Interview with Barry MacAffer, Laphroaig Distillery Manager
While over on Islay for Feis Ile, I managed to meet new (well, since November) manager, Barry MacAffer who agreed to an interview which we managed to do a couple of weeks ago just after my last column here. It was a pleasure to talk to someone so positive about his work and find out a bit more about him. I did know Barry is an Islay native (Ileach) so wondered what it was like growing up there. From birth to age 5 he lived in Ardbeg and from 5 to leaving school, in Port Ellen, going to high school in Bowmore. Early life was about playing football and “everything was outdoors”, playing in or near the sea and making and sailing rafts. So far, so idyllic.
I asked about any interaction with distilleries or their people as a child. Seems that apart from knowing people who worked in them there wasn‘t much. „Ardbeg was a good playground. It was closed and had no roof so we climbed about the place up to the roof. Laphroaig was where we used the warehouse doors to kick footballs against. It was as if nothing was open – no restaurants, hotels or tourism.“ (There were maybe a few restaurants and hotels but nothing like there is now and probably nothing much that impinged on the life of a young boy. I started going there from 1990 when looking after Laphroaig‘s marketing and the range was more limited then.) „Distilleries weren‘t seen as a place to go. They just looked like dirty old buildings, run down. We didn‘t even talk about them as kids. I had some interaction when I got a bit older and wanted the interaction to hear what it was like. When I started working at Laphroaig I was interested in hearing the stories and history from people I knew who had worked in the industry.“
Seems that before the malts boom started and distilleries began to open for tours, the ingrained view was that you had to leave Islay to make anything of your life. Barry tells that most people left so that was his impression growing up, even though it wasn‘t necessarily correct. People either left for further education or stayed for apprenticeships or for fishing and farming or to work in other island businesses, sometimes family ones.
My researches had shown that Barry had a varied set of jobs before settling at Laphroaig. That‘s nothing new as I‘ve met a number of distillers who came into the job via other routes or by default as a stopgap while looking for other opportunities. It also takes some people a while to find their work niche.
The route started with work/college studies as an engineer in the Merchant Navy for two years but he didn‘t like the first trip or the second and didn‘t fancy the jobs further up the line. He‘s still glad he made the decision to leave. Barry says the biggest thing he learned during that time was, „that if you weren‘t comfortable or happy doing something, then change it“. Then he was working full-time in the family undertaking business on Islay for a short spell (Barry‘s Mum is the undertaker there) where, indeed, he helped out in his own time outside work from age 16 right up until he achieved his current post at Laphroaig. This was followed by work as a fisherman and then dental technician following a college course but in none could he find much enjoyment or an attractive career path. Between fishing and going back to college, initially intending to finish his engineering qualification, there was also some travelling in Australia with several months on a farm in the searing heat of central Queensland. „That was really hard work. Fencing in 50C heat with my fair skin was challenging…“
After the dental technician work palled as a career choice Barry came back to Islay to apply for a job. It was end of 2010 that he sent his CV to John Campbell, his immediate predecessor as manager at Laphroaig and who left last year.
At the beginning of 2011 John called him to offer work in the maltings and warehousing teams, starting the next week. Now, Barry didn‘t want to lose the job so, if I understood correctly, didn‘t let on that he was about to have a back operation and requested 2 – 3 weeks. John agreed so Barry cut short his recovery time from 6 – 8 weeks to 3. Brave or foolhardy? Well, it worked out fine. He started end January 2011 in maltings and warehouse on holiday and sickness cover. People Barry‘s own age had started to move back to Islay. Previously in our chat he‘d said that there was a distinct lack of people between 16 and into their 30‘s when he was younger as they‘d left the island. He reckoned quite quickly that Laphroaig was his great opportunity, loving the team and the place once he got started. He‘d had no distilling ambitions before that, thinking of Islay distillery work as „a place to go and live your life before you got your pension. When I was a youngster the people at distilleries were so much older than you. At school career days the distilleries were never there so they weren‘t on your radar.“ How things change!
Once he got there he could look forward and saw opportunities previously not considered at school. It had taken him to the age of 27 to find his place. „Laphroaig captured me. I saw a genuine career path for the first time.“ Certainly, the world of distilling and its ownership had probably changed a bit since Barry was a young boy; not to mention the role of manager he now enjoys, as a more customer-facing one with international outlook alongside the distilling and managerial duties. I did note that it‘s taken only 11 years to work up to the manager role which might seem quite fast to some of an older generation. Years ago managers had to spend quite a long time working their way up. They all seemed to look old in photographs but then, when I was little, anyone who got married and had children instantly dressed and acted at least 40! Anyway, as Barry points out, there are managers now who have been in the industry only a few years and who have learned some of the management needs from other backgrounds. I was curious to know what Barry wants to achieve at Laphroaig, for himself, the company and creatively. He reckons he’s lucky that his objectives align with the company’s, wanting to achieve decarbonisation at Laphroaig (plus there are plans under discussion for for other things including management of the peatlands) and maintaining the top quality product they have within that. “I’m just proud to be part of this team.” And creatively? “It’s all about creating something new and unique but maintaining what we have in terms of quality and standards through any changes that come about.” And what about looking forward to contributing ideas for new expressions or is that left to the blenders? Team effort? ” Absolutely I am. It’s already on my agenda and I’m working alongside our Master Blender Calum for future Cairdeas releases.” I had asked here whether Cairdeas was already in hand for Feis Ile 2023 as this year’s choice would have been led by John who got Barry involved from August 2021.
So what is the best part of the Laphroaig manager‘s job? „Working with the team to overcome challenges is definitely the most rewarding part of the job; trying new and experimental expressions is the most enjoyable part but ultimately the best bit is having the responsibility of carrying Laphroaig’s high standards and quality into an exciting future. We have big challenges ahead especially with decarbonisation goals. Planning and setting up Laphroaig to achieve this will allow it to move successfully forward.“ A big task but obviously one anticipated with relish.
As managers have travelled a lot more in the last decade or two, I asked whether any travel had happened or was planned, other than meetings at mainland HQ. Actually, even before becoming manager, Barry represented the distillery on a visit to Viking Line in Sweden (2019) and at Interwhisky 2018 (Germany). Covid rather got in the way after that so his first trip as manager will be to the USA in September. Seems Barry isn‘t much fazed by the thought of speaking to audiences about his whisky as he‘s done quite a bit of public speaking. Just the day before we chatted he‘d been to the High School to give a motivational talk to pupils. Now, they‘re often tough audiences.
On that travel theme, I wondered if Barry has anywhere he‘d particularly like to visit for work. Seems he wants to visit somewhere that Laphroaig has no/low presence, „A new audience, maybe South America.“ I love that answer. No one else has given it before. It shows a sense of adventure and different thinking. This led me on to ask about Barry‘s favourite place to visit for leisure. Similar answer – he likes to explore new places. „ If I‘m picking a holiday for next year, I‘m always looking at new or different places for me – three of my favourite places have been Vietnam, Copenhagen or New York.“ I‘m betting the job will bring further visits to those latter two.
I checked out Barry‘s interests before we spoke and found sailor, biker and…Master Lego Builder. However, there‘s also a picture of Mr. Potato Head. Turns out Barry managed the Port Ellen football team and one of the team was nicknamed Potato so Barry bought – and wore – the outfit for an event they had. A good sense of humour is always a fine trait in a distillery manager, never mind a football one.
Sailor is apparently a joke as he loves going on other people‘s boats but doesn‘t own one.
Biker provides more info. I did mention there can‘t be much scope for roaring along long stretches of road on Islay – or not very far. Indeed, the bike is used only for commuting on the island in summer. It‘s more of a leisure pursuit for the mainland or will be when he can get to go travelling more again. His bike at the monent is a Triumph Tiger 800cc. I’m sure that’s the one on the left (above). The one on the right is one he test drove but didn’t buy! I did wonder if he‘d had a chance to talk bikes with Rachel Barrie who used to be a colleague at Morrison Bowmore. She and her husband renovate older, classic bikes as a hobby. Seems not as, not long after Barry got the Assistant Manager job at Laphroaig and was set to travel to Glasgow HQ and meet Rachel, she announced she was leaving to go to another company. Maybe another time, then. They‘re bound to meet at some whisky fest or trade event.
And then there‘s the Lego. I was intrigued. Was this from childhood or a recent hobby? Transpires it was from childhood and, of course, Lego does kits for all ages. I know teenagers and adults who still love it. Indeed, it seems like a natural hobby for someone with engineering experience to have – some are so complicated, if you‘ve ever seen the displays in Lego shops. „I do it to switch off from work. No matter what a great job you have, you need something like that.“ True. So, I asked what is the biggest or most complicated Lego item Barry has ever built, adding that if it were me I‘d be taking photographs of them all to prove my achievement. „Good question, I don’t have much space in the house so at the moment I have 3 shelves, one has the Batman tumbler, one has a 1989 Batmobile and one has The Millennium Falcon. Oh and hanging on the wall is the 1989 Batwing – to some people those items will not make sense; to people who share my hobbies and interests that will make total sense….“
Then the permanent final question – what would be Barry‘s desert island dram, the one he couldn‘t live without? After a few seconds pause, „The Laphroaig Cairdeas 2015. It‘s 100% Laphroaig-malted barley and aged entirely in bourbon.“
As I wrote at the start it was a pleasure to talk to someone with this level of motivation and enjoyment in his work. If Barry felt a square peg in a round hole at the start of his work life, it‘s lovely he found his perfect square-shaped slot at one of my favourite places. Look out for good things to come.
That’s it till end of this month. Wherever you are, I hope the heat isn’t too fierce. Much of Scotland is baking right now but nothing compared to what our friends in parts of Europe are suffering.