Port Charlotte People

IN

We’ve been filming people around the distillery this last few weeks, finding out how they view the Port Charlotte whisky we are making from their respective positions in the distillery: export manager, bottling operative, housekeeping, head distiller, tanker driver, product development, communications, electrician, PA, HR, shop.  

We’ve been trying to get at how and why our Port Charlotte whisky tastes different to the smoky whiskies from other distilleries on the island, when it’s heavily peated to around the same concentration (40 parts per million). Ask why this might be the case, and some people point at the barley coming from different sources, or our use of an independent maltings, our distillation being slower, or the stills taller, the fermentation in wood not steel, our casks being diverse and superb, the sea air, always the sea air, as all our whiskies sit in island warehouses by the sea from the moment they start maturing to the moment they are finished maturing…

Could the bottling make a difference? The bottling all happens on one side of the distillery courtyard, job done, corks in, closure, the whisky is safe. Chrissie (pictured) literally waves it off. 

Going beyond the taste, it starts to feel a bit different, to us; we each have a relationship with this liquid, in our different ways. Going through the rushes, it’s clear how strongly we all believe in what we’re doing, like it’s a big Islay project. So first off, who are the “we” in #weareislay?

86 of us work on site in Islay. 22% come under ‘production’ if you include the engineers. 27% are in hospitality, across hosting customers in the shop and VIPs, sales teams and corporate guests. 13% are warehousing fulltime. 28% are on the bottling side, including the administration. 12% are office jobs – product design, communications, HR. 50 of us are aged under 40, only 7 contracts are seasonal. 

These figures don’t include the 18 farmers growing the raw ingredient, barley, or the local building contractors helping us to expand our office capacity and warehousing, or the hauliers taking away either the waste pot ale or the trailer a day of finished goods. 

Why are we so passionate about being here?

It seems to be a function of this size of community that you have to take responsibility for your actions, individually and as a company.  People have long memories and everyone knows who you are, you can have a big impact, you can’t get away with things. The rhythm of the culture here is slow, you have to plan for the long-term. Sustainability is important. 

We want to have a 100% positive impact on this precious place, and on its economy. It isn’t easy to grow the barley on Islay but we persist in doing that. It doesn’t necessarily help the bottom line to focus on the flavour of what’s coming out rather than the quantity of alcohol, but it remains our main objective. It isn’t logistically or really environmentally better to bottle all on Islay, but we continue to employ 24 people to do just that. We are on the path to becoming a global brand, but we run our communications out of a ‘newsroom’ of 5 people in an office over the shop.  Why then?

There’s an element of moral responsibility to our Islay-centric recruitment and number of in-house processes; it’s not an accident. The community is small, the European definition is “fragile”. As in many rural places, there is the constant threat of exodus, especially in terms of the younger generation if there aren’t opportunities for them. Perhaps because we’re an island, the knock-on effects of depopulation are more keenly felt, the implosion in services is more conspicuous. If you don’t have X number of children in the school you can’t justify Y number of teachers. The provision of community-based health professionals becomes critical. They are services you really need if you’re going to sustain a life out here.

On the island, currently, we are the largest private employer. The breadth of roles here mean there’s significant opportunity to progress sidewise and upwards; start on the shop floor and you could be representing us in China within 5 years, our Production Director started on an apprenticeship scheme, the Head Distiller started on the shop floor. People have moved from mashing into communications, or bottling into warehousing, from the shop into just about everything. This isn’t a production facility with a fluffed-up tour attached, where decisions are made elsewhere by other people. We do have a Glasgow office, our malting partner is on the mainland, our owners are ultimately a French family, but otherwise this is all of it, our whisky universe. The investment in people matches that. 

Becky Codd

Becky has been with us since she was 17.

The workforce is too big to be described as a family now, probably, it’s more like a busy campus, a focused community of its own. It has its traditions, most conspicuously in production and warehousing, which have been passed from generation to generation of makers.

Does our process really make any difference to the products we’re putting out?

We don’t use computers; if you’re on a night shift mashing or distilling at Bruichladdich, you’re not watching a box set until you have to push the next button. It’s active; to use the analogue (largely Victorian) equipment, you have to pay attention. Everything is logged, in handwriting, in a big spiral bound ledger on the desk, it’s the stillman or mashman’s signature, they are accountable. The mashtun is open-topped, the barley and water being mixed and stirred are there to be seen and smelled and judged before your eyes. There are taps and valves everywhere that have to be opened by being spun at the right speed in the right sequence – it’s a performance.

Take the bottling instead, the fact is that when you open a box or a tin of whisky and have it in your hands, the last people that held it were here in Islay. From their hands to yours. Arlene and her team have scrutinised every bottle coming through, concentrated on it, and cared about exactly how that label has been stuck on, redone it if necessary, topped up bottles by hand to the exact fill level. Is that tangible, all those fingerprints?

Stewart Young

Stewart first worked for the company when it was getting up on its feet in early 2001, then went into farming. 17 years later, he’s back at the wheel in our growing warehouse team.

Maturation is all done by our people manually handling our casks into and out of our specific stows – this cinder floored one, up on this row by the roof 11 storeys high, or in that stonewall corner, that new red racking. Adam, or the warehouse boys can walk up to any cask any day of the week, be in and around them, and check up on everything. It’s like a guarantee.

Adam personally goes to any parcel of casks that he wants to sample or try for a recipe. Casks are pulled out and vatted at the top of the hill, and delivered to the bottling hall by Stewart in the Laddie tanker all of 2 minutes and 10 seconds later.  No part of however many years the whisky needs to get ready is outsourced, no part of it is anonymous. We can directly say what components have gone into this whisky, where it’s been, who has looked after it; its entire history.

In the filming, Stewart talked about a feeling of presence around the stock. In response to our questions about it breathing, he said, “It’s not exactly alive, but it’s something,” The spirit is changing, evolving over time, due to the organic chemistry of what is going on inside a cask; the colour changes, chains of flavour molecules grow and reconfigure as it interacts with the wood. We know evaporation takes place, and that means the casks are permeable to a degree. The warehouses smell. We believe there is interaction from the wider environment too, that there is exchange, so where it spends its time maturing affects the character. The whisky undergoes a process of becoming, and that takes time.

It has a story, beginning, middle, end.

Our aim is for that story to be as Islay as possible; that is after all what it says on the label – Islay single malt. And I can tell you now, it’s a non-fiction story. Here we all are, doing this every day, as transparently as the regulations allow, for real, wearing our hearts, rather un-cool-ly, on our sleeves.

So you tell us, once you know all this, does it make a difference to the Port Charlotte dram you’ve got in front of you? As the flavours unfold, what is that whisky telling you? Perhaps as you get down the bottle it becomes easier to dream… But let that dream be one about its provenance. We’ve treated that whisky with respect, from its origins as a seed up to the particular bottle that you have there. We just want you to fully enjoy it.

 

 

More about Port Charlotte >

Port Charlotte short films: coming soon to laddie tv… >  

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