Islay is one of Scotland’s distilling regions; there are 9 working distilleries here and more in development. How does Bruichladdich sit within that industry context, and within the context of population trends? What are the dynamics of working here? Hannah Thaxter digs a little deeper.
Visitors to Bruichladdich are greeted by a warm smile of welcome from anyone they meet. What makes that infectious enthusiasm so genuine is difficult to quantify; it’s more than just a place of work – of production, manufacture, packaging, sales, and exports – it’s a place of belonging. There’s a hum of energy about the place, overlaying the heartbeat of Victorian machinery at work. 103 people currently work for us, 77 here on the island, not including 5 seasonal staff – the rest mainly in Glasgow. It makes us the biggest private employer on the island.
Just over a year ago, Bruichladdich became one of the only distilleries in the world to meet the stringent standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency, to earn B Corp accreditation. It means we are legally – not just morally – required to consider the impact of our decisions on our workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.
Distilling as an industry is a significant employer here. Tourism, farming and fishing are the other main industries on Islay. This chart from scotlandscensus.gov.uk shows how the local labour market compares to the national data, from the 2011 census.
[Data about the labour market from the census]
For perspective, Islay Crab Exports is a multi-million pound enterprise which employs 10 people here – and have vacancies for a further 10. They have four drivers on the mainland and 40 who crew the fishing boats, all paid by the company but who don’t necessarily live on Islay. The Machrie – the largest hotel here employs 61 people locally.
Comparing Bruichladdich’s local team of 77 with other distilleries, Ardbeg is the same size by its whisky output and has 30 staff on Islay; Laphroaig produces triple the quantity with 33 local staff. Kilchoman employs 41 to produce about half the amount of whisky Bruichladdich do, and the newest of the island’s distilleries, Ardnahoe, has 26 on the payroll. As the third smallest distillery on the island by output – currently 1 million litres a year – Bruichladdich employs proportionately even more people. A deliberate choice to keep all the warehousing, bottling and parts of our digital and design teams in-house here at Bruichladdich helps swell the ranks.
Our team in May 2019, festival day
In warehousing, 11 people care for the 80,000 plus casks with more working behind the scenes keeping track of what we have and where it is.
The bottling line employs 23 people. In 2003 there were 9 permanent bottling staff – it was a more manual process then, with corks put in and labels on by hand – but we bottled less volume.
There’s a whole back office of administration needed to run a distillery and shop and to care for customers and staff, as well as teams whose remit is producing social media and marketing artwork. 38 out of the 63 total admin roles for Bruichladdich are based here at the distillery.
The last census in 2011 showed this region – Argyll and Bute – has the third sparsest population density of the 32 Scottish local authority areas. Seventeen per cent live on its 23 inhabited islands. That same census recorded 3,228 people living on Islay – a population decline of 7% since 2001 and 2.3% from 1991 to 2001. Over the same two decades, Bruichladdich’s staff more than doubled, then more than doubled again, so that our workforce in 2021 has grown to 532% what it was in 2001. Could the lure of not just jobs, but quality jobs and opportunities for careers, help stem that flow of talent away from the island? We look forward eagerly to the next census results to find out.
The team in 2002
It’s hardly surprising that with such a low population you get a sense of family – it’s a close-knit community. At Bruichladdich that’s not just welcomed, it’s nurtured, it’s encouraged, it’s planned and measured – we want our Laddie Crew to feel part of a family and see them grow and develop.
About a quarter of Bruichladdich’s workforce have at some time left the island and returned. We conducted a straw poll of staff on site this month to get a bit deeper into the data. It was just a snapshot in time, of some 29 people who had worked there anything from a few months to decades.
Thirteen of the 29 were brought up on Islay and over half of them (7) had left to work or study before returning – although just one said a job at Bruichladdich brought them back here.
Of the 16 non-Ileachs, none said they came just for a job here, but some said they were drawn here because of opportunities to work – opportunities denied elsewhere on the mainland or abroad.
Twenty-one of those 29, that’s 72%, said they had changed roles whilst they had been here – from bottling line to warehouseman, from seasonal shop worker to distillery ambassador – and it’s a well-trodden path. In recent figures from an audit by HR, 27% have increased their capability and responsibility and have moved job level, 43% have been promoted to a new role and 26% of those promotions have been to senior management positions.
Ashley “I would like to push myself…”
Distillery ambassador Ashley MacGregor says: “It’s definitely more of a career than a job. There are opportunities for progression.” She says she is inspired to push herself by people like colleague Allan Logan, now Production Director. He started in the distillery when it reopened in 2001 – a complete novice, he’d been in the building trade before that – but he became Distillery Manager by the age of 29.
Ashley is one of those who will welcome you in the shop with a beaming smile from the Botanist counter. Born on Islay, she never left, and admits the job has allowed her to build a life here, something that would not have been an option open to her 20 years ago.
At the end of her first temporary job as a seasonal guide a permanent job became vacant and she’s not looked back. Six years later she’s a distillery ambassador, and says working here has given her the opportunity to expand and grow. “I would love to travel with the company,” she says, “I would like to push myself.”
Adam “There’s not a job I haven’t done in the distillery”
Adam Hannett was raised on Islay, and studied marine biology for a while at Aberdeen but returned to the island before finishing his degree. He says distilleries were secretive mysterious places in the 1980s when he was growing up – doing all that they did behind closed doors. Now transparency is key, and part of our B-Corp accreditation.
He began as a tour guide in 2004 and worked in the shop – he fell in love with whisky making and the rest is history. “There’s not a job I’ve not done in the distillery.” he says.
Graham Kirk, mashman and stillman has a similar story – “I started in the bottling hall – now I’m here.”
Murray “I’ve had people looking out for me”
Alongside the opportunities to remain on Islay and develop a career, Bruichladdich also exports its talents around the world. Brand ambassadors can be found around the globe, but some have their roots firmly on home soil. Murray Campbell – our man in Asia and the Pacific – has strong family links with the distillery – his mum was born and raised in Bruichladdich village and his uncle, the late Duncan McGillivray was the General Manager here.
“I was very fortunate that I had people looking out for me and they were suggesting roles that I could do.” Says Murray. “Being in the right place at the right time helps, but Bruichladdich are very good in that if someone makes it known they are looking for a role, or wants to progress, they help to facilitate that.”
Bruichladdich is the only distillery Murray has worked at, but he says it has given him opportunities to work around the world and return to work back in Scotland -something he did not think he would ever do. He is due to relocate to Australia, representing the house whiskies and The Botanist gin out there, plans slightly slowed by the global pandemic.
If the distillery were not here would people be leaving Islay? Some might be forced to. Some would say there is plenty of other work on the island. But few jobs would give you a diverse workforce – this family of people aged between 19 and 75, encompassing such a range of operational and administrative roles.
When the distillery was mothballed in 1994 just two men were kept on to look after the building and its stock but when it reopened in 2001 it did so with 19 employees. By 2011 there were 44 and now in 2021 there are 101.
Back in the day every part of the process would have been done on the island. There were kilns in the courtyard and men ferrying sacks of grain along gangplanks from the steeps or up to the malt stores. It’s no secret we have plans for a new maltings on site. Or that we don’t use computers to do the work an experienced person can do. Though we’ve been labelled progressive, in some respects we’re pretty old-fashioned.
A community within a community
We are not shy in admitting that Islay is central to all our thinking, to everything we do, and the things we won’t do. As CEO Douglas Taylor says, “We want to see Islay flourish, and we’re investing in exactly that. Sometimes there are cheaper or more efficient ways to do things, but profit has to go hand in hand with people and planet, which is why the B Corp system of endorsement suits us so well.”
So as long as there are customers out there, back here the workforce and whole ecosystem surrounding Bruichladdich should continue to blossom.
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