The Big Interview: Clydeside Distillery MD Andrew Morrison

A highlight of a tour of the Clydeside Distillery is standing beside its two sizable copper stills, which proudly overlook the River Clyde and stand in close proximity to the Scottish Event Campus, Riverside Museum and the Glasgow Science Centre.

'Were very, very happy with the scale on which weve built,' says Morrison. Picture: contributed.
'Were very, very happy with the scale on which weve built,' says Morrison. Picture: contributed.

Such attractions showcase the modern aspects of Glasgow. But were you to visit the same site in 1863, you could well have seen John Morrison start work on creating the Queen’s Dock.

The single malt Scotch whisky distillery is based in the Pumphouse building, originally designed to provide hydraulic power to operate the swing bridge serving the commercial dock that exported whisky around the globe.

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And it was only once the distillery project was well under way that an incredible coincidence emerged – that 19th century Morrison was an ancestor of its father-and-son team Tim and Andrew Morrison, who hold the chairman and managing director roles respectively.

“That was a great thing to discover and to really add to the heritage of what we were doing on the site,” says Andrew, noting that his great-great-grandfather John was, via his building contractor firm Morrison & Mason, also behind key Glaswegian landmarks such as the King’s Theatre and City Chambers.

Andrew is enthused about the distillery blending family, industry, and broader city heritage to create a new attraction that this year is set to attract some 71,000 visitors – a big leap from the 45,000 last year – after opening its doors in 2017.

He set out on his career path after completing a business and finance degree, crossing the Atlantic to work in San Francisco for US furniture giant Pottery Barn parent company Williams-Sonoma where he spent nearly four years in functions including in-store sales, marketing and ecommerce.

But with his remit hit by the dotcom downturn, he decided that he “wasn’t quite ready or knowledgeable enough to fully join the family business” – that being whisky merchant AD Rattray, which Tim Morrison owns and which is run as a separate entity to the distillery.

Andrew instead at that point wanted to work with its US importers who were based in California, and this gave him an education of sales and the US spirits market. He spent nearly four years at Pacific Edge Wine & Spirits, witnessing the building of a business where vodka and tequila were key volume drivers.

Pacific Edge not only enabled him to hone his sales skills, but also provided a first-hand insight into the marketplace, “which brands were doing well, why brands were doing well, what the price point was, what the marketing was.”

He then felt that he “had enough to hopefully offer AD Rattray, and joined the company full time, focusing on what we were trying to deliver to the marketplace”. This eventually evolved into the major decision to embark upon the distillery project.

AD Rattray takes its name from Andrew Dewar Rattray, who in 1868 set up shop as a grocer in Glasgow, with whisky among his offering. Andrew Morrison now holds the director role there, with his whisky veteran father, formerly of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, in the chairman role.

Andrew says that when he came on board, it was a pretty straightforward business, but was struggling with the availability of whisky.

“We decided that we really needed to be able to control our own destiny, and to be able to do that we had to basically start distilling. And then it was the whole process of ‘OK, if we’re going to do this, where can we do it, how do we do it and on what kind of scale are we doing it’.”

And while there is not exactly a lack of distilleries north of the Border, they spotted a gap in the market. “We felt that no-one was seizing upon the growth of tourism in Scotland and trying to do something unique,” he says.

Some rural locations were in the mix in the early stages. But Glasgow broke ahead of the pack, and it was also believed that the location that was ultimately chosen – not far from the city centre and a stone’s throw from both gentrified Finnieston and venue SWG3 – was only going to continue to improve.

“We really felt there was a great opportunity there for further development of the area, and when we saw the site, it really became clear to us that that was the one that we really wanted to secure.”

Morrison also stresses the desire for the visitor experience to focus on not just the distillery – saying others do so in what can be something of a marketing exercise – but also encompassing the whisky-making process and the rich history of the city including its many distilleries back in the day.

The site is a stop on the Glasgow tourist bus tours, has been given a five-star rating by VisitScotland, and includes footage of actors bringing to life its shipbuilding and exporting roots.

Many of those coming through the distillery’s doors do so because they have been attending something elsewhere in the city. “We’re definitely very dependent on events and tourists coming to Glasgow and we really feel there’s a big buzz from the feedback we get from tourists about Glasgow and what’s going on in the city.”

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) said in June that visits to such distilleries reached record numbers in 2018, topping two million for the first time – a year-on-year jump of 6.1 per cent and 56 per cent more than in 2010. Additionally, spending at distillery visitor centres was up by 12.2 per cent to £68.3 million.

About half of those that come through the doors of the Clydeside Distillery – which has a cafe and shop – are doing a paid tour, and “we’re really, really happy with the footfall”, says Morrison.

He looks back to now-overtaken forecasts in the business plan, saying, “you just never know if you’re being massively optimistic and hopeful – the intent always was if we build this in Glasgow, we really felt like we could get a big draw”. And to have hit the numbers it is attracting this year, its second full 12 months of trading, is “really, really encouraging for us”.

VisitScotland says there are more than 120 active distilleries spread across Scotland, while new additions on the horizon include Port of Leith in Edinburgh, and Diageo planning to revive the Port Ellen facility on Islay along with its Johnnie Walker Experience attraction to be housed in the capital’s former House of Fraser site on Princes Street.

Some £15m of private funding has been poured into the Clydeside Distillery, which Morrison says may sound like a lot, but is modest in comparison to investments by larger players. “We’re very, very happy with the scale on which we’ve built.”

Its visitors can see efforts under way on its own spirit, with its first whisky set to be officially ready in December 2020.

The run-up to the attraction opening was not without its challenges, Morrison states. But efforts to debut the product are crystallising around areas such as design and its release.

“It’s really interesting already to be tasting samples… and get excited about how well they’re maturing.”

As for where the product will sit in the market, he knows the challenges of punting something overpriced. “I see it being a very reasonable product given the quality that we’re wanting to put out there.”

The only limitation will be availability, he adds, noting that the firm’s runs will be short relative to larger competitors. As for exports, it will be able to play an ace up its sleeve – AD Rattray having spent the last 20-plus years working hard to develop international markets, with importers in more than 20 countries – in contrast to smaller peers having to start from scratch.

As for where Morrison sees strong demand, he flags the US – and California in particular – as well as Germany, China and Taiwan. Citing HMRC figures, the SWA said earlier this year that in 2018, the export value of Scotch whisky grew by 7.8 per cent by value to a record £4.7 billion. The US became the first billion-pound export market for the spirit, growing to £1.04bn last year, while the EU remains the largest.

As for whether Morrison is concerned about Brexit, it is obviously not a factor yet for the distillery’s output – while on the AJ Rattray side, it generally isn’t causing him to lose sleep. “It’s hard to prepare for – but I do worry slightly about some of the things that might be heading our way,” he says, singling out trade deal concerns.

For now, he is tapping into his father’s knowledge, built up from decades in the industry, while also looking to capitalise on technology – including blockchain – in the coming years.

The focus now is on producing the best possible quality single malt, and upping the number of visitors and evolving the experience for them. “Given the level of tourism coming to Glasgow, I really feel like we should be one of the most visited distilleries in Scotland.”

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