The Big Interview: Liam Hughes, co-founder of The Glasgow Distillery Company

Liam Hughes, co-founder of The Glasgow Distillery Company, tells Rosemary Gallagher his strategy for challenging the bigger players.

Last month Hughes unveiled Glasgow 1770 Single Malt Triple Distilled. Picture: contributed.

How did you get into distilling?

I was approached by Grand Metropolitan during the milk round while studying at Leeds University. I went through the interview process and was offered a place on its graduate trainee programme before I’d even sat my finals. My first job in the drinks industry was with the now long-closed Webster’s Brewery in Halifax.

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I got into the spirits sector through a contract I had with Absolut Vodka in 2010. That gave me wonderful insight into what was happening in premium spirits. Seeing the rapid growth of craft distilleries in the US, the success of craft breweries and the small but growing interest in the same markets in the UK, my business partner, Mike Hayward, and me decided we wanted to get involved.

The company also produces spirits including gin, rum and vodka. Picture: contributed.

Why did you decide to launch The Glasgow Distillery Company?

In early 2012, Mike and I started researching how we were going to make our plan happen. I took a three-month sabbatical from our existing business, Grow Sales, to put together a business plan for what would become The Glasgow Distillery Company.

I met and became friends with Michael Moss of Glasgow University who has written multiple books on the whisky industry. Michael’s encyclopaedic knowledge helped us quickly understand the rich history of Glasgow and whisky. The more we found out, the more we were convinced the time was right for single malt to return to the city and in December 2012 we formed The Glasgow Distillery Company.

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How did you choose the location of Hillington?

I’d been working with the Russell family, who run Russell Logistics and are our landlords in Hillington, for some time on various Grow Sales projects. They own Carntyne Transport, which moves a lot of spirit around the country, and are therefore big players in this industry.

When we were putting together our business plan, I saw that our stills manufacturer had worked with the Brooklyn Distilling Company in New York which opened a distillery in an old warehouse. We didn’t have a huge amount of money so that made me think about doing something similar. I approached the Russells to ask if they had a warehouse where I could build a distillery.

When they stopped laughing and realised I was serious they found us a home and we’re still there. For now, we’re investing the money we have into making the best product we can. There are plenty of whisky visitor attractions in Scotland and we have no great desire to go down that route at this time.

How has the distillery grown?

We were approached by Scottish Enterprise who had a number of foreign investors interested in putting money into distilleries. We spoke to a couple of them and struck up a good rapport with one investor in particular . We decided to go down the route of one large investor plus ourselves, rather than lots of small investors.

When we launched Makar Gin in October 2014, there was me and one distiller. We started laying down our single malt in March 2015 and since then we have grown rapidly. We currently have 24 staff and our turnover has increased more than 50 per cent year-on-year.

We have focused heavily on quality in every area, from our five stills – four for whisky and one for gin - through each stage of the production process. We were excited to launch our first blended malt Scotch whisky earlier this month when we unveiled Malt Riot. It’s a selected blend of handpicked single malts from across Scotland, with our Glasgow 1770 at its heart.

It re-tells the story of the malt tax protests that took place in 1725, starting in Glasgow, as protesters demanded the tax on malted barley be overturned. Malt Riot is aimed at a younger age group than our single malt and is very much an easy to drink whisky that can be mixed to create cocktails.

It will sit alongside the likes of Copper Dog and Monkey Shoulder in the blended malt market which is growing but isn’t yet crowded. Retailing at £25, Malt Riot is at a different price point from our single malts that are just under £50. It’s already proving popular with every one of our distributors in each market placing orders before they have even held a bottle.

Can you say more about the direction of your distillery and product brands?

The spirits industry has always been cyclical. We decided that although we are primarily a whisky business we should have a foot in other key categories. We’ve invested a lot in branding to ensure our products don’t look out of place alongside those of bigger businesses. We have always envisioned becoming a global spirits business, selling multiple, handcrafted brands.

This is not something that many distilleries do. They almost always name their whisky and gin after the name of the distillery itself, rather than creating a number of stand-alone sub-brands. But at The Glasgow Distillery Company, we’ve taken the time to create stand-alone brands with fantastic stories behind them and different personalities that appeal to a range of diverse target audiences.

Many of our clients and customers often comment on the quality of our branding and packaging and we were recently delighted to take home the Excellence in Branding award at the inaugural Scottish Whisky Awards at the tail end of 2019, edging out Johnnie Walker White label much to our surprise and delight.

Can you say more about your core Signature Range?

The original Glasgow Distillery in the 18th century produced, as far as we can discern, a range of single malts, so we decided to do the same. We didn’t know how that would pan out at the beginning, so some of it was an experiment. But every time we ran the first batch through the stills we knew we had winners. The new-make spirit was sublime, and it was then just a matter of using high-quality wood and waiting.

In the meantime, we created the Signature Range concept and developed the packaging while keeping a close eye on the maturing whisky. We recently tweaked the branding of our single malt to place more of an emphasis on our Glasgow heritage, and I think it looks and feels stronger as a result.

Who are your core customers?

We now export to 17 markets and, bizarrely, even in the midst of this current Covid-19 crisis we have had our first order from Russia, from a large supermarket chain in St Petersburg and Moscow. We have a strong following in Glasgow and across Scotland and work closely with most of the independent retailers across the UK.

We’re stocked in Harrods and have a growing business in the larger retailers and the on-trade. We had just opened our Tasting Room in Grill on the Corner in Glasgow before lockdown, so we hope the on-trade returns quickly. The Grill on the Corner attracts an eclectic mix of people and the Tasting Room gives us a shop window in the centre of the city.

What are your plans for the distillery and the products?

We installed two new whisky stills, Margaret and Francis, late last year so we are slowly increasing our production and laying down casks for the future.

How are you reacting to increased competition, including other distilleries in Glasgow?

The more high- quality distilleries in Glasgow the better for everyone as we help rebuild the city’s lost distilling history. What the Clydeside Distillery has done is fantastic and we have little doubt that Douglas Laing will bring another fabulous distillery to the city.

What impact is Covid-19 having?

Covid-19 has had different impacts on us. Some have been positive, with a 400 per cent in online sales since lockdown began, and some negative. We have colleagues in the industry furloughed and our launch in the US has been postponed until 2021 at the earliest which is very frustrating.

I think it’s important that, as we emerge from lockdown, everyone supports our wonderful pubs, cafés and restaurants We abandon our on-trade culture at our peril. I think the on-trade in Ireland and Scotland is part of who we are and what we are. I think we would be less as two nations if we allowed that sociability and culture to disappear.

How have you seen the whisky industry change?

The biggest thing I’ve seen is the rise of single malt over the last 20 years. The Scotch whisky industry is resilient and has survived everything the last 300 years has thrown at it. We see no let-up in the desire for high quality products.

Globally, Scotch whisky is rightly perceived at the head of the class, so I believe the future is very bright, although Covid-19 and travel limitations are going to have a short-term impact on visitor numbers to Scotland. No-one in Scotch whisky can take anything other than a long-term view.

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