Helen McCormick’s Valinch

IN

Helen started at Bruichladdich aged 17, while still at school part time studying art, after her teacher put her forward. She was into screen-printing, and painting with acrylics, at that time.

It was the days of seat-of-your-pants entrepreneurism at the company, when fans from around the world could come and stay ‘on campus’ to learn the craft of whisky-making. Helen, and housekeeper Rae, catered for them; early starts for the breakfasts and a four course meal every night. Local stalwart and highland dancing director Ella Edgar managed most of the administration here. She seconded Helen, who admits she was “very quiet” into the shop team, saying, “It’ll be good for you!”  After Ella and Mary McGregor trained her up, Helen soon found herself taking large groups of people of all nationalities around the distillery. Alone in the shop on a Saturday, she’d have to lock up for 45 minutes when showing the visitors around, giving these early tours an authenticity which they loved. “It was exhausting though!” she admits, in spite of the energy pervading the distillery. She recalls how co-founder Mark Reynier got behind you, “If you ever wanted to start anything,” warmly mentions the supportiveness of engineer Duncan McGillivray, acknowledges master distiller Jim McEwan’s habit of finding young Ilich jobs and taking an interest in what they were doing

Helen lives in the old workshop at Blackrock, a house that lost its roof in a tragic WWII Sunderland flying boat accident. [full story https://www.islayinfo.com/islay-worldwar2-sunderland-boat.html ]. The army fitted a new roof, but then it was left as an empty shell, until Helen and her new husband rebuilt it in 2012 when she was expecting their first child. 

“Andrew’s got a huge family,” she says, shaking her head. “His grandfather’s brother was the original Donald McCormick…” The McCormicks farm at Claggan, where they have grown barley for us in the past. The dynasty also run a haulage company; when the couple met Andrew was driving the tankers that collect Bruichladdich’s pot ale. They also uplift draff from some of the other distilleries. “It’s been farming and lorries, ever since he left school,” says Helen, “and it’s all my boys want to do when they’re older. Though Charlie said he might join the circus…”

Helen’s mum lives next door at Blackrock, in what was their holiday house until 2000, when they moved up to Islay together from the Cotswolds. “It has a lovely garden, Mum does that, that’s her passion. She says I’m not allowed to have the garden! But I have fruit and veg all year round so that suits me!” She is being typically understated; one of Helen’s new ventures is arranging cut flowers for a growing list of clients around the island, including Bruichladdich’s accommodation at An Taigh Osda and the Academy House – the very building where she started her career with us. Her new interest that she shares with her mum means she now finds herself taking cuttings now whenever she is away on holiday, and doing a little bit of foraging in the Islay winters for greenery. “It’s amazing what you can get, if you look,” she says.

She also used to make ice cream for one of Bruichladdich’s original shareholders, her neighbour at the head of Loch Indaal, Lady Timpson. “Every summer, she would ask me to make 20 apple pies and 20 tubs of icecream, so I said OK, a bit of extra money, you know. Then Mary McGregor tells Ailsa [of our Laddieshop] – “Helen’s a professional icecream maker!” So now I’m making ice cream to sell on festival day!” On the menu this Sunday, will be whisky and orange icecream, and a fresh mint, gin, lemon icecream and sorbet swirl. “It’s better than doing the toilets at the festival…” 

These days, Helen has moved into housekeeping at the distillery, giving her more flexible hours to fit in with the picking and watering and delivering required for the flowers, and the ice cream churning, that she can do with a young family. “I’m quite happy being under the radar!” she says. She’ll be glad this single cask release is selling out so quickly then. 

Helen McCormick’s valinch cask is a 9 year old Vin Doux Naturel, 58% ABV, available only in the Laddieshop on Islay while stocks last.  It’s the forty second single cask we’ve released in the staff series. Another shortly on the way.

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