The man who mends the mills
You may not know the name, but Ronnie Lee plays a vital role in keeping the wheels turning in distilleries across Scotland and beyond. Ian Buxton tracked him down to find out more
MAIN PORTEUS MILL IMAGES: PETER SANDGROUND
You don’t hear a lot about Ronnie Lee. He doesn’t give ‘master classes’; he doesn’t blog and he’s not part of whisky’s fashionable crowd.
Yet look carefully and you will see his work across Scotland; everyone who actually makes whisky knows exactly who he is and he plays a distinctive and individual role in keeping whisky flowing from the stills. He is, you might say, a unique cog in the whisky wheel.
I first encountered his name when looking very closely at the malt mill in Tobermory distillery, where I noticed a simple plaque discreetly fixed to the side. It read RONNIE LEE, MILLWRIGHT and a telephone number. Then we moved on and I forgot about it.
Later, on Speyside, I saw the same plate, and in another distillery on the same day, yet another. I was puzzled and intrigued; I had to track down Ronnie Lee.
That led me eventually to an industrial unit on a chicken farm near Chepstow: not glamorous or fashionable surroundings, and about as far removed from whisky’s new image of sophistication and luxury as you might imagine, yet home to vital work.
Together, they are largely responsible for maintenance of the Porteus and Boby malt mills we see in, amongst others, distilleries owned by Chivas Brothers, Diageo, Inver House, Glenmorangie, Highland Distillers, Ian MacLeod Distillers and others.
ABOVE: Porteus mill at Tamdhu
Oh, and a considerable number of breweries and the mills that grind the wheat and malted barley for Horlicks. Of course, all have their own engineering staff but, in the main, the mill work is trusted to Ronnie. And clients from outside Scotland have also turned to him for help – his plaque is found in Sweden, Italy and even the United States.
Ronnie Lee in his workshop near Chepstow
He grew up in Portskewett, a small village in South Wales within earshot of the traffic on the Severn Bridge, close to his present base. After school, he was apprenticed to the motor trade but soon embraced self-employment. On the way, he took up weightlifting and by 1982 was a Welsh Champion, five years running.
He's modest about his work, which seems to follow a predictable schedule. For the first couple of months of the year he visits his brewery clients, mainly smaller traditional brewers in England and Wales – great names, such as Fullers, Shepherd Neame, Felinfoel and Bathams. The mill is, of course, every bit as important to the brewer as the distiller, so he has plenty of work overhauling, upgrading and maintaining their mills.
By the spring he heads for Scotland, where he will work until late autumn. Winter months are spent in his workshop, in the total re-building of the antiquated mills that he buys to re-condition, or which he strips down and fixes.
Back in 1995 he was working with Bühler, a Swiss mill manufacturer, installing their larger flour mill systems.
The then-owner of Boby, which had been overtaken technically by Porteus and passed through various ownerships, wanted to sell up and offered the business to Bühler. It wasn’t for them, but they knew a man.
And so Ronnie bought the Boby mill business and later took on the maintenance of the more familiar Porteus machines.
In a world of trendy brand ambassadors and rock-star distillery managers, he works quietly behind the scenes to keep the wheels turning and the whisky flowing. By my reckoning, that makes Ronnie Lee one of whisky’s unsung heroes. Next time you look at a malt mill, search out his plaque and surprise the guide with your knowledge.
Naturally I asked, but diplomatically, Ronnie wouldn’t be drawn on a favourite whisky – though he admitted to a preference for Speysiders. So, here’s a thought: next time you lift a glass raise it to Ronnie Lee, for he is the man who mends the mills.