Tomatin Distillery – Interview with Graham Eunson, distillery manager

This is the other part of an interview done with Jennifer Masson and Graham Eunson of Tomatin Distillery. In the first part here, we asked Jennifer to tell something about herself, and in this part Graham, Tomatin’s distillery general manager answers some of our questions.

First, a little information about Graham before his life at Tomatin

“Graham was born and brought up in Orkney. Started in the whisky industry at Scapa Distillery, one of the two distilleries on Orkney, initially as a warehouse operator before progressing into production roles in both the mash house and still house. In 1992 moved into the office to became a trainee brewer before being transferred to Glendronach Distillery in Aberdeenshire in January 1994 as brewer. Glendronach at the time still operated their own floor maltings and also used coal fired stills. October 1996 saw a change of employer with a move to Glenmorangie as assistant manager before taking on the role of Glenmorangie Distillery Manager in 1998. During the next 10 years oversaw all aspects of production and maturation, increased the distillery capacity and spent time carrying out the brands ambassador role. Departed in 2008 Glenmorangie to take on the project of re-opening Glenglassaugh Distillery after 22 years of closure. The first 10 months were to be spent re-furbishing the plant and buildings ready for production to commence in late 2008. In 2011 having overseen the resurrection of Glenglassaugh, an opportunity arose to join the Tomatin team in the position of Distillery General Manager. “

We had a “couple” of questions for him about his work and life, wanting to know more about his passion for making whisky.

Can you tell us what your role is at Tomatin? 

Although my title is Distillery General Manager that falls some way short of explaining my role – to be honest it’s not easy to explain as it’s very wide and varied but that is what keeps it interesting. I’m responsible for all aspects of production in the distillery from raw materials in (malt, yeast, water, casks etc.), scheduling of production programmes and the ongoing strive for quality and consistency in the new make spirit. I also have control of maturation in the warehouses. This covers everything from sourcing casks for filling all the way through to cask/whisky selection for use in bottling of the single malt. Longer term I must ensure that we operate the distillery as efficiently as possible so this requires keeping up to date with the latest advances in energy efficiency and environmental strategies. Throw in some PR work with tours and tastings, sitting on two committees within the SWA, day to day man-management, controlling budgets and it keeps me out of mischief.

How does a normal week look for you?

Normal ?? please see above – no two weeks are ever the same but that makes it fun.

There are many sides to your job at the distillery we can image. But what is the most favourite part of your job, the thing that just makes you happy?

I like the sense of achievement you get when a plan, strategy or project is completed and proves to have been worthwhile. But I also enjoy seeing people enjoy themselves whether that be at work in the distillery or socially enjoying the product we make.

What is the biggest challenge in your job?

Probably managing change – with a traditional industry like this it can sometimes be difficult to get people to change their methods of doing things even if it is for the better. Also trying to look into the future to lay down just the correct amount of stock for 12, 18, 25 + years down the line.

How would you describe the spirit of Tomatin?

Fantastic – not that I’m biased ! If you mean the whisky spirit, I’d say that it’s clean, fruity and has a hint of sweetness to it.

Looking back in your career you have worked at a couple of distilleries. Can you point to one moment that was the highlight for you personally?

Too many to recall but I won’t forget the night that I was told that I was the new distillery manager at Glenmorangie or the first mash going in at a refurbished Glenglassaugh after some 22 years of closure – a tremendous sense of achievement.

Are there people in the whisky business that you look up to/admire?

Undoubtedly – there are many, but the ones I admire most are those who work behind the scenes and never seek the fame or glory. I’ve worked with some fantastic people over the years and have learned so much from them.

How did you start working in the distillery business? Where was the moment that you said “this is what I want to do” ?

It’s a rather long and boring story involving carpentry, Ford motor company, two broken legs, squash and a chance encounter at a petrol station. But, given my life to live over again, I wouldn’t change any of it.

How does the process works with cask selection and blending? Do you decide it all on your own what to do, or is there a team involved?

For the ongoing core range I select the casks and use a recipe for each expression. For new or limited additions, it takes team work – sales will need to explain what their customers want, I’ll look at the available stocks and then a group of us will look at the various options available. This may involve drawing samples and doing some very small scale batches until we get what we want in the final product.

Where do you source your casks from?

We have a cooperage in Kentucky that we use and trust to get us the best ex-Bourbon casks. We also have two suppliers in Spain for sherry casks and one of the also makes our virgin oak casks for us. Port and wine casks are usually supplied through some good contacts we built up over the years.

Is there a certain level of charring that you prefer?

In the ex-bourbon casks we are in the hands of the bourbon distiller and don’t have influence over the charring but with our virgin oak casks I prefer to have a heavy toast and medium char.

You have worked in a couple of distilleries. How is Tomatin a difference compared to those?

I’ve worked in 5 and they’re all different and have their own personalities. The process we do is always very similar but it’s the buildings, the history and especially the people that give them life. Tomatin was once the biggest malt distillery in Scotland but not any longer as we now focus on quality rather than quantity – this means we have spare capacity and can take our time and not rush things which is becoming less common as the whisky industry is booming at the moment – I guess that makes us a bit different.

Tomatin is also called a community distillery. Is this still maintained with the housing on site, or do you see it getting less?

The vast majority of our staff still live on site and I don’t see that changing any time in the near or distant future – it’s part of what makes Tomatin and a vital part of our heritage.

At many distilleries you see that they are modernizing a lot, and minimizing the amount of people working there. Tomatin being a community distillery, and generations of people have been employed there, is this something that you try to avoid or is it sadly a necessary evil?

Ultimately we are a business and must keep our costs under control but the distillery production layout doesn’t lend itself to automation and I prefer the human touch anyway. Our warehouses are always going to need warehouse operators to move the casks so I don’t see any huge reductions in staffing levels

What are your plans for the future and where do you want to keep the focus on?

Everything we do with the process controls and measures is aimed at ensuring a consistently high quality of product so the focus is on quality first and efficiency second. The educational part of the tour is something that I feel we are uniquely positioned to offer – condensers are one thing but not many people have a spare mashtun lying around! I’d like to expand on this with our spare screen, weighing machine and mill all being opened up to allow our guests the opportunity to see inside and better understand the mechanics of what we do and how the plant operates. I feel that science has a vital part to play in helping us achieve the control and understanding of what we do which can only help with quality. I also like to have some of the mystery and magic maintained so I hope science never replaces all of this !

In 2002 eleven stills were removed from the still house, that were not used at that time. With the market asking for more whisky are you looking at putting some back in and increasing the production?

Not at the moment. We are in the enviable position of having been so big at one time that we don’t need to run anywhere near our full capacity – we could almost double production by working more days in the week for more weeks in the year rather than having to install more equipment.

You are one of the last distilleries to do most of the processes on site looking at the cooperage and amount of warehousing. Is this pure to being located a bit outside of Speyside?

Rather than geographical location, I think it dates back to when we were running at full capacity and the sheer scale of operation meant it made sense to have all these services on-site. Although we’re now a smaller capacity distillery the equipment remains so it makes sense to use it. It also gives us greater control over our own operations.

Do you have any hobbies? Other passions you would like sharing with us?

I used to play sport 8 days a week but now it’s just Golf which can be a good way of relaxing or very frustrating depending how it goes. I also enjoy a bit of DIY, cinema and spending time with my family – the usual things really.

There are a lot of changes happening in the world of whisky with cask management and marketing techniques etc. The discussions about some things being more a hype, or about the high pricing and NAS bottlings. We asked this same question to Jennifer what her view is. Can you tell us how you look at it from your function?  

Being a production guy, I believe marketing is a necessary evil – just kidding Jennifer !! Without a story, whisky is just another drink (albeit a very tasty one) so I think the history, passion and back story is important in giving the total enjoyment to the consumer. My one thought on NAS is that if a whisky is good enough it’s old enough – too much emphasis is put on age and colour, probably because of what we used to say ourselves as an industry. There are some great, young, pale coloured whiskies out there. Pricing, apart from some of the more outrageous examples, is driven by market forces – supply and demand

Also asked this to Jennifer regarding the social media that plays a huge roll in the life of people nowadays, and that there are many channels available to reach people. What are your thoughts to these changes in the market from the marketing perspective? We feel that people are more busy then before and not taking the time to enjoy a dram?

As long as people are drinking whisky and enjoying it I have no problem with the way they drink it – yes, it’s good to be able to take time to savour it but if you don’t have the time or the interest and prefer it with water, ice, neat or with coke then that’s all fine with me – I’d never tell someone how to drink their whisky the same as I’d never let anyone tell me how to have my steak cooked, it’s personal choice at the end of the day. If the younger crowd drink whisky in a “strange” way it’s still getting them into it and maybe in later years they will take more time to savour it.

Thanks Graham for the answering of all our questions and letting us have a look into your world at the wonderful Tomatin Distillery! Soon we will be sharing some more information on the distillery and more tasting notes, so stay tuned!

Concluding, Graham, Jennifer, a twenty-some whisky-enthusiasts and WhiskySpeller are going to participate in the Tomatin Tweet tasting from the Whisky Wire Jennifer was talking about on the third of September. You can see all the action on Twitter following #TomatinCuatro. And off course you can read a full report on it here soon with tasting notes and all from the both of us.

Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller, cover photo by Graham Eunson

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