car.“ Her daughter plays violin and would like to play the guitar. While her son is also musical and encouraged, Jaclyn herself isn‘t missing it, though „Maybe one day I‘ll get it back.“ She has a busy work and home life with children and her own hobbies and interests have taken a back seat for a while. Her main ways to relax are reading and swimming. The family now has a puppy so dog walking and training also feature large. „It‘s been one thing raising two kids to the ages of 12 and 9 but a puppy has been a different challenge!“
Now, some years ago Jaclyn came along to a businesswomen‘s event I had organised and presnted a couple of whisky cocktails to us. Again, Arran was being creative earlier than some others. Does she still like them and does she have a favourite? „Yes, I love them and we‘re working on developing more to help the sales team. The simpler the better. I like our Barrel Reserve mixed with sugar syrup, cloudy lemonade and some lime. Or replace the lemonade with ginger beer.“ That‘s another recipe added to my summer list.
Jaclyn‘s future work ambitions are to see Isle of Arran carrying on its current successful path – and, yes, to be there for the launch of a 30 Year Old. She‘s looking forward to seeing Lagg release its first single malt, seeing how the two distilleries co-exist and working on Lagg into its infancy as a bottled whisky. A while to go there yet, dependent on ages they choose for first bottlings. She also wants to see the team grow a bit more to handle all the company goals and for her to be able to sit and look back to see how far the company and its brands have come since Lochranza was opened and maybe learn from that review too.
In terms of personal ambitions she‘s primarily interested in watching her children grow and seeing their personalities develop, their interests, „their strengths and their wee weaknesses and I‘m so interested to see what they will become as adults“.On another level, she‘d eventually like to live back by the coast with a sea view on waking up every morning. Both laudable ambitions.
Finally, the killer question – what would be Jaclyn‘s desert island dram – the only one she could have if marooned somewhere. „I like a lot of bottlings for lots of reasons. I think maybe one I shared with my Mum – it‘s an Arran finished in a cask from a champagne producer. Our production manager at the time, Gordon Mitchell, took me and my Mum into his office and shared a few drams with us. There are lovely memories attached to that and it was special at the time. It was launched in 2005 and was one of the first bottlings I worked on. I‘d met the people who supplied the casks and presented it to my Mum who was so delighted by it. The whisky was finished in Argonne oak casks purchased from the champagne producer, Henri Giraud. Those casks were refilled with new spirit 15 years ago so now have full–matured Arran whisky in them.“
It was such an enjoyable conversation (not all of it written up here) with someone who so obviously enjoys her work that she‘s stayed there a long time and hasn‘t lost the creative impetus to drive things forward as well as. I wish her all success with those future ambitions and continued enjoyment at Isle of Arran.
Till I see you again end of this month, happy dramming,