We recently had the pleasure of meeting Douglas Taylor, CEO at Bruichladdich Distillery, and it gave us the opportunity to gain some firsthand insights into the philosophy, ethos and future direction of these Progressive Hebridean Distillers. Douglas started his career as a gardener, having studied environmental, town & country planning and left university to start a landscape design business. He inadvertently met somebody from Diageo who was running the Graduate Recruitment scheme and soon found himself part of program, aged of 21. He started with Diageo as a sales representative and Douglas recalls “I was given a rough patch in Scotland, calling on men’s clubs and sports clubs selling Smirnoff Bells whisky. That was my introduction to whisky”.
Over the years he worked in various sales roles, from independent on-trade, to wholesale, to national accounts. Later, he moved into distributor management in the Nordics, then into marketing and global innovation. After being with Diageo for over 12 years, he was approached by the people who ran Bruichladdich back when it was still an independent business. He nostalgically recalls, “I met a guy called Mark Reynier who spoke at me for 2 hours about Bruichladdich and about this idea, vision, philosophy and ethos and I was absolutely hooked. I went home that day and told my wife I am going to leave Diageo and join Bruichladdich”.
Douglas’ pathway to CEO started in 2011 as Commercial Director. He joined as one of the non-exec directors alongside Simon Coughlin, Mark Reynier and Jim McEwan. The idea was he would bring his skillset into the business and help take Bruichladdich to the next stage. It was a very exciting time, but things moved very quickly and in 2012 Remy Cointreau bought the business. His role evolved into Global Brand Director but at the same time, Douglas and Simon co-ran the business until he moved into the role to run the whisky business unit for Remy Cointreau. That then opened the door for Douglas to take over the role of CEO at Bruichladdich nearly 3 years ago.
Today, a day in the life of a Bruichladdich CEO is varied. It’s still a small business, and small business owners can relate that when they’re running a small business, they have to wear lots of hats. Douglas’ role is no different, one day he is sitting at his desk working on spreadsheets and another day could be at the distillery working with the operations team discussing sustainability or capital expenditure projects. On another day he could be in the market, having business meetings or attending masterclasses at nights. “It’s a very diverse role and it’s all about rolling your sleeves up. As the business has grown recently, we’re finding there is not enough of us. We need to be able to get out into the markets more, to inspire people and be inspired by others. Whether its dealing with a distributor or talking to our own team. We’re lucky because our business is full of people who are like minded and are following the same path, trying to deliver the same goals. When I look around, I see a bunch of people who are constantly trying to inspire the people they’re connecting with all the time. It’s a mammoth task because we don’t have the deep pockets, or the marketing budgets that big companies have but we have to be personal, passionate, agile, engaging, connecting with people and that’s what we do well” explains Douglas.
In his time as Bruichladdich CEO there have been many positive changes and achievements that he recalls “At one point in time Port Charlotte was going to be put in a cupboard and locked away. There was a big review to understand the opportunity for Port Charlotte and a several year project to re-position and re-brand it. We put a campaign together with huge support from the team. Bringing Port Charlotte to life, launching it as a brand is something I am really proud of”. Beyond that, in terms of a vision point of view, Douglas is proud of the work they’ve kicked off on sustainability, and the approach they’ve taken to try and become B-Corp certified.
It’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of someone like Simon Coughlin, it’s difficult for Adam Hannett to follow in the footsteps of Jim McEwan. Still, to take the reigns from one of the founders, and keep the culture and ethos alive, is important. Douglas is proud of the fact that his teams are empowered. “We have a democratic approach, sure there is leadership and structure, but empowerment is the key and no one is more important than anyone else. That’s the type of culture we like to foster” says Douglas. “We’ve opened the door to the notion of how important sustainable agriculture in the whisky making process is, but in the last 12 months we have been looking at how Bruichladdich can become a centre of excellence” says Douglas.
Last April they bought the croft next to the distillery. They decided to have a Croft Summit where they invited experts from all over the world, like agronomists, farmers, researchers, and got everyone together to ask how Bruichladdich could internalise the risk on research and development, and what that would mean for the future of Islay.
Earlier this year Bruichladdich announced its intentions to close the loop on their all-Islay process by installing on-site maltings. The new maltings are planned to be installed on the distillery grounds by 2023, subject to planning permission. The distillery currently grows 42% of their barley locally, and have made a vocal commitment to distilling, maturing and bottling their single malts only on Islay, so the maltings ‘are the final piece of the whisky jigsaw puzzle’. Their current malting process sees their Islay grown barley travel to Inverness for malting. Since there is no option to separate and trace these small batches and malt locally, the need to use a partner like Bairds in Inverness is essential to underpin the distillery’s principles of provenance and traceability.
Bringing the capability to malt small batches onto their doorstep will allow the self-monikered ‘Progressive Hebridean Distillers” to be more flexible with their barley experimentation. Building on their current competency, the distiller looks to further their investigation into barley varieties out-with the UK’s recommended growing list. For Douglas and the team, transparency, provenance, traceability and sustainability, are the principles they talk about in Bruichladdich.
“Terroir is really important, and it was absolutely critical in the resurrection of the distillery, but transparency is something we have moved closer towards in the last few years where we openly talk about what we do and why we do it. It’s so relevant today because the modern curious drinker wants to know the details, the why you’ve done and the real narrative behind the whisky, they don’t want the marketing fluff.” Islay is a provenance not a flavour profile. The decisions Bruichladdich make are Islay centric. It’s a more costly and more complicated route but one they feel is right. “Running a business from an island makes us distinctly aware that our social, economic and environmental impact must be a positive one. We feel strongly about our responsibility to the island and the people of Islay. We want to leave behind a bright future for the generations to come” says Douglas.
If there’s one thing that Douglas would like Australian bartenders to remember about Bruichladdich its that it represents something entirely different in the world of single malt whisky. Of course, flavour matters but so does transparency. We asked Douglas to describe the people at the Bruichladdich Distillery in one word – his reply “courageous”.
Click here to learn more about Bruichladdich’s philosophy.
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