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An Interview with Distillery Manager Alistair McDonald

Clydeside founder Tim Morrison isn’t the only former Bowmore employee working at the distillery today. Our distillery manager Alistair McDonald started his career at Bowmore back in the 1980s and worked for the Morrison family before the eventual sale to Beam-Suntory. We caught up with Alistair this week to discuss his thirty-nine year history in the Scotch whisky industry. Our conversation is below:

Clydeside: You worked at Bowmore distillery back in the 1980s, but are you actually from Bowmore as well?

Alistair: Yes, I am originally from Bowmore on Islay. I left school wanting to be an engineer of all things and I didn’t quite get my wish at the beginning, so I joined a local building company to be an apprentice plumber. It was as close as I could get to being an engineer. 

Clydeside: Did you grow up wanting to work at Bowmore?

Alistair: No, not at all. I often thought about distillery work and the engineering practices that went on, but I had no passion to work at a distillery. My dad said to me: would you not be interested in working at Bowmore? But I couldn’t think of anywhere worse to work at seventeen years old. I couldn’t even stand the smell of walking past it! 

Clydeside: How did it eventually come about?

Alistair: Low and behold, my dad had a chat with Jim McEwan who was the manager at Bowmore, who lived just two houses down from us at the time. Jim told my dad that the engineer at the distillery was potentially going to retire in a few years and they might be able to use an apprentice engineer. As a route into engineering, I was interested, but I had no real passion for whisky. Back in 1984 Bowmore was owned by Stanley P. Morrison, with Tim and Brian Morrison running it. I went in for the interview with chief engineer Harry Cockburn and I got the position. 

Clydeside: Did you begin to enjoy working at Bowmore from that point on?

Alistair: Well, I was happy with the engineering work, but I also wanted to get my college paperwork as well and I had to do that in Glasgow. I got the opportunity to move to Glasgow and finish the apprenticeship there. I was able to work out of the Morrison-Bowmore headquarters, which today is the bottling plant for Beam-Suntory. Most of the time I was down at Auchentoshan doing repairs and maintenance there. Once the apprenticeship was over in 1988, I was given the position of distillery engineer at Auchentoshan.

Clydeside: What did that entail?

Alistair: The role was basically to keep the distillery running. You wouldn’t recognize Auchentoshan back then versus today. It was in a state of disrepair when they bought it and you were on call seven days a week. You had to just keep it running as we were on seven day production back then too. Whatever needed to be done had to be done, or else. I did that for a good twelve years until they created a distillery’s engineer position, which included week-long rotation through Bowmore, Glen Garioch, Auchentoshan, and the head office every month. I was very lucky to get that opportunity and I did that for another thirteen years.

Clydeside: That sounds like a challenging schedule!

Alistair: Yes, but I was able to see how all the individual sites worked. There were a lot of commonalities that I could quickly fix, but it was a good learning experience from an engineering and production standpoint because the distilleries were still very different. You had the triple distillation at Auchentoshan, the peat kiln at Bowmore, and then Glen Garioch was reopened in 1997 and that was a new adventure bringing it back online. The only unexciting part was the week at head office doing the paperwork!

Clydeside: How did you eventually get involved with the Clydeside?

Alistair: In January of 2011, I got a call about doing distillery production. There was a distillery manager’s role open at Auchentoshan, which I was again very lucky to get. I was thrown into the deep end though. I got three weeks with the leaving manager before he finished up, so it was a quick learning curve. I did that for the better part of six years until I heard about the Clydeside. 

Clydeside: Were you excited by the project?

Alistair: I didn’t take too much notice of it at the beginning because we didn’t know if it was going to happen or not. But eventually I got a call from one of the senior managers before the build and he came down to Auchentoshan with some investors. He wanted to show them the equipment that would be needed for the distillery and I told him to keep me in mind for the distillery manager position. He called me the next day and asked me to come take a tour of the site. 

Clydeside: What were your thoughts after seeing the proposal?

Alistair: I thought it was an exciting project—the whole history with Tim dating back to 1984 and getting to be involved with the family again. As great as Beam-Suntory was to work for, it was becoming one of the largest producers in the world and it was becoming more corporate. I was moving further away from the day-to-day distillation and more into corporate management. I was excited by the idea of getting back to basic whisky distillation. Getting to be part of the team that brings a new whisky to market, and the first single malt correctly in the city of Glasgow, that was an opportunity I would regret not being a part of. I was then interviewed by Andrew and Tim Morrison along with Harry Cockburn (again) as he was an engineering consultant in the Clydeside project and I successfully secured the role of Distillery Manager.

Clydeside: Are you happy with how things worked out?

Alistair: It was a great decision. I have no regrets. I’m six years in now and it’s been full circle for me, getting to start my career with the Morrison family and hopefully getting to end my career with them as well. It’s been a great journey over the past thirty-nine years.