Interview withn Cara Gilbert, Tobermory Distillery Manager

First of all, Happy New Year everyone. Hoping this first piece of 2022 finds you in good form.

As promised last time, my first piece for 2022 is the delayed interview with Cara Gilbert, Manager at Tobermory Distillery. I‘d been looking forward to this chat and it didn‘t disappoint. I found myself talking to a very focused, determined and engaging lady.

Cara is from the village of Clackmannan in Clackmannanshire. „Smallest village, longest name,“ she points out when I asked what it was like growing up there. Apparently she was born in the car in a dash to the maternity hospital and jokes, „I cursed my Mum for calling me Cara after that but apparently the name was decided before the mode of transport!Childhood was spent out on the hills a lot and she was a girl scout. High school was in the small city of Stirling so she had a city and what she thought, at the time, was rural life. The islands were yet to come. There were no buses through Clackmannan on Sundays. Alloa was the nearest town and Cara was no stranger to walking the 3 miles there to the station. She‘s never lived anywhere else until after schooldays but considers herself privileged to have been able to travel to other countries.

There are whisky industry premises around Clackmannanshire so I wondered if that‘s where the whisky interest came from, via family or friends who worked there but, no. „I have a cousin who worked for Edrington as a QC analyst. I thought I‘d go into teaching as I‘d taught primary school maths and English in Uganda Kenya and Sri Lanka with the Lasallian Projects for 6 years throughout uni.“ [Lasallian is a charity organising projects that help to develop educational facilities in poorer, more challenging areas of the world.]

Cara got her biological sciences degree but wasn‘t sure how good a graduate job she‘d get as she claims to be „not very academic“ but expected and hoped to do a teaching postgrad. Her cousin suggested she try for a laboratory post at Edrington to see how she got on with that and as Cara puts it, „I like to have a lot of plans and things to fall back on. I don‘t like to be unprepared.“ So decided to give it a go in case she didn‘t get into teaching. One week of that job was spent working with the excellent Master Whiskymaker, Kirsteen Campbell and there she was smitten with the whisky bug. Thereafter she applied to do the Institute of Brewing & Distilling‘s Diploma having done bioengineering as part of her degree.

Cara was always quite alright“ at the biological engineering side and I wondered if it was an interest in yeasts that got her started there and apparently that was one aspect. „I worked my socks off. You know when you find your niche. Everything made sense to me.“ During her time at Heriot Watt University, I wondered if Cara had any classes with the renowned Professor Sir Geoff Palmer whom I‘ve met at some drinks industry talks and debates. „He did special lectures. He‘s a genius. So down to earth and can communicate his genius at a level you can understand.“ Cara got on to the Masters course which included more practical work and learned some of the business side too.

After her Masters, Cara moved to Tullamore in Ireland to work with Denise Devenny (Distillery Leader at that Wm. Grant distillery) on Process Improvement/Support. „I didn‘t want to get into a graduate scheme. I just wanted to get in and graft.“ I asked how the Tullamore job came about. It was simply advertised so she applied for it as well as for a temporary packaging job with Diageo. Tullamore won out though and „When I went there I just fell in love. I kept needing to pinch myself each morning.“ She spent just over two and a half years there before deciding it was time to move back to Scotland and „…start pastures new. I loved my time at Grant‘s but everything comes to a natural end“.

I observed Cara must be an island fan given the jobs she‘s had and she agreed, „The wettest islands known to man! Never mind a gap year in Thailand when you could be on the west coast here…. I asked what the differences were one from the other, not just the job/distilleries but generally. This seemed to be a question not posed before. “Just from a distillery point of view first, every one is unique. When I worked at Tullamore, in silent season I was able to go over and work at Girvan and Ailsa Bay. I feel I got to see a lot of the operational side of distilling. Everywhere is just so different. If you go in with the attitude of I‘ve done this, I know this, I‘ve made this improvement, you‘re shooting yourself in the foot. You need to have the attitude of ‚What can I learn here? What gaps in knowledge can I bridge?‘ Culturally, Ireland was a lot of fun. On Islay I got a puppy and started going out for lots of nice long walks. My partner‘s moved across to Mull too. Each distillery has brought me something different and not just for work. Ireland, I bought my first flat. A different level of growing up in each location. Islay I found peace with nature as it‘s quite cut off. It took 7 weeks to get a landline, I had no wi-fi or 4G. Ireland was really social. Islay was too but also a lot more peaceful. My BPM went from a reasonable 83 in Ireland to 65 – 75 on Islay! You‘re listening to the sea and walking into work there instead of driving on mad Irish roads. Mull‘s brought a different excitement again.“

I asked if Cara still has the dog. Yes, apparently a mad collie who sometimes also goes to work, much to Cara‘s relief „or my house would be wrecked.“

What prompted the move from Tullamore to Bunnahabhain? Again, Cara wanted to try something new. She owns up to always being quite ambitious and hoped to be a distillery manager by age 30. No harm in that at all if you can prove your abilities – which she has – though she did keep quiet about it at work, feeling it was so naive and shouldn‘t be said out loud. Coming from Clackmannan, the dream would be to get Kilbagie back up and running.“ Well, time’s on her side. [Kilbagie was a large distillery once owned by the Stein family, famous in whisky history, but which closed in the 19th century.] The Process Lead job was for Deanston – Bunnahabhain and Tobermory‘s sister distillery – but they also needed someone for that at Bunnahabhain. It was a learning and a contributing process there, Cara tells. She was sent to Mull on secondment to lend a hand and help with some autonomy there. Mull was another destination to fall in love with (no wonder, in looking at this picture kindly supplied by their communications agency) and Cara asked to stay on a bit longer than the original secondment which Distell agreed to. Indeed, unknown to her, they‘d been planning to make her assistant manager there. Then it was only a few months before she was offered the Tobermory managership. That‘s a very swift journey and I did ask if she‘s maybe distilling‘s Emma Raducanu which provoked some laughter. She reckons putting in so much hard work has paid off but namechecks some revered mentors along the way – Denise Devenny, Wade McCann, Stephen Woodcock – and Brendan McCarron who recognised her suitability for the Tobermory manager job.

I had wondered if Cara had been involved in gin production before getting to Tobermory (they don’t just make whisky there) and she wasn‘t. It was part of the attraction, though. Her Masters dissertation was about flavour development for Nc‘Nean botanical spirit and she finds gin exciting because of the quick turnaround from production to market. „I quite like cooking so it‘s almost like the cooking side of distilling as it‘s so instantaneous.“ And then came a phrase I just love, „I‘ve landed with my bum in the butter here…“. This is not just because of the whisky but because she feels it‘s such a good gin that‘s gaining recognition all the time and was pleased to be there when Hebridean Coast Gin happened last year. For that one she praises Master Blender Julieann Fernandez, who took a couple of days out of her maternity leave to come and nose the spirit for it. I‘m biased but I think Hebridean Coast is the best.“

What more does Cara hope to learn in her current position? She reckons she‘s still learning how to be a manager and that it‘s a constant thing. She also thinks she‘s gradually getting comfortable with her own voice and challenging/debating the views of others who may have been around longer. Definitely a good thing, in my view; without challenge there can be no creativity, improvement or new thinking. They‘re getting a brand new mash tun and have a new boiler. She‘s not planning on leaving there any time soon but feels that by the time her chapter there is done, it will be a brand new distillery with new mashing equipment and will eventually have new condensers and stills because of the age and wear of the copper. These things get replaced in all distilleries at some point so no need for fans to worry. The malt bins are also being refurbished this year to improve the malt handling. Everything there at the moment is manual so she hopes that some form of touch screen system will come in to aid some processes. I challenged that some find that charming. Deanston was the same when I last visited. Cara is quite keen that there should be a happy balance of man and computer so that the „artisanal charm isn‘t lost“. It will remain a small distillery not seeking 2 million litres of alcohol each year – they don‘t really want to do that unless market demands it some time in future. They like being small and pushing the boundary with their distinctive whiskies. She feels the Tobermory, which is unpeated,  is already so different from other unpeated malts and makes quite a statement. She also loves their peated Ledaig and says the no age statement Sinclair Series is flying off shelves. She confesses that she didn‘t used to like peated whiskies so much but now that she‘s on Mull with Ledaig she‘s got right into peated as it‘s quite subtle , I think because we‘ve got high rectification in our stills, because of those funny-shaped necks [which she described as „a bit wiggly-woo“] it‘s quite a lighter peated whisky which is good.“

There must be a need to work closely with the blenders as to which casks are drawn down for bottling and what cask types are used or showing well at any point so I wondered if Cara got much input there. She does with gin. And whisky? From a process point of view we can say, for example, that organoleptically it noses better with a longer fermentation so we‘ll maybe look at the production schedule and alter it from an operations point of view.“ She says because Distell is a smaller whisky company she can have more interface with her boss who is the acting Master Blender while Julieanne is on maternity leave. It‘s easy to have those conversations. „Dialogue and transparency are there which is really good.“

Given that so many distillery managers these days tour the world talking about their brands, I asked if Cara would be a travelling ambassador/manager once these things can get going again. It‘s been spoken about but Covid has snookered it which is disappointing but I know that it‘s coming. I look forward to it with anticipation but also nervousness. There‘s such whisky buffs out there that you worry about saying anything stupid and that would prey on my mind but as long as you‘re confident with your whisky… I know my product and would love to tell people about it“. She‘s keen to open a dialogue and fully appreciates that her descriptions could be perceived differently by someone else, „I mean turquoise is green to some people. It‘s that kind of thing“.

As Cara has still to set out on that ambassador trail, I asked where she‘d most like to visit for a)work and b) leisure. „New Zealand. I‘d love to go to the New Zealand whisky festival.“ That‘s for both work and pleasure. Why? Seems her partner is a huge Lord of the Rings fan (it‘s Star Wars with mine) and, as it was filmed there, would be severely upset if she didn‘t take him. At the moment anywhere with a bit of sunshine would be good, apparently. It‘s not just to do with the whisky festival in New Zealand, though. Cara also has an interest in how distilleries there operate. She makes the point that on Mull, everything has to be brought in and finding out how somewhere else that‘s quite secluded, though she admits is much larger than Mull, manages its work and its challenges is of interest. „There‘s also the outdoor life like Mull but that may be a fantasy I‘ve built in my head.“ Actually, I think she‘s probably right from what little I know.

I was curious to know what Cara and the Distell company want to achieve at Tobermory. She says there‘s no experimentation yet but there may be in future. Brendan McCarron is keen to try some new things and apparently has an eye for what does well, so they‘re looking forward to supporting his vision for the distilleries. For now she‘s keenly anticipating the new equipment coming in gradually and wants to keep producing the finest spirit that‘s recognised worldwide as world class. They also have healthy competition amongst the three distilleries on this side of Distell! In decades to come she‘s like to look at a bottle and say that was a spirit she was distilling at that time.

That led me to ask who Cara‘s whisky (and gin) hereos might be, if any. „Denise Devenny would be a whisky hero. She goes into a distillery and builds it from the ground up. She‘s now on a different kind of distilling; Wade McCann who‘s now in brewing with Innis & Gunn; Kirsteen Campbell is an idol; Kirstie from Arbikie Gin – I‘ve admired her since uni; Jane Miller from Grants. There‘s a lot of good women in whisky and men supporting women in whisky that‘s so good to see. I‘ve never known it any other way and that‘s a nice world to be in.“ It is indeed. I had a similar experience as a marketeer, though rather longer ago and not all may have been as fortunate with their mentors or bosses. We mused on the fact that, a bit like the women who ran champagne companies in the 18th/19th centuries, there were some redoubtable women involved in distilling from the 19th century onwards who went largely unlauded until more recently. Cara has no particular hero brands but admires those who try something different, like green distilling to be more eco-friendly.

Outside work, Cara loves walking, especially with her dog. She confesses to being „still as cuddly as ever“ but loves her gym and workout classes which are good for her sanity, she reckons. She also loves cooking. I asked about her signature dish and she says her partner would say she has skill in making a good roast potato. She agrees – a good roast potato isn‘t as common as we might like. „That fine line between burnt and crispy,“ is how she put it. She likes an occasional roast though eats mainly vegetarian food. She also loves music, particularly live gigs and says she‘s still to be „baptised in the trad music of people like Pete & Diesel“ who play round the islands. She enjoyed the traditional music played in pubs in Ireland and let slip here that she played the fiddle while growing up. She doesn‘t play at all now but might look to do so again in future. As a child she wanted to play guitar so did that for a while too. Then there‘s travel. Cara had an ambition to get to 30 countries before the age of 30 and that‘s been a bit scuppered by Covid but she has enjoyed travelling in Scotland.

Lastly, as ever, the desert island dram question, fully recognising that in 20 years time, Cara’s choice might be completely different. For now, she’s happily working her way through “a Ledaig Bordeaux Cask Finish which is beautiful, absolutely gorgeous, so I think that would be it now. Probably make me more thirsty than necessary on a desert island! It’s quite complex with a lot of layers to it and has shown me a different side to whisky that I’ve not had before. It’s almost 3D in the mouth.” And as our time was limited, that was the end of our hour but before we finished I was promised a good tasting next time I get to Mull. I have that on audio recording! Tobermory is obviously in the capable hands of someone who wants it to succeed even more – and on its own terms – and she’ll be there a while yet, I imagine. As she’s only been there a short while it felt inappropriate to ask Cara what her next target ambition will be. I do wonder and will watch with interest.

Till later this month, happy dramming and do try a few Tobermory and Ledaig expressions if you haven’t already.




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