The whisky rover

From taking on a summer job at Glengoyne distillery as a student to spending almost five decades in the industry, Ian MacMillan has come a long way in the whisky world. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with the roving whisky consultant in the Society’s Members’ Room in Glasgow to find out more


The last time I met Ian MacMillan was down at Bladnoch, where he had taken on the task of bringing the rundown distillery in Dumfries & Galloway back to life. After almost 25 years with Burn Stewart Distillers, it was a challenge he couldn’t resist, as he set about replacing almost all of the equipment, re-racking many of the existing casks and even digging out and clearing the distillery’s water source. But besides bringing Bladnoch back to life, he summed up his mission to me at the time as imparting his years of experience to the distillery’s younger operators, to make sure they had a proper schooling in traditional whisky making.

“If they’re not going to learn from me, I don’t know who they’ll learn from,” he told me, with a straight-talking sense of self-belief. “I’ve done every single job in a distillery, from rolling barrels, to filling, to warehousing. I’d like to pass on as much as I can before I hang up my boots.”


It doesn’t seem likely that Ian will be hanging up his boots anytime soon. Since moving on from Bladnoch at the end of 2018 he has set up as an independent whisky consultant, continuing to bring his lifetime of knowledge to start-ups and distillery expansions near and far. Having travelled widely in his years with Burn Stewart, Ian had already consulted on projects in Myanmar, China, India and Taiwan. Now it was time to go it alone.

“I was approached by a lot of people after the success of Bladnoch, asking if I would be interested in doing something similar with them,” says Ian.

“I’d trained up the new manager, Neil [Bulloch] who I’d brought with me from Deanston, and I’d been personally involved in training all the operators as well. I knew I was leaving a good team there and everything was working well, so I went totally on my own from the beginning of 2019.

“I can name so many people who have been very influential on my own career, and it was through their influence that I am where I am today, and through their perseverance in pushing me to do these things. I don’t think it’s right that I should just disappear off to the golf course and take all this knowledge with me.”

Among his international adventures, Ian now has samples of Myanmar’s first ever grain whisky that he helped produce, after convincing the owner to swap the usual rice for wheat and do some trial runs on the column stills. But with the pandemic putting paid to long-haul international travel for the time being, he’s been happy to spend time on projects closer to home.

One is within walking distance to where Ian lives in Stirling, with the up-and-coming Wolfcraig distillery. He is part of a team that includes co-founders Michael Lunn, Jamie Lunn and John Moore, along with former chairman and chief executive of Whyte & Mackay, former Diageo production director Dr Alan Rutherford OBE, former Bacardi UK operations director Iain Lochhead, and master blender Richard ‘the Nose’ Paterson.

“Between us we have more than 200 years of experience in the whisky world, so it’s a fantastic team and a great project,” says Ian. “Stirling has never had a distillery before, and this one is going to have an amazing site, with a view of the castle and Wallace Monument and clearly visible to all the passing traffic on the M9.”

“I can name so many people who have been very influential on my own career, and it was through their influence that I am where I am today … I don’t think it’s right that I should just disappear off to the golf course and take all this knowledge with me.”

Ian MacMillan


The other major project taking Ian’s attention while international plane travel is restricted is with the Church of Oak distillery in Ireland, where a certain Paul Hewson is listed as a shareholder.

“Yes, Bono is heavily involved in the distillery,” says Ian. “Him and his friend Paddy McKillen are the main investors in what is going to be an incredible distillery – capable of producing six entirely different types of whisky from one facility.”

Ian is enthused by what he sees in terms of the growth of distilleries in Ireland, as well as in Scotland and elsewhere.

“There is so much adventurous work being done, and Church of Oak is a great example,” he says. “Consumers are looking for ever more choice, and as long as you can tell the story of what’s in your glass I think there’s always going to be a market for it. There’s room for everyone, but Scotch will always be Scotch.”

If Ian is on a mission to bring his whisky knowledge to the world, the opportunity to learn clearly goes both ways, as he is exposed to different cultures and traditions – and is happy to welcome them with an open mind and an enduring spirit of curiosity.

“You never stop learning in this business,” he says. “Even when it comes to different ways that people enjoy and appreciate their whisky. In South Africa I was convinced to try a blended whisky with full fat milk and ice – and it was actually very good.

“Mind you, my mother used to put Irn Bru* in her whisky. I’d never tell someone off for how they take their dram, as long as they’re enjoying it.”

*Scotland’s other national drink

Ian enjoys a dram with Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan at the Society’s Bath Street Members’ Room