The Big Interview: Glenlivet master distiller Alan Winchester

Alan Winchester is proud to have pioneered the walking routes associated with the distiller's past, which have become a tourist attraction
Alan Winchester is proud to have pioneered the walking routes associated with the distiller's past, which have become a tourist attraction
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I claim I’ve been in spirits a long time,” laughs Alan Winchester, as he sits in the former captain’s office at the Glenlivet distillery, looking down the valley to the granite Moray mountain of Ben Rinnes.

It’s a fair claim; Winchester’s career in Scotch spans more than 40 years and 20 different distilleries. Today, as master distiller of The Glenlivet and production manager for Pernod Ricard, he manages 14 of the spirit giant’s malt distilleries.

He was the man behind The Glenlivet Founder’s Reserve, a drink which, in 2016, analyst IWSR declared the number one single malt innovation globally from the previous five years, and which has now sold more than 300,000 cases worldwide. He also released The Glenlivet’s first series of 50-year-old whiskies, named The Winchester Collection in his honour.

Despite this affirmation, he says he still prefers to “let our whisky do the talking”. And The Glenlivet is certainly singing at the moment, enjoying double-digit growth in more than half of the markets in which it was sold last year.

A keen historian, Winchester understands the mantle he carries at the helm of such an iconic brand. The heritage of The Glenlivet has, he says, been handed down to him “for a bit of keeping” before his time comes to pass it on, and he appreciates that his role has seen him add to the whisky’s story during this time.

The Glenlivet distillery is part of the Crown Estate, which boasts a number of footpaths for visitors to enjoy the scenery. Several years ago, “over a wee dram with a colleague”, Winchester was struck with the inspiration that led to the distillery introducing its own walking trails around the mountain.

“Because Glenlivet is famed for its illicit distilling past, we used to point out smugglers’ routes and tell smugglers’ stories during one of the early whisky festivals,” he says. “When some of the paths were being laid out, we thought it would be a great idea to get together with the Crown Estate and mark them out as distilling routes.”

The Speyside smugglers’ trails were born. Visitors to the glen can wander the George Smith trail, named after the first licensed distiller in the parish and founder of The Glenlivet; the Robbie MacPherson path, one of the region’s “trickiest smugglers”; and the Malcolm Gillespie route, a tribute to the customs exciseman who pursued them. “The idea is to give the distillery visitors some of the history and heritage that backs up the Glenlivet brand,” he says.

The act of balancing tradition with innovation is something Winchester and his team see as a challenge, but also a duty. He explains: “We’ve looked back through the history of the distillery and you’ll find that George Smith and the founders, they were quite innovative in their day. They used to boast that they were one of the first distilleries to have a telephone connection. They were innovative in that style of things and in the style of spirit. We’re just trying to keep that tradition going.”

He cites the way distillers adapted Scotch to the US market in the 1960s, reducing the peat because the market determined that they wanted to see more of the fruity, floral Speyside character, as an example of the classic inventiveness that sums up Scotch history. “You react to taste, and you react to what your consumers are asking,” he says.

“When I joined the industry, Glenlivet was considered the epitome of maturation. It still is. The industry has evolved, yes, but consumers are always looking for something different. Over the years, we’ve seen the 18-year-old grow to be an important whisky in the portfolio, and the 21-year-old.”

Winchester notes that trends in Scotch are hard to predict, not least because the evolution can take place over long periods of time due to the lengthy maturation process.

Along with the other Guardians of The Glenlivet, Winchester gives a lot of thought to what the next popular development might be for the water of life. “Over the years, we’ve done different things where we pick out whiskies and use different styles on the maturation and sometimes we think we can predict the trend. It’s a difficult one, though.” The key is not to rule ideas out, he says. “You learn through the years not to dismiss anything, because years later something creeps back in.”

He adds that he finds the brand’s Code and Cipher ranges fun for precisely that reason – where the whisky is laid out without tasting notes for the drinker to experience aromas and flavours free from preconceptions.

Winchester openly admits that he stumbled into whisky, but he was certainly aware of it from a very early age. Spending school holidays surrounded by distilleries on a family farm, now handed down to his cousin from their grandfather, he recalls the sweet smells of the grain in his early memories.

After finishing his Highers, he originally wanted to try his hand in the Navy, but started working in a distillery next to his grandfather’s land instead. “I was 16, going on 17 when I got the job and I thought it’ll do for a few years,” he says. “And 43 years later I’m still looking for something to do when I grow up!”

Winchester learnt the ins and outs of the distilling process first-hand, working with casks in the cooperage, and with the coal and gas-fired stills. He progressed through the departments and switched companies before he got his first role as a trainee brewer. In 1979, he joined The Glenlivet in a junior management role and was promoted in 1985. He has been with Pernod Ricard for the past 25 years, and during this spell has been reunited with some of the distilleries he worked with earlier in his career, including The Glenlivet. He was named master distiller in 2009, a title he is proud to bear.

He recently returned from Taiwan, one of the Asian markets growing increasingly important to the Scotch export trade, where he’d been introducing a 13-year-old sherry-matured Glenlivet, which “goes down very well over there”. “As a Scotsman you think gosh, that’s an age you’ll hardly see in a Scotch whisky, but the 13 is distinctly different for people in Taiwan – they don’t have that unlucky connotation with it,” he says.

He describes the culture of drinking spirits in many Asian countries as lending a natural gateway to whisky drinking. “I think you can probably even trace that the spread of distillation came from the Far East, or the Middle East, into our own country. And they look for the heritage as well.”

He also notes South America, particularly Brazil and Argentina, where British expats are plentiful, as key emerging markets for the industry.

Currently it is the future, rather than the past, that is occupying the headspace of many Scottish business leaders, as 
the UK’s departure from the EU edges ever closer, with no trade deal yet confirmed.

Winchester plays down any major concerns, saying the company has contingency plans for various scenarios, but does stress the importance of barrier-free trade, which is crucial for the Scotch industry. “The beauty of whisky is it’s not going to go off lying in the dock,” he says, “but we don’t want anything that’s going to restrict our trade.

“What we’re looking for in Brexit is that continuity as we come out of Europe. I’m sure there’s challenges ahead but hopefully we’ll be able to export more whisky to the world. There’s barriers in a lot of markets and we’ve spent a lot of time trying to unpick these, so it sounds like business as usual.”

Tourism, another major income source for the industry, with a record 1.9 million visits to Scotch whisky distilleries in 2017, could also be knocked by Brexit. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, visitor centres reported the highest number of visitors came from Germany and the US.

As for Winchester, he shows no sign of slowing down. He’s scooped a number of awards and titles during his career so far, including being awarded Master of the Quaich in 1997 and spending three years as President of the Malt Distillers Association, but he confesses that the Lifetime Achievement Award he received at the International Spirits Challenge dinner in July is an accolade particularly close to his heart.

His colleagues took him along, safe in the knowledge that he would leave, surprised, with the prize. “They knew and I didn’t!” he says. “Anything that’s awarded by your peers… I take a humble thanks for that.”